Sunday, October 30, 2005

Dealing with Disunity pt. 3

When considering the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 1:10, maybe your picture of what a factious person looks like is something like the Neighborhood Watch villain. He’s easy to spot and, of course, he doesn’t look anything like us. Knowing our own hearts such as we do, and giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, we recoil at the idea that such a word could possibly apply to us without overstating the case. We may be rough or over-zealous at times; but typically we reserve this sort of terminology for King James Only people, or hyper-Calvinists, or maybe Rick Miesel. And while these assessments would be correct, Paul's down-to-earth description of disunity in verses 11-12 should give us pause. The extremities of sinful behavior too easily serve as distractions from the very same roots which lie in our own hearts.

Notice that the first manifestation of factious behavior is manifested in what Paul calls "quarrels". The word there is literally “strife” in the plural – the same word used in Titus 3:9: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife[s] and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” Quarrels aren't discussions; they're not friendly debates or healthy in-house deliberations; they describe a kind of verbal sparring which eventually alienate us from one another and rupture trusted friendships. We all know the difference, though we often pretend we're doing one while we're really doing the other. But quarreling isn't simply the action of shouting at one another – it’s also a way to describe the state of a relationship. “We’re quarrelling” doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re at this moment engaged in hostile verbal debate – it means that our friendship is being strained and our fellowship is being disrupted by our heated disagreements.

So far so good; but I suspect that our eyes are still on the branches instead of the roots. What we often fail to recognize is that no one prefers to thinks of themselves as “loving quarrels”. In fact, most of the time we engage in quarrels it’s because we think we’re doing something else - we’re championing the truth against the various manifestations of liberalism, we're standing for God and the Bible in times when it's unpopular to do so, we're being faithful to the Scriptures, come Hell or highwater . . . and so on. But bickering about the truth can still count as quarreling. And this, unfortunately, is often our speciality.

Phil. 1:15 says, “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife (or quarrelling), but some also from good will.” Strife, like all other sins, is a deceiver. It dresses up stubbornness as "faithfulness". It paints ego as "boldness". It answers the fear of being challenged with the Bible by a call to tow the party line. In short, factious behavior always looks spiritual, and is always painted as virtuous. Always. Without exception. Notice the Corinthians didn't say "I am of Zeno", "I am of Epicurus" or "I am of "Plato". They said, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Those of us who are used to fending off criticisms of being "too harsh" or "too narrow" or "unloving" by seeing these epithets as a compliment, or worse, as a sign of divine approval, should let this bald biblical truth haunt us.

In order for our disputes to be spiritual, they must display the fruit of the Spirit. That means that our words, attitudes and even our study should be saturated with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; and it should display not just one of these things – just faithfulness, for example – but all of them. Don't let the radical nature of that claim escape you! Imagine what our study (much less our disputes) would look like if it were characterized by the love described in 1 Co. 13; and that's just one of the nine qualities of the Spirit's yield.

Of the four very deeply drawn lines of divisions between Corinthian believers, how concerned do you suppose these factions really were for the truth? I'd venture it had very little to do with it, if for no other reason, Paul, Apollos and Peter were all devoted lovers of Jesus Christ. The clue to what drove their separation lies in the common word shared in all of their sloganeering – the word “I”! Selfishness and arrogance, not truth, stood behind their disputes. They were just using the reputations of these leaders to lend both lend credibility to their own views and to use their respected status as a wedge for other Christians to prove their loyalty.

Far from being "spiritual", divisions are usually motivated by lust and manipulation. James 4:1-3 says, “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” The coattails of men like Paul and Peter are worn thin from ambitious, pouncing Christians. Respected pillars of the Church throughout it’s history have their share of uninvited tailgate parties as well. And each with our chosen personality set them up as a barometer for who we will fellowship with, and who we won’t. But when the pretentious platter is removed from this dish, and the rhetorical steam clears, what remains isn't meat(1 Co. 3:1-4); it's shriveled, poisonous fruit (Gal. 5:17-21).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Selling My Indulgences to Spend More Time in Purgatorio

