Friday, March 09, 2007

Christian Unity, Epilog

There are some who apparently feel that my last installment on Christian Unity was a bit too harsh. Perhaps they are right. Sarcasm is a tricky tool to wield, not unlike a chainsaw. In skilled hands such a device can turn a dead tree into an artsy totem pole or a statue of a grizzly bear; in the hands of an amateur it usually results in a sudden trip to the emergency room.

By way of apology let me state that my articles on Christian Unity have not come from some smug, triumphal attitude, though they would be easy enough to mischaracterize as such. In truth, I have been deeply concerned about Christian Unity, or should I say the lack of it, since long before I had even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy.

When I first came to Christ as an Evangelical Christian, I was told that the bible was our sole remaining link to the “early church” of the apostles. When I asked what had happened to that church, I was told that it had quickly fallen under pagan influence and apostatized, but that God had preserved the bible so that we could recreate the early church experience with each new generation. I was assured that the bible was the infallible word of God zealously preserved by Him, despite the fact that He had allowed His earthly church to collapse like a house of cards without apparent concern.

In time I learned that many diverse groups held to this same view of a general apostasy of the church, along with the idea that the bible was its only surviving relic. The Mormons, the JWs, the Baptists, the Quakers, Herbert W. Armstrong, and Chuck Smith to name but a few, all seemed to teach the same thing, though each held to entirely different interpretations of the bible and routinely pronounced one another as heretics. Even within Evangelicalism there seemed to be as many different takes on what Christianity should be or should emphasize as there were individuals with bibles. I soon found that even within one single church there would commonly exist a multitude of opinions about how this or that portion of the scriptures should be interpreted, and if the disagreements became sharp enough, division was the normal, even expected solution.

I’m not sure I could have told you why back then, but this troubled me greatly. While claiming to exalt the bible, we Evangelicals often used it almost as our private plaything, each of us cheerfully laying out our own individual set of doctrinal positions to distinguish ourselves as mature believers. We delighted in such practices, defended our “right” to follow our own consciences and hold to our own views, and looked with deep suspicion upon any group which enjoyed a uniformity of belief. Division was the norm for us, almost the authentication of ourselves as true, bible-believing Christians. The height of Christian virtue in our eyes was not reconciliation with an opposing brother, but a willingness “to agree to disagree” with him while maintaining our respective beliefs. Our independent views had to be preserved at any cost. Some Evangelicals have even suggested that the division of Christendom is a good thing, because so many conflicting and competing denominations keep the bible from becoming the exclusive property of only one church, which presumably would be a bad thing, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be.

Many will point out that Orthodox Christians are by no means immune from such human failings and this is certainly true. Our humanity is just as fallen and subject to sins as anyone else’s, and our tendency to stretch the very boundaries of our communion nearly to the breaking point and perhaps just a bit beyond is well documented. But there are a few fundamental differences regarding our experience. First of all, the Orthodox Church alone is not born of schism, but remains the “early church” of the apostles, grown up. Second, we do not institutionalize division, applaud it, or excuse it, but indeed hold it to be a terrible sin in violation of God’s expressed will. Some will question the sincerity of that position, given the slowness of the various ethnic jurisdictions in America to unite with one another in common leadership, vision, and purpose. Yet we are still in communion with one another for the most part, and many Orthodox Christians know that unity must and will happen over any and all human objections to it if this is indeed God’s Church.

My intention in this series of articles was not present Orthodoxy as immune from all human failings, but to present it as mankind’s last, best hope to be one in Christ, even as the Father and the Son are one. We ourselves are far from perfect, and are most often the unworthy recipients of whatever grace that God bestows upon us. Yet for those like myself who have been “wounded” by this idea that God truly cares about the unity of Christians, let me say that I can think of no better place to work toward that goal than from within the communion of God’s historic Church, founded by Christ upon the faith and life entrusted to the apostles.

And so, my great “Chainsaw of Sarcasm” has been safely locked back up in the toolshed for now, at least until the doctor can remove my bandages. Thanks for reading.

13 Comments:

At 3/09/2007 6:03 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Canadian Anglican again.

I think that we Christians have lost sight of a vital aspect of faith, and that is: faith in the Body of Christ.

