Friday, February 22, 2008

“Contending for the Truth” or “Maintaining Christian Unity”?

How is the Anglican Way doing in the U.S.A.?

Do you want to engage in a special Bible Study? Here is what it is. Create two columns in your note book (paper or computer). Read through the Epistles of the New Testament, from Romans to Jude, carefully using a traditional translation (not a paraphrase or a dynamically equivalent rendering), looking for phrases and clauses, even sentences, which highlight the priority and duty of (a) contending for, defending and maintaining the Truth of the Gospel in the church; and (b) working for, defending and maintaining unity in the church.

If I have done the job reasonably well, I think I can anticipate in general terms what you will discover. Both these duties are always and everywhere required of church leaders and church members, and further, and most importantly, they are required to be done always according to the Christian virtues (that is, never done in a secular, worldly, political spirit).

Now in the Epistles we encounter apostles writing to churches which are the first ever in the places where they are planted—from Galatia to Rome. Though they had apostolic foundations or close associations, these churches faced error and immorality, from both within and without; and, further, they faced dissension and conflict over various issues. In writing to churches with such problems, the apostles did not envisage creating a secession by the “righteous remnant” and starting a new church with them in another part of town; but, they made powerful appeals both for the adherence to truth and for fellowship and unity. For the apostles, there was/is one Church of Jesus and this should have one presence in one geographical area, and in that area the one church is the microcosm of the church universal.

Against this background, it is perhaps somewhat misleading and/or dishonest to use texts calling for, say, doctrinal purity, from the Epistles in the modern western situation to support and justify secession and schism. For in doing so, the texts calling for unity, which are also most clear, are conveniently bypassed. One reason why they are so easily bypassed, or not even noticed, may be this: in modern times the Church of God has been divided and subdivided so many times by all kinds of factors, so that westerners habitually think of Christianity as existing in a multiplicity of competitive and changing denominations and groups. And such a picture is the norm for them, so that the unity of the Church as a primary reality is not part of their understanding.

In other words, to apply what seem to be simple exhortations of the Epistles to church situations in the West is usually fraught with difficulty for the rules of application are not clear and evident, and there is no general agreement as to where and how to begin. Inevitably, people often act out of their insulated, privatized judgment and such into secession and new starts because of strongly held convictions. Of course in a given, single congregation, basic rules of loving one another and the like are easy to appreciate and apply even if difficult to live by!! But, once one moves out of the local and simple into the affairs of existing denominations, and into seceding groups from such, the application of the duty to defend the truth is often directly in conflict with the duty to maintain unity. One standard popular Protestant way to avoid some of the conflict is to claim that the Church as Church is invisible, made up of individual believers who relate personally to God through Jesus, and here, it is said, there is always unity. In this way of seeing things, the visible church is the coming together of people who may or may not be in God’s eyes truly his children and truly his believers—so that many types and subdivisions in the visible churches is not really of great moment, being simply how things are in a free country.

On The Anglican Way

In general it is true to say that there has been a strong emphasis on maintaining unity in Anglicanism, at least until the mid to late twentieth century. Thus in The Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. from the 1780s to the 1960s (with the exception of the Civil War when the one Church split into two parts, later to re-unite) there was only one very small secession and that in 1873 of the evangelicals who created “The Reformed Episcopal Church.” In fact, from the late nineteenth century Anglicans lived in the light of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral which laid out four basic principles for uniting with other Christian bodies by Anglican provinces. Anglican leaders were aware of the Protestant tendencies to cause divisions and secessions and so worked hard to maintain basic Anglican Unity, based upon the autonomy and interdependence of each Province.

But from the 1970s things changed. Secession and schism gradually became as common for Anglicans in the U.S.A., as for other main-line Protestants. In 2008 the Anglican Way is not one Way but many ways (groups) often running in parallel, crisscrossing, competing with and ignoring others. And it has multi-national participation from both Africa and South America.
So, in this new situation for Anglicans, the problem of applying biblical teaching is just as difficult as it is in the vast Protestant religious market of the U.S.A. Insulated privatized judgment and claiming a priority for the Church Invisible are common themes. And, inevitably, the call to maintain “truth” wins over the call for “unity” and so the divisions are strengthened and justified. Once released, centrifugal forces will always win over centripetal ones in a modern democratic state committed to individualism and liberty.

And, here is the tragedy: (a) Once this basic American way of being the Christian church dominates the thinking and acting, there is no known way back to the ideal of truth in unity and unity in truth of the Protestant Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion of earlier times. (b) This rapid centrifugal movement of American Anglicanism is also unwittingly being much fuelled and impelled by five or more Anglican Provinces—an amazing fact! Any centripetal forces are totally eclipsed by the centrifugal ones! February 22 2008

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