Political divisions and Christological heresies

I have been giving a lot of consideration lately to the political divisions within Christianity and it has got me wondering if the Christological heresies of the past haven’t disappeared so much as taken on new guises.

Conservatives show some distinct Docetic and Apollinarian tendencies at times. They can be much stronger on the divinity of Jesus than they are on the humanity of Jesus. I have witnessed many lose touch with the particularity of Jesus, with his Jewishness, with his socio-political context, with his real life texture. He can be reduced to a theological object, rather than a subject; as someone we can worship, but not practically model our lives after.

Progressives, on the other hand, show some distinct Ebionitic and Arian tendencies at times. They can be much stronger on the humanity of Jesus than they are on the divinity of Jesus. I have witnessed many lose touch with the universality of Jesus, with ability to challenge us cross culturally, with the uniqueness of his identity and achievements. He can be reduced to a one teacher among many; as someone special, sure, but not that special.

I am prompted, therefore, to consider the need for a renewed focus on Christology, on the possibility that Christianity’s divisions can only be reconciled with a renewed focus on Christ. That we need to more adequately explain and explicitly affirm both his humanity and his divinity, both his cultural rootedness and his transcending challenge.

Even where we disagree, could we agree on which issues are less important?

I think most Christians recognize that not all beliefs they hold are of equal of importance. Firstly there are those beliefs that Christians throughout history have considered essential to authentic Christianity. Consider, for instance, that the New Testament Canon and the Nicene Creed are affirmed for the most part by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions alike. Disagreements here generally put you BEYOND the Christian movement. Next there are those beliefs which, while still considered important, are not nearly so essential. It’s beliefs of this nature which often generate the most heated disagreements WITHIN the Christian movement. Lastly there are those beliefs that Christians that most Christians recognize as quite peripheral and entirely discretionary. On such matters there may be much diversity without any significant division. I think this is well summed up by the old saying:

In the essentials, unity
In the non-essentials, liberty
In everything, charity

Now, of late I have been thinking of whether a similar way of thinking could inform our understanding of Christian ethics. I noted with interest a call last week from some quarters for evangelical Christians to begin the healing process in the wake of the highly divisive election campaign recently held in America. It would seem that many think of our ethical differences in ways similar to the second category above, as important but not essential; as something we can disagree over without irrevocable division. Others however see the situation as far more dire. Now I find myself wondering, are some ethical issues more important than others? If so, which ones? Some clearly see homosexuality and abortion of first importance. Others would rank racism and care for the poor higher. Is there a way forward that, even where we disagree, we could agree on which issues are less important?

Christianity in many contexts

How do we tell which aspects of Christianity are more central and which aspects are most peripheral? Well one clue is to look at which aspects the Jesus and the apostles changed to suit the situation and which aspects they emphasised whatever the situation. Take for example the preaching of the gospel in the book of Acts. The apostles never preach it the same way twice. And yet some aspects of their preaching never change. It’s worth paying attention to which is which.

An ancient commentary on Christian unity and cultural diversity

Multicultural.pngHave you ever read The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus? If you haven’t you should, as it includes ancient commentary on Christian unity and cultural diversity that is just as relevant for today as it was when it was written in the second century. Mathetes (which means disciple in ancient Greek) has this to say:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus)

Did you get that? The ancients affirmed that the culture a Christian identifies with and what clothing styles a Christian prefers should not be what marks them out as a Christian; instead, what should mark out Christians as Christians is Christ-centred commitment and Christlike character. As the old saying goes: in the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.

Faux unity

Lately I’ve been wondering if trying to educate mainstream Christians about contextualisation is a bit wrong headed. Besides the fact that it burns you out (I say this from experience), the reality is traditional-contemporary churches already are contextualized for their constituencies – the increasingly marginalized pool of modernists in western society. They don’t talk about it this way of course, or realize how culturally marginalized they really are, but should we have hernias over it? It works for them.

To extend this line of thought, let’s no forget their forbears, the Amish. Should we try and ram contexualisation theory down their throats too? Hassle them to be more missional? But the Amish practice contextualisation! They have luddite churches for cultural luddites. Perfect fit! They don’t need our theories. The fact that their mission field is vanishingly small doesn’t change this.

Maybe I’m being facetious, but I say this because for all our efforts to educate mainstream Christians about contextualisation, all we see to be doing is sowing division. We focus on our distinctiveness, rub it up the noses of other Christians and wonder why they react the way the do. No, I think what we need to do instead is re-evaluate Christian unity. What is our basis for unity with other Christians? How do we exercise patience, kindness, humility and other fruits of the spirit in relations with them? How do we avoid the conflicts that invariably arise when parallel monocultural missions are pursued (remember Rowandra, South Africa, etc).

I think the real problem we have with modernist Christianity is its tendency to promote a faux unity, a unity that is not based on universals. Like the Hebrew Christians insisting that all Christians should refrain from meat offered to idols, get circumcised and practice kosher living, the Modernist evangelical-charistmatic insistence that we should all adopt their metaphors, their theological emphases, should be expose for what it is, cultural imperialism masquerading as universal truth. I’m thinking we shouldn’t be berating modernist Christians for their indifference towards contextual mission theory, what we should be critiquing them for is the same thing Paul critiqued the Hebrew Christians for – universalizing the relative, over-emphasisng non-essentials, adding to the gospel for people not of their (sub)culture and erecting stumbling blocks on the path to salvation. The irony is, the most strident voices of “bible-only” preaching are some of the worst culprits of reading cultural relativities into the universal gospel message. So let’s pray about it, let’s look for what we do have in common with our Christian siblings, lets focus a little less about our own distinctiveness in modernist Christian forums, and where we do feel that critique is being called for by the Spirit, lets focus on what Paul did, cultivating authentic unity.

A final note: with the explosion of sub-cultures within global society, on the net and on the streets, will there ever contextualised churches for every subculture? Within easy reach? I think the reality is we will be faced with people who don’t culturally fit within any church for some time to come yet, and maybe never get it fully right. Culture is shifting too quickly to contextualise for every emerging possibility. In such as environment, can we say the emerging church will ever fully emerge? As I person who straddles both the emerging church and the contemporary church and gets a sore ass in the process, I’ve come to think that maybe we’ll never get contextualisation fully right, but what we do need to get right, and get right now, is a biblical understanding of unity cultivation.