This can only properly be called a “trend” in the broadest of terms since it has been a recurrent theme in Protestant Christianity since its inception in the 16th century and even beyond 500 years in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic circles. Given the distance between what the Bible says on the page and what we interpret it to mean in our heads, it is inevitable that Christians will come to different conclusions about its content. This is true among contemporary Jesus-followers of similar backgrounds, especially when it comes to less understood passages and issues, but the opportunities for variant understandings (and disagreements) increase exponentially when we start to cross linguistic, cultural and historical settings. Oftentimes Christians will find themselves at theological odds not just with the church across the street, but also with churches and their respective leaders more than a hundred years removed.
If this comes as a surprise to you, then bless your soul; please tell me how you’ve done it! The sad reality is that most of us in Western culture, and I do mean Christians and non-Christians alike, are aware of this situation or at least the bitter and rotten fruits it has produced. It is a burden to Christ’s body, and not only are non-Christians aware of this trend, but it offers critics one more ledger entry in their perceived bankruptcy of our faith. Despite Jesus’ prayer and public plea in John 17 that his disciples be unified as he is unified with the Father, far too many of us are all too willing to divide our local congregations and split our denominations over a seemingly infinite litany of issues. Rather than creating space or allowing for even a little “wiggle room” on contested issues, we church folks often prefer to draw lines in the dirt, fold our arms and turn our backs with the attitude that it’s going to be our way or the highway if you don’t agree with me/us. We like to convince ourselves that we are absolutely “right” on whatever the issue du jour happens to be, and that we are perfectly aligned with God on it. Our delusion often goes on to birth rhetoric which not so subtly proclaims that any who dare to disagree with God (us) are in danger of hell and of taking our precious church members and children there with them. Claws come out, teeth are gnashed, people get hurt and churches are handicapped, split up and generally ruined. It can be as bad or worse than an ugly divorce complete with custody battles, back-stabbing and permanent damage. This should not be.
To be fair, there are some issues worth fighting for if we are legitimate Jesus-followers. While each of us certainly has our own theological and ecclesiastical preferences, our list of hills to die on should be very, VERY short. For full disclosure, I am not going to budge on the issue of the full incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, his literal and physical resurrection and his unique and unparalleled ability to save humanity, offer his people the Holy Spirit and reveal the Father. Those are my hills. If a fellow Christian and I can agree on these core truths, then we can have meaningful and unified community together. Everything else can (and should) come second.
I am not arguing that we should do away with denominations or replace the major branches of Christianity with a unified ecclesiology complete with shadowy, U.N. style helicopters or clandestine initiation rites. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that each of our sister Christian communities and traditions have much to offer their own congregations as well as those from other branches and flavors of the faith. I have little doubt that most of Christianity’s various denominations and their respective theological and practical nuances are a result of how they resonate with God and how his Spirit has moved in their corporate and individual lives both in the past and at present. They are the medium through which they relate to God best, at least so far, so who are the rest of us to say that their traditions, perspectives and practices are invalid? We may disagree with their interpretive approaches and applications etcetera, but this does not give us the right to break fellowship with them, much less to condemn them. One of the classic (and disastrous) pits that we Christians fall into is thinking that the way we understand and relate to God is the way that everyone else should too. At the end of the day, however, being a Christian is not about believing the right thing about everything, but rather about being covered by the grace of God through Christ. In that regard, we are all exactly the same: sickos in need of a doctor. When it comes to the unfortunate pattern of preferring to be “right” instead of being unified, may we start to take Jesus seriously and end the trend.
Thanks for reading me,