Members of one of the largest congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have voted to leave the denomination, despite facing an $8.89 million cost for leaving.
“Surprisingly, there are many PC(USA)-ordained pastors who do not believe, for example, in the deity of Christ or in salvation through faith in Christ,” the rationale states, citing a 2011 PCUSA survey that suggested 41 percent agreed with the statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”
-by Sarah Pulliam Bailey
“Citing Doctrinal Error, Presbyterian Megachurch Leaves Denomination” (3/6/2014)
Lately, I’ve been pretty vocal about what I see as the enduring mistakes that have been made by “the Church” and perpetuated over the long centuries of Christian history. I’ve struggled with our religious arguments even while continuing to try to understand the nature of fundamentalism in Christianity.
I attend a small Baptist church in Meridian, Idaho and so my current experience with Christianity as a whole is strongly filtered through that lens. My only real previous experience in church as an adult (my parents took me to a Lutheran church when I was a child) was a rather large Nazarene church in Boise, however there was a gap of many years between these two events. I worshipped at the Nazarene church when I first became a Christian and I’m at a Baptist church now. For the many years in-between, I was exploring, learning, and worshiping within various aspects of Hebrew Roots and to some degree, a Messianic Judaism context.
So as you can see, my experiences with “Christianity” are rather limited. When I write about “the Church,” I’m really writing about my personal understanding of what I think Christianity is and what it means. Pastor Randy, the head Pastor at the church I attend, has spent no little time showing me how each of the denominations relate to one another and why he believes Fundamentalism is the most Biblically based and thus the most accurate and true way to worship God, spread the Gospel message, and obey the commands of Jesus.
But if you click on the link associated with the quote at the top of today’s “meditation,” you’ll see, as I did, a different side to what “Christianity” can mean. It never occurred to me that someone could be a Christian and not believe that salvation is through Jesus Christ.
Interesting. Whenever I hear someone say, “Jews believe”….or, “don’t believe….,” – last time I looked the Jewish people didn’t have a Pope.
“In Its Time I Will Hasten Him”
While the Catholic church may have a Pope and other denominations of Christianity may have their heads or ruling bodies, I forget that “the Church” as an overarching, world-wide body has no central leadership. There is no Apostolic Council of Elders as in the days of James, Peter, and Paul, and “the Church,” unattached to a central head on earth, turns to Jesus Christ as Savior and King. After all, we’re called “Christians” as a reflection of who we follow.
We are also called “Baptists,” or “Presbyterians,” or “Methodists,” or “Pentecostals,” or even “Hebrew Roots,” or followers of “Messianic Judaism.” We define ourselves as members of some subset of the believing whole and those subsets represent sometimes dramatic differences in who and what we think we are in Christ. And yet, at the core, part of what we’re also saying is that we are disciples of Jesus (or Yeshua if you prefer) as Lord and Savior, all of us.
Except that according to the above-quoted article, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA), or at least some of its affiliate churches, may not believe in the deity of Christ, which is a rather startling point of separation for most Christians.
It’s mind-boggling how “Christianity” or “the Church” can contain such wide variations of belief and yet still hold onto those labels or titles. Of course, Judaism, as Chaya1957 pointed out, has no central authority either, save for Hashem (individual branches of Judaism may follow the teachings of a Rebbe), and thus we find a great degree of variation in what constitutes a “Judaism” as well. This has given rise to the question about whether or not Messianic Judaism is a Judaism. A number of folks with whom I regularly communicate say that “yes,” Messianic Judaism is a Judaism first and foremost, which makes the people I know in Hebrew Roots and in “the Church” (as I experience it) kind of disturbed. From the latter group’s perspective, if one believes in Jesus (Yeshua) as Messiah, one is Christian or Messianic first, and Judaism must at least take a back seat if not actually get booted off the bus.
It gets a little dicey between Hebrew Roots and Christianity since the former adopts halakhic Jewish practices to one degree or another as a way of observing the mitzvot, while the Christians I currently associate with, by and large, believe that Judaism died as a valid expression of Messiah worship somewhere in Acts 2, to be replaced by “the Church” (big “C”) forever more.
