Sunday, April 18, 2010

Disunity on Display

It was a beautiful, late summer morning, and I was driving a car full of groomsmen to my old roommate’s wedding ceremony. As we meandered through the tranquil countryside of upstate New York on the way to the church, the conversation turned to religion. The best man, sitting next to me in the passenger seat, asked about my studies in divinity school and we began talking about the differences between various Christian denominations. About halfway through our discussion, we followed Route 21 into the tiny village of Palmyra. There, at the intersection of Main and Canandaigua Streets, our eyes could not help but drift up to notice four soaring church spires that pierced the sky. On each corner of the intersection stood a different church – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal. The best man, who attended a suburban nondenominational congregation, remarked how he had never really thought about Christian disunity until he saw it dramatically displayed on that street corner.

That moment remains etched in my mind whenever I consider the importance of Christian ecumenism. As it turns out, another young man – Joseph Smith – was troubled by that very same intersection over a hundred years earlier. Born and raised in Palmyra, Smith’s frustration with the competing denominations in town contributed to his disillusionment with traditional Christianity. Thus the scandal of Christian division – embodied on a remote corner in New York – gave birth to the new religious movement of Mormonism.

What about you? Do you worship across the street from another church? What keeps us divided? How does our disunity effect our credibility or "witness" to the world?


  1. I'm not sure how big a deal this is to most people (casual believers and non-believers alike). In fact, most churches spend at least a little time *trying* to distance themselves from their more embarrassing (fundamentalist) counterparts. Think, for example, of the more liberal churches that have strongly come out in favor of "social justice" movements since Glen Beck condemned them. Or the very liberal churches that try to disassociate themselves from the homophobia of Christianity as a whole. This kind of division is necessary for respect and good standing in the community (perhaps ultimately a better "witness").

    As for the Mormonism connection, mid-19th century New York was a particular hotbed for (literally hundreds) of new (or spin-off) religious movements (e.g., the Millerites), so much so that it earned the title of "the burned-over district." Mormonism happens to be the main one (along with the Seventh-Day Adventists) that survived, as one inevitably would. (Or maybe it survived because it was true and God preserved it? Ah, there's the rub.)

  2. dum dum dum dum dum dum duuummm.

  3. Roth - absolutely amazing. I just wish they had had the four steeples in the cartoon.

    JT - I think that the Church can distance itself from some of the more extremist people by appealing to its own Gospel or fundamental beliefs. That doesn't necessarily mean that homophobes and people who hate social justice can't be part of "the Church," it just means they are out of step with its Gospel.

    Interestingly enough, Glenn Beck is a Mormon. Dum dum dum dum dum.

  4. I recently invited an old friend who is a new Christian to attend church with me, and he didn't because he doesn't like my church (or didn't when he was 15). I attend a church that is (at least seemingly) more involved in and reaching out the community than other churches in the area, but apparently that somehow alienated my friend. Interesting how we perpetuate disunity even when we don't know it.

  5. i remember you telling me about that intersection, somewhere along the way. i don't think it's fair to imply that we have mormonism because of a lack of unity on the part of the real church. this sinful world just barfs up stuff like that sometimes.

    as to what keeps us divided, i think the doctrinal differences within different traditions are important...and i'm not ready to throw them all away for "unity."

    here's another baptist thought for ya: there are people who i consider friends and brothers personally, but whose church i wouldn't do things with officially. is there a difference between personal unity and organizational unity?

    loved talking to you yesterday. do well on those papers!

  6. Morgan - exactly. the visible divisions we have grown comfortable with perpetuate disunity even when we don't know it. would mormonism still have come into being if the churches had not been so divided? it is impossible to say. but we can trust, from smith's own testimony, that it played a role in the birth of mormonism as we now know and understand it.

    Julie - while certain people have advocated "throwing away" doctrinal differences in order to achieve unity, i do not think this is necessary (more on this view later). rather, as Christians are led by the Spirit toward unity, many of our "differences" can be reinterpreted as complementary gifts that can be welcomed and received within the one Body of Christ. but in order to receive these differences as gifts, it is absolutely crucial to remain in humble conversation with one another (this was Paul Pearl's point in a comment on an early post).

    for me, a personal unity that is not at least moving toward a wider organizational unity is something less than full reconciliation - and therefore an inadequate witness to the full reconciliation we have received through Christ with God. again, this is about our lives (including our institutions) matching up to the Gospel we preach - so that the world might believe.

    anything that falls short of full, visible unity within the whole "body of Christ" ends up being a scandal. we might try to argue that we are still "one body" invisibly, but as far as everyone else can see, we are not one body at all, but a bunch of dismembered body parts.

