Many people look to Christianity as a blank slate, with an assumption that “all Christians believe the same thing.” Obviously this is not true; we need only to look at Northern Ireland to see how brutal Christians can be towards one another. In America, although we do not have the sustained wars that have plagued Northern Ireland, our religious wars are far more insidious and cause much greater harm. Simply put, we have a great debate over the role of faith in our lives.
As Presbyterians we are always a little non-committal when it comes to declaratives. Theologically, there are many reasons for this. The easiest two to grasp lie in the truth that we are both human and not God. Because of our human condition, which by its very nature makes us imperfect, we are relegated to a world view that is incomplete. This view forces our hand in any situation to add the caveat that we are only correct to the level that our understanding allows. In other words, we think we are right based on our knowledge, but there is a good chance that we are not.
This is where the second aspect of our tradition comes in: we are not God! Obvious, right? But to many, this is forgotten, since there are claims that are made by some traditions as to who has been saved, and who has not. Moreover, there is a level of superiority that some Christians bestow upon others. Again, the problem lies within the fact that when we assert ourselves over another individual, we place ourselves in a godly position claiming superiority. This assertion of power leads to tyranny and ultimately a situation that becomes devoid of God in lieu of human wants and needs.
This struggle is the basis for one of the greatest schisms in the Presbyterian Church. Termed the “New School and Old School Schism,” the New School embraced a theology that basically said the ends justify the means, in other words, whatever it takes to bring someone to faith was good. This group embraced Jonathan Edwards and the Revival movement, even though theologically and biblically, the movement left something to be desired.
The Old School embraced the traditions of the Westminster Standards. The revivals were shunned to a strict life living into the standards of the church. For the Old side, faith was the starting point and how we lived out that faith was crucial. For the Revival movement and the Old School side, faith was the goal. Through experience and life one would attain their faith.
This split happened because both side claimed irreconcilable differences, only to reunite roughly 20 years later, only to split again during the Civil War, and so on. The saddest thing of all of these splits, including the one our denomination is going through today is that we so often get distracted with “being right” that we miss the fundamental truth of Jesus Christ, focusing on “right theology” rather than living into our relationships and growing in our faith.
In practice, when we look at the debates that split the church or cause divisive feelings, so often they have nothing to do with God or Christ and everything to do with power, control, or asserting a specific piety.
Over the next few months we are going to be hearing about a good number of churches that are looking to leave our denomination. On one hand this is sad, since some of the churches you know and have friends in will no longer be in the PCUSA. But for us this is a place where we can shine. As a congregation that is focused in Christ and is learning to listen and accept diverse people and theologies, we can become an example and live out being the Body in celebration of our life in Jesus Christ.
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen