...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Can the war on terror be won?

I saw a snippet of an interview with President Bush on the Today show this morning, wherein he tells Matt Lauer that the war on terror cannot be won (rough paraphrase). Which, unfortunately, in my opinion, is true. We cannot win a *total* victory in the war on terror because terrorism is not a disease that we can inoculate the world against. We have wiped out small pox and are on the verge of taking care of polio, but similar results cannot be gained in regards to terrorism. At best, we can diminish terrorism and make it very difficult, possibly contain it or vastly reduce its effectiveness, but I think we are fooling ourselves if we think victory is truly possible, much less inevitable.

First, terrorists do not require a friendly country or territory to use as a base of operations. It certainly helps and makes terrorist operations easier to plan & execute, but a fairly large group or group of cells can easily operate in a neutral or even hostile environment. It requires more careful planning & procurement, particularly for plots that use chemical or biological weapons since manufacturing these components requires specific kinds of equipment and material. But as the Oklahoma City bombing proved, a terrorist does not need exotic materials to carry out an exceedingly deadly strike. And as we learned with the DC sniper case, 2 people in a beat up old car can easily terrorize a city with nothing more than a rifle and a box of ammo. If terrorists will resolve themselves to smaller, less grandiose attacks, then there is little than can be done to stop them without incurring huge security costs.

Second, even if we manage to get the right security mix here at home and actually make it exceedingly difficult to execute an attack on American soil (something we certainly have not done yet), all we are doing is pushing the terrorists' target matrix to softer targets elsewhere. Even then an attack does not have to directly target US facilities or personnel in order to cause the US a lot of problems. For instance, a significant attack in Saudi Arabia that destabilized the regime could cut off our oil supply or cause oil prices to sky-rocket. A biological attack in Mexico could potentially cause hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to flee northward, destroying even our currently meager concept of border security. Unless we are able to effectively secure the world, or at least the portions that interest the US the most, terrorists will continue to have thousands of viable targets.

Third, terrorism is an ideological virus. It is generally cheap, effective and coupled with radical Muslim theology (which is spreading throughout the world thanks in large part to the Saudis), it has a fertile soil in which to take root. Additionally, some of the very actions which we undertake to eliminate certain threats will only breed more terrorists in other areas. Whatever your position on the war with Iraq, it is clear that anti-Americanism has deepened and spread, and created either more terrorists or more potential terrorist. If the US is forced to make a move against Iran due to its possible nuclear weapons program, it will only spread the virus of terrorism even more. Also, it makes no sense for the US to continue to believe that terrorists do not have rational political goals. It sounds very nice to say "they hate us because we are free" but that doesn't say anything about the ends they are actually pursuing. One of the things that initially drove al Qaida was the presence of US troops in a Muslim holy land. 9/11 was, in part, an effort to force the US out of Saudi Arabia, which is an entirely rational political goal. While certainly driven by fanatical hatred, terrorists continue to have goals for which they develop specific strategies. Until we come to grips with the fact that blind hatred does not mean irrational actions, we will fail to develop comprehensive actions & responses that will quell the rising tide of terrorism.


Workable Solutions - II

So step 1 of a workable solution towards unity was determining a consistent definition of sola scriptura across Protestant lines. Certainly not an easy task, and one that, in my humble estimation has a probability of success free-falling towards nil. There are about as many definitions of sola scriptura as there are denominations, and as Daniel pointed out in the comments of the last post, there are some denominations that are even moving away from this standard of Protestantism. Which, of course, raises a very serious problem - even assuming a consistent definition of sola scriptura, there is absolutely no guarantee that it will produce either agreement in interpretation between diverse groups, or the right interpretation.

As an aside, I realize from reading blogs from younger Christians, particularly those from the pomo-emergent church culture, that there is a strong suspicion of calling any intrepretation objectively true or right. It is a view I once shared, thinking agreeing to disagree or leaving enough fudge room for everyone to get along was a good thing. To a certain extent I still think this is true, however, I am increasingly coming to the convictiont that at least on some things, there is an objectively true & right understanding. But I do not think this understanding is mine, but that of the church catholic, so whenever I say "right" or "true", I don't mean what I personally think is this, but what the church has, at least hypothetically, stated as such. This introduces questions of ecclesiology and the precise nature of the church, which will come in a later post.

