Last post, I identified the need for Christians to trust Jesus to build his church. However, the other side of the ‘train track’ in this case is that, of course, God’s church consists of people, their actions and the faith they claim as their own. In the cases of Athanasius and Luther, whom I mentioned, I wonder, as they were being excommunicated, persecuted and generally defamed how much they saw God’s sovereignty working itself out. For they did not sit back idly and assume that God would work it all out! They fought with great vehemence for sound doctrine and practice. Whether God could have done it without them or not, their contribution is to be valued.
It seems to me that one of the significant issues in the Christian world today, irrespective of denomination, is unity. My first main encounter with it came in the Uniting Church when Resolution 84 upset the applecart. More recently, I have come into contact with this issue in the Anglican church. Incidentally, both churches are dealing with the same issue: whether the church should condone / appoint / ordain homosexual ministers. In the first instance, my pastor cautioned me not to be too outspoken. He said our conversation should be ‘seasoned with salt’, that is, pleasant to those who ‘taste’ it. Whether or not this a correct interpretation of the saltiness of our words, his point remained: I was not to offend.
However, reading church history, I see very little concern for avoiding offense where the gospel is at stake. It’s not that I think rudeness is in any way Christian. After all, I have already pointed out the shortcomings of Luther’s rash words. However, many of the church fathers were characterised by their fierce defense of very fine points of doctrine, irrespective of the fact that it was unpopular.
Why? I take it, it was because they understood that to defend the gospel is to defend the lifeblood of the church. And because they understood that the church is not the institution. I am confounded when I hear those who express a desire for unity with ‘fellow Anglicans’ or some other denomination without first stopping to consider whether that person is a Christian! I think of Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote to Nestorius of Constantinople shortly before the Council of Chalcedon, exhorting him to balance his teaching in case he should lead some astray and bring ‘implacable wrath’ upon himself. While Cyril doesn’t denounce Nestorius (or his views, which, by the way, were proclaimed heretical at Chalcedon) his warning is clear: there is no salvation other than that which is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any unity which is to last in any way must be founded on this very gospel, not on the institution which may or may not place its confidence in this message. Church history teaches us that human institutions rise and fall. It is not the institution that endures to eternal life but the people for whom Jesus is preparing a place in Heaven.
This is why doctrine matters. This is why these figures fought so vehemently over what seem to be minor points to us. This is why offense, if it is offensive because of the message of the gospel, is so vital to the health of the church. To know this gospel, to recognise those who distort or falsify it and to stand with passion in defense of the gospel, from any attack, whether within or without the institution of the church, THIS is the human responsibility that church history calls us to. Let us take courage and trust the sovereign Lord to strengthen us for the fight.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.