We Are Always Contending For The Faith
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angelfrom heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:6-10
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. – 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. – Revelation 13:1-8
As a student of Christian history, one thing that is clear to me is that even and especially in times and places the faith seemed ubiquitous, there was always a struggle going on around what that faith was. The New Testament is a history among other things of how the earliest churches persevered in the midst of inner conflict and outer persecution. The whole of the Revelation of St. John, a letter to seven churches across what is now Turkey, offered a colorful, poetic, and at times horrifying description both of the times through which they lived as well as the reassurance that perseverance in the faith would bring about the greatest of glories. It is a lesson those who compiled the Bible would understand would need to be held dear; that’s why it is in the canon. Not a foretelling of some future event, it rather offers an story from a particular time that has lessons of faith for the Church in all times.
Just as St. John felt the need to write to the seven churches in Asia Minor, St. Paul felt the need to write to the churches of Galatia and the city of Corinth, reminding them that their bickering and feuding was not about living the Christian faith. They were contending over things – whether that “different Gospel” mentioned in Galatians or who baptized whom in Corinth – that had nothing to do with the Gospel. From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount/Plain through the Revelation to St. John the Divine, ours is a story of two things: that Christians will live with dissension and oppression; that perseverance in the face of both, a perseverance that comes through the Holy Spirit, will see the faithful through to the greater glory that is the Kingdom of God.
Whether it’s Kim Davis carrying on about marriage certificates, lower worship and membership numbers that confront leaders with new challenges, or the rise of a more vocal and confident secularism that refuses to remain silent in the face of religious condescension and confusion, there is a whole lot of whining in North America about the Christian churches facing “persecution”. If only that were true! If we were being tossed in jail for proclaiming the faith; if Christians had their churches burned and looted (not because, like African-American churches, they are symbols and signs of black solidarity and strength in a white supremacist society); if Christians found themselves expelled from the United States or face execution; if our government decided it should appoint bishops and leaders of all our denominations; these would all be signs of a persecuted church. The law and society in the US is still overwhelmingly Christian and deferential to religious belief in ways no other country can boast. Millions still attend Wednesday evening events and Bible Studies, Saturday services and masses, Sunday morning worship. Christmas and Easter are national holidays while Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and Passover are not.
What the Christian churches face right now in the United States is the dawning realization that ours is not now nor has ever been “a Christian nation”. This was a comforting fiction we allowed ourselves because of various social, demographic and cultural realities through much of our earlier history. The fact that, legally, we are a secular nation and always have been, is difficult for some to understand or accept. That doesn’t make it untrue. Our churches have faced contention within because of slavery and temperance, the role of women and integration, whether we are to be a crucified church or a militant church. That we are a materialistic, secular, often superficial society is neither new nor interesting; that the matter of how best to worship is as old as Christian Church Catholic and Apostolic is also clear enough. Because all these arguments and whatnot are occurring in the United States means they are happening in a country that lacks historical consciousness. We know trends and fads; just last night my wife and I were talking about 80’s fashions being hip again, and that we’d have to wait until the 20’s for 90’s styles to come back. For most of us, that’s history.
The reality is that rarely in its history has the Christian faith existed within a more legally and culturally congenial environment. When churches get in to arguments over doctrine or practice, instead of excommunicating one another or burning people at the stake, we just divide and form new denominations, like amoebas. Through much of our history our disagreements have rarely led to much more than some folks leaving a church in a huff, people calling one another names like “heretic” and “apostate” that really don’t mean anything, and going off and worshiping somewhere else.
That our churches have to work harder to make the Gospel heard and understood; that we face demographic and cultural challenges that should excite us about new possibilities but rather leave us all feeling down and worried about the future; that folks who assumed the faith spoke against some human beings being of equal worth – women, racial minorities, sexual minorities – are hearing an inclusive gospel challenges their faith in ways that are uncomfortable – as the Gospel always should be; that people raised with no faith will no longer put up with being told they are bad people, that people cannot be moral agents without faith in God, that atheists are intrinsically a threat to our society – that’s is both new and, to me, welcome. All these social and cultural changes certainly pose challenges to the churches in the United States. They hardly mean we face challenges of unprecedented danger to the faith. They are, rather blessings. We have to learn how to be faithful and humble, to proclaim the Good News without talking down to others.
Christian churches face not so much new challenges from within or without; we are facing challenges with which we have always had to deal, in one form or another. Society around us does not remain static. The simplicity and clarity of the Gospel remains as it always has been. How we get that message to a world in need of Good News, however, is something we always struggle to do. Militancy, whether within or without, is not a healthy response. Simple, humble trust in the God who creates us, who saves us, who sustains us by making us holy offers the world a vision of the Kingdom that is at once beautiful and wonderful: a place in which all of us revel in our full humanity, the opportunity to be what we were created to be: the tender, loving caretakers of one another and God’s creation. The visions and words of Scripture offer us solace and hope. We should heed them and persevere in the faith because we hold fast to the promise of the faith offered in Jesus Christ: the blessings of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace, fellowship, and joy.