Interpretational disagreement is abundantly clear in comparing the 2 classical examples of Protestantism - Lutheranism and Calvinism. These 2 systems rely on the same Bible, and yet have radically distinct understandings of grace, faith, justification and the sacraments, to list off a few of the biggies. For other groups, there are variations on these and other issues; some big, some small and some so subtle as to be almost undetectable to the naked eye. But, and this is a huge but, it is precisely these differences that give each group or denomination a distinct identity. It is how they "brand" themselves in relation to other Christian groups. Even for local churches that are non-denominational or only loosely affiliated with a group, there normally exists differences in theology between it and the church down the road. Needless to say, these theological differences stem from conflicting interpretations & emphases, and asking a church or denomination to give up these differences for the sake of unity is to request a doubly difficult task. They must not only melt away their disctinctiveness, but also, at least tacitly, admit that they do not and did not have it right. The only reason a denomination exists is because they think their way of doing church and theology is best, or at least not as bad as the way other groups do them. To the members, these differences are important and any move away from their standard of faith is potentially a move in the wrong direction. And in conversations I have had with other Christians, I know for a fact that some would view worshipping with other groups that believe differently as a violation of conscience a la Romans 14 and therefore sinful.

So the next step is even more complicated than the first. At the very least we would have to get Protestants to move away from their brandedness or somehow de-emphasize that. In a way, it would be re-defining "Christian" as a term not involving denominations or church affiliations. Which is, of course, what the term meant in the first place but has seemingly become intextricably intertwined with such nuances now. Step 2 - redefine "Christian."


Workable Solutions - I

Daniel over at neotheologue has an ongoing series of posts on Christian unity which are both brutally honest and insightful. His posts have gotten me thinking about unity but also about one of my personal obsessions - workable solutions. All the theorizing and pondering in the world are utterly useless unless they lead us towards a workable solution. Not a perfect solution, mind you, I'm not so naive as to think we will ever obtain perfection until Christ returns in glory. No, with any problem that confronts me, especially the bigger and much harder to solve spiritual/ecclesial types, I'm really only interested in finding concrete steps that will take us forward. Maybe only a few inches of the miles we have yet to travel, but forward nonetheless.

Of course, we can't find those steps until we've identified the cause of the problem. Only with a correct diagnosis of the illness can a treatment be prescribed. I think for the Protestant world the answer is abundantly clear: sola scriptura (I now hereby officially open the sola scriptura issue for public debate). Personally, I am not yet ready to abandon SS and for the vast majority of Protestants it doesn't even have a chance of being an option for the possibility of potential future consideration. But the fact remains that SS is effectually one of the largest contributors to the disunity of the Protestant church in general. I'm not saying SS is wrong or an incorrect, ahistorical doctrine; I'm speaking only about the practical consequences.

Part of the problem is that the same definition of SS is not universally held by Protestant churches. The basic idea is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to know enough about God, Jesus, sin, faith, etc, for the individual to find salvation in Christ and that they are clear on areas relating to salvation though some areas might be more obscure. But wait, that isn't the basic idea. Some churches require all doctrine to be based explicitly on Scripture or ideas that have a short chain of logical deductions from the text. Some are more flexible, accepting doctrines that aren't found explicitly in the Bible, but aren't excluded by it either. In the former, the Bible thus becomes very restrictive and limiting. For instance, the office of "priest" is not found in the New Testament, and thus cannot be legitimately used by Christians. Between these two poles are various other positions, but in essence, this lack of clarity on the precise meaning of SS and the boundaries of legitimacy create division. A strict SS church could not commune with a flexible SS because some of that flexibility can only be regarded as unbiblical, and conversely, the rigidity of the strict church would likely put off the other group.

So step 1 of a workable solution towards unity is getting widespread agreement on the precise definition of, and the theological & ecclesiological boundaries implied by, sola scriptura. If various groups can regard each others' practices (so long as they are not obviously heretical or unbiblical) as legitimate expressions of their respective churchs' beliefs, a huge door to unity would be kicked open.



