A Fractured Church, Part 1

A Fractured Church, Part 1 January 25, 2012

Fellow blogger Darcy recently wrote a post in which she chided her friends and family for their concern at her spiritual state because she’s been reevaluating many of the core doctrines of Christianity. She assured her readers that just the fact that she believes the world is older than 6,000 years old does not mean that she no longer has a relationship with Jesus. And so on. This made me think once again about how extremely petty Christians can be. The sad thing is, it seems like, in an ideal world, it wouldn’t have to be this way. Let me explain.

When I started having strife with my parents, it was over issues like evolution and abortion, not over whether or not Jesus had died for my sins or whether or not God loved mankind or anything like that. As I’ve said before, it seems to me that my parents had all sorts of add-ons to the core of Christianity. If you were a “Christian” you also had to hold specific beliefs about global warming, about spanking, about male headship, about economics, and on and on. If you held a “wrong” belief in one of these areas, even if you claimed to still be following Jesus, your very salvation was in question.

This is so not new, though, because while the add-ons of things like capitalist economics and global warming may be novel, the add-ons of specific doctrinal points is not. After the Reformation, Christians killed each other over just how salvation worked, over whether or not communion bread and wine actually became Jesus’ body and blood, over when people should be baptized, and on and on and on. If you stepped outside of your parents’ faith and joined an opposing Christian sect, you faced being disowned and losing all of your friends.

But even this was not new. The early Christians argued over whether or not Christ was divine, and if he was, in what way he was divine. This controversy went on for hundreds of years, with Christians denouncing each other as heretics, until the emperor of Rome called a church counsel to decide the issue. This wasn’t the only issue early Christians argued over, either. The early church only became united behind one doctrinal position – the Nicene Creed – when Rome made Christianity the official religion of Rome and the emperors tired of Christian leaders squabbling and forced them to agree. The result was the Catholic Church. Those who still disagreed, both at the time and in the hundreds of years to follow – and there were many – were branded as heretics and persecuted.

But once again, the squabbles that tore the early church apart in the first few hundred years of Christianity were not new either. If you read the book of Acts, and portions of other New Testament books as well, you will find that even the apostles could not agree with each other. They denounced each other as heretics (though they didn’t use that word yet) and squabbled over everything from circumcision to eating meat.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that his followers would “be one” (John 17). That sure didn’t last very long. In fact, it has essentially never been the case at all.

And so yesterday, I asked myself what the core, the very bottom core, of Christianity is. What is it that every Christian, liberal and conservative, Calvinist and Catholic, Trinitarian and Gnostic, Pauline or Petrine could agree on. The answer I came up with was this:

Something was amiss between God and mankind, so God sent Jesus to earth to mend it, and he succeeded in this mission. Those who follow God are to emulate Jesus and be known for their great love.

There. Two sentences. It took just two sentences! That, it seems to me, is the core of Christianity. That is something that every Christian, liberal and conservative alike, should be able to agree with.

So I have to wonder. Why all the fighting, squabbling, and strife over all the add-ons? Why can’t Christians just “be one” like Jesus wanted, united behind this core and understanding of other differences?

It seems to me that the reason Christians disagree so strongly on so many points, linking them all to their religious beliefs, is that Christianity is in some sense unclear on those points. If the Bible and church history were 100% clear on the issue of communion, there would be no disagreement. If the Bible and church history were 100% clear on how the world came into being, there would be no disagreement. And so on. I wish that Christians could just accept that there is disagreement on these points, and that the Bible and church history are unclear, and leave it at that. Everyone could hold their own personal convictions on these issues without sacrificing the unity of Christianity.

I heard all the time that Christianity was about having a “relationship” with Jesus. It seems to me that if that was the core of Christianity I presented above should be all that is required. For most people, though, Christianity is much much more than a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is a carefully structured and laid out belief system, and within Christianity there are many of these, each differing from the others. There is the Catholic belief system, the Orthodox belief system, the fundamentalist belief system, the reformed belief system, and so on. Some of these belief systems may share commonalities, but they also differ from each other on numerous points. One thing that happens with these belief systems is that they become ingrained in culture. In early Catholic immigrant cultures, rejecting Catholicism was synonymous with rejecting your community and family. The same was true for the earlier Puritans, and the same is true in most fundamentalist circles today. For all of these people, Christianity is most certainly not simply about a relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is about a common belief system and a common culture.

Some Christians, like Darcy, have a problem with that. They don’t see Jesus as tied to any one economic system or any one political party or any one understanding of science. In fact, more and more Christians are expressing a dissatisfaction for the church as it currently exists. Darcy put it like this:

Can you listen to my heart, my friends, for a moment? I’ve lost faith in church as we know it. I’m disillusioned with American Christianity. I value relationship over religion and religion has been ruining relationships for me. I walk into a church and come out feeling like something is very wrong. Conservative churches are too uptight, too rigid, too fear and shame-based. Modern churches are very fake. I don’t do fake. But within these church structures are good people, awesome people, and I’m trying to figure out how to be in relationship with these people without conforming to the insitution of “church”. Because that institution is killing my soul. The church was always meant to be an organic body of people who are defined and recognized by their love for others. Not a building where we go to “do church”. Not a mission statement or a deacon board or a congregational meeting or budgets or programs or membership classes or the perfect worship team. I walk into most churches and I see a business. I am not satisfied with that. If you are, great. That’s where you’re at and I’m glad you’re happy. Don’t judge me because I’m not.

I cannot tell you how many friends I have who grew up in evangelical or fundamentalist circles and are not satisfied. They see the pettiness and they are not okay with it. And what’s fascinating is that they are not loners, but are rather part of a movement, often called the Emerging Church movement.

The emerging church is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st century that crosses a number of theological boundaries. Proponents believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.

I am especially encouraged by this part:

Some Emerging Church Christians believe there are radically diverse perspectives within Christianity that are valuable for humanity to progress toward truth and a better resulting relationship with God, and that these different perspectives deserve Christian charity rather than condemnation.

If I were still a Christian, I would be a part of this movement. One of the things I found repelling about my parents’ beliefs, and then the beliefs of other churches I tried, such as teh Catholic Church, was how stifling Christianity could be. More than anything else I hate dogma and I love questions and the ability to be open, and I appreciate this in the Christian friends I have who have moved in this direction. I don’t know what will happen to the Emerging Church – it may devolve into pettiness like essentially every other Christian movement ever in existence has – but I do know I will be watching with interest. If every Christian could be as open as these, perhaps Jesus’ vision of his followers united could at last come to pass – and perhaps Christians would have a better reputation.

I’ve said before that I’m an atheist because basic Christian doctrine ceased to make sense to me. This is true. Even the core of Christianity I described above does not make sense to me. Even the existence of God himself seems much more unlikely than likely. Even as I appreciate the rejection of dogma and acceptance of questions I see in some of the Christians around me, especially those in my own age group, I will not return to faith because I quite simply cannot.

In my next blog post I will explain how the very fracturing of the church itself contributed to my inability to believe.

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