Last week I reasoned that some form of “connection” between local churches was called for because of the doctrine and pattern of the Church. Now I’d like to address the issue of conflicts in the church/Church.
Catholic theologian Richard F. McBrien was asked the question, “Would you say that conflicts in the Church today are worse than at any other time in history?” His short answer was: “Not by a long shot. The Church was racked by conflict almost from the beginning. There was petty bickering even among the apostles about who would have the highest places in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 20:20-28).” It appears, from the history we know about the early church, that even though the Johannine communities were clearly urged to “love one another” they were also torn apart by disagreements among the members. And, as we saw earlier, the first Christians argued a great deal about questions surrounding Jewish and Gentile relationships within the first churches. Paul even address “false teachers” within his epistles.
The greatest heresy during the apostolic era might have been Gnosticism. Both Gnosticism and Docetism believed that Jesus’ physical flesh was only apparent, not real. This eventually led to the church defining, in general council, the doctrines surrounding the person of Jesus. Salvation was rooted in Jesus, but was he divine? Was he human? How could be be both and not part one and part the other?
Then there was the teaching of Marcion. He denied the character of the Old Testament and reasoned that the God of the New Testament was love and the God of the Old Testament was wrath and anger. The Manichaeans taught that all materiality was evil, thus marriage and all other physical relationships were bad. Perhaps the worst error that evolved was that taught by Arius. Arianism denied, as do modern Jehovah’s Witnesses, that Jesus was divinity. He was the greatest of all creatures but not God in the flesh. Even though the Church address this error at the Council of Nicaea (325) most of the fourth century saw pastoral confusion and chaos in the beliefs and practice of the churches. Orthodox bishops were forced into exile by Arian bishops who had more power. After the emperor Constantine’s death in 337 it seemed as if false teaching would win the day.
So McBrien is right. Things today are no worse “by a long shot.” But things are once again pretty bad. From region-to-region, and from country-to-country, the church is still divided, both doctrinally and missionally. We seem to tolerate this division because we are lazy and indifferent. The will to truly work against division seems missing in ministers and members. Why? Have we grown too comfortable with things the way they are? It sure seems this is true. We use doctrinal differences to argue that we cannot find unity unless we come to agreement on all our particular doctrinal differences. We reason that unity comes at the expense of both doctrinal truth and distinctive practices. But a new ecumenism has arisen which has been called “receptive ecumenism.” This new ecumenism focuses on learning from one another, not destroying one another with arguments. It does not call us to surrender our convictions but rather to appreciate one another while we break down all barriers to oneness and love.
Yes, the Church is divided, especially East and West. And it is further divided in the West by a myriad of Protestant churches, separated historically and practically from Roman Catholic churches. But a new wind of God is blowing among us. The Holy Spirit is calling us to seek God’s love in one another and thereby to overcome the scandal of our disunity by listening and learning from one another. This is not compromise. It is a renewal of appreciation and respect.
ACT3 This Week
1. We are less than a week from The Initiative, June 24-28. Pray for all who speak, share and lead. Pray for 66 adults who will get to know one another and pray for a movement of God’s Spirit to heal our divisions and help us respond to the call for unity in Christ’s mission, what I call missional-ecumenism.
2. We still need donations for scholarships for Green Lake. Any gift you give will help us help those in need and cover our final expenses. Go to https://act3network.webconnex.com/greenlake2018donations and give whatever you can, even a small amount.
John H. Armstrong