Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Can churches disagree and still stay together?

When it comes to church, theologian Scot McKnight says, different is good. He argues that it should be comprised of people who are dissimilar ethnically, socioeconomically and, to some degree, doctrinally. - (Image courtesy of Seier + Seier - http://bit.ly/1aKab5Z)
When it comes to church, theologian Scot McKnight says, different is good. He argues that it should be comprised of people who are dissimilar ethnically, socioeconomically and, to some degree, doctrinally.  - (Image courtesy of Seier + Seier - http://bit.ly/1aKab5Z)

When it comes to church, theologian Scot McKnight says, different is good. He argues that it should be comprised of people who are dissimilar ethnically, socioeconomically and, to some degree, doctrinally. – (Image courtesy of Seier + Seier – http://bit.ly/1aKab5Z)

Growing up in the American Bible Belt means I have witnessed more than my share of “church splits.” Sometimes these schisms occur over doctrinal differences, but often they arise from interpersonal issues such as disagreements over carpet color, placement of piano benches, and the spelling of “hallelujah.” Some studies indicate there are as many as 19,000 “major, scarring church conflicts” in the U.S. annually.

But theologian Scot McKnight says that the Bible envisions churches of diversity, difference, and disagreement. In “A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together,” he argues that church shouldn’t be a two-hour Sunday experience where you see friends and hear a sermon with people like you. Rather it should be a mix of people living together who are dissimilar ethnically, socioeconomically and, to some degree, doctrinally. Here we discuss these ideas and where he would draw lines, if at all.

RNS: You say that the Apostle Paul envisioned a church with people who differ. In which ways should churches seek diversity?

SM: Paul mapped his universe with a series of binaries in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. They were Jew-Gentile, slave-free, male-female, barbarian-Scythian. Race and religion and status and economics and gender and, while it is not clear, it appears the last one has to do with social status.

Paul provides a template here for our thinking: in Christ all things have been transcended to form a unity that establishes a new kind of community. Not by way of eradicating diversity but by embracing diversity in a deeper unity. One need not fear Jews losing Jewishness or females their gender; but those identities are transcended with a deeper unity in Christian fellowship that magnifies difference as it simultaneously embraces unity.

Image courtesy of Zondervan

Image courtesy of Zondervan

RNS: Some say that people are naturally drawn to those within their own ethnicity. Is a truly multi-ethnic church even possible? 

I like your wording: “even possible.” You nailed it. You know the hill is steep and the path more than challenging. There’s not pretending here; we have seen that idyllic or even idle speculations won’t make it happen. So yes, it’s possible but nearly impossible. Hence, my book begins with Grace and then moves to Love, for only by God’s gracious power of transformation and God’s love awakening in us a love for others can we begin to form the kind of community that we are destined for in the kingdom of God. [tweetable]Someday the church will all be one; it’s time for us to begin living out that unity.[/tweetable]

RNS: What about theology? Shouldn’t there be boundaries to how much we should differ in fellowship?

RNS: The boundary is the gospel and what Carl Trueman calls the “creedal imperative,” the genuine need for clear articulations of what we believe. Salvation also forms a clear boundary: the differentedness cannot undo the gospel and its clear message about salvation.

RNS: You dedicate a whole chapter to sexuality, and some say that different views on this issue can exist within the same fellowship. What say you?

SM: First, yes, because different views are already at work in the church. More diverse perhaps than many pastors and priests and elders and leaders know. We are united not by “light”–what we know and what we agree on–but by new “life” in Christ–our redemption. In most churches, some will affirm traditional views on sexuality while others won’t. I am persuaded that we need to stay together as long as we can.

Second, no, if it means strident fighting for a view that undoes the Bible’s central themes and clear teachings or that demands everyone must agree all the way down the line. The crack-up for one denomination after another results from a failure to listen to one another, a failure to stay with one another as we grow in grace, and sometimes from a necessary departure from those we believe no longer respect the unity that God wants among us.

Third, everything we teach about sexuality needs to be framed by the themes of grace and redemption. The aim is redemption and we must turn ourselves toward the cross and resurrection for that redemption. God does the redeeming, not us.

RNS: You also have a whole chapter on salvation, and many churches separate over convictions on this issue. What is the solution?

SM: I assume you mean theories of salvation and justification and even subsitutionary atonement. Once again, we are looking at Christians who have genuine disagreements based on acceptable methods and attentive exegesis, who think any other view departs from the genuine faith. There are a few variant metaphors for salvation and atonement and none deserves control of the doorway. Instead we magnify the work of our God by exploring each of the images of salvation and turning each loose to reveal to us the grace of God. We damage the expansiveness of our witness when we force all metaphors to submit to our preferred metaphor.

RNS: You talk about “the table” as an important concept in building this kind of church. Explain.

SM: For us to become the church God wants – the church we will be in the kingdom of God in the new heavens and the new earth – we must learn now the art of table fellowship. Christians have created a pulpit culture where the faithful sit in pews to listen and greet and sing and then leave.

Jesus gave to us the image of the table as the place of grace and the place of fellowship. At the table, we are equals and the cross is the ruler. At the table, we sit alongside one another and face the cross. At the table, we know who we are – fellow sinners alike in need of grace – and we join hands to give praise to God. At the table, we learn one another’s names, one another’s stories and one another’s loves and sorrows. At the table, we learn to live as a fellowship.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

18 Comments

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  • Too many people draw lines in the sand where the Bible hasn’t drawn them at all. Scot’s reference to Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative is helpful. Trueman points out where lines are drawn in Scripture, and by extension, as Scot leads us to see, we should otherwise be welcoming, hospitable, and seeking to fellowship despite differing ideas on some matters.