A brief interlude from my current series of posts - I just added Purgotorio to my blogroll, for good reason. Marc Heinrich is a witty Christian Hedonist (from Minnesota, surprisingly) who blogs entirely through the medium of pictures. More importantly, he also likes Radiohead. Go check it out - it's not the usual fare in biblio-blogging and it's worth your time. Express enough interest, and maybe he'll invite you to stay at his house.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dealing WIth Disunity pt. 2

So, first, an exhortation about disunity. How do we approach this problem? Positing solutions seems simplistic from the beginning because of how pervasive and overwhelming a problem schisms have proven to be throughout Church History; but as always, solutions usually begin on the individual level. Verse 10 simply says “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Considering what was actually happening among the Corinthian fellowship, that seems an astonishing and somewhat na├»ve thing to say. The immediate issues which leap to mind in protest might be the moral ones, since heinous familial sexual misconduct, divorce, temple prostitution and reckless litigation could all be named among the Corinthian fellowship.

But the doctrinal problems were no less severe. Beyond their eschatological confusion (1 Co. 4:5-8), they denied the existence of a resurrection, and probably the resurrection of Christ Himself (1 Co. 15)! In the face of such flagrant moral and doctrinal meandering, one might wonder how Paul could even assume he was speaking to brethren at all – yet the exhortation in verse 10 addresses them as such. Lest we try to excuse Paul’s inclusive attitude by characterizing the Corinthians as simply “confused” or “mistaught”, consider that Paul’s apostleship was in question, and his ministry under skeptical scrutiny by the fledgling congregation (1 Co. 4:3-4, 9:3). But the opening of the letter in verse 2 proves that this knowledge didn’t hinder Paul from seeing the Corinthians as “saints by calling” who, “with all those in every place, call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Christian standards of conduct were in decay, and the doctrinal situation was in dire straits, and yet Paul consistently regarded the Corinthains as a Spirit filled family of faith because of their professed allegiance to Jesus as their only Lord and King (cf. 1 Co. 12:3).

Even though he could have declared the Church an apostate fellowship comprised of doctrinal miscreants, he continued to regard them (and exhort them) as family – they were a severely dysfunctional family, but they were “brethren” nonetheless. It’s interesting to note that in nearly every case Paul uses these words, “I exhort you”, he appeals to the familial nature of their relationship (Ro. 12:1, Ro. 15:30, Ro. 16:17, Phil. 4:1-2, 1 Thess. 5:14 and 1 Tim. 5:1). Perhaps the best example of the spirit behind this kind of exhortation is in Philemon 9-10: “yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you [same word] —since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus.”

Yet Paul’s heart for unity wasn’t simply motivated by sentimental familial ties or a desire to “keep the peace at all costs”. The exhortation in verse 10 isn’t just based on their relationship as “brethren”, but on the “name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ name, of course, calls to mind who He is, what He’s done for us, and at minimum, His teaching. Jesus taught His disciples to be One, and to distinguish themselves from the world by their mutual love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35). Thus Paul’s desire for their unity was motivated primarily out of a holy zeal for Christ’s own reputation, which the Church sullies by the arrogance of her divisions. And this is Paul’s ultimate concern – the reputation of Jesus Christ. In order to secure this kind of obedience, he commends three practices for their fellowship to embrace at the individual level: 1) “that you all agree”, 2) that “there be no divisions among you” and 3) that “you be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment.”

