Tag Archives: denominations

Idolatry is Bad Ecclesiology

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“God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”

-Acts 15:8-10

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the UMC, at least if you believe social media (which, as is rarely admitted, is a highly privileged, Western-centered conversation). The Council of Bishops met at Lake Junaluska, and much speculation was rampant about how they would respond to Bishop Talbert’s open violation of both the clergy covenant and the official requests of his colleagues. This week, the church trial of a pastor who performed a wedding for gay son has continued that heightened anxiety. Even an event designed to help young adults hear the call to ministry became a battleground of the culture war that has infected our denomination and many others. Everyone seems to be convinced of their faction’s absolute moral authority, whether it is thinly veiled Tea Party theology of the IRD, or the tolerance as the sum-total of the gospel that one finds in the Reconciling camp. Many of us are stuck in the middle, disliking both options for a myriad of reasons. Everyone seems to be weighing in with thunderous words from Olympus, either celebrating or lamenting. To me, it all just feels wrong: the trials, the need for them, the reaction to them, and the lack of attention given to things we could actually move the needle on if we focused our attention and resources (like the Philippines). I don’t know what the alternative is, but I did find a good description for where I think we are in one of Reinhold Niebuhr’s short essays:

“Politics always aims at some kind of a harmony or balance of interest, and such a harmony cannot be regarded as directly related to the final harmony of love of the Kingdom of God. All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, from “Christian Faith and Political Controversy,” in Love and Justice, (Louisville: WJK 1992), 59.

We need a better way, a third way, a truly Christian way. We need to stop relying on the way the world gets things done – bomb-throwing, trials, activism, platitudes as a replacement for genuine argument, and media stunts – and try something truly Christian: holy conferencing (which, by this author’s assessment, can’t happen in the social media space), sincere prayer, and a hermeneutics of charity. We need to at least attempt to get inside our opponents’ heads and hearts, stop presuming the worst, and cross the picket lines. We idolize our own positions so much that even basic communication becomes impossible. This isn’t working.

We all need to lay our idols down, come out of our ideological fortresses, get with Jesus (who did not identify, no matter what Reza Aslan says, with any of the factions of his day), and start over.

Let us close with an honest and yet hopeful word, maybe even a prayer, from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from  “The Rock”:

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings…

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.

On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now

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Today at Goodwill I picked up a true church nerd gem: an antique Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, circa 1952.  Included in that Discipline was the 1939 document affirming the unification of the Methodist Episcopal (M.E for short) Church, M.E. Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  It was fascinating to read, especially as I thought of the arguments that precipitated those splits.

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, former Wesley Seminary professor of church history CC Goen argues that the split of the major denominations in the 1840’s – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – paved the way for the eventual sundering of the nation in the 1860’s and the brutal war that followed.  He cites numerous commentators of the time who expressed (highly prescient) fear that the natural result of schism in the church would be a tear in the fabric of the nation itself.

In his closing chapter, Goen offers conclusions about the failure of leadership that led to those denominational splits:

The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church…the churches’ growth strategy depended upon their not requiring converts to face the hard moral discipline demanded by Christian sensitivity to the evil of human bondage.  So long as God seemed to smile on their zeal to bring in the unchurched, it was difficult to entertain any charge of fundamental wrongdoing…When Uncle Tom’s Cabin became as popular on stage as in book form, abolitionists noted wryly that “the theater became antislavery before many churches did.” (146-147)

Moreover, because the churches failed to lead the nation in coming to an amicable consensus around the issue of slavery, the country was left to find a political solution.  And while political solutions can be decisive legally, they do not necessarily change hearts and minds.  Goen quotes a 1961 work (hence the antiquated language) by historian Dwight Drummond:

…the failure of the churches at this point in our history forced the country to turn to political action against slavery, and political action destroyed slavery as a system but left the hearts of the slaveholders unregenerate and left oppression of the free Negro little less of an evil than slavery had been. (170)

Today, now as then, we are attempting to solve deep fissures in our national conscience with political action.  Also today, the church is failing her vocation to be both a graceful and an authoritative voice in the world.  The largest, most influential groups of Christians in Antebellum America were torn along sectional lines, and their Biblical interpretation and Christian ethics were largely determined by their social location.  Today, little has changed.

My own United Methodist corner of the Body is bitterly divided – between the Southeast and the rest of the country, between the the Western nations and the global South.  Again, social location seems to be triumphant, and we seem unable to ascertain a word of wisdom from the Spirit.

There must be a better way than parroting the worst of partisan culture, as we get with the “confessing” or “evangelical” renewal groups to fight the encroaching “progressive” or “liberal” interests in the other group.  As I read Goen’s book, and reflect upon our own situation, I was reminded of that great scene from War Games from many years ago which concludes, “the only winning move is not to play.”

A topic to develop for another time: isn’t it interesting how, centuries ago, Americans recognized that the key to church growth was not challenging the prevailing assumptions of those they sought to evangelize? Some things never change, I suppose…