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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Kingdom-oriented approach to Christian unity: balancing obedience to the Word and compassion for the man

Last week, I commented on the dispute between Ken Ham and Great Homeschool Conventions, concluding that one should not simply dismiss their opponents' words, whether through ignorance or censorship, if one wishes to remain relevant to the public discussion. I argued that Ken Ham's criticism of Dr. Enns and Biologos constituted an act of censorship (though unintentional on the part of Mr. Ham, I believe) in that he publicly attacked the respective party's integrity and commitment to God's word as authoritative, rather than dealing with the specific arguments put forth by each. I termed this kind of response 'censorship' because it effectually silences the words of others by preemptively undermining their credibility.

I am open to the possibility that I have missed where Ken Ham has dealt with Dr. Enns' arguments, or the specific challenges raised by Biologos, with regard to biblical exegesis and how to define inerrancy. Admittedly, I am not familiar with Ken Ham's books (at least those published in recent years), and I trust that he addresses the topics at length there. My impression from his blog posts and audio clips, however, is that he commonly avoids the tough questions when possible, or provides only a superficial response. Again, I would be happy to be proven wrong on this point, but even then I would still encourage Mr. Ham to employ less rhetoric for the sake of dialogue that is edifying to all.

On a related note, one commentator here has pointed out that Mr. and Mrs. Dean responded to Ken Ham by 'censoring' him from the convention, and so my accusation is one-sided. That is true, in one sense, and I'm glad the point was raised. Thus I need to qualify my accusation: Mr. and Mrs. Deans' response ("act of censorship") was qualitatively different in that they were not arguing against Mr. Ham's position. They wanted Ham's message to be heard, and invited other speakers to present it in his place. The action was disciplinary, not polemic.

Christian unity and fellowship amid disputes

Whether or not you agree with my assessment of the situation, I have recalled it here to raise a more important question: how should Christians approach others in the church with whom we disagree? And does our method of resolution depend on the point of disagreement? If we disagree, for example, on whether to allow musical instruments during worship, do we seek reconciliation one way, and if we disagree on the deity of Christ, do we take a wholly different approach?

Ultimately, this question is too broad for a blog post, so I merely want to make a few observations. First, consider the two examples above. I think the majority Christian response would be: "The choice to use (or not) musical instruments depends on the congregation, or might be a pastoral question; but on the deity of Christ, there is no room for discussion and compromise—any disagreement on this critical issue warrants excommunication (treating one as outside of Christian orthodoxy and/or outside of the church)."

On the one hand, we have issues that seem trivial to most observers (from within and without). What kind of songs can/should be sung in worship? Which translation of the Bible should we use? Can art can be hung in a place of worship? On the other hand are more fundamental, sharply defined doctrines, which have classically defined the Christian faith: the deity and messiahship of Christ, trinitarian monotheism, baptism and eucharist, the resurrection, justification by grace through faith. The former set of questions are typically resolved by the local eldership/pastor, while the latter are defined (e.g. Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession) and upheld (consider the recent reaction to Rob Bell) on larger, ecumenical scales.

Somewhere in the middle are topics debated quite frequently amid interdenominational exchange: the mode of baptism, covenant status of children, eschatological hope (or non-hope) for the church, role of law in Christian piety, election and the scope of the atonement, and—should I say?—creation. Many Christians effectively reach across these doctrinal boundaries (e.g. Desiring God Ministries), but the prevalence and openness of debate has the potential to wear on the human spirit and cause tension, if only intermittently.

So far, this structuring to Christian disputes may seem obvious, or even too simplistic. Well, I am guilty on both accounts. But let me move on to my second observation. All of the issues mentioned above have been used by Christian congregations, at one point or another, to break fellowship with others. Not simply to form a new congregation or denomination, but to sever dialogue and cast out. What some deem trivial quibble (or part of Christian cultural tradition, not to be bound to the conscience), others may view as a means to bring schism and condemnation.

At the same time, there is great danger in blind ecumenism. If our goal in promoting Christian unity is God's promise through his covenant, then theology matters, and though it may cause tension among us, we cannot treat the pain with apathy. For the church to survive itself, our attempts at reconciliation in doctrinal disputes must embody a healthy balance between obedience to the Word, and compassion for the man.

Easier said than done? Well, yes, but it has been done—if only once.

A kingdom-oriented approach to reconciliation

The canonical gospels, while rich in story and teachings, were not primarily written to provide an historical account, or even to establish a uniquely Christian belief system. Each gospel recapitulates the story of Israel using early 1st century events to establish that Christ is the climax to the Jewish narrative, and that through Christ, God has inaugurated his kingdom on Earth. Paul summarizes the act in saying "[God] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son" (Col. 1:13). As the "image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15), Christ represents that to which Adam and, by proxy, ourselves were called, but have failed. Elsewhere, Paul expands on this point through an early Christian hymn:

"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:5–8)

Unlike Adam in the Genesis narrative, Christ did not "grasp" (as toward the fruit) at his "equality with God" (echoing the serpent's promise to Adam; Gen. 3:4). Moreover, he remained obedient to the Word (his own divine nature and the Father's will) unto a death that was intended to reconcile God's creation to himself—slaves to the Master; sinners to the Holy One.