1) YOU ALL MUST AGREE: Many of the words found in this passage are political terms; the word for “divisions” in vs. 10, quarrels in vs. 11 and the slogans of vs. 12 (I’m for Paul! I’m for Apollos!) all speak to the issue of party loyalty. Literally, the phrase “that you all agree” reads: “that you all say the same thing” (cf. the NKJV); but the NAS decided to translate it “that you all agree” because “saying the same thing” was a political euphemism for speaking about two or more parties setting aside individual differences to cooperate toward shared ends. This socio-rhetorical background for the language employed in verses 10-17 should dispel the notion that Paul is calling for a Borg-like doctrinal similitude among the Corinthian congregation. Far from “repeating the same doctrinal formulation”, “saying the same thing” involves, “taking the same side.” This shouldn’t be construed as mere compromise – it’s not asking people within various political groups to hide or minimize their differences. They can and should continue to engage in vigorous intramural debate –but the emphasis in this leg of Paul’s exhortation is on keeping the group together by focusing on areas which one can truly “say the same thing” for the sake of accomplishing mutual goals. In all the church’s wrestling through doctrinal and moral crises Paul is commending an attitude that sees one another as essentially on the same side – that of the Gospel of Jesus’ cross (1:17-18). The Church is defined by it’s commitment to a Gospel that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe (12:1-3) and that proclaims His death for the forgiveness of sins (15:1-8). If a believer is forced to draw a line in the sand and take sides, Paul says that the only line which exists in God’s eyes is the line between believer and unbeliever (this is exactly Paul’s point in 1 Co. 5:9-13).

2) LET THEIR BE NO DIVISIONS: Keeping with the first part of this exhortation, the emphasis there is on AMONG YOU. The word “division” is literally, a “tear”, a “gash” or a “rip”. The same word is used in Mt. 9:16, when Jesus speaks of new patches being sewn on old garments. Eventually the patch shrinks and it tears the garment. The imagery of tearing pictures relational discord and ultimately separation. If you’ve been cut from fundamentalist cloth (as I have) the mind must find some way to explain this apparent moratorium on separation. After all, there seem to be circumstances in which separation is commanded, even in this very letter (cf. ch. 5). But Paul’s point here has to do with an illegitimate separation. For those situations that seem as though separation is required, there is one (and only ONE) legitimate way to carry it out: it’s called Church Discipline. This remains the sole mechanism by which the New Testament will authorize division among those who claim the name of Christ. And before this can done (according to Mt. 18), you’ll notice that God demands we plead with the sinning brother 3 times – individually and corporately – before we can introduce separation. When the reluctant disfellowship takes place, we regard such an individual not as “a wayward Christian” or worse, with pious agnosticism about his spiritual state (“we mustn’t fellowship with such a one, but let God judge His heart”) – No, Mt. 18:17 says, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Thus the line which is to be reinforced among professing believers doesn’t correspond to a camp within Christian doctrine – it is consistently drawn as a separation between believer and unbeliever. Beyond that, Paul says, there are to be no divisions amongst us.

3) SAME MIND, SAME JUDGMENT: In this third and final leg of Paul’s exhortation he suggests the Corinthians be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment. In deliberate contrast with his description of divisions as a “tearing”, this word “be made complete” speaks of sewing back together. Mark 1:19 illustrates the idea in James and John, mending their nets. They weren’t functional while torn, and in order to make them functional again they must be stitched back together, restored to oneness. Instrestingly, the same word is used for “restore” in the context of helping wayward brethren. Gal. 6:1 says “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The same word is also used in 2 Co. 13:11, which should read: “aim for restoration!” Put things back in order, repair what is broken, knit those who disagree back together in mind and in judgment.

Again, in calling the Corinthians to have the “same mind” Paul isn’t saying, “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated!” He’s talking about a mind-set, a disposition or attitude. It’s a way of thinking. There’s a big difference between sharing the same opinion on everything and having the same way of thinking about everything. The former speaks to lockstep conformity with one another while the latter speaks to a shared frame of reference, the same basic pattern of thought. In this case, that same framework is about “the word of the cross”, summarized in 1:18-25 and 15:1-11. There may be different levels of maturity and different stages of apprehension (and hence differences of opinion on various shades of the message), but all share the same basic shape in cruciform worldview.

Doctors may basically agree on how the body works. They may have gone to the same medical schools, taken the same classes from the same teachers, read the same textbooks and still come to completely different conclusions. Yet, one doctor may think that diabetes has some genetic link to ethnicity while another may passionately disagree, seeing diabetes as entirely diet related. Yet one wouldn’t reserve the title “doctor” for the doctor with whom she happens to agree. They both share the same basic framework in practicing medicine, and they could likely even work in the same office with their disagreements. Hopefully both are open to reevaluation on the basis of the available data. In the same way, Christians can share the same basic framework – the Gospel – and even respect the same teachers, go the same schools, read the same Bible, and still come to completely different conclusions on a hundred different important issues. They have the same renewed mind, but they don’t necessarily agree on everything.

