Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Controversy, division and unity in the body of Christ

Let me state it upfront: I hate it. I hate conflict. I avoid disagreeing with people if I can help it. As for controversies, if they’re confined to the realm of sports, fine, but not anywhere else. Especially not the church.

And yet I find that if I am to continue in the Christian life, inevitably I will come face-to-face with controversy. Sweeping it under the carpet and nodding politely at each other just will not cut it in the long run. I’ve been thinking a lot on this lately. A few reasons: the continued rising of the theological temperature here in Britain – it's not the purpose of this post to delve into this; for details, see here. The amount of time I’ve been spending in 2 Timothy, especially the first 2 chapters, which have plenty to say about division, opposition, quarrelling, staying faithful and the like. Some of JollyBlogger’s recent musings on unity - Why We haven’t changed the world and How Paul resolved problems. And that while Jesus’ kingdom most definitely was inclusive in that anyone, Jew, Gentile, woman, child, outcast could enter it, it also had an exclusive nature, for refusal to listen and obey the Word means that you are an outsider to the kingdom.

And I guess some stuff that has been festering for a while now, probably arising from my undergraduate days, such as the extent we can communicate and miscommunicate with the “other”, also contributed to this. And finally, there is my background: having grown up in comparatively “charismatic” Christian circles before attending “conservative evangelical” churches in the UK – rather than completely rejecting my heritage, I often find myself looking for points of convergence. (I’m not completely won over to the term, but I suppose I’m a post-charismatic. See more on what that might mean here.)

There must indeed be a place, indeed, an active seeking, for unity. I’ve been reading a book by Bruce Milne in which he argues passionately for a church that must look like a reconciled community, and to that end, he argues for congregations that display diversity, in race, in gender, in age. I was privileged to have grown up in a church which was fairly multi-racial, and have been blessed as well to have been able to meet people of many nationalities during my time in the UK. In fact, one of my biggest desires would be to have a church in Malaysia that mirrors its social makeup. But this isn’t just any superficial unity. According to Ephesians 2:11-22, it is Jesus’ act of atonement that unites; we unite because of the cross. But also, to put a different spin on the same proposition, the cross creates community. In other words, because of the cross, we should be one.

Yet there must be a time for contending the truth. We see it in early church history, where various people stood for the doctrines of the Trinity, affirming the deity of Christ and so on. In 2 Timothy, it’s really clear, Paul talks about guarding the gospel. For false teaching "ruin the hearers" and "lead people into more and more ungodliness". Notice that I said false teaching. In my earlier post examining 2 Tim 2:14-26, one of the things I initially missed was that many who propagate false teachings can actually be genuine believers. Yet it must be opposed, because of the serious consequences. This is why we can’t all just get along. One of the main objections to controversy, which I’m sympathetic to, is one of needing to get on the task with mission instead of bickering with one another. However, in truth, it is precisely because we need to get on in doing kingdom work that debate needs to take place, false teaching needs to be stopped if it is identified as such, and in certain cases, division needs to happen to avoid further draining of energy and time.

For me, the struggle has always been, how do we know which situation is which? When is it right to agree to disagree? When must we rise up and actively oppose error? When is it okay to put it on the backburner? Now the classic statement on this, often attributed to Augustine, is 'in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity'. But this doesn’t always solve the problem – for the main issue usually then becomes: what is essential? For most people, and I do agree, it is the gospel. But there is increasing confusion over what the gospel constitutes. Indeed, that is what the current controversy over penal substitution is all about.This is where I get frustrated. Clarity seems so elusive – it is very difficult to spot what is false teaching and what is merely a legitimate difference of opinion.

