Tag: Evangelicalism

Holy Communion: A Plea for Congregational and Ecumenical Unity

Holy Communion: A Plea for Congregational and Ecumenical Unity

Before I begin discussing the importance of Christian unity and our call to work toward it, let me be clear by saying first that I think it is dangerous to pursue unity at all costs. There are, to be sure, things worth dividing over. Think, for example, of Paul’s remarks to the church at Corinth concerning immorality (1 Cor. 5) and likewise his message to the Galatians over the issue of adding “works of the law” to their faith in Christ (Gal.1:8). For Christians, truth is important, and the church must hold fast to conviction. The fact is that there is such a thing as heresy, and we cannot afford to compromise what is essential to Christianity. Therefore, in extreme cases, division might very well be healthy. In other words, we do not pursue unity at all costs.

That said, I fear that if we are not careful as Christians, we will not give proper weight to the important role unity must play in the life of the church as well. I fear that we Protestants, who have protest running through our veins, might be tempted to forget that, in addition to being called to contend for the Faith (Jude 1:3) even to the point of division if necessary, are also called to foster and work toward visible unity among others who reside in the Faith. This includes working toward unity not just within our local congregations (a very important component to our calling), but also with those of other orthodox Christian traditions.

It is in Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17 where we see most clearly why unity is important. Jesus prays,

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIV)

Jesus’ prayer here reveals his desire for his people: unity. Oneness with both God and each other is his will. Why is unity important? It is important for the church because of a watching world. When unity exists in the church, among the people of God, then, says Jesus, “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (v.23).” The clear point here is that there is a missional consequence to having (or lacking) visible unity.

One of the most powerful ways to bear witness, that is, to proclaim Good News, to the world is to bear the marks of Christian unity. As I said above, the world is watching. They watch how we act and how we interact; they listen when we talk with, and when we balk against, one another. The fundamental question, therefore, that we need to be asking as Christians is not, Are we representing Christ to the world?, but rather, How are we representing Christ to the world? To be sure, we are always putting Christ on public display. The question, then, is, Are we bringing glory or disdain to him as we display him?

As we eavesdrop on Jesus’ conversation with the Father, perhaps we could afford to do a good checkup on ourselves: How committed are we to local, congregational unity? Are we actively engaged in seeking oneness in our congregations, or are we sacrificing our brothers and sisters on the altar of self-absorption? Are we even committed to a local body of believers? Likewise, we must also ask, How committed are we to true, ecumenical unity? Do we see ourselves, our particular tribe and denomination, as part of a larger body of believers, or do we arrogantly shut our ears to meaningful dialogue and communion with others who worship in other Christian traditions? A self-checkup begins, I think, by evaluating our prayer life. Are we prayerfully making war against the principalities and rulers of this present age that are working to ensure a spirit of disunity in both the local and catholic Body of Christ?

In light of the rugged individualism, as well as the lust for personal autonomy, that so permeates much of evangelical culture in the West, it is necessary that we pay close attention to Jesus’ prayer above. When Jesus says, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (vv. 20-21), the Lord’s heart could not be more clear: the church is called, indeed commissioned, to be just as unified with each other as Jesus is to the Father. His heart is “that [the church] may be one as we are one(v.22). A question, I think, which ought to be considered is, Can this be said of today’s church? It seems that the contemporary church has advocated for too long a sort of “Christian” reductionism. That is to say, in much of what is considered Protestantism, a person’s Christian identity has been reduced down to nothing but one’s personal relationship with Christ. The Christian Faith, it seems, to many Evangelicals in particular is nothing more than a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ. To be sure, an individual relationship with Jesus is important, but what about a relationship with the church? Much of Evangelicalism, in what I consider to be a betrayal of historic Protestantism itself, has unfortunately emphasized the former to the demise of the latter. We have, in other words, driven an unscriptural wedge between “having a relationship with Jesus” and “having a relationship with the church.” For many American Protestants, for example, church is not essential. In our consumer-driven culture, church has become an optional choice. “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” many say to me. My response to this, not least as a pastor, is simple: I wonder whether a branch can have any life without being attached to a vine?