The issue, then, becomes a matter of disagreeing agreeably; to have debate without division. Charles Spurgeon, in a semon entitled “A Defense of Calvinism”, called this “Christian courtesy”:

Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley. The character of John Wesley stands beyond all imputation for self-sacrifice, zeal, holiness, and communion with God; he lived far above the ordinary level of common Christians, and was one of whom the world was not worthy. I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see the truths, or at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinists in or out of heaven."

Higher words were never spoken of Wesley, and that from the mouth of one of history’s staunchest Calvinists!

The NIV translates the word judgment, “thought” and the NLT says “have the same purpose” – the reason why it can be translated “judgment”, “thought” or “purpose” is because having the same thoughts or judgments imply that you have the same intent, or the same goal. That’s what this word means – it means “purpose.” So by asking that we have the same “judgment” Paul is calling Christians to rally around their missional mandate, which is of course our Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and King. Recall the doctor analogy again and consider that their differing views on diabetes don’t hinder them from carrying out the task for which they’ve directed their lives: treating and healing the sick. All their vigorous debate about genetics and diet aside, both want to heal those with diabetes. Few medical professionals suffer from the tragic pettiness that Christians do in their doctrinal disputes. The world would not forgive society's most celebrated physicians for neglecting the sick in order to quibble with one another in their university lounges.

So, here is the first resource in dealing with disunity – take personal heed to this exhortation. Don’t ignore the issues. Don’t be afraid to talk about your disagreements. If you are and your debate partner are both humble and teachable, you may actually end up agreeing with one another. But even if you both don’t end up fully agreeing, (and obviously that can happen no matter how humble and teachable you both are), you can still learn from one another and grow from your edification of one another. To put it Paul’s way in this letter, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies (1 Co. 8:1).” “Seek to abound for the edification of the church (1 Co. 14:12)” and “Let all things be done for edification (1 Co. 14:26)”. When you get frustrated or suspicious with another believer for reasons moral or doctrinal, remember that unless such a one has been the object of the final stages of church discipline, you’re on the same team! Don’t be quick to draw lines of division between you and other people unless you’re willing to declare them an unbeliever (in which case you should think about the judicial processes that are to precede such a declaration). Guard yourself from the glib put-downs and air of superiority which may prevent you from fellowshipping with Christians of a different stripe. Refuse to take sides or force other people to take sides against other believers in the body. That’s not discernment - it's the definition of schismatic, divisive, factious behavior, and it’s never a godly thing to do. Go, in love, to confront those in sin with the purpose of their edification; patiently work with them and pray for them to learn and grow, and if they continue to live in sin, with a broken-heart full of hope in their restoration, initiate church discipline. But if those with whom you have conflict with are born-again, God will never sympathize with one group taking sides against the other. Let the only dividing line in your life be between believers and unbelievers.

Seek to heal division within the fellowship, not create it. Instead of trying to force separation between believers in the name of “discernment”, do the harder work of seeking to bring them together around the same mission. Have the same mind and the same purpose that’s supremely concerned with the work of the Gospel, both among us and in the world. Spend your energy, time and resources partnering together with one another in accomplishing that mission. Concentrate your ministry on tearing down unbelieving strongholds in the world. Focusing our attention there leaves us for no time for division, as there’s plenty of work to be done.