Although Pastor Randy has accused me of disagreeing with just about everything he believes in, I find that my current church experience and my previous associations in Hebrew Roots have left me adhering closer to the Bible as the Word of God than I would say is true of PCUSA.
But I guess that depends on how you interpret the Bible, and thereby hangs a tale.
I’m particularly happy to embrace this label. Because, for me, “theologically shaky” means that we see the Bible not as an inerrant book that serves as a “text book” of the Christian faith, but rather as an amazingly diverse, complex, nuanced text that cannot interpret itself, but rather must be interpreted through a particular lens. For me, that lens is Christ as I have come to know him and understand him within my own relationship with God. The theologian James Alison (a Catholic!) points out that we always, ALWAYS read the Bible through a particular lens. And if we think we don’t, then we simply are failing to see the lens that we are using.
-Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett
Rector of Trinity Church in Menlo Park
from “Why I’m Fine Being ‘Ultra Liberal’ & ‘Theologically Shaky'”
Below the Surface
I agree with the good Reverend that we all read the Bible through a particular interpretive lens and that no one has direct, raw access to one-hundred percent of the information God is trying to transmit to humanity through the Bible. That said, and I agree with Pastor Randy on this, we have to establish some “ground rules,” so to speak, about what we can all agree the Bible is saying.
In response to that challenge, I committed myself to being a Gentile who studies the Bible through a Messianic Jewish lens.
That probably makes me an odder duck in my local Baptist church than even the most liberal Presbyterian, but I find that perspective brings into focus the Bible as a whole and unified document, rather than splitting the meaning of God’s Word and especially His intent toward Israel between the “Old” and “New Testaments”.
Did the practice of Jews and Gentiles becoming disciples of Jesus as the Messiah really start out as a single thing?
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (emph. mine)
–Acts 9:1-2 (NASB)
This is the first place I can find in the Bible that gives the organized body of Yeshua-followers a distinctive name. At that time, the movement was still fairly new and Jewish people still were the majority population. That would begin to change in the years that followed Paul’s “conversion” and then scores of non-Jews would rush in, occupying Jewish religious and community space and ultimately displacing both the Jewish people and Judaism (that covers a lot of history which I imagine most of my readers know about).
How did we get from there to here?
That covers an even larger section of history, really, it’s the history of the Church, and that history has resulted in “the Way” going from being a single entity administered (on earth) by a body of Jewish Apostolic Elders with James the Just, the brother of the Master, at its head, to there being “approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world,” according to Christianity Today. From one to 41,000!
To further quote from that source:
This statistic takes into consideration cultural distinctions of denominations in different countries, so there is overlapping of many denominations.
I wonder when the first “denomination,” that is, the first variant expression of the original “faith” of “the Way” occurred? Was it when the first group, assembly, or “church” was composed mostly or exclusively of non-Jews? Was it when information was flying about willy-nilly in the days of Paul’s ministry and there were different “Christian” communities operating with different bits and pieces of theology, generating varying forms of doctrine?
Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
–Acts 18:24-28 (NASB)
Pastor John MacArthur gave Apollos (and subsequently, the Apostle Paul) a really hard time in one of his sermons for something I think could not have been Apollos’ fault. We can only know what we are taught and it’s obvious Apollos learned only those things about Jesus that were available to him. Trouble is, that describes a lot of us as well. I’m constantly in a state of learning, although I suppose we could say that Apollos didn’t even know some of the basics of the “Christian faith” (not that it was particularly “Christian” as we understand the term today…it was a Judaism).
In the Apostolic Era, at least in the beginning, we see Jews affiliated with the Way practicing Judaism and being accepted as Jews in Judaism, rather than Jews converting to some strange, alien religion (a “strange fire” one might say). Even when Gentiles began to enter, they were entering a Judaism as Gentile participants, and today, we have many disagreements on the Internet about what that really looked like and how that impacts Christian Gentiles in Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism (or for that matter, in traditional streams of Christianity) today.
