Churches of Christ in Decline: In Answer to Brent

Jesus Christ on the Cross Pictures | Free Christian WallpapersBrent wrote,

In ECF theology, the different aspects of the tradition supported each of the other aspects and together were “One”. The Reformation broke the unity of the tradition.

This is not good history, for several reasons. Before the Reformation, there had already been several schisms — Orthodoxy vs. Roman Catholic, Nestorian, Monophysite, etc. And they all damned each other — often for reasons that seem incomprehensible to us today.

Even during New Testament times, we see division caused by the Judaizing teachers who insisted that Gentile converts become Jews in order to become Christians. You see, even with for-real apostles walking the earth and leading the church, Satan effectively produced division. The Reformation was not the beginning of division.

In ECF theology, the different aspects of the tradition supported each of the other aspects and together were “One”.  The Reformation broke the unity of the tradition.  So now what?  Bury our heads in the sand?  I’m good at that, but it doesn’t feel right.  How do we reason that our current treatment of scripture and “tradition” is pleasing to God?  This has to be reasoned, and I don’t know how to do it alone.  I am not sure that the scriptures give the answers to this question because they are only a part of the original tradition.  What can I read that will help me?

Thanks for a profound question. The answer is found throughout the New Testament. You see, it’s not about a common liturgy, a common understanding of communion, or a common system of church government. It’s not even about a common canon of scripture. After all, the apostolic church had no New Testament to agree on. They had a Messiah.

It’s all about a common faith in a common Lord.

John 3:18 (ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

And there is great consensus that Jesus is the Messiah!

Next, it’s about allowing God, through his Spirit, to reshape our lives by faith. And no tradition, old or new, has a monopoly on that, and every tradition struggles to live the faith they teach.

Those who want to push ritual (liturgy) or whatever as the key to unity totally miss the boat. Unity is found only in Jesus.

John 17:20–23 (ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 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. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 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.”

How do we become “perfectly one” with Jesus and God and each other? By a shared liturgy? Through church councils? By reading the church fathers and looking for commonalities? By agreeing on Revelation 19 and the 1,000-year reign? No. We become one by all becoming like God.

Ephesians 5:1–2 (ESV) 5 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

We become like God by becoming like Jesus. We become like Jesus by loving as he loved — sacrificially, surrendering ourselves for others, by becoming living sacrifices. Romans 12 – 15 is commentary on exactly that thought. So is the Sermon on the Mount.

We want to make this about other stuff, because other stuff is easier. I’d rather argue about the canon and whether it’s open or closed, Ignatius and monarchical bishops and whether bishops were meant to be diocesan by God’s will not fully revealed until later through the early church fathers — anything rather than talk about surrendering myself for others.

But it’s not about diocesan church government or consubstantiation or predestination or even whether we agree on the canon. “Faith” is faith in Jesus, not the Bible. Not the ecumenical councils. Not Clement of Alexandria.

And so it’s simple, and the only thing that could possibly unite us has to be simple: Believe in Jesus, submit to him as Lord, and by the power of the Spirit in you, seek to become like him — in community — with other believers who are walking the same path, struggling with the same struggles. And you’ll find unity — even if you disagree over the Nestorian controversy.

Now, you see, I’ve dodged the question about the canon — but that’s for a reason — a good one, I think. We have readers here commenting about open and closed canons, the meaning of inspiration, the boundaries of authority — all sorts of fascinating questions, but questions that have next to nothing to do with whether we are one in Jesus.

And I want to emphasize that. We are not arguing about who is saved. Some want to damn those who question inerrancy or the canon. Some want to damn those who disagree about the Spirit or inspiration. (And, trust me, I have strong opinions on all these issues.)

But here’s the reason the church split over Judaizing teachers, and the Filioque, and the Nestorian controversy, and Calvinism — it’s because someone decided that faith in Jesus is not good enough, indeed, merely loving others and giving of oneself for the cause of the Messiah won’t do.

The Judaizing teachers insisted on Jesus + circumcision. Paul called them damned. Others want Jesus + the five points of Calvinism. Or Jesus + a cappella music. Or Jesus + church tradition. Or Jesus + submission to church authorities. And they are all dangerously close to being  where the Judaizing teachers ended up. You see, Jesus+ divides God’s people. Jesus+ makes Christianity too hard to agree on. Jesus+ can even damn.

And here’s the wonderful thing. We here disagree over many things. I’m not likely to agree with Charles on an open canon, but I’ll enjoy the discussion (because it’s Charles and he’s growing to be like Jesus), and we’ll be brothers even after we disagree. And I’m not likely to agree with Alexander on the authority or inspiration of the early church fathers, but I’ll enjoy the discussion (because it’s Alexander and he’s growing to be like Jesus), and we’ll be brothers even after we disagree.

And so there’s no division, even though we disagree over the meaning of “authority,” “inspiration,” “canon,” and so on. But none of these things are my Lord and Savior. None sits on the throne of heaven ruling the universe, and so none is my king. I know whom I serve, and therefore know whom and what I do not.

Charles, Alexander, and I serve the same king, and I believe we none other. Thus, we are united — in Jesus.

And so long as we keep the king on his throne with no one else, and never insist on Jesus+, and as long as we all struggle to become more and more like him, we’ll be one — or as close to one as we’ll find this side of the Second Coming.

One final note: I understand the appeal many find in Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s ancient. It has roots going back to the apostles. It’s filled with mysticism. And it teaches some profound truths. And I’m sure I have brothers and sisters among the Orthodox. But I’m not a fan.

The Orthodox don’t consider those outside Orthodoxy to be saved — except in the begrudging sense that you find among some Churches of Christ, that is, “Well, maybe God in his mercy will save their souls, but we can’t fellowship them as Christians in this life.” I find that attitude deeply wrongs on the lips of a Church of Christ preacher, and it’s just as wrong coming from an Orthodox priest.

And the Orthodox consider the Orthodox church to be co-equal with “the church.” Again, it sounds just like the Churches of Christ who refer to their sect as “the Lord’s church” or “the brotherhood,” denying the salvation of all others. This is deadly sin.

I have other complaints, but you see, this one is at the heart of faith. This attitude the Orthodox have held for centuries more than adequately explains the first several divisions among Christians — separation over all sorts of disagreements having nothing to do with whether Jesus is Messiah and Lord.

Why would I want to flee legalism to join legalism? Not interested.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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