Being a family is hard work because we’re all naturally selfish and proud. It takes a lot of humility to learn from one another, love to cover over a multitude of sins, patience as we are sinned against, and endurance with people that are slow to change. But we’re committed to doing that in our families, because without strong families, society decays. The Church is the most important family there is – it’s the hope of the world’s salvation, and its family Jesus died to create.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dealing With Disunity pt. 1

After my previous attempt to highlight some of the subjective and self-important tactics used by doctrinal politicians, I was inspired to post a series on disunity from 1 Corinthians. I'll be posting them in the coming weeks, but here's some introduction to what's coming:

The division of the family is one of the most pressing problems in the western world today. A person’s family is the soil from which they grow to impact their environment, and now more than ever that soil is being poisoned with divorce, homosexuality, materialism, child-abuse and general selfish neglect. The fruit formed from that soil is unsurprisingly bitter: a dramatic escalation in violent crime, increasing gender confusion, rampant sexual promiscuity, further divorce, and further societal decay. The bond between fathers and mothers, parents and children is like an atom – you can’t split them apart without causing disastrous, far-reaching consequences.

Of course none of that is to say that someone of tremendous integrity and moral strength can’t come from a dysfunctional family – surely one can. Examples abound. But regardless of whether one can actually survive and overcome or not, what remains indisputable are the personal pains and peculiar challenges which extend from formative years of family life into adult relationships. Hence the raison d’etre of the Dobson brigade and his culture war. Evangelicals realize that not only Christian witness but societal order depends on husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, parents refusing to exasperate their children and children obeying their parents. We, therefore, more than most, know that unless each member of this institution remains vigilant, the family will be divided, nuclear meltdown will be imminent, and the fall out will destroy civilization as we know it.

Yet this commonly shared sense of urgency about "family values" among us is conspicuously absent in regard to that institution which God deems even more fundamental to the preservation of human society: the Church. The Church is the local and worldwide family of God; the household of the redeemed. Jesus said in Mat. 5:14-16 that the it's humankind’s only light and salt, without which the world would be left in darkness with nothing to stem the tide of rot and decay. Pagan conservatism has often observed that if you divide the family and the world is in big trouble. But according to Jesus and Paul, dividing the Church, the very family of God, strikes at the heart of the world's only hope for redemption. It is the alternative to the society created by idolaters -- it's a new creation, a living preview of kingdom life. The ministry of Jesus is largely mediated through this Spirit-filled community which He rules from the right hand of God's throne. It's health and well-being are therefore vital to the plan of God for the world. The connection between the ministry of Jesus and that of the Church is so organically connected that its likened to husband and wife, head and body, vine and branches.

Jesus directly connected the Church’s visible ONENESS and UNITY to its effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel. John 17:20-23 says, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” The mission of the Church, therefore, to some degree depends on our visible unity - the same unity demonstrated by Jesus and the Father - unity of purpose, unity of essence, unity of will, and the unity of mutual joy and synergism. The words "depends upon" are intentionally selected, for they confront the casual distinction made by many evangelicals between the Church's visible unity and the effectiveness of its Gospel proclamation (the former being the object of cynical scoffing, the latter being regarded as indespensible).

Surely the Bible speaks triumphantly about the end of the story, and we know that ultimately nothing can thwart God’s work on earth (as bleak or as dismal as the picture may look at any point in history). But we also know that even though the church can’t be stopped, it can be slowed down. It can be rendered temporarily ineffective. Salt can loose its saltiness and light can be put under a bushel. And that’s exactly the problem facing the Church at present, in all its fragmented shame. The throat of our apologetic posturing and bold proclamation is slit by our mirroring of the world's strife, dysfunction and utter lack of peace. The credibility issue isn't just a percieved problem, it's a real one: is the resurrection power of Jesus real, and is He able to give us the Holy Spirit? The dying world in which we live needs to see our oneness, not just to find therapeutic escape from the fragmentation of their own self-destructing societies; they need to see it in order to beleive that a genuine alternative to idolatrous living really does exist. "Jesus saves" may be the truth, but we give them no earthly reason to believe it.

And people have tried to deal with this problem in a lot of different ways. Some well meaning brothers want to join hands without ever debating the real issues which lie behind our division. Unity, in this frame of reference, is everyone’s duty to minimize disagreements in order to avoid dissension. We all have family members like that – they want peace so badly, they’ll sacrifice just about anything to have it (usually it's your mom). And if you do have family members like that, you know that this kind of peace is only superficial – it’s only skin-deep, and it doesn’t last. Before long, the deeply felt differences among that never get talked about begin to float to the surface, and the illusion of unity instantly evaporates. Moreover, while the conversation at the dinner table may not be heated for these folks, it isn't warm, either. The energy which should be spent on teasing, sharing and genuinely relating is spent on suppressing these deeply felt differences, resulting in sterile, lifeless small talk.

