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Friday, February 4, 2011

Bridging Denominational Bred Divides By Destoying Belligerent Stubbornness = 3BDBS

There is a great war inside my mind and my heart.  On the one hand, I really do yearn for visible unity and brotherly love in the body of Christ.  On the other hand, I see so much beauty in the distinctiveness of many very similar denominations.  The issue of denominationalism has been a very sore topic for a number of friends, and I have in the past defended it so harshly that I have driven friends to tears.  I must confess that still at times exhibit tenacity and zeal to a damaging level on certain topics much to my shame.  This is a post that has been a long time working through ideas in my mind, and I'm sure over the rest of my lifetime I will grow stronger in certain aspects and manage to wean myself off of some of my more prideful stances.

To start this entry I will try to give the background for my current position.  When I became reformed, I used to thrive on debates and new ideas and wrapping my mind around higher levels of theology.  In one sense it was a rebirth of my intellect, and in many regards it has defined my life's passions and desires.  As I started to get involved with friends, more emotionally driven community minded friends, I started to see the beauty in people working together toward various social justice causes and making a real difference in the lives of the poor and the downtrodden.  This marked another very real passion in my life.  Technical theology, and tangible gospel care-taking became the heartbeat of my life, and I'm not entirely sue that will change (nor do I want it to).  These passions are the reason for the name of this blog actually...orthodoxy being right thinking and orthopraxy being right living.  Throughout the years I have swung back an forth between emphasis quite a bit, but never have found a real balance in where to rest.  A number of years ago I started a haphazard ecumenical movement with a number of friends called 3BDBS (hence the blog address).  The purpose of this movement was to show that there was principled unity between our group of infant baptist friends with regard to believer baptist brothers and sisters at the respective baptist churches many of us attended.  We made a practice of trying to visit from time to time at each others churches so we could take joy in one another's fellowship.  The name stands for Beer Drinking, Baby Dunking, Baptist Defending: Baptist Share.  While it seems silly, and really was, there was a very serious motivation behind it's creation because we were all a part of reformed paedobaptistic traditions and we all saw a need and a desire to fellowship with and have real unbroken community with our baptist friends.  But there was no doubt that I was still very dogmatic about doctrine that when we discussed one of our friends starting to homebrew, I made the joke that since stouts are my favorite types of beers, that a stout be made and named Sectarian Stout since I was the most obvious sectarian member of the newly born ecumenical movement.  In conversation after conversation I would defend the notion that denominations were not necessary evils, but were in fact a beautiful expression of the diversity and vibrant distinctiveness of the body of Christ, and that in spite of "dividing for worship" they could unite to live out the gospel.  I would constantly say there a practices that certain Christians have during worship that actually prohibit me from unifying with them in the spirit of worship, so as not to infringe on their convictions, I would conclude it's better to divide.  Many discussions ended with frustrated friends who could only get me to concede that John 17 was the true heart of a believer while maintaining that such unity could be accomplished through denominational distinctives.  I would site groups like Together For The Gospel and the Evangelical Manifesto as "proofs" of unity.

