How To Create Church Fights

How To Create Church Fights September 1, 2015

Denominational Christianity is a safety-valve. When things get too hot in a congregation, one or the other party leaves and starts its own church. Pressure reduces. Over time, the divided parties might even make up after a fashion. Denominational Christianity seems a peace treaty.

Lesslie Newbigin, a leader in the creation of the reunited Church of South India (CSI), concedes the point (Reunion of the Church). Under that scheme, there was to be only one congregation in each town and villages; churches that were once Presbyterian, Anglican, or Methodists, and members who were once “Syrian, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist” (12) all joined into a single congregation. 

Newbigin admits that it would have been easier, apparently more peaceful, if they had all kept to themselves: “It would save the Church many of the strains and stresses, those party disputes and struggles for power which now often disfigure its congregational life. It would perhaps make possible at once a more dignified and orderly congregational life” (13). Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists didn’t she their old selves or convictions or scruples, and pushing them together created “strain and stress within the congregation . . . quarrels [that] are frequent and often bitter” (13). A member of a CSI congregation may know nothing about the niceties of Anglican or Presbyterian liturgy or theology, but he knows about reunion because “he is familiar with the spectacle of a quarrel in the Church, or real or imagined issues being made the occasion for party spirit, of the slow and difficult process of repentance and reconciliation as the village elders or the pastor plead again to both warring parties the sacrifice of Christ” (14).

We can draw this hypothesis: If you want more and more intense church fights, reunite divided churches.

Yet Newbigin argues that the reunion was actually a reunion, and it was so despite the quarrels a reunited church is a plausible witness to the gospel. Reunion has the advantage of exposing division “for the sinful things they are, for a quarrel in a Christian congregation is such a plain and open contradiction of the Gospel” (14). Denominationalism papers over sinful divisions with a veneer of mutual indifference or cool friendliness. It does not encourage the deep and difficult work of reconciliation.

Further: If the churches had taken the easy way and kept to themselves, they would have accepted defeat on the main issue.” By keeping to themselves because of their differences, they would have demonstrated that “common membership in Christ is not by itself enough to hold men together in one fellowship” (13). By maintaining fellowship in the midst of bitter disputes, “men are driven back to Christ and compelled to ask themselves again and again how much it matters that Christ died for them.” They are driven again and again “to this fundamental fact, that Christ died for them and for their friends and for their enemies – for on no other fact can the common life of the congregation hold together” (14).

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