Which Church Is Best?: Old First E-pistle 04.04.14

A friend’s synagogue’s soup kitchen is getting displaced from the church it had operated out of (and worked well with in this and other joint endeavors) for over 20 years. The church has to lease out the space to raise money to keep going.

But another congregation, one with which she wasn’t familiar, is offering space. She figured I might be able to tell her something about this other church community. Basically, she was asking, “Will it be a comfortable, even safe space, for Jews?” It’s sad that whether they’d be respected (and not evangelized) has to be asked, but — particularly within church walls — it does.

I didn’t know the church she was asking about either. It’s name didn’t clearly tell who or what or where it is on the religious spectrum. I looked at their website. I did some reading of their history. And their beliefs. I even checked out a sermon or two. I suddenly felt like I needed a refresher course on my American Church History Class in seminary!

I’m pretty sure the church is an independent offshoot of the American Restorationist movement that began in Kentucky and western Pennsylvania during the Second Great Awakening in the early part of the 19th century. Also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement, Campbellites or Campbellism, it sought to restore church unity and bring all Christians together in a single body patterned after the church of the New Testament. Therefore, instead of any other labels, congregations of this tradition mean to be known only as “Christian.”

The largest, mainline incarnation of this stream of Christianity is the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ with which the United Church of Christ has been in a full communion partnership for over 25 years. But there are, ironically, at least four other denominations that have sprung from these origins. The congregation my friend was asking about, as I said, might be an independent congregation of this tradition.

My foray in to church history research has reminded me that religious groups self-define and differentiate around various distinctions that they determine most important.

Whether that is church unity. Or welcoming all without distinctions.

Or ritual purity or dogmatic correctness.

Service and social justice. Behavioral expectations and codes.

Historical connections.

Modes of authority…

It’s kind of sweet… there’s some pathos in people keeping on trying to get their religion right.

But there’s a problem with such a tack too. It leaves almost every Christian tradition trying to occupy the ecclesiastical or spiritual high ground. Fancying themselves — explicitly or implicitly — as the genuine followers of Jesus Christ, the descendants of the true New Testament church. Claiming that what they got right is the most important thing to get right. And that everyone else is mistaken, not the real thing, fakers, wannabes. “Those people are Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist… But we’re the true Christians!”

Examples of this Christian superiority complex are easy to come by:

~ The Eastern Orthodox churches confess that they alone are “the one true church of Christ on earth.”

~ The Roman Catholic Church has claimed that “outside the church (they mean “their church”), there is no salvation.” I like Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage’s directness, as early as the 3rd century: who in the first part of the 3rd century C.E. wrote: “you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother.”

~ Protestants inherited the Christian superiority complex encoded into the DNA of their faith. Whereas Orthodox and Catholic traditions leave the interpretation of the Bible to the authority of the church, the Protestant Reformation reversed this claim. It placed the Bible — newly translated into the everyday languages of the people — directly into the hands of individual believers to read for themselves. It raised the authority of Scripture (or a specific interpretation of it!) to decrease the power of the institutional church.

This revolutionized the role of the Bible in the church, but created new problems. There’s a Protestant inclination to radical individualism and sectarian splintering into endless new denominations, each one of which believes its understanding of Scripture parses the truth better than the others. The Orthodox scholar George Florovsky called this Protestant view of Scripture the “sin of the Reformation” — it led to endless divisions and arbitrary, subjective and privatistic interpretations. It’s not a big leap or a long slippery slope from a legitimate personal encounter with God through one’s own use of the Bible, unmediated by church authority, to a tragic narrowing of the Gospel that generates sects and cults.

Our scripture at past Thursday evening’s Lenten Devotional Service was the story of James and John asking Jesus to have the best seats, on his right and his left, in the Kingdom. This Christian superiority complex again.

Mark’s use of the brothers’ request provides the perfect antidote for “Christian one-upmanship” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). It comes after the disciples have argued, on their way to Capernaum, over who is the greatest.

And before we get to James and John’s request, Mark includes an episode wherein the disciples have encountered an anonymous healer casting out demons in Jesus’ name. This person was unknown to them. “He was not one of us,” they complained, “so we told him to stop,” as if the healer needed their authorization to do God’s work… as if they were the sole proprietors of the mission of Jesus.

Their presumption and exclusionary attitude were sadly ironic because earlier in the same chapter, the disciples themselves had failed to exorcise demons. Perhaps jealousy was their motivation as much as protectiveness of Jesus?

Jesus, over and over again, advances a more generous and inclusive view. No, he says, you can’t step over others to get the privilege you want. You can’t create all the hierarchies. Because we’re not that kind of community. Because whoever wants to do my work is welcome. Because my workers are servants. And whoever is not against us is for us.

We will be gathering around the communion table this Sunday. As will Christians around the world. Not necessarily because we have got the Lord’s Supper or anything else about faith right. Not because we have earned some privilege. Not because what we do or have done has made God love us. And with no understanding that we have any grounds on which we could turn anyone else away from the meal.

Instead, we gather at the Table because God invites us. And ironically, we pull up our chairs because we are servants of the host. And because God in Jesus wants to feed us. And be with us.

You see, church isn’t the real church because people get this or that right. Because we’re sitting in the right place. Or because we practice communion right. Or because we’re the right people. Or because of anything we do or say or believe.

It’s church because God is there. Almost crowded out by all that we do and fail to do, but God is still there in at least some small way. So, it’s church, not because of you and me. But because of God, who is at work through it — gathering, blessing, healing and sending.

Remember that when you receive a bit of broken cracker dipped in just a drop of grape juice. Even if what you are doing is right, that’s not the point. Rather, it’s about what God can do, even with the littlest materials and the humblest people.

See you in church,