Jim Crow Christianity

One of the things which I think about increasingly is how to formulate my doctrine of church. Specifically I have been pondering the way one ought to structure a church body to move towards Christian unity but avoid doctrinal heresy? A year ago a friend of mine tried to convince me that confessionalism would solve the issues I had with church. The answer, he thought, was to subscribe to a confession and as long as everyone subscribed; there would be no problems. Ironically he ended up changing his mind, without any arguments from me. The debacle at Westminster Theological Seminary was enough for him to question the effectiveness of confessionalism. At Westminster a group of self proclaimed confessional board members ousted another self proclaimed confessional professor. The question of the hour was “who is properly interpreting the confessions,” and unless one believes that might makes right; that question has yet to be answered.  Confessionalism was designed as a way to avoid multiple interpretations of scripture and give unity to a church body. The problem is that confessions, like scripture are interpretive; and this means people can and will interpret them differently. The problem becomes compounded after the Reformation when confessional stances (or lack thereof) were used to define ones church in opposition to other churches. In the age of the church fathers; confessions defined only the “true church” from “heresies;” but in the post Reformation age they began to define “truest church” from other “true” (but not as accurate) churches.”

In effect confessionalism in our age has created what I call Jim Crow Christianity. It has fostered churches which are separate, but equal (and in truth lesser!) One need go no further than to listen to a rousing sermon in many of our churches about the accuracy of our position on the cessation of the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit; and how while Pentecostals may be Christians; they are really ignorant of scripture and less full of the Holy Spirit than we are. I have heard numerous jokes poked at and sermons preached against people who are presumably born again believers in Christ. Not to mention those credo-Baptists, baptismal regenerationists, female ordaining liberals or anti-regulative worshippers. To hear some people talk about these groups they must be functionally spiritually retarded. In effect many people act as if they are southern whites and that other churches are spiritual Negros. They pay lip service to the idea that these others are brothers and sisters in Christ but if truth be told they view others as their subordinates. Jim Crow laws didn’t work in the south because they were evil expressions of racism and hatred which made people anything but equal.  Neither can they work in the church because they destroy the unity of the body.

To this end I have three suggestions…

The first is that from now on I urge us to consider ourselves to be functionally transdenominational. That is to say that we would attend any church (and I mean any church) based on a combination of doctrinal concerns and praxis attitudes. No longer ought we to think to ourselves; “Those Methodists are nice, but it’s a shame they have such weird doctrines.” If Methodists are going to heaven they can be my brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth.

Secondly, we must view doctrine as being either orthodox or heresy. By these terms I mean true heresy; not some sort of “heresy against the reformed position” which is a ridiculous stance to hold.  If a person’s doctrinal position does not disqualify them from heaven; we must not view it as lesser than ours. Rather we must view them as intelligent and spiritual people who have wrestled with the same issues and come to opposite conclusions. Nor can we proclaim out positions to be superior anymore. We should have the humility to recognize that even our most sacred denominational cows might be wrong. We could get to heaven and hear tambourine music and discover that the organ is a banned instrument; we could find people speaking in tongues or discover that “free will” was the correct answer.  In short we can be convinced of our theology; but not of our ability to do theology. We can hold to theological distinctives if and only if we recognize that we <i>really</i> might be wrong about them and should be open to different expressions coming from one Church in various denominations on the same issue.

Finally, and perhaps most radically, I suggest that anyone whom we believe is a Christian must be in full fellowship with us. We need to begin to allow people within our churches to think through issues on their own; to be convinced by the merit of the position not by the fact that it is the only position they hear every week. We should present others positions with charity and when possible let them present their own positions themselves. When we critique their position we should put the best spin on them as we possibly can; not straw man them to show how foolish they are.  We should be ready to simply agree to disagree and move on to bigger issues instead of devolving into debates over “foolish genealogies” and such.

This is my preliminary suggestions for a way out of the doctrinal and denominational mire we currently find ourselves in. Roman Catholic apologists have often pointed to the numerous denominations of Protestantism and asked “If this is God’s truth, why is it so disunified?” It’s a good question; worthy of consideration. Tell me what you think of my answer.

~ by Nick Altman on September 20, 2008.

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