Letters to a Friend is a series of posts responding to some recent comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates.
Friend says, â€œI reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about whoâ€™s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lordâ€™s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.â€
Some of the general sense of what you say strikes me as true in a way that I can affirm. I believe it is important to do what Thomas Merton suggested: attempt to create in ourselves the kind of unity that will heal divisions in the body of Christ.
I am also often deeply disturbed by the doctrinal divisions among Christians. Because I work with many non-Christians, I am aware of how these divisions discredit the gospel, and it is a matter of shame.
I also believe we need a broad view of how every Christian tradition is right and wrong in various ways. I believe we need a large â€œhumilityâ€ zone in our theological teaching, writing and, most certainly, debate.
When I look at the specifics of what you are saying, however, I find myself wanting to respond in some detail. I hope youâ€™ll bear with me as I look at parts of what you are saying and give some alternative points of view.
Itâ€™s always seemed to me that Christians disagreeing with other Christians about doctrine was a subject that resisted generalizations. We should be careful and cautious about exactly what weâ€™re saying. For example, we want scientists and politicians to debate. We assume it’s good for the process, but when Christians debate, we have some guilt and discomfort, as if it’s always wrong.
Certainly we fall tremendously short of what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and the various kinds of division among Christians have made a mockery of Jesusâ€™ words, especially those over race, nationality, between rich and poor and other ridiculous divisions. Though I canâ€™t think of many instances of Christians committing acts of violence against other Christians these days for doctrinal reasons (political reasons are a different story,) it has occurred in history.
I think, however, if we compared Christian unity with, for example, what we see among Muslims or New Agers, weâ€™d have to admit that Christians have actually achieved a remarkable amount of unity on various levels, even though they still fall short of Christ’s command. Muslims are car bombing each other over doctrine, and the New Age movement is so individualistic that each person is almost their own religion.
Christians have an entire heritage of â€œecumenical theologyâ€ that we can read in the early creeds of the churches, such as the Nicene Creed. Virtually all Christians are united in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Even churches who donâ€™t know these creeds exist generally assume the kind of beliefs those creeds proclaim. I would urge you to not overlook all the work of the early centuries of the church in achieving confessional unity at the most basic levels.
I hate to use percentages, but Iâ€™d say that out of a total collection of Christian beliefs, at least 75% of those beliefs are affirmed by the vast majority of Christians. This is no small thing. In fact, there is so much unity at the level of essential Christian beliefs, that you could not distinguish one Christian from another if you asked a group of them foundational questions.
This amount of unity is such a given that it’s easy to overlook. For example, the debates we have about the nature of the Lordâ€™s Supper can make it appear that Christians are in complete disagreement when, in fact, all of us agree about many- most?- things related to the Lordâ€™s Supper. Our disagreements are severe and painful, but we shouldnâ€™t overlook the fact that if you took the essential elements of the Supper and the words of scripture about the Supper, weâ€™d have tremendous common ground. Our disagreements begin when other issues and more theologizing takes place.
The â€œother 25%â€ of total Christian beliefs are full of the conflicts and controversies you are disturbed by, but I want to make some points about these as well. Letâ€™s use the believerâ€™s baptism versus infant baptism debate as the example to keep in mind.
For example, being aware of these controversies depends on where you are â€œstanding.â€ In many contexts, Christians can work together, worship together and minister together with no conflict over the baptism issue at all. But if you went to the right places on the internet, or to the right seminary classroom or into the right fundamentalist church at the right time, the issue would be real and alive.
Because the baptism issue is â€œragingâ€ on an internet discussion board may be a problem if atheists or unbelievers go to that board and read the discussion. But Iâ€™m pretty skeptical of the motives of someone who goes right to the place where conflict is happening. Itâ€™s not hard to find Christians standing together against abortion, feeding the hungry, providing charity to the poor or teaching kids in a mountain school. Ignoring those examples of unity and focusing on how a few Lutherans and a few Baptists argue on the internet is simply being microscopic.
In fact, those same Lutherans and Baptists, placed in churches in the same community, will not have a war or a public argument. Whatever conflict they have will be virtually invisible unless you go looking for it. They may cooperate and affirm one another far more than they disagree.
So, without disagreeing with your observation that Christian doctrinal conflict is a serious failure, I do want to say that Iâ€™m more impressed with the remarkable unity and cooperation that happens among Christians who differ doctrinally. Mark Noll has observed that there is more Catholic-Protestant unity today than there was 30 years ago because of common ground on social, political and cultural issues. Doctrine hasnâ€™t kept Catholics and Protestants apart when it comes to working for causes they both affirm, such as pro-life.
I canâ€™t keep from thinking about Pope Benedictâ€™s recent statements that the Catholic church is the true church and all Protestants are part of deficient churches. While many Protestant bloggers noted the significance of the statement, itâ€™s safe to say that the reaction of the average Catholic and Protestant in the average workplace or community was a big yawn. Such statements, which emphasize division, are largely irrelevant â€œon the ground.â€
Iâ€™ll close with a wonderful discovery I made a few weeks ago. While reading David Wright on Baptism, I discovered that an ecumenical group of Christians had produced a document on Baptism and the Eucharist that demonstrates the remarkable unity that is possible among Christians when they sit down, talk, listen and work to articulate themselves clearly and generously. Without watering down differences, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry is a remarkable expression of unity at the level of serious scholarship. Not everyone is demonstrating the kind of contentious spirit youâ€™ve seen and find distasteful and discouraging.
Next time I write, Iâ€™d like to talk about the concept of â€œinfallibility,â€ and how it is used by various groups of Christians. Itâ€™s a place where I think we have to be very clear what the term means and how it is used. I think if we understand this term, we can correct the impression you have that all Christian groups are claiming to be infallibly right.