Monday, November 30, 2009

Life Together

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lesser known (than The Cost of Discipleship)but equally profitable book Life Together speaks of how Christians are to get along with one another in the church, not with illusions of everything being in perfect accord all the time (for we are sinful and short-sighted), but rather the beauty and benefits of struggling within the bonds of love.

So, both Tim Keller's comment on my last post, and a moving sermon on the gospel in the midst of relational conflict by Scott Roley(Christ Community, Franklin, TN), have got me thinking about this.

There was a lot of conflict in the early church. We see it in Acts on how the Gentiles were to be incorporated into the church, and the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Corinth was fraught with conflicts over personality and false teaching. Galatians mentions the conflict with Paul and Peter.

The church does not do conflict well. The Scriptures lay down clear teaching on how to deal with conflict, both in situations of interpersonal offense, and in situations of false teaching or false practice.

Having grown up in the mainline (Reformed Church in America) and coming into the PCA, I thought it was a city set upon a hill. But, what I realized is that though there are significant sins of liberalism, the sins of orthodoxy are more heinous. A radical statement that! But, we are accountable for the knowledge that we have. My friend J. R. de Witt used to talk about the sins of dead orthodoxy a lot --and I have experienced them firsthand. A cold, censorious, judgmental and narrow spirit, a lack of compassion and brotherly love, a hidebound insistence that one's own way is THE WAY, anger, consumerism, Spirit-quenching, and cathedral-building (yes, I know, I hate Reformed cathedrals --they are sinful in an age of poverty and hunger, sorry people, but it's my blog).

And I say again: these are far more egregious than the sins of the mainline, simply because we ought to know better. IF we have the Holy Spirit, then why isn't he more manifest?

I have to note that: a.) I am incredibly guilty of everything I say above, except that I haven't built a cathedral (yet). b.) these sins are no respecter of party in the PCA, but seem to me to be equal on all sides. Each party has its jerks, and all of us are jerks now and again.

The danger in our post-modern context is multi-form. One of the chief dangers is confusing persons with arguments. This happens in two ways: either my opponent in an argument is my opponent in life, and therefore not only mistaken but evil, or at least stupid, or, that an attack on a person's position is an attack on their person.

We need to understand that Satan loves to push us to both of these poles. I have both experienced each of them, and been guilty of them in debates in the church. Both of them hinder understanding, and the advancement of the truth. Both of them leave lingering resentments.

We also have a false understanding of unity that says it means we must be in complete conformity of opinion and practice all the time. Disagreements and disputes ought never to arise among a family, or the people of God. This is conflict avoidance, and it hinders the triumph of truth.

So, I don't know how to do this. But, I know it's crucial that we do it. We need to find ways to deliberate and debate without horns and without teeth. We need to understand that good men may differ.

But, the most disheartening thing of all is that I have never seen a minister challenged on the grounds of his deviating from the truth who has been humbled, confessed his sin, and returned to the straight and narrow. I have seen men who have sinned in their behavior broken and contrite, and returned to the fold, but I have yet to see a minister chastened as to his beliefs and teachings who humbly confessed, and returned. I believe I have a pretty good grasp of church history, and even there, I can find no examples of a man whose doctrine was challenged, who admitted he was wrong. Surely someone in the course of the history of the church has indeed been wrong, and been humble enough to admit it!

So, how do we debate, discuss, and rebuke in the church? It's Monday, and per usual, I have no answers on Mondays, only questions :-)


  1. I think we should come together, write up a list of things that we agree on doctrinally, and then join together on that basis.

    If someone disagrees with a part of it, then the others should judge as to whether he should remain in ministerial communion with the group.

    If someone thinks that he is in agreement with the statement but others do not, then they should submit the question to other ministers (with appeals, if necessary). Then, when the question is resolved, all parties should submit to it.

  2. Okay, Wes, but in this fallen world, do we really believe that will resolve all difficulties?

    The issue really isn't confessionalism (the history of which is far more checkered than we would care to admit, I think), because confessionalism does not cure the human heart, the issues of both sin and short-sightedness.

    So you can be in full accord with everyone in your presbytery or denomination on matters of doctrine and practice, and still be far distant from them. You can tolerate no deviation at all from every confessional statement, and still tolerate a boatload of sinful pride and other sins that are difficult to quantify.