St Vincent of Lerins

I got my birthday wish - the 38 volumes of Early Church Fathers (the best birthday gift ever, and still at $200 at Christian Books Direct through Sept 1st - normally $1100!), and due to a discussion elsewhere, started reading through St Vincents Commonitory, which continues his famous rule for determining correct tradition - everyone, always and everywhere. A great quote from chapter 9 (emphasis mine):

Which being the case, is there any one either so audacious as to preach any other doctrine than that which the Church preaches, or so inconstant as to receive any other doctrine than that which he has received from the Church? That elect vessel, that teacher of the Gentiles, that trumpet of the apostles, that preacher whose commission was to the whole earth, that man who caught up in heaven, cries and cries again in his Epistles to all, always, in all places, "If any man preach any new doctrine, let him be accursed." On the other hand, an ephemeral, moribund set of frogs, fleas, and flies, such as the Pelagians call out in opposition, and that to Catholics, "Take our word, follow our lead, accept our exposition, condemn what you used to hold, hold what you used to condemn, cast aside the ancient faith, the institutes of your fathers, the trusts left for you by your ancestors and receive instead, - what? I tremble to utter it: for it is so full of arrogance and self-conceit, that it seems to me that not only to affirm it, but even to refute it, cannot be done without guilt in some sort.

This is one of those times when Providence seems to be very active in small details. This kind of anti-heresy thinking, which suggests that even in the refutation of heresy one may somehow be contaminated by its stink, dovetails neatly into what I was talking about with the "radically inclusive" church. It is the abandonment of the "ancient faith, the institutes of [our] fathers" and the condemnation of what they held. But St Vincent's work also brushes up against a series of discussions over at Pontifications and other linked blogs, which has detailed the problems with sola scriptura and the problems the Anglican communion is currently experiencing in its implementation. There is also a great article over on Tituseonenine, again from an Anglican perspective but exploring the idea that sola scriptura inevitably leads to schism. St Vincent points out quite eloquently that even heretics quote scripture:

Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics appeal to Scripture? [sic] They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture, - through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavor to shelter under words of Scripture.

Which also happens to describe a debate between any two differing Protestants over who is right. "To the Proof-Text-Mobile, Bible-man!" Check out any of a number of Christian message boards, and you will see what I mean. Which raises the unavoidable point that it is not just a question of authority, but of interpretation. All Christians regard the Bible as authoritative, but if it can be used to support heretical ideas, how can we be sure that any interpretation is or is not correct? One answer is, of course, abundantly clear, but not always easy to embrace.

(I'm really not trying to get into that whole sola scriptura discussion, only pointing out the congruence of these different things.)


Anybody see the women's gymnastics team finals last night? I was disappointed for the US team that they only got silver, but then again, those Romanian gymnasts were excellent and fully deserving of gold.

Just one thing - what was up with Courtney Kupets backing out of her balance beam routine at the last minute, and then coming back a few minutes later to do the floor exercise?! She told a reporter after the finals that her "injury" only bothered her at one point during her routine. Does that sound fishy to anyone else? Personally, I don't think she should be able to compete in the all-around now, especially if her backing out wasn't legitimate. There are other gymnasts on the team, maybe not as good, but who definitely have the heart to compete.


Question & Denominational Hoopla

I spent Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning at the Willowcreek 2004 Leadership Summit. On the whole, I was impressed with the speakers and the content of their seminars. Only one of the speaker wasn't very good and that more because she appeared uncomfortable with public speaking - the content of her talk was good, just poorly presented. I feel like I got some good tools for my current ministry and am pretty motivated to start putting some of them into play.

There were some moments of subtle irony. For instance, Bill Hybel's (senior pastor of Willowcreek) gave a talk on volunteers within the church and used 2 examples to illustrate his points. One was from what he described as an "Ephesians 4 church"(E4) and the other from a "clergy controlled church" (CCC). Basically, in the E4 church, volunteers play a prominent role in serving the congregation & the mission of the church and people are able to put their passions and talents to good use, which is very satisfying for them and makes them feel really connected. In the CCC, volunteers are valued only for their ability to do jobs the staff don't want to do, like janitorial duties, and everything of import is handled by paid staff pastoral staff. Bill spoke encouragingly of the E4 and disparagingly of the CCC - too much top-down hierarchical control and too much reliance on paid staff, or something like that. Now, the irony - Willowcreek has over 450 paid staff people. Additionally, several of the speakers, including Bill himself, talked about times when leaders have to step out in obedience to God's calling regardless of what the people think, say or do - which is, of course, top-down hierarchical control.

Irony aside, this comparison got me wondering - how do volunteers and the laity normally participate in the lives of their local church in Orthodoxy? If any Orthodox readers would care to fill me in, I'd greatly appreciate it, because I think to a certain extent Bill is correct. The church should be a place where people not only connect with God, but are able to find ways to use their God-given talents to serve the Lord, serve His church and their fellow Christians.