But I also get frustrated at what sometimes seems to me a deliberate muddying of the waters. Accusations abound: "by whose orthodoxy? Whose interpretation?"; "you’re just trying to preserve power"; "We're really the true Christians, you're the ones who are being too liberal/conservative". Which is why, despite all the challenges posed by the current state of play in the field of epistemology and hermeneutics, I think that we need to get back to the Word of God and acknowledge its authority (which, as Tom Wright for example has shown, is ultimately acknowledging the authority of God Himself). One of the things that struck me was a comment made at the retreat I was at. One of the staff workers remarked that he winces whenever he hears people say: “The St. Helen’s line on issue X is…” (St. Helen's is the church I’m at). For him, it’s not what the church says, but what the Bible, God’s Word says; the same Word that the church tries to teach as faithfully as possible, knowing that this is how the living God speaks.

At the same time we have a mandate to practise the fruit of "gentleness". This isn’t just to do with tone, although it is that. It is also to do with giving the benefit of the doubt.

This post has already gone on for too long and has been very hard to write - I've deleted whole paragraphs and kept changing the way I word things! So I'll just end with the words of Francis Schaeffer:
In John 13 and 17, Jesus talks about a real seeable oneness, a practicing oneness, a practical oneness across all lines, among all true Christians.

The Christian really has a double task. He has to practice both God's holiness and God's love. The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God's character of holiness and love. Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness. Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise. Anything that an individual Christian or Christian group does that fails to show the simultaneous balance of the holiness of God and the love of God presents to a watching world not a demonstration of the God who exists but a caricature of the God who exists.

According to the Scripture and the teaching of Christ, the love that is shown is to be exceedingly strong. It is not just something you mention in words once in a while.
- The Mark of the Christian
A less clumsy effort worth reading: Warning: Heresy contains biohazardous materials

† Expand post


Blogger The Hedonese said...

hey bro, these questions are coming back to haunt me recently with the Agora SIngapore youths trying to come up with a doctrinal statement...

a lot of the discussions going back and forth are energy sapping, but I hope in the end, it would bear fruit in greater unity and commitment to a common goal :)

Thanks for sharing those thots

1:51 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Yes, these are not easy questions are they? I think one of the things I should have said more about in my post is also that unity is not just for unity's sake, but because it glorifies God and honours Christ. So if we see that, we will not tolerate false teaching, since a unity that includes that will not glorify God, but it also means that we will strive to be loving to those we have legitimate differences of opinion, and not go beyond what the Lord Jesus or Scripture says. Keeping Christ at the center also humbles us, as we check our own attitudes - am I loving God and my neighbour in this debate? Or am I looking to score points? - and also tests our convictions: that truth robs Gof of his glory, and so we should contend for it.

Obviously this doesn't solve the problem of what is false teaching, what is truly a threat to the gospel, but it gives us a starting point.

The Agora SG people might also want to look at this Grudem article: Why, When and for what should we draw new boundaries?, available here (scroll to the bottom), to help stimulate thought. THe UCCF doctrinal basis might be useful too, I always thought it clear and succint. But before all that, maybe let's read John 17 first. :-p

10:16 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

hey bk.. forgive my ignorance but im not sure what exactly seems to be happening over there in terms of conflict.. and the link provided hasnt exactly enlightened me...

im interested in finding out more? whats been happening.. could you provide a succint summary..? haha. are we talking about sanctioning heresy within the Church (a personal favourite since its my thesis topic this year!) or anything along those lines???


7:03 am  
Blogger mad_scientist said...

Ah Brian, so true, so true ...
In this world, even in Christian circles, things are getting so messed up that many are asking Pilate's 2000-year-old question in despair, "What is truth??".

Some clam up in their own worlds, others stop asking questions and start hugging everyone, still others continue to choose to "buy truth and do not sell it" (Prov. 23:23).

More to say next time (it's 2am alredi!), but I'll say now that in the end, it must always connect back to God. This ain't another association or group of people, and this isn't just another form of philosophy ... it's GOD's Body, it's GOD's Truth.

6:40 pm  
Blogger BK said...

I'll try my best, Tim.

