Wednesday, October 19, 2016
The Simplicity of Discipleship, the Complexity of Beliefs
If you ask what "Christian unity" means, the first thing most people talk about is their beliefs:
Do we believe what this other church believes?
Are we saying the same things just in different ways? If not, do we try to convince them that we are right?
However, Christians may also be united by having common practices, too. In fact, this is the area where most of us have the most control and opportunity to explore right here and now.
If we focus too much on beliefs, we can be paralyzed to do anything when those beliefs seem to differ. This is especially true when some denominations require global councils with ample study, debate and votes before any change happens.
Many denominations have been divided for hundreds of years. Unless a miracle happens quickly, many of them will continue to be divided for probably hundreds more. Perhaps that's pessimistic, but there is an opportunity that comes by being realistic here: We have to figure out how to live out our Christian discipleship today in light of these differences.
I see the relationship between belief and practice as reciprocal—belief informs practice and practice informs belief. In other words, when groups work together for a common cause it is good to look for signs of the unity that may emerge out of those efforts.
People who hunger for unity among Christians usually recommend that we approach this task from both ends of the spectrum. What I mean is this: On one side of the spectrum, church leaders and theologians work out the details that divide churches and see what's possible in the nitty-gritty details of doctrine and policy. They have made some rather amazing accomplishments in the last few decades, but it is slow and painstaking work.
On the other end of the spectrum, the rest of us can and should do together what we can in our Christian practices. Our churches may be formally divided in a number of ways, but we can all pray together. We can serve the poor together. We can raise our prophetic voices together. Our beliefs may seem like a tangled mess, but there is a wide open highway for living out our Christian practices available to all of us right now.
You might think that evangelizing is probably one thing we shouldn't do together. That certainly depends on how you want to understand evangelization, because we witness to the faith in all that we do--that list above, which includes prayer, justice advocacy and charity are all forms of evangelization, as well. We all know the famous quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary." You get the idea.
Surprisingly, it was foreign missionaries who first started the modern ecumenical movement. They were having trouble gathering people into the church when the presence of competing denominations raised questions as to the validity of Christianity itself. You might think that the last thing a Catholic missionary would want to do is evangelize together with a Protestant or Evangelical missionary. What they found out is that staying in their separate, protected bubbles was not attractive to outsiders. With the fear of opening up and losing a few, they closed down and probably lost a lot. Why would someone be attracted to Christianity when even the Christians themselves can't agree on what it's all about? We should add evangelizing to the list of things we can do today.
Jesus prayed that "all who believe may be one" (John 17:21), then as followers of Christ we ought to hope and trust that this prayer will one day come true. It seems like an impossible task. Followers of Jesus started breaking away from each other right from the beginning. It is recorded in the New Testament. Divisions did not just begin with the Protestant Reformation in the year 1517!
There is a concept called the Lund Principle which argues that churches should only do the things separately that our denominational rules require us to do separately! This is pretty ambitious, but it is a goal worth working towards. If we take seriously that Christ wants unity among believers, and our churches don't have full unity, we can be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Lund Principle helps us by pushing our churches to open up in the areas where we freely admit there is no reason to stay apart.
Our churches may disagree on the proper methods of baptism and who can and should participate in worship services, but we all affirm that Jesus commanded us all to "love one another." Jesus even said that that should be first and foremost. You could just be so busy loving one another that you don't have any time to squabble over doctrinal differences. Perhaps that overly simple. Perhaps it's simply beautiful.
We might as well spend our time doing that, because it's going to be a long time before the churches formally unite together. We don't know what that unity might look like or how it might come to pass here on this fallen planet, but one thing we can probably agree on is that it's probably not going to happen today. Or maybe better said--it might happen today, we can and should have abundant hope that it happens today, but we should also have a plan of how to live out our Christian discipleship if it doesn't happen today.
Let's not obsess so much about differences in beliefs and doctrines to the point where we fail to do what we already can do. Beliefs are interesting things to ponder over and raise our voices over, no question about that. But in the meantime, there is work to do--there is a lot of work to do.
And maybe--just maybe--by living out the unity that is already available to us, we may find that elusive unity that we have been missing. We may find that unity not in the destination but rather on the way there. If we wait to work together until full unity has been achieved, we may fail to do the very thing that will help bring it about!