Theology in practice

What makes the gospels so vital to the life of the church is that they reveal to us not only what Jesus said and did, but who he was and how he felt. Jesus loved his own (John 13:1), even when they were blind to the obvious truth. Through compassion, he revealed the will of God to those that just didn't get it (Mark 10:21). Whether in breaking cultural boundaries (John 4:1–26), or following the road to cavalry, Jesus' compassion for man was such that he faced humiliation on every possible level. He forfeited reputation and reward for the sake of reconciling others to God. But he also wept at the face of death (John 11:35), elucidating the fragility of the human heart. Finally, he succumbed to frustrations with the outright mockery of God's temple (Matt. 21:12), revealing an uncompromising commitment to God's commandments and glory. All in all, the gospels provide a 'kingdom-oriented approach' to Christian unity through the character and person of Jesus.

We will, inevitably, fall short of this expectation when actually dealing with others in the church (or outside). Our interaction is complicated by the fact that each of us is not only fallible, but actually inclined toward reinforcing our own pride and reputation. The poetic words of Alexander Pushkin are very appropriate here: "The illusion that exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths." Unfortunately, it is not always obvious when we lie to ourselves to protect our vested interests. John Calvin's sentiment regarding the first commandment was nearly identical, when he said "the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols."

To compensate for our intellectual frailty and proclivity to idolatry, we cannot afford to shut out the words of others, even when we think the truth is obvious. Accused dissidents of Christian orthodoxy should not "be marked out and avoided," as one blogger put it. Out of respect for the truth, and the hope of God's kingdom, we must face the issue head on—both academically, in open dialogue, and privately, through prayer—as Jesus did toward the Pharisees and as Paul did toward Peter and the Galatians.

When we approach others in theological dispute, we must be willing to place the spiritual well-being of our 'opponent' above our own reputation. This means that in calling others to orthodoxy, we should be eager to call ourselves to the same. Moreover, if our call to orthodoxy is not driven by compassion for the Word and the man alike, then we risk the danger of lapsing into Pharisaism. We may possess a great light, but in keeping it to ourselves, we become dead inside (Matt. 23:27). To put it crudely, we are like a 6-year-old who just told his entire first-grade class that Santa is not real—we may be right, but to what end?

Controversy over creation

There are many Christians who purport that belief in a 6-day creation should make or break fellowship. To them, it falls in that set of fundamental doctrines, on which there can be no compromise. Others, like Ken Ham, are passionate about this doctrine and warn others not to compromise, but are at least willing to openly discuss their reasons behind doing so. I was surprised by Mr. Ham's comments about Dr. Enns, partly because he has long been committed to open dialogue. I hope that despite recent events, he may remain committed to such.

Overall, I am more grateful now for others that are willing to engage in discussion—not simply to make their case but for the sake of truth and the hope of the kingdom. Despite my lengthy criticism of Roger Patterson's published work, I sincerely believe he maintains a healthy balance between obedience to the Word and compassion for others, and so I welcome his comments here. On a similar note, I am encouraged by posts like this one from Dr. Jay Wile (and again here). There, he demonstrates how we can still learn from those with whom we disagree.

Beginning and ending with Christ for the sake of the church

I will end my discussion anecdotally. Last week, I was listening to N.T. Wright's presentations at the Wheaton Theology Conference from last year. In his discussion on Paul, Dr. Wright lamented that in modern Pauline scholarship, very little is said about Paul's theology of the church. Whether or not you agree with Wright's view on Paul, this stinging point must be dealt with: Paul writes much about justification, election, the cross, etc., but his letters are everywhere saturated with the church and Christian unity. Even where he addresses justification at length (e.g. Romans, Galatians), it is done in the context of Christian unity.

Now I understand better a bit of pastoral advice I once heard: "Unless we are constantly reforming our ecclesiology, the rest is for naught." On that note, I hope you will consider my thoughts on resolving divisive controversies within the church (or how my abstract picture can better be put into practice). I am eager to hear your feedback, as well, for this post is hardly meant to be assertive and overbearing.

4 comments:

  1. Unity, fellowship, communion. Hard to imagine or even define christianity without these... yet, and I don't know if it's a contemporary westernized christianity or the fairly recent influences of eastern mystic religions on western culture, but either way those three things seem to appear optional to ones who otherwise consider themselves faithful. If were are called to make disciples, the implication is that we who are striving to make disciples are disciples ourselves and I have as yet to see a discipleship model that doesn't involve relationships with other disciples. The extant of our message cannot end with conversion or baptism or whatever else you want to call it. It needs to be communicated that that is merely the beginning of discipleship and that a fulfilling relationship with God is a fruit of discipleship and that discipleship is impossible without... unity, fellowship, communion.