I also spent Friday night and Saturday afternoon at a delegate session for our denomination. First, I must say that I have absolutely no stake in this group. This denomination does not have a very distinct identity, and its member churches run the gamut from very traditional conservative congregations to small rural churches to larger seeker-sensitive enterprises. So I really could not get myself very fired up about what was going on - namely re-electing our current denominational president, various elders and passing our budget. Second, and I hate to sound negative, I sat back watching all of this wondering why this relatively small denomination was so intent on going it alone. Our theology is pretty run-of-the-mill, so I don't understand why they aren't joined up with some other denomination or conference. Why are we putting the time and money into our own little organization when there would seem to be many other areas that could put them both to better use? And quite frankly, whose idiotic idea was it to schedule a 5 hour delegate session in a building without air-conditioning after a 9 hour summit day and then not serve any flippin' coffee?!?!?!?!?!

The real upside to the whole ordeal was getting to see my wife's extended family. My in-laws are 2 of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and her uncle is a real hoot. My father-in-law and her uncle both have a ton of ministry experience, so we had a good long talk over dinner about the difficulties I'm having at my current position. And my wife got to talk to her mother Saturday morning for a while, and actually brought up some of our thoughts about Orthodoxy. I didn't know she was going to do this, so I was pretty blown away that she would bring it up, especially to her folks.


Radically Inclusive - Part III

Now, perhaps it is understandable why the early church was "exclusive" and why this is a good thing after all. But that was then and this is now. The church was befuddled by a pre-modern understanding of the world and restrained by obsolete cultural mores, but now we have the benefit of science and have abandoned those outdated paradigms. We have, in short, evolved, grown-up, become an adult church able to seriously reflect on our more childish past. We can now see that the early church was emerging into a largely pagan culture, so a conservative approach was necessary to make sure the church was not subsumed into the larger religious landscape. But now, the church is losing relevance in a post-Christian culture and so must turn to a more progressive paradigm in order to salvage itself and march boldly forward into the future.

Or so the theory goes, anyways. It is true that every generation must reappropriate Christianity and come to express it in terms they can understand. I think the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea is a perfect example of this. By the 4th century, the church had expanded considerably and had emerged from a back-waters offshoot of Judaism in a dirty little corner of the empire, into a more urban, educated and Gentile faith. It had grown large enough that the government had taken notice of it, and not always favorably, and the considerable weight of pagan thought was being brought to bear on the Way. Heresies within the ranks had also started to pop up, and were in serious need of redress. In short, the Church had a whole lot to deal with and needed to be decisive about it. So they have a council, come up with the creed and define the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the language used to describe the Trinity is not biblical and, if memory serves me correctly, has only scant use in patristic texts, so the question is - would the Apostles have accepted this definition? I think it is safe to say that after breaking out a dictionary, maybe a couple of glasses of wine and some prayers, that yes, the Apostles would accept it even though they may not have defined it in precisely those terms.

Every subsequent Ecumenical Council was a similar process of a taking the Apostolic deposit, and re-expressing it more precisely and more clearly delineating the boundaries of right-belief. A similar, though certainly not authoritative in the sense of the councils, process takes place with each generation. The Apostolic deposit and the accumulated understanding of the past is re-expressed, but in such a way that it does not deny that accumulation (except in the case of the Reformation, but that is a whole nother series of posts). The problem with those advocating "radical inclusivity" today is that it attempts to invalidate the understanding and knowledge of past generations. Its basically thumbing its nose at hundreds of thousands of Christians as corrupt, inept or just plain stupid. The RI church assumes it can know either what the genuine Apostolic deposit was, or that the current culture somehow re-defines the content of the deposit.

The perils of the latter are clear. If culture says slavery is fine, then the Apostles did, too. If culture says abortion is cool, then the Apostles did, too. If culture says atheism is great, then...well, that might be stretching it some, but you get my point. The unchanging standard of truth, ie God, is constantly changing based on what our particular society is doing. It also negates any serious moral critique of another culture's practices since culture is the lens through which God is viewed. The former has its own problems. How do you determine what is authentically Apostolic and what is not? How can you be sure that your determination is not being influenced by emotion or bias? Is a doctrine you don't like not Apostolic because its a later addition, or because you don't like it?

