The Church and Politics: What We Haven’t Learned

As we explore how the history of the Church affects the practice of the Church today, we need to take a look at culture. No congregation is immune from cultural influence, and indeed it needs to be influenced to some degree in order to reach the lost. But at various times in the history of the Church, culture has ruled the day. I frequently tell people when politics and Church combine, the Church always suffers. This is the case with the examples contained in this article.

In 1054 AD an event historians refer to as “The Great Schism” occurred in Constantinople, forever changing the Church, and creating a wound that took until the 20th century to begin to heal. The “West” division of the church, based in Rome, began to be viewed as the seat of power in the Church. This political position, in many ways, led to the Roman Church passing edicts that affected the church as a whole. For the purposes of this writing we don’t need to dive too deeply into specifics, but many of these were received negatively by the East from a cultural standpoint.

In the book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll summarizes the cultural divide between the East and West.

“As early as the end of the first century, it was possible to perceive pointed differences between major representatives of what would one day be called West and East. Thus, historian Henry Bettenson thinks that the Epistle of Clement sent from Rome to Corinth about the year 96 displays ‘the emergence of the characteristic Roman Christianity. Here we find no ecstasies, no miraculous ‘gifts of the Spirit,’ no demonology, no preoccupation with an imminent ‘Second Coming.’ The Church has settled down in the world, and is going about its task ‘soberly, discreetly, and advisedly.” By the end of the second century, such ‘Roman’ characteristics were thoroughly matched by ‘Greek’ tendencies arising from the other end of the Mediterranean.”

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Mark Noll

As you can clearly see, cultural differences influenced the beliefs and practice within the two branches of the Christian Church. At this meeting in 1054 representatives from both groups excommunicated the other which lead to the body of Christ, the Church, being divided. This was exacerbated by the Crusades which indiscriminately killed Muslims, Jews, and even other Christians because they looked different than the invading Europeans. European Christians were killing Middle Eastern Christians because they looked and sounded different.

Sadly this was not the only time in Church history that we see cultural differences affecting the unity of the Church. We’ll return to history next week, but I want to end with a modern look. What cultural issues are causing division in the church today? We are on the heels of one of the largest denominations wrestling with homosexuality in part because culture has become combined with the Church.

But let’s get personal. What cultural issue is in play in your congregation that is, or could cause division? Is it who someone votes for? Is it cultural stereotypes placed on people groups? And here’s the real question: How do you go about addressing the problem?

What is the Best Way to Read the Bible?

Last week we looked at examples from the New Testament of people coming together in community to study the Scriptures. We also looked at the first few centuries after the New Testament to see the council at Nicea surrounding the deity of Christ. Christians came together around the Scriptures in order to clarify beliefs and put an end to false teaching. This council resulted in what we commonly call The Nicene Creed.

This community study of the Scriptures happened on many other occasions as well. As the years passed, again the Church saw need of solidifying doctrine amongst all believers. The decision was made to collect the writings held highly by the community and combine them into an authoritative collection. There was some debate concerning some of the writings we have today in our New Testament, and some differences still exist today (does your Bible contain the Apocrypha?) But when the Church came together in community, the most trusted writings were compiled to solidify the documents of our faith – the New Testament.

We are so used to having our sacred writings in one book. Can you imagine going through life and having to search from city to city to find a copy of John’s Gospel? The fact that you own a Bible, or have access to a Bible online, or in app form is because 1600 years ago the Church, the Body of Christ, came together in community in order to compile (not create) the writings we know and love.

Today, we must take the same approach toward interpreting Scripture. Renowned theologian, seminary professor, and author Scot McKnight has a suggestion for how we are to read and interpret Scripture today in his book, The Blue Parakeet. In this quote, he speaks of the “Great Tradition,” that is the understanding of the historical Christian community.

“I suggest we learn to read the Bible with the Great Tradition. We dare not ignore what God has said to the church through the ages (as the return and retrieval folks often do), nor dare we fossilize past interpretations into traditionalism. Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return problem), and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism). We want to walk between these two approaches. It’s not easy, but I contend that the best of the evangelical approaches to the Bible and the best way of living the Bible today is to walk between these approaches.”

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet

The history of the church shows that Scripture has been best interpreted in community. When believers come together and wrestle with the Scriptures to find truth, error is avoided, God is honored, and Scripture is upheld and interpreted in a relevant way. As history and the New Testament has shown us, it is the best way.

Life Back Then

This was posted by John Mark Hicks this morning on Facebook. I thought it was too good to not share. We get to take a look into the early life of the church!

Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus (probably around 130-150 A.D.)

“Christians are indistinguishable from other people either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life….With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign…And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through…Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country….They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all people….A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult.”

1 Peter 2:12, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the nations, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.”