Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Jesus Christ, Our Benchmark For Authentic Faith (Mar-Apr 2002)

Filed under: — @ 12:37 am and

by Rubel Shelly
March – April, 2002

I suspect some degree of disagreement and breaking up into camps is inevitable in a fallen world populated with imperfect people. We humans are marvelously different in temperament, outlook, and taste. My best friend and I don’t like the same writers. We disagree about some important political issues. On the other hand, one of the people I like least sees some difficult issues the same way I do. If I let myself think about that too much, it’s downright scary.

Because this much is obviously true, intelligent and decent people pursue different dreams. They join different political parties. They read some biblical texts differently and are members of different denominations. These differences of view are in fact what created denominationalism.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell—these men were not in league with the devil to divide the “one church” of which the New Testament speaks but were in pursuit of Christ and attempting to renovate doctrine, polity, and practice they thought were more in keeping with heaven’s ideal for the church.

Sectarianism is a sizeable step beyond disagreement and separation. It is to divided Christianity what unrecoverable is to a computer crash or fatal is to a heart attack. It is a judgmental and divisive spirit that cannot tolerate differences. People infected with it assume they and their group are right about everything. They uphold everything their group does and for which it stands. They oppose everything and everybody in a different camp.

Contrary to the title and sentiment of a recent article I chanced to read, isolation and judgmentalism are not doctrinally sound. They are at the heart of a sectarian spirit. And that spirit is hateful to Christ and should be abhorrent to his followers as well.

For one thing, a sectarian spirit is arrogant. His choice of a denomination fixes his position on practically every issue. Her church membership makes thinking unnecessary—even undesirable. After all, other groups are wrong on everything. They couldn’t possibly be right—or they’d see everything the way she does.

“But we can’t all be right on predestination, church organization, the Lord’s Supper, and dozens of other important issues!” someone objects. “We need to be honest enough to tell the people who are wrong about those things they’re not right with God and therefore we can’t fellowship them.”

Of course we aren’t all right. We’re all wrong! Oh, we’re not all wrong about everything. But all of us have our blind spots—created by everything from ethnocentrism to sloppy scholarship to honest error. Salvation is neither by good works of moral behavior nor the good work of doctrinal perfectionism. It is through a personal relationship with Jesus that is created by a birth from above. The truth we must “know” and by whom alone we may be “made free” is personal rather than syllogistic, Jesus himself rather than a set of doctrines about him.

Second, sectarianism defies the teaching of Christ. He confronted the sectarian spirit of his disciples one day as they reported (with apparent satisfaction) that they had tried to stop a man from casting out demons “because he was not following us.” This was his response: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40).

“But if the Baptist (Pentecostal, Nazarene, etc.) Church is saving souls, every other denomination should just take down their sign and join them!” protests another. “If they’re doing the job right—especially if they’re making more converts than we are—then we have no justification for our existence.” In some settings, that is probably correct. And it is only sectarian pride that demands that one group “move in on” and “compete with” a given group of Bible-believing, Christ-honoring souls rather than join with and encourage them.

In the majority of cases, however, it likely is not best to try to fit every heart into one cluster of believers. Back to the first paragraph of this article, there are just too many differences in temperament, outlook, and taste to permit it—without the sort of coercion that has been attempted again and again across Christian history. “One size fits all” may be a practical idea with cheap socks, but not with anything really important and in which people invest their lives and destinies.

Third, sectarianism confuses the task and mission of the church. Churches—whether Baptist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, or Pentecostal—are not arbiters of truth, and those of us who are members of churches are not commissioned of God to judge one another. To the contrary, there is an apostolic word to us: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).

“But where does it stop?” screams a passionate brother. It certainly stops at Jesus. If we confess his own claims, we must confess him to be the Way, Truth, and Life who alone provides access to the Father (John 14:6). The one thing about which one cannot be wrong and still be a Christian is Christ. Surely there will be people in heaven who have been wrong about everything else. Indeed, if that is not the case, how could I ever be sure that the essential list of necessary items about which one must be infallibly correct is mine? Or do I embrace yours? Or do we both abandon the search in neurotic exhaustion? I know people who have done just that out of a variety of backgrounds because they had believed the lie of sectarianism.

All Bible-believing churches are in danger of being sectarian. Members of denominations and non-denominations alike have been guilty of it at one time or another, to one degree or another, to one level of harm or another.

As a friend observed recently, there seems to be a refreshing move of the Holy Spirit in many quarters that encourages everyone—everyone, that is, except those who are sectarian. Community Bible Study and Women’s/Men’s Bible Fellowship Groups are drawing hundreds of thousands together for a fresh reading of the Word of God. Promise Keepers, the Billy Graham Crusades, and many similar efforts provide people who have known each other only in caricature the chance to know how sincere the passion for Christ really is in the larger body of Christ. People, these are things for which we surely ought to be praising God rather than growing defensive!

The time has come to be mature enough to admit our limited grasp of the biblical data without feeling compromised. Strong convictions don’t have to be borne with an ugly, hypercritical attitude toward others. If I didn’t believe my view on this or that was correct, I’d believe something else. If I didn’t think the group with which I am affiliated affirms the principle of free and unfettered inquiry, I’d align with another. Such a spirit is neither cynicism, uncertainty, nor disbelief. It is a much rarer trait that is properly called humility.

The benchmark is Jesus Christ, not the Church of Christ. It is Jesus Christ, not the Lutheran Church. It is Jesus Christ, not the Roman Catholic Church. It is Jesus Christ. Not tradition. It is Jesus Christ. Not the Bible as translated by a certain person or group or as interpreted by a given hermeneutic, trained exegete, or polemic champion. Jesus Christ!

Honest inquiry in seeking after Christ is wholesome. It fosters modesty. And it protects us from the conceit that makes our collective rhetoric about the gospel insufferable to a watching world.

Even when we are tempted most strongly, may God deliver us from ever again choosing sectarianism over an honest pursuit of Jesus Christ.New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly

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