The problem with the RI church is not just that it splits from the past understanding of the church, but that it effectively separates itself from the church in history and eliminates one of the greatest treasures available to modern Christians, specifically, 2000 years of the accumulated wisdom, experience and guidance of other Christians. The paradigm that says the past was wrong, and possibly wrong to such an extent it was sinful, really stands as a final divorce from historic Christian thought. It is more than merely saying we need to re-express Christianity in meaningful terms for today - it is saying we need to invent a totally new faith. In forging out ahead, they are actually forging out alone.



Daniel over at Neothelogue has been producing some good posts on Christian unity lately, and his latest is particularly good.

After detailing the biblical vision of unity, he writes:

"But to the average person without the Spirit, it sure doesn't look like there's much unity, much one-ness to the Church."

I think Daniel is only half-right here. To the average person WITH the Spirit there is still little evidence of true unity within the church as a whole. While there are certainly those who cling to ideas of an "invisible unity" or some similar concept, its obviously a delusion. How can groups that refuse to worship together be unified? How can groups that regard each other as only nominally Christian be considered part of the same body? Members of these groups who still consider each other to be unified have a very flawed definition of unity.

Daniel goes on to point out the effect Christian schism has on non-believers:

"So here's my question: If the unity God intends for Christ's Church is a "spiritual" unity, one that's not really visible to the uninitiated, then how can it reveal anything to them? How can something that cannot be sensed physically have revelatory value to people who are spiritually blind?
That's right. It can't. God, have mercy on us."

Which is, of course, the whole point. Our unity is not just meant to be something fun for us, that makes our lives easier - it is meant to be a pointer towards God. The world is meant to see the unity of our love & fellowship, and see it in a way that they realize that it can be found nowhere else. This is one of the deepest problems I am having with Protestant Christianity right now. We are not only failing to strive for unity, we are nonchalantly accepting our discord. The question I continually ask myself is one of priorities - why is this a priority and that not? For instance, why is a church plant a priority, but joint ministry with other churches not? In this case, why is unity not a priority? So far, I haven't been able to find an answer.


Radically Inclusive - Part II

Which brings us to the second question; is the view of the church as "exclusive" through history accurate? There seems to be 2 views that permeate the radically inclusive camp. The first is that the Church was very inclusive during the New Testament period and perhaps for a few centuries afterwards, and the second is that things actually got screwed up pretty early on with the coming of that homophobic misogynist Paul. From a cursory review of history and a certain point of view, the first actually has a ring of truth to it, while the second - from any standpoint - is laughably ridiculous. If you take Paul at his word, and I see no reason why anyone should not, he was specifically chosen by God to be a missionary and, though it is not explicitly stated, to write much of the New Testament. For Paul's theology and ecclesiology to be a mistake, one would have to accuse God of stupidity, ignorance or downright ill-temperedness to foist such a problematic authority on the church.

So let's examine the first - the church started out following Jesus' example and did so successfully for a few hundred years, but over time a bunch of man-made traditions, mostly sponsored by power-hungry male bishops and church leaders, were heaved upon the church and a spirit of exclusionary zeal came to prominence. As I said, from a certain point of view and a skimming of history, this sounds true. By the end of the 2nd century, the church was starting to express its belief in apologetical materials, which served as exclusionary vehicles in some ways. Saying "THIS is what we believe" necessarily implies that if you believe "THAT", you are not one of us. The church was also facing some of the initial gnostic heresies, which resulted in a great deal of exclusion if you are among the Pagels' camp that thinks the gnostics had as much of a claim to orthodoxy as the Christians did. Of course, this tendency to define the limits of right-belief only became more pronounced in the face of greater and more insiduous heresies like Arianism, which came later. Was the church "exclusive"? Yes, it was. But....

But this can only be understood in the negative sense if you have a flawed understanding of Jesus and misunderstand that nature of theology. First, theology is not merely "stuff we say about God," which is a definition I have heard several times from the pomo-emergent arena. That definition moves theology from being God-centered, to being self-centered, and allows us to define God by our own predilections and tastes. A necessary move if you want to be radically inclusive, since we have already seen that Jesus was not. But, if theology is kept God-centered, then theology becomes objectively true and it is more than a mere descriptor of God-in-our-image; it describes God-as-who-he-is. Admittedly, such a definition of theology is all but impossible in Protestantism since there are so many variations. While a Calvinist or a Lutheran may truly believe that their theology is correct, their theology also requires that they acknowledge the Christianism (to coin a sour phrase) of other different-believing Christians. Such acknowledgement subtlely undermines a God-centered theology, since you are in effect admitting that the other point of view may actually be correct, thus leading to relativism. Second, God-centered theology that is objectively true and is an accurate description of God requires us to believe that right-belief is actually very important, since anything other than right-belief must be wrong! Truth becomes of paramount importance and necessitates that the church mobilize itself in defense of it. The exclusionary zeal of the church - in its apologetics, in the persecution of heresy and the definition of right-belief - is a good thing in the context of a proper understanding of theology, since anything less is compromise. In certain circumstances, one could easily argue that the church, rather than being too exclusive, was not exclusive enough!