Basically, the controversy is over the doctrine of penal substitution. Responsibly stated, this is the doctrine that "God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty of sin" (from Pierced for our Transgressions by Ovey et al.). This is a doctrine that many Christians, including myself, believe to be right at the heart of the gospel.

Penal substitution has always been anathema to liberals, who see it as ghastly and primitive. However, in recent decades, it began to be questioned by moderates and evangelicals as well in academic writings. Arguably the most influential book in this regard is The Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker, but there are others as well, such as J. Denny Weaver's The NonViolent Atonement.

Steve Chalke, a well-known leader here in the UK, together with Alan Mann, then wrote a book in 2003 called The Lost Message of Jesus, which I guess brought such thinking to a more popular level. I just read it recently and was struck by how similar it was in content to Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus. He took the motif of the kingdom of God, influenced by the likes of N.T Wright and wrote passionately about God's love, his inclusive nature, and the cosmic reach of the gospel message to include the need for social justice etc. Unfortunately, in doing so, he also seemed to deny penal substitution, and in a now infamous paragraph, called it "cosmic child abuse". In this paragraph, he railed against those who could believe that God poured out his wrath against the innocent Son.

We have a split here between his critics, who see him as denying penal substitution, and his defenders, who claim that he is merely attacking those who present a caricature of such a doctrine. He "clarified" (actually, added to the confusion!) in a subsequent article, called "Redeeming the Cross", which did seem to imply that he really was attacking penal substitution.

There was a backlash, and I regret to say, that some people did seem to go on a witchhunt. The Evangelical Alliance, a broad umbrella group, then called for a symposium on the matter. Among those who presented papers defending penal substitution was the famous Methodist scholar I. Howard Marshall and Garry Williams, whereas Joel Green travelled from America to present what he thought was a more biblical understanding of the cross.

Battle lines, however, were being drawn. Spring Harvest, which is the biggest Christian conference here in the UK, began having tensions with UCCF, which is the equivalent to FES Australia, and Keswick Ministries, who were their partners in running the conference. Spring Harvest continued to allow Chalke to speak on their platform, UCCF/Keswick disagreed. This resulted in them finally splitting earlier this month.

There seem to be 3 distinct groups in this debate. The first are those who deny penal substitution altogether. The second are those who hold penal substitution is just one of many images of what Jesus did for us on the cross (the others being the Christus Victor motif, which means conquest over evil; Jesus as our moral example, and so on). The third group is those who hold that penal substitution is the base metaphor out of which all other images spring. So they certainly do not deny that there are many metaphors being used in describing the atonement, but that penal substitution lies at the heart of it. Sometimes the second group accuses the third group of being reductionistic in their understanding of Scripture by holding onto penal substitution so closely.

Actually, if you have a look at this post (make sure you read all the comments!), it helps bring out the points of differences in the debate more sharply. Although this post was concerned with the emerging church, the comments were mainly thinking through what the atonement means.

The other piece to read is by Mark Meynell, who currently is on staff at All Souls, John Stott's church. I'm always recommending his book: Cross-Examined, as the very first book everyone should read on the cross. He's done some reflecting on some of the recent controversies here (PDF).

For myself, I think I'm pretty sure that denying penal substitution is very serious indeed. Heresy? I don't dare make the charge yet. I think Chalke is an engaging writer, asks good questions, and does pinpoint some of our weaknesses as evangelicals. But I'm not sure of the route he took to get there; at the very least, he's treading on dangerous ground.

OK, there's always more to say, but that should be more than enough for now.

8:00 pm  
Blogger Edwin Tay said...

Just touching base with this note BK. I'm also keeping track of the controversy. I wish Chalke will state things clearly: whether he rejects caricatures of PS or of PS in its accurate form. I wonder if it gets harder to be straightforward the more influential one becomes.

2:00 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Thanks Edwin. Maybe Steve himself isn't quite clear on the matter? All the best on the PhD.

10:26 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Links to this post:

Create a Link