Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Problem with "Mere Christianity"

Every now and again, I hear Christians suggest that we do well to downplay the distinctiveness of who we are as inhabitants and inheritors of distinctive traditions so that we can be more welcoming to visitors and/or more palatable to our ecumenical partners.

As Episcopalians, for instance, why sling incense and sing the Eucharist at a principal service on a Sunday when doing so may alienate visitors for whom incense and chanting are akin to making an appearance in an episode of the X-Files without prior warning?

Or if we're exploring a deeper relationship with our United Methodist brothers and sisters (which I wholeheartedly support for many reasons, not the least being that I was baptized as a Methodist), why in the world would we make a big deal about using real wine instead of grape juice in the Holy Eucharist? Or why would we insist on the importance of the historic episcopate for the validity of Holy Orders and sacraments? Aren't things like that just barriers to what's really important and to what we share in common, namely, the "mere Christianity" of believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior? In other words, don't these boil down to non-essential theology?

Assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary J. Todd Billings maintains that "we jettison 'non-essential' theology at our own peril." Here's part of what he writes about this:

The phrase mere Christianity can be misleading, suggesting we can act independently of traditions that guide our interpretations of the Bible. It's quite American to position ourselves above tradition, Sometimes even denominational churches do this by hiding their theological distinctives, thinking they will narrow the pool of potential parishioners. If you take Presbyterian out of the church name and avoid teaching about predestination and the sacraments, more people will come, right?

A friend of mine has a daughter-in-law who attends a large nondenominational church. My friend sent her the Heidelberg Catechism to introduce her to his Reformed theological tradition. Her response surprised him. She wrote back saying that her nondenominational church uses the Heidelberg Catechism all the time. It is one of her church's key resources for educating people in the faith. Consider the irony: While many Reformed churches push their own catechism to the side, this large nondenominational church discovers the same catechism to be a profound tool for teaching the Christian faith. Still, both churches illustrate problems with mere Christianity.

One church claims to be nondenominational instead of naming its tradition. The other fails to uphold its explicitly named tradition.

Sometimes churches go further than downplaying their unique beliefs. So-called divisive doctrines get pushed to the side as non-essentials, even when they are truly important: For several summers while I was in high school, I served overseas with a team of other teenagers with an interdenominational, evangelical mission organization. During orientation, the leaders set ground rules. We should preach the gospel, participate in Christian worship, fellowship, and so forth. But we should not speak about the sacraments. Although we celebrated the Lord's Supper, we were to avoid discussing its significance. Is it a sacrament or an ordinance, a memorial or a true receiving of the body and blood of Christ? These questions were off-limits. The team regarded Christians as more "spiritual" if they voiced no strong opinions on the Lord's Supper.

Yet doctrines aren't "dispensable" because they provoke controversy. Consider how the early church debated Christ's identity as true God and true human. Even such a central teaching hasn't been immune to dispute. So when it comes to an issue like the sacraments, silencing voices of conviction is not the way forward. Instead, honest yet charitable discussions about our differences can deepen faith. We should not jettison disputed doctrines just because they can be divisive.

While theological traditions highlight differences among us, they don't have to harden us to one another. And they can give us a wealth of resources from which to grow in our faith and help us face the challenges of today's world.

Read it all.


Steve Hayes said...

Oh yes, and when it comes right down to us the "essentials" invariably means "just like us".

I was once in a ssmall town where there was an interdenominational Sunday (well actually Tuesday) school that met in the Anglican Church premises. The superintendent was Methodist, and objected to any elements that might be remotely Anglican. It had to be "interdenominational" which in practice meant Methodist, so the Anglican kids in effect went to a Methodist Sunday School in the Anglican hall.

Bryan Owen said...

My experience has been similar to yours, Steve. In small town Mississippi, "interdenominational" almost always ends up being something that looks and feels Baptist. No surprises there since the Baptists are in the majority in this neck of the woods. And so the cultural establishment of the Baptist ethos virtually guarantees that anything distinctively Anglican, etc., pretty much gets weeded out.