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  2. JB,
    I first want to thank you for your sincere desire to point all of us to honoring Christ as we seek to understand our differences in light of Scripture. I certainly do hope that is our aim and I ended my recent blog post on Dr. Enns with that call to all who read it.

    Dr. Enns argues that “accept[ing] Paul’s understanding of human origins as scientifically accurate and reject[ing] evolution” is “untenable as members of the human race in the twenty-first century. Ignoring the scientific and archaeological evidence is not an option.” He goes on to say that rejecting Christianity “is more viable” than accepting a YEC position, though not necessary—embracing evolution is his preference. You might understand how I would view that as a pretty direct attack and “name calling” regarding my theology. By his measure, I am either not a human or I am not currently alive (I’ll let you decide ;-). His essay can be found on the BioLogos site at http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/enns_scholarly_essay.pdf

    Jay Wile states on his blog that the “theology [of Answers in Genesis] leaves a lot to be desired.” Yet, he is not questioning my integrity? I know my own pride tends to make me defensive, but it just seems like a double standard. I have been praying that God would help me rightly understand my motives and trusting that it is the glory of a man to overlook an offense (Prov 19:11).

    Ken is indeed passionate about what he teaches, but I don’t think he desires to censor anyone (as you noted). In almost all of his blog posts, including the one today aimed at Dr. Giberson, he provides the links to articles he mentions and encourages people to read them. In the article by Dr. Giberson, those of us who hold to a young-earth view are “unreasonable” and “distort the Bible’s message beyond recognition.” Ken quotes him, comments on his ideas, and asks people to read the article for themselves. I am still not convinced (or I am a bit dense) of your accusation/definition of censorship.

    As I suggested in the previous post on this topic, I would commend the book “Coming to Grips with Genesis” for a scholarly treatment of the theological implications of the typical issues AiG deals with.

    How big is orthodoxy? I guess this is really at the heart of the matter, as you point out. Deciding where we draw the line is vitally important as it has eternal consequences. As I read Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, I can come to no other conclusion than the necessity of a real man named Adam who has a real descendant named Jesus. Why is this teaching of Paul about the bodily Resurrection so important (1 Cor 15:17) but we can set aside the bodily connection between Christ and Adam (1 Cor 15:20-21 and Romans 5:12-18)? That is the danger I see in accepting the evolutionary view of Enns and others.

    I think that is worth sounding a trumpet over so that each person can be aware of the teaching and study the ideas, constantly comparing them to what Scripture teaches. Likewise, you and others are sounding the trumpet against our teaching against evolutionary processes. You think we’re dangerous. We think you’re dangerous. We’re both warning everyone about each other. What a lovely mess.

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  3. Roger, your comment deserves some attention. I should start by saying that my intention is not to defend every word of Enns, Wile or others. I realize that their comments, or even mine, may carry a pejorative tone at times, even in the form of name calling. These shortcomings are rightly called out, and may be judged respectively according to proper Christian conduct, but we must be able and willing to forgive and overcome them if our search for truth is to be effective.

    It is fine that you disagree with my assessment of Ham's comments. My accusation is not really worth pressing—I am willing to deal rather with Ken's actual arguments (or those of AiG). But your citations of others' comments on YEC do elucidate the spirit that many feel Ken Ham embodied with his own comments about Enns. You rightly feel it is unfair when others question your integrity and resort to name calling. Those at Biologos and the homeschool convention felt the same about Ham's comments. Well...in judging, we have all judged ourselves. That is why I suggested we look to the gospels for the proper means to move on.

    Lastly, I will mention in passing that I agree with your comments on Paul's teaching. I don't see any reason to reject Adam as a historical figure with whom God made his covenant. Dr. Enns suggests that Adam was a metaphorical Israel—a 'proto-Israel'. Well, I agree, and would be happy to build on Dr. Enns' case. I don't think, however, that the positions are mutually exclusive. But that is the advantage of forums like Biologos. We can express our disagreement with Dr. Enns and build our own case for the edification of the church.

    I hope you don't feel that my disagreements with AiG posted hear are a means of "warning everyone" about YEC. I write here to interact with those that feel AiG has offered a sound scientific alternative to geologic history (i.e. scientific concordance with the Genesis question). I have said before that I think it is potentially dangerous to teach Flood geology and a young-Earth cosmology because *I believe* they have been thoroughly discredited. I have witnessed the effect on young Christians when they study science only to find out that AiG's critique of conventional geology doesn't actually hold up.

    So I will take your words to heart. If we are all "warning everyone about each other", then I have failed in my goal. I hope that is not the case; and if it is, that I may improve my approach.

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