    If a minister cheats on his wife, that is damaging to the cause of Christ, to the church, to his family, and himself. But, it is a quantifiable act.

    But, many egregious sins are not quantifiable. What if a man is completely faithful to his wife, sexually, but is unkind and uncharitable towards her? What if a minister is completely orthodox, but is arrogant towards his church or his brothers?

    What if two good men are at odds (Paul and Barnabas)? How do we deal with these things?

    The answer cannot be a piece of paper with writing on it (short of Scripture), can it?

  3. I left off a sentence from the 3rd to last paragraph: Spiritual pride is equally (or more) damaging in many instances than a failure of full confessionalism.

    Who would do more damage in a church: a faithful Arminian brother who loves Christ and his people (like, say, Wesley himself), or a cold, arrogant Calvinist. DOn't tell me it's a false dichotomy. I know there are cold, arrogant Arminians, and warm Calvinists! Ideally, we want the warm Calvinist, of course.

    But why is it many of us are finding far more common cause with warmhearted brethren outside the PCA (T4G, Gospel Coalition, etc). Is it not because there are some serious unquantifiable sins happening in our own midst? Our own deadness? Our own heart-brokenness over the lost and the hurting? Our arrogance?

    To deny the patient (the PCA) is sick is to simply wait for her to die. If we love her, we ought to be equally concerned with quantifiable and unquantifiable sins.

    I have seen more broken adulterers and addicts than I have seen more broken proud men. Which are more serviceable to the kingdom?

  4. A bigger question is this: do we have any right to set the boundaries of church smaller than those of kingdom?

    We act as if it is a God-given right for Christians to get together, determine what it is they believe, and exclude other Christians from fellowship.

    But, we ought not to take that for granted without further thought. I am not saying it is not true, but Scripture certainly doesn't envision denominationalism, does it?

    Is God glorified by 20-some (or more) conservative Reformed denominations?

  5. If the answer to your last question (Is God glorified by 20 conservative Reformed denominations?) is "No" then isn't the next logical step, "Is God glorified by denominations?" And if the answer to that is also "No" then isn't the logical extreme of this argument, "Is God glorified by a church divided into Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox?"

    If the answer is that yes, God is pleased with denominations, then where is the line between a good split and a bad split? Can we really look around at the splits we've seen or even been part of, and honestly say that they were solidly based on biblical principles? The ones I'm familiar with were more about pride and power and getting away from certain types of people.

    Do any of us want to go so far as to question whether the Reformation itself (or at least the divisions it has caused within Christianity) was a good thing in the life of the Church? I know your answer has to be no, but sometimes I wonder . . .

  6. I probably should have posted the above anonymously so I wouldn't get thrown out of Trinity for questioning the Reformation :-)

  7. We'll keep you, Jennifer. Honest discussion is part of what Ken is rooting for!

    I very much appreciate your recognition of our flaws, Ken, and your goal of combining warmth with adherence to the truth! I think it is possible and certainly something we should aim for!

  8. All splits are lamentable.
    Some are necessary. 1 Cor 11:19
    Many are not, however!

    At the same time, Scripture (Revelation particularly) points us to a true and false church, the divide (I believe) being on the very nature of the gospel itself --hence the Reformation.

    Satan and the flesh get into even the most legitimate of divisions and uses it as a cause to stoke human pride.

    And, even within subdivided groups, you have divisions! Such is the human heart.

    That said, our heart goal should be what Jesus prayed for his disciples, "That they may be one, even as you and I are one." Someday, that will be realized, not through a bland ecumenism that papers over real differences and ignores egregious errors (like denying the resurrection), but a real unity centered upon truth.

    Until then, we ought (of course) to have a catholic spirit to all who share the core essentials of the faith, which I know opens a whole other bag of worms --what are essentials?

  9. I feel very strongly that short hair for men and long skirts for women are essentials. Also, I believe that the Bible is very clear that Christians should be quiet and somewhat reserved, certainly not artsy or outgoing or otherwise strange. And we can't forget personal cleanliness and a strong work ethic. Smart about money of course, and if they are blue collar (not prefered), then they shouldn't be part of a union and they should strongly consider going to college and becoming a professional. Regarding war, they should support just wars but not support humanitarian missions. Pro life, except when it comes to putting murderers to death. Strong on prisons and pro-War on Drugs. Anti-welfare, pro-American.

