One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic. Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination. We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.
But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap. I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies. My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.
I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources. But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.
Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course. There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church. If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.
Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of the church as a whole, at least in North America. You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.
We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment. While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t. We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.
But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point. It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch. Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”. The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.
Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other. And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest. I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.
The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic. The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ. When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important. So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water? We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.
May the peace of God be with you.