Monday, May 6, 2013

What If The First Century Church Had Split?

It could have easily happened.

In 50 AD all the factors were ripe for a major church division that could have split the church in two, drastically altering Christian history and even resulting in our having a different Bible.

The apostle Peter, the Jerusalem church's lead pastor and missionary, had crossed a line many found shocking. According to the Acts 11 lectionary text for the fourth Sunday in Easter, he had broken bread with, and actually baptized, members of a Gentile household headed by Cornelius, a well known officer of the despised occupying Roman army.

For many Jewish believers, this was unthinkable, but Peter insisted this was at heaven's urging. God's Spirit had shown him a vision of a sordid array of unclean and forbidden creatures that would have normally repulsed him, then instructed him to prepare and eat them to his heart's content, since God had declared them to be good.

This was not so much a lesson on dietary taboos as it was a powerful visual and visceral metaphor for how Peter was to overcome an equally strong distaste for fraternizing with unclean and outcast people. Any close fellowship with gentiles would once have made his stomach churn in disgust.

Just prior to this, in Acts 8, this same apostle had crossed a similar line in welcoming a group of formerly reviled but recently baptized Samaritans. But these people were at least circumcised and could be thought of as half-Jews. And they did accept the Septuagint as their Holy Book.

Another pre-Cornelius incident described in Acts 8 was that of deacon and evangelist Philip baptizing an Ethiopian. Not only was this foreigner a member of different race, but as a eunuch would have been considered abnormal in a genital and sexual way, and thus excluded from worship in the Jewish temple, along with all uncircumcised men. All of this was based on the Torah, the only Bible these early Christians had.

Fortunately, the leaders and members of the first century Christian church were also immersed in other Hebrew scriptures that envisioned former outsiders of all nations (goyim) being gathered into God's arms. And thank God the church agreed to stay together in spite of how hard it was to deal with the implications of Peter's vision and his story. Remarkably, they did this without insisting on gentile outsiders conforming to Jewish practice.

The sobering fact is that most of us would not be believers today if members of the first century church had conveniently separated into two denominations, one circumcised (and following the Torah holiness codes) and the other made up of uncircumcised Gentiles, Samaritans, eunuchs and those who sided with them. Had that kind of schism happened, the Christian faith would not have survived in its present form, and likely not have spread as it did. Furthermore, the New Testament itself may have never come into being as we know it, as there would have been a felt need for a separate set of Christian texts for each group.

Sadly, since then we Christians have separated from each other with alarming ease, resulting in estimates of up to 100,000 different denominations, sects, subgroups and offshoots of the faith existing in the world today, in spite of Jesus' fervent prayer that there be but "one flock and one shepherd," the Lord alone. "By this shall all know that you are my followers," he said, "that you show love for each other."

This straightforward test is one we have all miserably failed.

The other lectionary texts for that same week point to the problem. We Christians, and especially our leaders, have forgotten that the church isn't about us, and that our first and foremost obligation is to join all creation in glorifying, exalting and praising our Creator (Psalm 148), and to respect God's desire that all humanity be formed together into one unified and glorious "New Jerusalem" (Revelation 21), a love-filled, holy and whole people-city that is to be God's eternal dwelling place. God wants to inhabit us, not temples, cathedrals or other human-made monuments or institutions.

But we have falsely come to believe that the church is about our personal or institutional legacies, about our own ambitions for the church's shape and its future, rather than allowing our one and only God, whose primary attribute is love, to reign supreme.

In my lifetime, Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) became one of the first colleges in the South to integrate. This happened in 1948, six years before the Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education ruling. Even then, EMC's integration didn’t take place until 31 years after its founding, but it was nevertheless a Cornelius kind of event.

In my own family, one of my nieces, as a young adult in the late 70's, fell in love with the only African-American member of her conservative Mennonite congregation, a young man in her youth group who has since proved to be a great husband and father. But in a still largely segregated old-South community, it was an extremely hard issue to deal with. Yet after much prayer and deliberation, the church felt led to support their marriage as blessed of God. Another Cornelius event.

An even more difficult decision faced the congregation of which I was pastor during that same time period. This one involved a young couple who were new believers and wanted to become members of our church. But the husband had been previously married, albeit briefly, and our church had never received a divorced and remarried couple as members before, so their request led to a lot of agonizing over Jesus' teachings on the sanctity of marriage.

Eventually, with the blessing of Virginia Conference, our church adopted a position of accepting people in covenanted relationships with the understanding that they remain faithful to their vows and "divorce no more." Was this another Cornelius event? Not everyone totally agreed, but we nevertheless stayed together.

In the first century, the church faced the extremely divisive question of whether to welcome "goyim" (word for non-Jewish nations or individuals) into the church. In the 21st century, the equally distressing issue we’re being forced to face is whether or how we accept “gays” (word for non-heterosexuals) into our fellowship.

Meanwhile, while theologians and church leaders continue to debate this question, how are we to minister pastorally to the estimated 3-5% of our members and potential members with a different sexual orientation from the rest of us--through no choice of their own? What help can we offer gay teens and young people who are 2 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers? How can we even reach them as long as they feel they must suffer in silence rather than risk rejection if they come out?  And if they do disclose, can we offer them a "cure" for their condition? Or if not, can we effectively support them in remaining "eunuch" and celibate for the rest of their lives?

While the latter has been my lifelong position, these are the kinds of questions that should drive all people of compassion to their knees--together.

You can access my article in the May, 2013, issue of the Mennonite "Disagreements are Inevitable, Divisions are Optional" with this link. Two other posts on this topic can be accessed by typing in "church unity"  on my blog home page, on the upper left just above the word "Harvspot."

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