In recognizing the pitfalls of naive ecumensim, some have opted for a different solution to the problem – it’s called the doctrine of separation. If you disagree with a family member with sufficient conviction, you simply extend the offer come around to your way of thinking one last time before packng your bags to leave. Some even go so far as to advocate SECOND-DEGREE separation: that is, if you happen to agree with me, but you also choose to associate with those who don’t, we can’t fellowship together. We’ve all dealt with family members like this too – they respond to disagreements by fighting, getting indignant, and then storming off. When the holidays roll around, the real family politics begin, because if you seem like you’re too sympathetic to someone on one side, the other side will cut you off.

Both of these extremes exist in our worldwide Church family. But the only reason they exist in the Church is because these extremes also exist in our hearts. And that’s why division isn’t just a modern problem for the Church. It’s a sin problem, as old as mankind. Only 23 years after Jesus prayed His prayer in John 17, Paul was forced to write the letter of 1 Corinthians to deal with the disunity that was ripping their church apart. Nearly every other problem in the Corinthian church that Paul addressed in this letter (tolerating gross sin in ch. 5, taking each other to court in ch. 6, hurting weaker brothers in ch. 8-10, disorder in communion in ch. 11, their lack of love in using spiritual gifts in 12-14 etc) had its roots in the problem of disunity, Paul's subject of choice in the first four chapters.

The Corinthians couldn’t manage to worship and minister together as one family, in one accord. So, immediately after his greeting in 4-9, Paul gives 3 resources that wil help the Corinthians sort this mess out. Verses 10-17 introduce Paul's polemic against it by giving an exhortation, a description and an important implication about disunity. The exhortation exemplifies how to approach the problem and identifies a provisional solution, the description illustrates the sorts of attitudes and activities that lead to factions, and the implication exposes just how foolish divisiveness really is. I'll spend some time examining these points in my next few posts: but, just for posterity, here's 1 Co. 1:10-17:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all
agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in
the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For I have been informed concerning
you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. 12 Now I
mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,”
and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Paul was not
crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank
God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one
would say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household
of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For
Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness
of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Wright and Reformed Rancor

I just came across a Doug Wilson quote from the Centuri0n Frank Turk that I thought provocative in light of my previous post. Read CenturiOn's inisightful comments (linked above), alongside these three equally insightful posts ( one , two and three ) to get caught up, if you're interested! And if you do read the above, please post your comments here! I'd love to hear your ruminations.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Doctrinal Politics

Of the many perceived problems in evangelicalism’s ongoing identity crisis is the shifting importance of doctrine as a boundary marker. Historically evangelicals have been identified around the loosely fitted pegs of 1) conversionism or new birth, 2) Biblical authority 3) missionary enterprise 4) the centrality of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross. Doctrinally these factors usually coalesce into Trinitarianism, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a high premium on biblical inerrancy and the primacy of faith over against moralistic efforts for salvation. Yet even within these more narrow parameters there has been much debate over how these sorts of criteria should be applied, or whether more stringent requirements are necessary in order to bestow the more coveted label of “conservative evangelical” (which, in such circles, is the same label as “Christian”).

But the fractured face of evangelicalism isn’t only owed to the battle over defining primary vs. secondary doctrines; it is just as often due to what one might call “doctrinal politics”. Doctrinal politics employs a kind of argumentation that tries to debunk a position by seeking to establish a chain of inference that eventually rests at a contradiction with some primary doctrine. The goal of this maneuver is emphatically not the pursuit of truth, though that is often the banner it waves. It is, rather, to eliminate competitive claims to truth without bothering with careful, self-critical, or dialectical reasoning. Philosophically, it’s to make the self objective over against Scripture. Ultimately, though it parades as faithfulness to the Scriptures, it is a political posturing designed to defend one’s position irregardless of the merits of competing views. This explains why it is so commonly employed against those who profess agreement with the generally accepted minimalist position above. It is in this way that those with competing positions, new proposals, or threatening syntheses can be disqualified from consideration without the risk of actually considering them with any seriousness. The cash value of such a scheme is that one gets to claim objectivity while practicing the worst kind of solipsism in the name of Biblical faithfulness.