So the tension between community minded unity and proper doctrinal beliefs was always going back and forth in emphasis in my thinking.  In this day and age, and in many other times throughout history, these two ideas tend to be pulling people in opposite directions.  We see this painfully clear in our day and age with non denominational churches that have almost no doctrinal stands save a cliche "statement of faith" that can be copied and pasted on the vast majority of churches in this country.  There is very little, if any, focus on doctrinal purity and usually an abundance of programs and outreaches to other churches to work together.  Then you have confessionally driven denominations.  The ones who take those confessions serious seem constantly in the danger of fragmenting constantly over the smallest of differences that may have real implications, but there is very little grace and charity towards perceived threats to unity of the gospel which ironically end in church splits and another denomination being born.  This is the predicament of the PCA, the denomination where I am serve as a deacon.  The signs of another church split are all around and a friend who goes to one of our treasured seminaries told me there's jokes of opposing PCA gangs within the denomination.  Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting a few friends through our church who were from the Dutch tradition.  This piqued my interest to study learn about the Three Forms of Unity (governing constitution of the Dutch churches).  While I still would like to learn more, I have come to the conclusion that we are at staggering agreement on doctrine, and just as distinct on emphasis and worship as the whole host of Presbyterian denominations.  That being said, after having many conversations with my friend in seminary, he sent me this article in the Modern Reformation magazine.  It was only after getting more familiar with the Dutch tradition, seeing the state of my current denomination, and then reading up on Robert Godfrey's dream of unity that I really started to view things very differently.  This is all the background leading up to my current progression.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in His high priestly prayer, prayed for his disciples and the future of his church.  These words have taken on a very new meaning in my mind the past few months:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just 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 have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.  O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me.  I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17.20-26)
I now understand a bit more honestly the pain in a few friends reactions when they heard me say things supporting and actually affirming the goodness of denominations.  Looking around at the three main divisions within Christianity, it is only in the Protestant tradition that fragmentation has spread like wild fire.  When the East and Rome, when the world looks at us and gapes in horror at the disunity and the animosity within our faith, I can no longer defend it is as good, necessary to a degree but not good.  While there are needed divisions over serious disagreements and differing opinions as to the proper worship and structure of the church, when you have groups that split over minutia and refuse to cooperate with one another, there is no honest way to view that other than sin.  You can call it distinctives, but to divide the church over things which can be overlooked with the slightest bit of effort (for instance...Psalters and traditional worship style) is a proof against Christian charity and brotherly love and most importantly the oneness of Christ!  In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said that "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4.4-6)  On this earth we will never have perfect unity because we are flawed and sinful and do not have perfect knowledge, but there are some divisions which are not only avoidable, but ought to be cured by a true gospel application of the grace of Jesus Christ!

There are a few things I want to make clear.  I no longer advocate the benefits of denominations, but do see the necessity for some of them.  I also do believe that there should not just be organizations that help denominations work together, but furthermore believe that there should be a very real and serious talks by denominations that are identical in beliefs and almost identical in practice to join hands and work out a way to join again into formal declared unity under one church.  This may mean learning to sacrifice your right for the brotherhood of the church, but we ought to be doing this as mature believers anyway.  I do still very much believe that distinctives are a beautiful thing because we each see glimpses of glory and beauty in different ways.  It would be a shame to ignore and rid ourselves of such a rich tapestry of insight and perspective, but it is abominable to maintain these distinctives at the cost of severing official ties with other believers!

As I read through my book on the Lord's Supper, one thing is made clear to me.  Any self respecting and bible believing Calvinist should have the heart of Calvin himself!  That was not a sectarian heart bent on beating people down with the doctrine of predestination (as some may think).  No!  The heart of Calvin (not suprisingly) very much was in line with the heart of Christ in John 17!  Calvin's "middle road" view of the Eucharist was an effort to not only be faithful to the rich history of Christian thought, not only to be honest to and accurate in application of the texts of scripture, but was actually also an effort to bridge the gap between the Lutheran view and the Zwinglian view!  Calvin also made very real sacrifices along with Bullinger in order to come to agreement with each other on the  "Consensus Tigurinus" in order to unite the Swiss church on the Lord's Supper.  Calvin did not unite the church on this issue, but an honest assessment of the man shows a character that yearns for unity and is willing to yield and compromise on certain things to work toward that end.

This is the reason why I now no longer claim to be Presbyterian.  This resignation of the distinction is not because I do not hold to the Westminster Standards anymore, and it is not to distance myself from any particular group of people.  Quite the contrary!  It is because not only do I agree to the Westminster Standards but also see myself in agreement with the Three Forms of Unity.  I want to see the Dutch and the Scottish traditions of the reformation, who are in so great agreement with one another, start to move closer and closer together and, if the dream of Robert Godfrey and many other's like him is to be actualized, become united under one church!  There would be nothing more precious than to showcase each particular conservative reformed denominations distinctives with a formal show of unity to begin to repair relationships and repair the marred and broken representation we give our Lord.  Even if I never make a difference toward a greater unity, I am responsible to do whatever I can to unite the groups through myself at the very least.  This is why I will not claim to be Presbyterian anymore, but rather I claim to be Confessional Reformed.  I take unity much more seriously now than I ever have, and I pray that more and more youth are raised up in our seminaries and churches to become professors, teaching/ruling elders, deacons, authors, theologians, bibles study leaders...whatever venue and forum they are given by God, that they use it to strive for unity and peace among the household of God!

1 comment:

  1. and then there's this guy, asking, "where have all the Presbyterians gone?":

    In a more rhetorical sense, at least. :-p