Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Denominations, not Divisions

This October 31st will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Likely, Martin Luther had no idea that the actual date of his nailing the 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517 would be remembered as the beginning date of a movement.  

Certainly, there were other reformers prior to Martin Luther. John Wyclif (or Wycliffe if you prefer), more than a century earlier, had defied Church law and translated the Latin Vulgate into English so that the common people could read God’s word.  He argued that it was the scriptures that were the only truly reliable guide to our Christian religion and he rejected the Papacy as being non-biblical.  

John Hus, a contemporary to John Wyclif was tried for heresy and burned at the stake for speaking out against the worldliness of the church.  More than 150 years later, Pope Paul III would call together the Council of Trent that ultimately would largely agree with Hus regarding the worldliness of the church.

Nevertheless, this 500th anniversary of the ‘official’ start of the Reformation has mixed reviews.  For every theologian and historian that is enthusiastic over the establishment of Scripture as being the final authority in all matters of faith, there are just as many that look to what the same Scriptures have to say about divisions and schisms within the church.   The Bible says we are to be united and that there should be no divisions.   How can we celebrate something that created many lasting divisions in the Body?

I prefer to think of the Protestant Reformation more as a revival of the Church.  

Revivals are movements that occupy a place and time and are more like waves than tsunamis.  This revival had an impact as well on what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church, institutionalizing and formalizing the doctrines of Transubstantiation and fixing the number of sacraments at seven.  The same Council of Trent that rejected the Reformers teaching on Sola Fide¸ agreed that it was a disgrace to sell indulgences. 

While many think these disagreements over doctrine and practice have created divisions, I prefer to use the word denominations.   

Denominations are not bad necessarily as by definition a denomination is just a replica, a subset of the whole.   You may think that mine may be an odd definition but look inside your wallet.  Do you have money inside that has divisions or denominations?   The five-dollar bill is backed by the same faith and confidence of the US Government as the ten-dollar bill.  In fact, if you have two five-dollar bills they are identical in literally every way to the ten-dollar bill except in the fact that they are two subsets of the one.

True unity in the Church happens every time we recognize that if we are clinging to the Vine, and a believer in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we are a full member of the Body of Christ and not just a member of a group of religious adherents to a denomination.   If you want to lament the event that marks the beginning of the Reformation on October 31, 1517 you’ll have trouble reconciling the true history of the church with its many schisms, changes, abuses and self-centered leaders as well as its triumphs, successes, reforms and saints.

Let’s embrace what truly makes us one and celebrate the Reformation that revived the Body of Christ.   Today, 2,000 years after Pentecost, we have taken the gospel around the world and there are more than 2 billion people that identify themselves with Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Friday, January 20, 2017

True Christian Unity

This past Tuesday, January 18th at the beginning of this traditional “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”  I read an interesting article by Catholic Deacon Steven Greydanus in the National Catholic Register.  

Now before I tell you about that article, you may find it odd, or perhaps refreshing that an Evangelical Pastor with degrees in divinity from a Baptist Seminary would be reading the National Catholic Register.   However, I find it most appropriate as our mission at Faith Dialogue is to grow the unity of the Body of Christ through the proclamation of the one Gospel.

In this well written article, Deacon Steven ask the question “What do we pray for when we pray for Christian unity?”   

It’s a great question and Deacon Steven talks about two very important elements which are faith, and love.    That we have unity of our faith but are also bound by true Christian charity, which is love.

Deacon Steven is correct and I would like to add that it’s good to ask this WHAT question but did you know that the Bible in talking specifically about Christian unity, answers the important questions of HOW we achieve unity and also the motivational question of WHY unity is important in the Body of Christ?

Let’s look again at the scripture verses in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17 beginning in verse 20

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity

In these verses Jesus tells us the HOW,   Jesus says that JUST AS He was in the Father and the Father was IN HIM so should we be in the Godhead.     Now of course this is a mystery but Jesus gives us an illustration of the same when He talks about the vine and the Branches in John 15

"Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, it is he that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." John 14:3&4

When we abide with Christ, when we identify with his Life, his Death and Resurrection, when we spend time with him daily and seek him with all of our heart we can be said to be “IN CHRIST”   The Apostle Paul gives us insight into the phrase “in Christ” and what it means.

"In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."Galatians 3:26-28

Isn’t it interesting that the very verses that Paul writes to the Galatians about being in Christ also give us another picture of unity in the Church, “Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

But there are still Jews and Gentiles, we are still male or female…..those distinctions remain but what the Apostle Paul is saying is that it’s in-this-diversity-we-can-still-have-unity.

Unity through diversity….now that’s a good thought.

You see one of the reasons we have this week of unity is because for most of the church, for fifty-one out of fifty-two weeks at least, we don’t see unity.  Now the problem has been ours as all too often, the way we have tried to create unity is through conformity.   Conformity is actually something we think of when we think of the religious cults.   However for us as well….dressing alike, conforming our doctrines, worship styles, liturgies, celebrations and even yes our sacraments doesn’t bring unity….it actually identifies our differences.

On a personal level, when I have the opportunity to visit a church and I stand up on the platform and look out and see black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old….in that diversity I see unity.   Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, free….all are one in Christ.

So the HOW is through being one in Christ.   The closer we get to Christ, the closer we will get to one another.   As pastors and leaders, we teach this often in marriage classes.  If a couple, a man and a woman each seek to get close to God, they get close together.  They pray together, they worship together, they are one in Christ.

I said earlier that these verses in John not only tell us HOW we can achieve unity but also WHY.

Let’s turn to the why and we’ll look at the verses again: Jesus prays that we would be one TWICE and he ends these verses with the words, “ So that the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:23)

Did you catch that?   Did you get it?   Jesus says that the reason, the WHY, the hope of Jesus in this prayer is that we would be one SO THAT the world will know that the Father has sent his one and only son because he loved us even as he loves His son

Sounds like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven he gave us two commands.  One is called that Great Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as your yourself.

Just as importantly, he gave us the Great Commission

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19)

True Christian unity….not some forced conformity to rites, rituals, styles or even doctrines but unity in Christ and embracing the diversity of our traditions is very attractional.  When we are one, when we appear united, we attract those that want to know what it is that makes us one.

The Apostle Peter said, “and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, (1 Peter 3:15). Some of the fastest growing churches in the country have two things in common.  The first is that they are very orthodox and I use that term in the true sense of its meaning:

They adhere closely to the major tenants of the Christian faith that we find in the Nicene Creed going back 1700 years…..Faith in a triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the belief that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in fulfillment of the scriptures, that he suffered and died for our sins, that he rose on the third day and that he is coming back again.

The second is that these Churches tend to major on the majors and minor on the minors.  All too often churches are quick to tell you how they are different than all others.  These growing churches however tell you about Jesus.  They don’t see other churches down the street and around the corner as competition but as acceptable outposts of the same church, the Body of Christ.

When we are one in Christ, we are the Body of Christ.   Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Pentecostal and nondenominational…we are one.   When we go out and make disciples, we don’t make them disciples of our local churches or local pastors but we make them disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let the church say Amen

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