Tuesday, 14 June 2016
Truth, Unity, Humility & Grace
There are two big lessons to learn from church history. The first is that people never learn from church history. The second is that living in unity has been a problem all the way from the New Testament to the 21st Century.
I've been working with Paul's letter to the Galatians a lot over the past few months and a major issue raising its head as soon as Gentiles started joining churches in significant numbers was that Jewish Law blocked Jews and non-Jews from eating together. Basically it would have meant two separate churches: one containing Jewish Christians, one containing non-Jewish Christians, plus a few people who made sacrifices to break the boundaries. Paul hated that: there is one Jesus, there is one body, one people of God, undivided.
It has been particularly abhorrent to me therefore that there are 21st Century churchgoers who will refuse to receive communion with other churchgoers because of their views on particular hot-button issues - often claiming adherence to 'Biblical values' as their justification. Do they not read those Bibles?
The challenge is to combine unity with truth. If I sincerely believe the person next to me at the altar rail is living an immoral life, shouldn't I be making a stand? Actually I'm not sure 'sincerity' has a lot to do with truth: I can sincerely believe that the world is flat but that doesn't make it true. If it comes to that, the sincerity of my belief that the world is round (more or less) doesn't make a lot of odds to whether that belief is true either.
As I write it's only a couple of days since the atrocity in Orlando, so I'll skip that particular issue and go with something else which bugs me.
I believe that when God made man out of the dust of the ground he used evolution to do it. For me God's word and God's handiwork are in clear agreement.
However, I have no problem with those who say that God created the world exactly as described by a mechanistic reading of Genesis 1; that he created dinosaur bones because, let's face it, dinosaurs are cool and God wanted the best for us; and that the mechanical inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are down to our limited understanding and we just have to trust God. I'm all in favour of trusting God, that's what faith is all about.
Where I do have a problem is with people like the 'Creation Science Movement' and 'Answers in Genesis' who go way beyond that, raising towering edifices of intellectual speculation which not only go far beyond either science or Scripture, but actually end up contradicting both. They really wind me up. But what pushes me to the edge is when they follow up by saying that anyone who believes in anything different is not a Bible-believing Christian and that disbelieving their particular interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is tantamount to disbelieving the Gospel.
Some years back a couple came along to a housegroup I was leading pushing this view hard. I was fine so long as they simply stated their opinion, but as soon as they started rubbishing other views I had to point out that many faithful Bible believing Christians had different approaches to understanding what the Bible says on this topic, and that the mainstream orthodox Christian view on the matter is, and generally has been throughout history, considerably more nuanced than the approach they were pushing so determinedly.
Truth matters and they were moving beyond legitimate (if irritating) opinion and interpretation into downright falsehood. The Gospel is about God's love shown through Jesus, crucified and raised. Anyone can put their faith in that, irrespective of their beliefs, or lack of, in evolution, special creation, Noah's flood, or pretty much anything else in the Old Testament. Not that I don't think the Old Testament is important - I do -but Jesus and his amazing news is where new life is at.
They didn't come back, but if they had they would have been welcomed (possibly with an internal wince); I'd happily have eaten with them at the next housegroup social; and I did share communion with them next time it came around. Truth matters, and sometimes (but not always) needs to be stated, but disagreements don't have to break community.
Part of that is about humility and God's grace. I know I get things wrong, both in belief (my beliefs on some issues have moved a fair way over the past twenty years) and in terms of moral behaviour (try reading the Sermon on the Mount openly and honestly), but I come to the communion table acknowledging my failure and depending on the Grace of God, through Jesus. If I do that for myself, surely I have to allow the same Grace for the person next to me. If I think they have faults which I don't happen to share that makes no difference, I doubtless fail in areas where they succeed.
Mealy-mouthed Pharisaisms about my sin being repented and theirs not are just poor and arrogant excuses - Jesus paid the price, not me.
Are there limits? What about Westboro Baptist 'Church', obscenely gloating after the Orlando shooting? If I reckon (as I do) that WBC has nothing at all to do with Jesus, or with the body of Christ, how is that different from the person I recently spoke to who thought the same about the Roman Catholic Church? To be fair, he did make a distinction, which I would tend to agree with, between the organisation and some of its members.
There certainly are limits to my tolerance and willingness to associate with those who so strongly deny and oppose in all they do Jesus and his Gospel. Are there similar limits to God's forgivess and Grace? I doubt it, but God's God and I'm not.
In the end we all have to wonder in humility at the grace shown by God, through Jesus, and do all we can to live in the tension of truth and unity, recognising that we fail but trusting the God who loves us anyway.