Sunday, October 29, 2017

Disunity Predates The Reformation And Is Rampant Among Non-Christians

We're getting the predictable media stories about how the Reformation supposedly brought about such lamentable disunity, like here and here. Stories like these don't mention that it was common for people to complain about widespread disunity in Christianity long before the Reformation occurred. Celsus raised the issue in his treatise against Christianity in the second century. Origen wrote a response to Celsus in the third century, and he made another point there that's ignored by media stories like the ones linked above. As Origen noted, we also find widespread disunity in philosophy, medicine, and other fields, not just in Christianity or only in religious circles. (To read more about what Celsus, Origen, and other pre-Reformation sources said on issues of unity, see here and here.) Maybe the media should run some stories on how lamentable it is that modern journalism is so fractured, with so many reporters and media organizations disagreeing about issues related to journalism, holding differing views of journalistic ethics, competing with each other, hating each other, working to undermine each other, and so on. Yes, there's a lot of disunity in professing Christianity. The same is true of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism, science, medicine, politics, journalism, philosophy, etc.

But there's also a lot of unity. And these media stories recognize that unity and begin by assuming it. You can't lament disunity among Christians if you don't first identify the people in question as Christians. And it's not just a matter of their only having a name in common (e.g., "Christians"). There are many thousands of issues that mainstream Roman Catholics and Protestants (and others, like Eastern Orthodox) have agreed about for hundreds of years: the historicity of the Bible, monotheism, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on. What they disagree about is substantial, and some of the issues are foundational, similar to the foundational disagreement Paul had with the Judaizers (as we see in Galatians). What we have is a situation in which there's mostly agreement, unity, or whatever you want to call it, but also some disunity. And the disunity that exists is rarely accompanied by the sort of warfare, destruction of property, and other violence that the media and others often lament when discussing the earliest generations of Protestantism.

It would help if the media and the sources they consult would spend less time expressing their own views of unity and what sort of unity they think we should want. Instead, they should spend more time addressing the standards of unity set down by Jesus and the apostles. We are, after all, supposedly discussing Christian unity.

For example, Paul has a lot to say about unity, and in criticism of disunity, in 1 Corinthians. But he's not addressing multiple churches or multiple denominations. Rather, he's addressing disunity among people who were organizationally united, who were all identified as belonging to the same church. If that sort of criterion were to be applied to Roman Catholicism, would Catholicism meet Paul's standard of unity? No. But the media, modern proponents of ecumenism, Protestant scholars criticizing Protestantism, etc. typically don't define unity as Paul did. Rather, they define it as if it's of a more organizational nature. They act as if the major divisions that exist within Catholicism, for example, don't matter much or at all, since Catholics are all part of the same denomination.

Similarly, we ought to ask whether John (and Jesus) applied modern standards of unity when addressing the churches of Revelation 2-3. Was the church of Philadelphia criticized because it didn't have more unity with the Laodicean church and the other churches addressed in Revelation? Was the Philadelphian church criticized because it wasn't holding ecumenical dialogues with the other churches? No, the Philadelphian church, like the others, was evaluated based on its faithfulness to Christ, without much concern shown for issues of unity. (Given the descriptions of the churches, including differences they had on doctrinal and moral issues, it can't be denied that there was substantial disunity among them. And none of the churches are commended for working toward unity the way modern ecumenists usually try to achieve it. Instead, they're commended for other reasons.) Unity is important, but Revelation 2-3 doesn't define it as it's commonly defined today, and Revelation doesn't give unity the sort of prominence it's often given in the modern world.

In many contexts, the further removed people are from you, the less responsibility you have for them. Christian individuals and individual churches don't have much responsibility for bringing about the sort of worldwide unity people typically have in mind when they discuss Christian unity these days. People often have false notions of unity, but even where the concept is being defined correctly, we have to ask how high it should rank in the priorities of an individual Christian, a church, a denomination, or some other group. There are a lot of groups that are prominent in modern discussions of unity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, that ought to be spending a lot more time tending to their own internal problems and a lot less time working on unity with other groups.

No comments:

Post a Comment