    Oh, and I guess there's also something in the Bible about "By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another."

    But I guess we can always leave that last one out if it gets to hard, as long as we hold the line on the other essential stuff.


  10. Also, why whenever this topic comes up can we not look back at our own history as Protestants and critically examine particular splits and say "here's an example of a good split for biblical reasons" and "here's an example of a bad split that hurt the cause of Christ"? What divisions after the Reformation were ok? And why does it always come down to a conclusion that favors the examiner's own particular group (i.e., Calvin was right, but the others were wrong; or if you're a Methodist, Wesley's new group was biblical but the others weren't; fundamentalists say we had to split off from the mainline denominations because they had become so rotten, ad infinitum)?

    In a marriage, we're encouraged to work through bad times when we don't like each other that much, to get past it and grow during the experience of having to love someone who you aren't very happy with or even in some cases you feel they're going in a direction that isn't biblical (i.e., he decides he's a Presbyterian and you don't feel particularly Presbyterian). But we (conservative evangelicals) don't apply that same logic to a church--for us it seems like church is more like a mall where we can skip from store to store and see which ones we like best.

  11. Jennifer,

    Aye. The sort of spirit you mention in the above is tragic.

    PRotestants, of course, ought to think critically about our own history.

    We do need to understand that the Reformers didn't set out to found denominations, and many regard it as a great tragedy that Calvinism and Lutheranism didn't merge into one stream. Wesley certainly didn't set out to found a denomination --he stayed Anglican till he died, and it is more that his followers and system didn't fit the COE, I think.

    As far as the splits in the mainline, I would be far slower to depart now than I was when I actually departed. But, the argument can be made that churches that tolerate pastors who no longer believe in the resurrection of Christ have pretty much crossed the Rubicon.

    That said, I tend to favor a pan-evangelical catholicism, whether it operates under one denominational umbrella is pretty much a separate issue. The great danger is when we believe (whoever the we is) that we have nothing to learn from other Christians. We must admit that maybe they see things that we ourselves are blind to, and, hopefully we have something to offer them as well.

    That said, evangelicalism as a whole is sick, regardless of denomination or doctrinal flavor. Maybe I'm just an antiquarian, but I like and profit from old line Methodists (and others) a lot better than many modern Calvinists! But then, I often think I was born between 200 and 75 years too late (witness theatre organ facebook pic!).

  12. Just wanted to say I think this is a great post, wise and balanced.

    Tim Keller

  13. What a discussion! Definitely your most thought-provoking blog yet, Ken. I know I don't have the answers, but this made me think of an article in a Christian magazine I read probably three or four years ago. They asked contemporary Christian music artists what the church would do if Jesus were to show up in our midst(yes, sheerly hypothetical because when He does show up, we won't really be sitting around in church). Every artist except one talked about how excited we'd be and we'd just worship so intensely. The one who differed said that we would crucify Him all over again because He would challenge all of our worship and it would anger us the way it did the Jewish leaders. I tend to be on that train of thought (though I think there might would be a few who were broken and contrite by the challenges of Christ). While I desire to worship as Biblically as possible, because I am fallen and sinful, I'll never get it completely right and I'll never have all the answers. Sometimes, my motivations are off, and sometimes even when I think my ideas are best for everyone, the depths of my heart are bent on self-service and I'm not even aware of that until much later! I think we should all remain aware of that. It's not really an answer, but maybe if we could be a bit more humble and see our brothers and sisters in Christ as literally God's children, we could have a bit more patience and hear them out. They do, after all, have the Holy Spirit too, do they not? Now, there will be issues that we cannot bend on. But even then, somehow we could find a way to not bend while still being loving and patient. My two cents, for whatever they're worth.

  14. Ken, of course there is, but honesty is a good place to start.

    However, I think those things may not be as difficult to quantify as you think. I've often been rebuked by friends and have rebuked friends for just those such things. I do think that we need to be more open and honest with one another.

    I think your post is good on that. There's no shortcut to the hard work of real relationships where we talk and communicate to one another. Sadly, I've found that there is generally a lack of will for such things.

  15. “Men must not be too curious in prying into the weaknesses of others. We should labor rather to see what they have that is for eternity, to incline our heart to love them, than into that weakness which the Spirit of God will in time consume, to estrange us.” Sibbes