Obviously, we as believers make up the Body, but we have lost faith in It. We have strong faith in the Head, which is Christ, but our divisions clearly show that we have no faith in His Body, us as led by the Holy Spirit of God. The result is an empty belief in our own capacity to discern the True Faith.

If we had faith in the Body, we would realize that the True Faith can only arise from all who hold themselves Christian. It is a collective discernment, growing through the ages, as Spirit-led people are taught by God. It is never about opinion, but what we have learned from the Heart of God; that is what we can cling to with good faith, having the faith that the Head will never allow His Body to stray far from the Truth.

To repeat St. Paul's analogy, if I am an 'eye' in the Body, I can see, but I cannot hear or touch; I must depend on the 'ears' and 'hands' for those other channels of God. I must have faith in them, because they too are part of the Body.

If I do not have faith in the Body of Christ, how can I truly say that I have faith in the Head? Because I have faith in the Head, I can have faith in the Body, even if it does not entirely believe in Itself.

I hope that these rambles make some kind of sense to you all.

 
At 3/10/2007 3:41 AM , Blogger The last cause said...

Sarcasm i shard to pull off on the internet Father (out of love) Reagen,itis indeed a clumsy tool when trying to convey ideas.

Is a church, any church entitled to automatic submission to their dogma no matter the apparent discrepency with the teachings of the Scriptures?

I would say no, and the Scriptures have numerous examples of that beign the case, Christ himself comented on how a Church may teach things that he found shameful, and that people of Faith would resist such teachings.

Which brings an interesting question to the front, "if" elders and bishops are their to help members in their faith, what happens when that hiearchy is obviously corrupt in both their teachings and their actions?

Would that not put the individual Believer into a quandry? Should they follow the plain teaching of the Bible, or should they follow th hiearchy's Authority? Who decides?

I am somehting of a Calvinist, but not a fatalistic one, and certainly not a condemning one, I'll leave that to God, he is quite capable of doing that Himself, he sets his own bar and makes His on Judgment (I praise him for that).

People of Faith will not allow themselves to have their Faith corrupted no matter the Hierarchy's teachings, but then again, my Hierarchy is the Bible, and my Bishop is Christ so to speak.

And God Bless you Canadian Anglican may you have peace for your journey.

 
At 3/11/2007 6:10 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Bless.

I have read with “abandon” (groan, I couldn’t resist) your installments on unity and found them to be insightful, humorous, and filled with truth. After experiencing several powerful battering rams in my life (death of a spouse and loss of a pastorate), I have found a bit of sarcasm or a healthy dose of cynicism can actually be a good thing to have in the toolkit. While I probably would not have worded things as strongly as you have, I non-the-less found this series to be a great blessing and profoundly challenging.

I am deeply saddened when I see people glorify the divisions in the Body of Christ as if it were the plan God had from the beginning. I am horrified when I discover that good Christian folk read current experience of unity (actually lack thereof) in the pages of scripture. The Church is generally perceived as a purely human invention, a nuisance if you will, getting in the way of actually following our Lord. The lack of historical understanding causes them to perceive all churches as mere denominations, or variations on a theme.

So wield the sarcasm. Wield gently, but don’t put that chainsaw too far back in the garage. Lord knows those who name the name of Christ need it.

Peace,

Leon

 
At 3/11/2007 2:08 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Canadian Anonymous, I think your reflections make a great deal of sense and I am grateful to you for sharing them with us.

Leon, I am sorry to hear of the great sadness you have endured. May your patient suffering in this life be greatly rewarded in the life to come. God bless you.

Other Anonymous, I think you have overlooked at least two significant scenarios in your “stacked deck” analogy. What about obedience to a godly Bishop who upholds the true faith in both word and example of life? Not all bishops oppose the gospel or lead their people astray, you know. And what about the extremely common experience of individual believers who reject any and all spiritual authority except their own to guide their private interpretations of scripture? Such people are not only in violation of biblical commands to obey their elders and submit to them, but also are the cause of most of the division of Christendom today. These factors should not be left out in your quest to decide what the believer should do.

 
At 3/11/2007 6:56 PM , Blogger The last cause said...

So if a Hierarchy does disown the Gospel, then the average (or nominal)parishoner can and indeed must leave that Church?

That would be "rejecting one's Elders" would it not?

And since the elders are not going to say "We have abandoned the Gospel of our Fatehrs, you are free to leave" would that not mean that the individual believers has the right to "judge for themselves" their own leaderships behaviour....