But at that time, you had Jews and Gentiles as disciples of Jesus operating within a normative stream of Judaism. As I’ve said before, the ancient Jews were not jealous of Paul because he was preaching the saving grace of Jesus Christ and promoting a Torah-free life for all Jewish people, they were jealous because he was advocating for a more Torah-observant lifestyle for Jews and supporting the presence of Gentiles in Jewish communities who would not be mere God-fearers or even Proselytes, but equal co-participants. Gentiles coming alongside Jews in honor of Moshiach and to worship the One God of Israel.
It was too much for many of the synagogue leaders and members in the diaspora to understand or endure and thus began all of Paul’s problems with many of his own people, not that he ever stopped loving them and desiring their well-being in all things, including that they hear and accept the good news heralding the Messiah.
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
–Romans 9:1-5 (NASB)
Paul never intended to replace the Jewish people with Gentiles in the Way, nor did he intend on replacing Judaism with a completely new religion called “Christianity” since the Way was a fully formed stream of first-century Judaism.
But once you take a brick and throw it as hard as you can at a big, shiny, beautiful pane of glass, the glass shatters into about a billion pieces and, like the proverbial “humpty-dumpty, it never gets super-glued or duct taped back together again.
Or does it?
No, not right now. Right now, we’re a mess. We’re spewed and splattered all over the landscape, millions and millions of tiny, little theologies all running around like ants who think we’re mastodons, all screaming, “We’re right and everyone else is wrong.” Oh, we also scream, “…and I can prove it in the Bible.”
As my long-suffering wife might say, “Oy vey!”
But there’s hope. I believe in hope. I have to. Without it, I’d become terribly depressed at the state of the world and the state of my faith (not my personal faith, the “organized” Church kind).
My hope is in Messiah. That he will come. That in his return, the Messianic Age will reach fruition. That what he started nearly two-thousand years ago will become completed, that what began as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for all believers will culminate in the Spirit being poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17), and no one will teach his neighbor or brother to “Know the Lord” since we will all know Him (Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:11). In other words, the Messianic Era will see humanity united by Messiah under God in a way no one ever thought possible.
All of our little denominations will have to “go away” and be replaced by the truth delivered to us directly by the Master, the King. That should make us all at least a little nervous if we truly grasp the implications. I realize that every denomination thinks Jesus will run things exactly the way that denomination runs them. He will believe everything they believe, he will understand and interpret the Bible exactly the way they understand and interpret it, and he will teach people to say, think, and do all the stuff that they say, think, and do.
But if there is only one Way, “the Way,” then all the other “ways” go away. What makes you so exceedingly sure that your way is the right one? Here’s another question to bake your noodle. What makes you so sure that any of the ways we do “religion” in the worship of the God of Israel is exactly “the Way?” Maybe we got a few (or more than a few) things wrong.
I’ll be generous and say that all of the 41,000 Christian denominations (plus everything that operates under the umbrella of Hebrew Roots, all the variations of Messianic Judaism, and all the branches of more normative Judaism), all running around saying “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” are really doing the very best they can to do what the Bible says to do to worship God and take care of human beings, albeit by reading the Bible through 41,000+ lenses.
But doing our best and believing that we are on the right track doesn’t actually make us right. Look at Apollos. He did the very best he could with what he had, and he did a very good job at it. But he still didn’t have the complete picture. To his credit, once he was “clued in,” he didn’t dig in his heels and say “I’m right and everyone else is wrong.” He took correction from a gentile, knowledgable, and authoritative source and integrated what he learned into his faith and teaching. When the time comes and the King arrives, will we display such grace when he teaches correction to us?
What will the Church look like after Jesus returns and reigns as King, or will it be a “church” at all?
I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.
-Mosheh ben Maimon (Maimonides)
from the twelfth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith
I’ve written a sort of “sequel” to this blog post called When Jesus Returns Will We Go To Church? It takes the ideas I’ve presented here one step further, but it’s a big step. I hope if you’ve enjoyed this “meditation,” you’ll click the link to the next one.