I wonder, too, if church-less Christianity is even scriptural. As it has been said many times over, the New Testament knows of no lone-ranger, church-less Christian (except, of course, in those cases where a believer is put outside the church in an act of discipline; see 1 Cor. 5). And even in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, notice again what is said: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in meso that they may be brought to complete unity” (vv.22-23). It is fairly evident, I think, that the Lord himself sees a Christian’s unity with other Christians as part and parcel with what it means to be united to him and, through him, with the Father. That is, a person would be hard-pressed to say they can have a viable relationship with Jesus without, at the same time, expressing that in unity with the church. A person, it seems, cannot effectively have one without the other. It must be said, then, that even though rugged individualism and self-consumed autonomy finds welcome space in much of today’s evangelical culture, one must confess that it finds no warrant in Christian Scripture.

It is important for Christians–for me, you, and believers everywhere–to work toward, and pray for, Christian unity. This includes attaching and committing ourselves to a band of believers in  our local area. But Christian unity does not happen magically when we join a group. The real work happens, rather, when we live and pray and cry and laugh and mourn and lament together. These opportunities happen in the various seasons of life, seasons which, through their coming and going in the passing of time, become real only in a long journey together. Thus, Christian unity can only be fostered through time(s) with one another. In other words, we will need to commit to the church for the long-haul. And the same must be said on the ecumenical front. We will not always agree with one another on every secondary issue, and I am not even suggesting that we should, but the Lord’s prayer is that everyone within the world-wide Holy Communion would welcome and receive one another just as he himself has already received us, namely, with much grace and patience.

Let us pray and work, therefore, toward our Lord’s vision. Amen.

Evangelicalism and Anti-intellectualism: Two Proposals

American evangelicalism remains an interesting segment of the greater Christian tradition. I personally think that conservative evangelicalism is being reshaped in this country, not least due to the recent political questions and debates that have emerged (see here for what I am talking about). This is not, in my mind, a bad thing, though time will tell if this “reshaping” is going to result in something good or not. We shall see. At any rate, what has become particularly interesting to me is how evangelicals view the role of education in the life and practice of the church. I plan to muse a bit more on this subject down the road, but I want to flesh out some preliminary and provisional thoughts, as well as some observations I have made personally over the past several years.

Here is my thesis: The American evangelical church has a strong tendency toward anti-intellectualism. I am by no means the first to recognize this. But presently, I want to discuss why our anti-intellectual bias is a bad thing—a terribly bad thing.

Over the years, I have heard things like, “Theological education will take the evangelistic zeal out of you” or “Learning about the history of the Bible is not what being a Christian is all about.” I even once heard a person say, “You may read the Bible in Greek, but I read it in the Holy Spirit.”

Huh? I’m not even sure what to do with that last one!

I have come to learn that these reactions are actually based upon more underlying problems within conservative evangelicalism, namely, a stunted view of the life of the mind. It was Mark Noll who said, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He was correct. It is all the more unfortunate that anti-intellectualism has become a sort of modus operandi for the church. For example, in some evangelical traditions, people need not prepare to become a pastor; the only requirement is to be “called.” If they are “called,” then that is all that matters. I think this can be dangerous. Interestingly, most people prefer going to a medical doctor who has been educated, someone who has set aside years of their life to study medicine, chemistry, and physiology. I’m sure that God could miraculously equip a person with the knowledge needed to become a medical doctor overnight, “calling” him or her to the medical field; I suspect, however, that he uses other means to equip them—specifically, the discipline to work hard through years of medical school. We applaud our medical doctors for having devoted years to research, study, and practice, but when it comes to matters concerning the evangelical church, education matters little. (I wonder if this is not due, at least in part, to the fact that evangelicals have grown obsessed with “quick fixes” and have little motivation for things that take time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears—things like education.)

Of course, formal education is expensive these days, and so I understand why it is often out of reach for most people, not to mention ministers (perhaps we ought to do something about this?). I am not at all saying that those who are formally educated are better or smarter than those who are not; there have been notable and influential people, after all, who were self-educated. Formal education is neither here nor there; but education itself remains important. After all, our anti-intellectual leanings present a noticeable problem for conservative evangelicals, one that comes with dire consequences. One of those consequences is that evangelicals come off looking silly or confused or both—and that before an unbelieving world. Making statements like the ones quoted above betrays our calling to excellence. As a result, our witness comes off as being irrelevant. And why shouldn’t it? It is always appropriate to question the relevance of any group that shuns knowledge and applauds its own lack of it.  We can do better!

