Tuesday, July 13, 2010

_____________ Christian

To place another adjective next to the word Christian, as in "American Christian" or "liberal Christian,"etc., is to undermine the very meaning of the word. Implicit in the term "Christian" is the concept of being one without distinction, without division. Although these adjectives and many others may serve as sort of "training wheels for the mind" (a phrase I picked up from Dr. Denis Okholm at APU), as helpful in theological discussions, we should do our best to keep such distinctions far from our mission and worship.

Paul's ecclesiology starts and finishes with one phrase, "for you are all one in Christ." In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." When Paul talks about the church he throws the distinctions out the window.

Jesus himself says in Matthew 23, "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ." All our differences, all possible identities, are absorbed in Christ. He, not our country nor our philosophy but Christ, is our teacher.

To be a Christian means finding your identity in Christ who transcends all other identities. So when we allow another identity to serve as a descriptor of our faith, we undercut authentic faith in Christ. Christ, in Christian worship, should be the center. All our other endeavors and ambitions should flow from our faith in Christ, not the other way around.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an American citizen visiting a church in another country--perhaps a Mexican church. What if, at this service, they opened with the Mexican National Anthem? Perhaps next you are invited to stand and honor those who've served in the Mexican military. Perhaps they pass out copies of the Mexican Constitution. Then the sermon, with sporadic and passe mention of Jesus, turns out to be all about why we should love and serve Mexico. In closing, you are invited to "pledge allegiance" to the Mexican flag. How would you feel? Would you leave having truly brought worship to God? Or would you feel somewhat alienated and left out? If it were me, I would feel quite disappointed. I would feel as though national identity had replaced Christian discipleship.

A service like this should be unexpected in a church of Jesus Christ but in the U.S. such services are common, especially around national holidays such as the 4th of July. How does this effect our ecclesiological identity? How does this make our brothers and sisters from other countries feel? Church, indeed the Christian faith, is not for Americans or Mexicans, conservatives or liberals, educated or uneducated, it is for all people for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

When we allow another identity--either national, political, or religious--to come over or alongside our Christian identity, we jeopardize the very meaning or being a Christian. Our worship and our mission must set aside our differences--all other identities--and we must make visible the invisible reality of our unity in Christ.

4 comments:

lozeerose said...

You are spot on about Christian unity but how does that square with the visible divisions within the "body" of Christ? In particular I speak of the Catholic/Protestant divide.

Jesus established only one Church no? Think about 1 John 2:19, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us" (RSV).

WES ELLIS said...

Lozeerose,
We should always be about the work of bridging divisions in the church, mending them and fulfilling Christ's prayer "that they may all be one." That does not mean, however that we should make theological compromises of our identity. We should be clear about what we are and clear about what we're not and we must do it in a way that recognizes that the conversation is still very much alive.

1John 2:19, from my quick and unaided reading, seems to be about folks leaving the church and embracing another identity. It does not address the ambiguity and complication that arises when two seemingly different "churches", both claiming Christ and faith in the God revealed in Christ, are divided one from the other the way the Pretestant and Catholic traditions have been. I'm not sure what to do with that division but I suppose that if we start with what we DO agree on, partener with each other on what we CAN, and move from there then we may one day find ourselves truly united in the one Body of Christ.

Steve Swope said...

A quibble, Lozeerose - Jesus did not "establish" a church (for instance, separate from existing religious traditions) but called people to renewed commitment to the way of God.

But no, neither did Jesus desire many competing denominations. This is, in part, a consequence of our humanness and not Christianity's heavenliness. The divisions are our fault, not Christ's.

But in many ways, the existence of different denominations is helpful and instructive to the whole Christian body, if we let it be. Gabriel Fackre has written about the ways in which differences "admonish" us - by Church X emphasizing some aspect of faith that Church Y may give short shrift to.

The divisions amid Christianity are an easy target for those seeking to discredit the church because "it's not perfect." Well, no, it's not - because we are not. As someone once said, the church is like Noah's ark; you can only stand the smell on the inside because of the storm on the outside.

WES ELLIS said...

Steve,
Great thoughts! Fackre is right. I have written in other posts about the advantages/upside of having denominational distinctions. Indeed, denominations, at their best, are people being people...people exercising their corporate diversity. When we one day finally mend all divisions, hopefully the diversity will not be lost. Hopefully, even in a healed church, there will be communities which worship in unique ways from one another.