Radically inclusive?

This post is actually inspired by a post over at Pomomusings discussing where to draw the line in dialogue with Christians who disagree with you. Adam references homosexuality and female leadership specifically, but uses it to springboard into the broader question of when to call it quits when dialogue is not working. These 2 blogs, and many others in the emergent church movement, frequently make use of the term "radically inclusive" in a description of Jesus or their church. "Jesus was radically inclusive" or "we're doing radically inclusive ministry." Some have even gone so far as to formulate "radically inclusive" theology. Those employing this term are clearly using it in opposition to what they perceive to be the historic stance of Christianity and the church, which one can assume was exclusive, if not radically so. The question, of course, is their understanding of both Christ and the church accurate?

First, was Jesus radically inclusive? I must admit that when I first heard this term in reference to Jesus, I didn't think twice about it. I mean, Jesus didn't spend too much time with the religious leaders and focused most of His ministry on the down-and-outs, the little guys and gals that were mostly on the fringes of society. So from that perspective, yes, Jesus was inclusive but I think you would be hard-pressed to say it was "radical." Jesus clearly excluded a fairly large segment of Jewish society when He condemned the legalism of the Pharisees. There are those who would then take this and twist it to mean that Jesus was against institutionalized religion, and since he was most open to those on the margins of society, we should adopt the same stance. There are problems with this idea, but let's assume the premise is at least partially correct. Jesus was indeed open & inclusive of those who were largely regarded as social inferiors, but they were regarded in this way not because the mainstream of society did not understand or accept them based on blind prejudice. No, they were on the outside because they were sinners. They had violated the norms and legal requirements of Jewish law and in so doing, had pushed themselves to the outside. I'm not saying there weren't problems in the application of the law or corruption in the Jewish leadership at that time because the Gospels are clear that there was. But that does not change 3 facts - 1) these people had by and large violated Jewish law and were regarded as sinners, 2) Jesus accepted them as they were AND 3) Jesus placed a moral impetus on them to change. He charged them to stop sinning and to seek holiness. Jesus clearly states he came to call sinners to repentance, not acceptance. He didn't talk about "faith journeys," "dialoguing" or "becoming fully human." He talked about seeking hard and fast after God and denying the self in the process. So was Jesus radically inclusive? I would say yes, but not in the way it is frequently used today. Jesus may have dined with sinners, but He had dessert with saints.



Who or what is the church? Part II

I feel like I need to expand on the church-as-force and church-as-accident idea I put forth yesterday, since these are kind of odd terms.

First, I don't mean that the church is in any way accidental or happenstance, only that the CAA camp tends to view what happened to the church after the Apostles and before the Reformation as a series of chance events. God certainly did not have a role in protecting or preserving the faith in this time, and the church (if it could still be reasonably called that) went on its merry, heretical way adopting ever greater and more encumbering man-made traditions. Nor do I mean that God has no purpose for the CAA church. Every CAA Christian would affirm that God does, but it is equally clear that this purpose really applies to the local body, or perhaps a denomination if it is cohesive enough to support a common mission in that way. While a CAA Christian would affirm the totality of the body of Christ, their view of the church is actually cellular. Each local congregation, or even each person, has their own God-ordained purpose that may or may not line up with what the cell down the street is doing. In fact, cells may be working in opposite directions or for completely different goals and yet still be regarded as accomplishing God's will, if only to their own respective members.

This type of cellular thinking, of course, raises some difficult problems. If my church is working for the opposite goal of your church, how can we be sure which of us is actually doing God's will? For instance, the current debate over homosexual marriage has been joined on both sides by various Christian groups. Both believe they are doing God's will and both believe the other side is wrong, and both really have no way of proving anything. The only authority that either can ultimately appeal to is their own experience - both ultimately feel that their understanding of the text is correct or that their calling is legitimate. From the present divisions within and among churches today, it is clear that appeals to experience can be dangerous as far as unity is concerned.