But the fact is that knowledge and education are both necessary components for the existence and well-being of the church. Take, for example, the significance of being educated in the biblical languages. Some evangelicals I have met laugh away at such things as being “too scholarly” and therefore “not relevant.” In light of these charges, a question needs to be asked: Is knowing Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic required for reading the Bible? I say, yes. I will even take it one step further. Without knowledge of the original languages, there is absolutely no way you can read your Bible. It is absolutely impossible.

Obviously, I am not saying you cannot read the Bible if you do not know the original languages. By no means. What I am saying, rather, is that somebody must have known the original languages in order for you to read your english Bible. For you to be able to pick up your Bible and read it, there must have been a person to translate it into English in the first place. So yes, knowledge of the original languages is a must. Either you will need to have been educated in the languages or you will need to rely on an educated translator’s version. But make no mistake about it: Knowledge of the original languages is required—either from you or someone else. In this case, education is not a mere flowery benefit or some abstract scholarly endeavor; it is a practical necessity.

I only mention the language bit above so as to make a general point, namely, that education is important. But I also wish to highlight the fact that, specifically, theological education is necessary for the church. Again, however, many evangelicals continue to think otherwise, feeling as though intellectual pursuits are somehow necessarily rooted in pride and arrogance. But this is simply not true. Some of the most humble people I have met have been scholars; and some of the most arrogant have been those who take pride in their ignorance. For someone to boast about their abundant knowledge is distasteful, yes. But for someone to boast about their ignorance is more than distasteful, it’s dangerous. The consequences of our anti-intellectual bent are dangerous. (I will tease this last part out later down the road.)

I suspect that anti-intellectualism is less a problem than it is a symptom. Maybe we need to first address why evangelicalism is prone toward an anti-intellectual bias. I feel the underlying issues here are deep, and I reckon that there are both philosophical and theological reasons for why we are bent that way. (I’m still working through these things, and I plan to lay out some thoughts in the weeks ahead.)

In the meantime, I want to offer two preliminary proposals.

First, perhaps evangelicals should stop and think. Maybe we should re-think our assumptions that education is not relevant for the church, for our communities, for our mission. After all, as we have seen above, education is very practical and beneficial. It is necessary even. We should also consider our Christian calling, for God calls us to a life of right thinking and calls us to flourish in our pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (Rom 12:2; Phil 1:9-10). Thinking is not an option. We all engage in the act of thinking. The question is whether or not our thinking is informed or uninformed, educated or uneducated, wise or foolish. It has been my experience that the church is hungry for education, for in-depth training, for catechesis. It is true that not everyone feels called to master the Greek New Testament or philosophical hermeneutics or the ins-and-outs of second temple Judaism, and that’s okay. We are all gifted differently, and we each have our respective ministries. But having offered more in-depth classes within a church setting, I can say that there is a huge thirst among our people for it. The question for us pastors and teachers is, Will we feed the sheep?

Second, perhaps evangelicals should stop and thank. Maybe we should take a step back from our anti-intellectual tendencies and thank God for the scholar. This could be good for the evangelical soul. I recall a few years ago having a lively (not to mention informative) conversation with a Catholic monk. In the midst of our conversation, he was quick to assert that, “If it were not for us monks, you wouldn’t have a Bible.” How true that is. If it were not for those who have given their lives over to study, to a life of learning, the modern church would be in a world of trouble. The monasteries were the wombs of our sacred tradition. Likewise, our local community projects would be null and void if it were not for the scholar, for we would never be able to hand a Bible to anyone in our community if it were not for the good people who gave themselves to scholarly pursuits—to years of toiling through the original languages, mastering grammar and syntax. Let us thank God for the scholar. They make the local church’s job possible.

Again, I am still working through my views here. But I am convinced that it would do us well to see education as important precisely because it is necessary. Any bias toward anti-intellectualism should be abandoned. 

More thoughts to come…