    It’s like Paul said in Philippians 3:15 – “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” He didn’t kick anyone out for thinking differently. He brought everyone together despite thinking differently.

  • Primarily, I strongly believe that Church Organisation and Unity is the work of the Holy Spirit and that what Man sees is not what God sees. We know that God does not value what Man values.

    That given, we know that Man’s view Unity of is most likely in opposition to God – Man sees it in primitively base temporal values of mere language, race/skin color, economics, IQ and even personalities. Others insist on exacting doctrines dogmas, liturgies even specifically constructed hierarchies.

    Man therefore commits his efforts to press his values together and blend to a consistency he sees fit. These church constructions fail within as little as one generation – as the fruits come to bear – one can always trust that Man’s ideals will always stumble.

    The Fruit of the Spirit is relational and its positives point to the existence of the negatives. Every church is a melting pot of diversities EVEN IF it is a 25 member all-white family Scandinavian church in North Dakota!

    My view: Fellowship remains a hot furnace, no matter how much we fiddle with the thermostat OR the fuel.

  • Christianity, built on a foundation of creeds and not deeds, has always been centered on conformity of thought. It would be far better to be more like our religious roots in Judaism of celebrating faith stories and then allowing those stories to inspire us to define how we care for others.

    It’s easy to see how our creedal history developed in response to a perceived never-ending debate of defining one’s deeds, or practice of faith, though. But the unintended consequences of this has clearly been a hyper-obsession with conformity rather than a celebration of diversity.

    The other component of this often ignored is the recognition how those who are most insecure about their own theological story are the ones most threatened by other theological stories. Any time in our religious history we have had reform, those thoughts and practices were first seen as heretical. Such is the current idea and push for diversity of theological thought within a body of believers, but it will stand the test of time as what is best and the healthier path where we can/should journey faith together.

    How we demonstrate the love and grace we make bold claims about knowing clearly defines how much we truly understand love and grace.

  • I wouldn’t even go as far as to talk about churches. We have problems on an individual level where everybody is the world authority on whatever subject, and nobody seems to be listening. In the epistles of John it’s clear that we’d be known by our love for one another, but unfortunately majority of churches revolve around what makes us different from them, and why we’re great and they suck (purposefully using that word cause Im sick of politically correct hypocrisy). We theologians have somehow turned a faith characterized by love into a religion of pointing fingers. Sad.

  • I’ve been led to believe that the early church was more praxis oriented. That way you could more easily have diversity in unity than after the fourth century where the Roman state under Constantine demanded (for political reasons, primarily). I worship in a liturgical tradition. Although we recite and believe the creeds the focus is on the presence of Christ in our midst and not what we individually think about Christ in our midst. It doesn’t eliminate friction but it does make it easier not to ostracize one another.

  • The revealed Truth from God can not be diluted or enhanced by any human authority. The world quarrels as to who knows this truth and how this truth is taught. We work from the same sources, yet come up with multiple interpretations. Something is wrong, and that error lies in our desire to reshape God to the way we think.
    People say God’s Word is ancient, ergo stuck in an historical timeframe that is irrelevant today. This is wrong, for God’s Word is eternal, perfect wisdom, and as timely today as it was for Moses. Our theologians need to agree on this fact, and teach us how to apply properly these “old” truths to an ever changing society. Certainly, God was not foolish enough to give one generation of people His Word and not think of the future. Since revelation ended with Jesus, His Word is to suffice until the end of time.

  • “Since revelation ended with Jesus, His Word is to suffice until the end of time.”

    Revelation did not end with Jesus, James C … if it did, why would Jesus have said:

    But the Helper (Advocate), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

    This is an ongoing REVELATORY Light. Some may not like the word “light”, but it is said:

    This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that GOD IS LIGHT, and in him is no darkness at all.

    Peace

  • This does not happen in one or two councils … (of the “old”) as Light is of the opine (active) unto Prophesy. Prophesy is the EVOLVING of Man and God. One has to “hear” Holy Scripture to “understand” this revelation.

  • Jesus was the last prophet, the Son of God equal in substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit. No new revelations will be forthcoming, only fuller understanding of what has been handed on to us.

  • Jonathan, Here’s your answer …

    “The revealed Truth from God can not be diluted or enhanced by any human authority. The world quarrels as to who knows this truth and how this truth is taught. We work from the same sources, yet come up with multiple interpretations. Something is wrong, and that error lies in our desire to reshape God to the way we think. WHILE SAYING … Compared to you, yes, I am the expert on this issue. Your comment lacks any theological reason. Sorry, I’m smarter than you.”

    So … cannot be diluted or enhanced by human authority … but my comment lacks theological reason? So … where does Sir James get his reasoning? His Magisterium?

    And they wonder why they have this …
    http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/2761/converting-churches-into-mosques

  • Of course I do. The Roman Catholic Church, born from the lips of Christ, owns and safeguards the full deposit of Faith. It is also the arbiter on all matters of morals and faith…….for the world….not just the Catholic Faithful. Even the Church has no authority to change what it teaches.

  • First, Huzzah.

    second– nonsense about the censorship. They will let just about anything past, as long as you don’t use bad words, tell someone to die, or threaten others. If there is a problem with missing comments, it’s much more likely about faulty software.

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