  7. The "fundamental beliefs" are where that gets tricky. What I see all the time is Christians imposing their own best aspirations on the Bible and claiming that *those* parts are the true heart of the gospel. Well, sure. In some sense, religion can be whatever you make it.

    But the people who take the Bible most seriously and interpret it most literally are the ones who are the most obviously objectionable -- the Fred Phelps' of the world whom no reasonable person wants to associate with. And when you think about it, how is Fred Phelps any different from the God of the Old Testament?

    If you think the Bible or the Qur'an only teaches good things, you are necessarily engaged in cherry picking. And this was my point about "division" -- the church is torn between loyalty to an ancient text and various different ways of ignoring the text to abide by the modern mores which most Americans resonate with.

  8. JT – Again, this may require a longer personal discussion outside of this forum. But I think you’re right to point to the relationship between the Church and its sacred text as critical in determining what beliefs are necessary for Christian unity. I’m surprised, though, that you (as an individual) contend that Fred Phelps takes the Bible more “seriously” than the conflicting historic interpretation upheld by millions in the mainstream Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant – not to mention the Synagogue.

    For Christians, the Bible only makes sense when read within the believing community. It is authoritative as the collective memory of humanity's encounter with God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The same God (Word) who inspired people to record their encounters with the divine in Hebrew poetry, Gospel narratives, and New Testament letters (to name a few biblical genres) continues to speak through these ordinary words to individuals today. When read in faith, they are discovered to be the living and dynamic words of God.

    I cannot, as a Christian, simply read the Bible by myself, "cherry picking" the passages that I like. Rather, I stand within a tradition of interpretation (the Church), written down in creeds and passed down through the community of faith, a tradition that I believe is guided by the same God who inspired these writings to begin with.

    Of course, people are free to read the Bible in any number of other ways - as skeptic, as historian, etc. Fred Phelps can read the Bible with his congregation and come up with his own interpretations. But in so doing, they are placing themselves outside the historic boundaries of interpretation within the believing community, which has consistently read the biblical texts as a whole through the lens of the Gospel – and there discovered radically good news about God and God’s purpose for the world.

    Understood this way, the divide is not between those who impose their “best aspirations” or “American mores” on the text and those who read the text “seriously” and “literally.” It is a divide between those who read the Bible through the interpretive lens of the believing community through the ages, and those who read the Bible on their own and come to their own conclusions.

  9. Paul, I'm pretty sure this isn't going to be coherent, because I'm drunk and GirlTalk is blasting in the background, but I just read your comment and felt the need to respond.

    What you seem to be sayins is that the right interpretation of the Bible is the one that is tied to the historic Christian community. Despite the fact that the consensus of a community must again necessarily engage in the same cherry picking as an individual interpretation, I find this claim even less defensible (morally) than the first. Do you really want to align yourself with the church's historic attitudes/positions on wealth, slavery, chastity, torture, capital punishment, homosexuality, other religions, suppressing scientific endeavors, etc.? Fred Phelps doesn't stand out *at all* for the majority of the church's history, until less than 200 years ago.

    What I was doing earlier was commending the progressive church specifically for breaking away from these historic positions and embracing modern mores, even if it means reinterpreting/ignoring much of their text. And this isn't just my opinion -- we can both read the Bible, and we're both aware of what's written there in black and white.

    I'm not trying to just attack the Bible here. If millions of people were using the Iliad as a moral lifestyle guide, I'd point out its flaws too. There's a lot of great stuff in the Bible, my point is that it's not consistent and the bad parts are really bad (both inherently and due to their consequences in the real world).

    Looking forward to chatting on Skype this Wednesday. Take care Paul.

  10. JT - As I said, you are free to read the Bible as an individual and "point out flaws" (as you see and interpret them).

    The interpretation of the Bible within the historic Christian community is not static as you imply - it is ongoing and dynamic, responding to the unique challenges of each age. The attitude of the believing community toward various social issues must constantly be measured against its interpretation of the Bible, centered in the Gospel. For this reason, the social positions of the Church have evolved over the years - not in order to "embrace modern mores", but in order to be faithful to its own interpretation of the Gospel. This, of course, only makes sense within the community that views the Gospel as authoritative, and understands itself as being led into all truth by the Holy Spirit.

    Talk to you more on Wednesday.

  11. Yes, of course the church's interpretation of the Bible is not static (or unified). I would never argue about this. In fact, I would fully agree with it.

    I also agree that a lot of things change if you adopt the Bible (or any text, really) as "authoritative," so perhaps a better initial discussion would be about what reasons we have to think that the Bible is authoritative, supernaturally influenced in some way, or any different from the Qur'an, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. But this conversation strays so far from the topic of your blog that we best leave it to Skype.

    SEE you tonight. Misses + kisses