 
At 3/12/2007 10:09 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Last,

Since I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I can only speak for that Church. In Orthodoxy, if a bishop should substantially depart from fidelity with the faith and life entrusted to his protection, he will be deposed and a qualified faithful man is put in his place. No one man is above error and thus any bishop is as much accountable to his flock and to his fellow hierarchs as any member of the flock is accountable to his good leadership. This is a system that has apparently served us well for 2000 years.

Since no one man is above error (and you seem eager enough to believe that to be true in the case of a bishop), what about “independent” believers who follow no hierarchy or bishop at all (in clear violation of biblical commands) but cobble together their own version of “Christianity” using selected bible verses as a drunk uses lampposts—for support rather than for illumination? Where in the NT do we see this sort of “do-it-yourself” religion recommended? This only leads to heresy, division, and chaos, yet it is curiously exalted as the most pure form of Christianity by its advocates.

 
At 3/12/2007 3:51 PM , Blogger The last cause said...

Ahh, even the drunk under the lampost is still in the light...

Is it not written "All Scrpture is given for..."?

And what you see as "chaos" is liberty indeed to others.

 
At 3/12/2007 6:41 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Liberty? By liberty you mean the “freedom” to interpret the bible for yourself, independent of any “religious tradition”. That sounds wonderful on the surface, but what you are describing is not liberty at all, but absolute bondage to self-will. This is the worst kind of spiritual slavery, and yields the most impure and bitter fruit imaginable.

We all know that the Reformers tried to set right a religious tradition that had gone wrong. By the 16th century in the Roman Catholic church, many practices had evolved that were clearly based upon errant traditions of men, effectively nullifying the teaching of the scriptures. This is why the split between Eastern Orthodoxy and the RCC had occurred almost 500 years before. Rome had wrought so many changes to the faith during the Dark Ages that by the 11th century the two bodies were simply unable to maintain communion with one another. Ironically, many of the “reformations” that Luther and his fellows sought to bring would have brought them very nearly under the umbrella of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but the Reformers tended toward a distrust of ecclesiastical bodies, and also very sadly were overcome by the intoxication of the new power they wielded in interpreting the scriptures for themselves, without the “interference” of any pope or patriarch. Thus the union between the Reformers and the Eastern Orthodox that likely should have occurred was prevented, and Christianity in the West has never recovered to this day.

Almost immediately, the Reformers turned on each other and quickly began dividing from one another as every man seemed to have a new interpretation of scripture that “proved” everyone else wrong. That is exactly the heritage of the Reformation that we see continued and worshipped today. Believe me, Brother Last Cause, this is not liberty at all, but slavery to self-will. Such a bondage does not bring people closer to a true understanding the scriptures or toward embracing the early church of the apostles, but only leads them further and further away into delusion, division, and false belief.

 
At 3/13/2007 1:18 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irony of ironies: We did not want a man (the Pope) telling us what the scriptures meant so we rejected his authority and set ourselves up as the authority. Now we have millions of popes running around, bible in hand, deciding what is truth. Oft times these interpretations are based on “…what this scripture means to me…” and ignore the role of Holy Tradition, and how the Church interpreted them from the beginning. Folks it blows the mind!

Leon

 
At 3/13/2007 3:31 PM , Blogger Munkee said...

Historians never forget what many Protestants do...Which came first, the Church or the New Testament? And for a very long time the Church did not merely survive, but surely they thrived.

The Pillar and ground of Truth gave us the Holy Scriptures, I thank God for both.

 
At 3/14/2007 7:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen!

Leon

 
At 4/19/2007 1:38 AM , Anonymous Gail Sheppard said...

God gave you a wonderful sense of humor which is one of the reasons you are such an excellent communicator. Those who know you, either personally (as I do) or through your writing, connect with you because you are authentic, which in your case includes a touch of sarcasm (however never with animosity). Why would you want to put a God given talent like yours in a toolshed?! Don't hold back! Just be yourself.

 
At 9/22/2007 6:29 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having some experience with Evangelicals, especially the Reformed kind, I see no difference between the pagan idolators of old and the self-righteous, seminary trained Evangelical hypocrites who willingly lie, slander, and embrace hypocrisy to suit their personal desires for power and control. At least the pagan is honest; he states clearly what he wants from his idol.

 

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