Take, for example, a self-avowed evangelical who professes to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time affirming a kind of genre criticism that characterizes Jonah or the first two chapters of Genesis as something other than historical reporting. For those who would seek to disqualify such a position from evangelical (and therefore “Christian”) fellowship, a case must be made that literal creationism is a logical entailment of inerrancy; a denial of the one must be construed as a denial of the other. Thus a platform for exclusion is formed regardless of the profession. Similarly, in the early years of fundamentalism, dispensationalists often charged covenantalists with a deficient view of biblical authority over their divergent ecclesiologies and eschatologies. In the same vein, Arminians of every stripe (including those who would affirm all but limited atonement) can easily be excluded from “evangelical” fellowship by drawing a chain of inference in their soteriology that violates salvation by faith alone, though this is a matter of strenuous profession for most Arminians. In each case the inferential mallet is often used for the purposes of exclusion in the name of primary doctrines. What’s more, in each case the evangelical professor can be successfully declared as “denying the Gospel” and eliminated from fellowship.

This same line of reasoning is used by those who advocate the literal blood of Christ as being necessary for atonement in order to exclude those who see this phrase as a metaphor for His death. On one hand, literally any doctrine or methodological practice in Biblical Studies, no matter how peripheral, can be shown to be contingent upon some universally recognized essential. On the other hand, any doctrine, no matter how bizarre or even unorthodox, can be shown to be necessary as long as it can be anchored in a doctrine that is generally considered to be essential. What is important to note in all of this is that all sides claim biblical authority or Scriptural precedent for their views; likewise all sides see themselves as “holding fast to the truth” in maintaining these essentials and their supposed “logical entailments”. This is often recognized without difficulty when one happens to be the object of this sort of political maneuver (as with John MacArthur’s controversies with various fundamentalist camps over Lordship salvation, blood atonement, eternal Sonship, and nouthetic counseling); unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily make one more discriminating in the use of such tactics.

Some have suggested a way forward in the realm of narrative theology and paleo-orthodoxy. The former sees doctrine less as an abstract system of propositions and more akin to the linguistic practices of the believing community. This isn’t to deny the propositional content that Christians affirm, especially in the minimalist assertions mentioned above – but it sees the boundary markers for Christian fellowship primarily in discipleship (the practices which grow out of inhabiting the world projected by the Bible’s overarching story). The latter seeks to ground boundary markers in classical Christian affirmations contained in the venerable creeds and collective wisdom of Church history. Remarkably, both of these trajectories are represented by scholars that affirm essential doctrines without apology. Unsurprisingly, they can also be easily excluded from thoughtful evangelical consideration by the doctrinal politics mentioned above.

Shamefully, those who employ these political tactics comfortably maintain a dichotomy between ecclesiology and soteriology that allows different standards for Christian fellowship than for salvation. In this way, one can supposedly “leave judgment to God” in regard to an individual’s eternal destiny, while having already pronounced judgment in the denial of believing communion. Perhaps even more appalling, the virtues of truth and love are either similarly compartmentalized (with the latter being reserved for those that agree sufficiently with the former) or “love” is construed entirely as defending bold, truthful propositions (if truth IS love, speaking the truth in love is poetic redundancy). What seemed like loosely fitted pegs in the beginning, therefore, may actually be a reflection of wise restraint. Whatever way forward evangelicals choose, it should be in a manner that eschews doctrinal politics in favor of a pursuit of truth that doesn’t simply “tow the party line”. In other words it should be a pursuit characterized by humble, rigorous, morally honest doctrinal discourse carried out under the rule of Spirit-filled love.