That is obviously a very contentious issue, but the same holds true of smaller, less charged areas of ministry. There are literally thousands of mission agencies and boards, and many of them sponsor missions to the same geographic areas. Each puts thousands of dollars of support into their missionaries and their ministries, and each also put a pretty good amount of money towards their own respective overhead. It seems clear that incorporating these boards, if only bringing the smallest ones together, could reap significant benefits in eliminating overlap, wasted time, energy & money, and yet it doesn't happen. Why? The most simple answer is because each cell believes their way of doing church & theology is the best way. Not that other agencies or churches are necessarily wrong, just that their beliefs & practices miss the mark by varying degrees. Each cell tends to view dissimilar cells with some amount of suspicion and is hesitant to partner with them. And rightfully so - why compromise your mission & message with a group that believes differently?

From a certain perspective, all of this is fine. Some may believe God does give different missions to different groups even when those missions appear to be contradictory. But for me, the question is really two-fold. 1) Is this biblical? 2) Does this conform to the historical understanding of Christians throughout the centuries, particularly the first 200 years of the faith? I think on both counts the answer is a resounding no. It certainly does not match up with the call to unity in John 17:21 - "that they may all be one; even as You, Father are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me" - and it doesn't seem to line up with the ideas of the earliest Christians. Theirs was an organic unity, one that did not even appear to grasp the concept of a fractured body.


Who or what is the church?

From several conversations I have had recently, I have been questioning the nature of the church. There seems to me to be two general concepts as it regards the Body of Christ. Church-as-force and church-as-accident. These are imprecise terms and only serve to illustrate the very general distinction between these two camps.

The church-as-accident (CAA) camp believes that the church is merely the aggregate of all believers in Christ and imparts no power or authority to her. Just as citizens under a monarchy do not share in the power of the crown, members of the church do not share in the authority of Christ. We are bound together by our shared belief, but these bindings are relatively weak and do not illicit a strong identification between individuals. CAA is, of course, the position held by most Protestants and historically, it has long believed that the church fell away shortly after the 1st century and corrupted the Apostolic deposit. Only with the Reformation was the truth restored. In the CAA view, God did nothing to protect the church in the intervening centuries and if the truth was preserved, it was preserved only by a tiny minority that existed under the institutional & corrupt church's radar. CAA views any development of extra-biblical doctrine or ideas as heretical and believes that every belief must have a warrant found in scripture.

The church-as-force (CAF) camp believes that the church is more than just the sum-total of believers in Christ, and that God does give her authority and power, even if only in a limited sense. The ties that bind the CAF are much stronger, since every citizen does, in some small way, share in the authority of Christ, hence there is a higher sense of mutual purpose and connection. It seems to understand the church much more as a body - interconnected and interdependent. Which leads the CAF, unlike the CAA, to have a very low tolerance for division within the church, since such division leads to severing parts of the body. For the CAF, God never abandoned his church and it has enjoyed the uninterrupted headship of Christ from the time of the Apostles. The development of the canon and all her doctrines are the direct result of God's activity in the church, and hence, are not heretical and do not require an explicit biblical warrant, coming as they do from the source of the Bible's authority - God himself.

Formerly, I was a whole-hearted member of the CAA camp, but the problems inherent in this view are becoming increasingly manifest to me. It is ahistorical and creates certain paradoxes that have not been reasonably reconciled for me. For instance, if the church fell away in the 2nd century, how can we trust the canon that was not declared until the 4th? Or how can we accept the doctrine of the Trinity, since it too was formulated by heretics and unbelievers? It also raises unsavory questions about God - why did he not protect his church? Why would he allow such error to enter his body? Some have stated or implied we should not question God on this matter, but it seems to me a very reasonable set of questions to ask about God's promises to the church.

From this thought process and discussion, I am starting to realize that God demands we accept the church on his terms, not our own. I may want more historical support for some of the practices found in traditional Christianity, but I cannot let this alone drive my decision. Which is what this basically comes down to for everybody. It is a decision about the nature of the church and God's activity in her. Either God allowed his church to fall into grave error, or he didn't. The church is either incidental to his purposes or integral to them. We either accept the church as she has come to us through the centuries, or try to fashion our own - with all that either decision implies about God and ourselves.