December 30, 2015

Christian unity, uniformity and the gospel message

Before going to see The Force Awakens, I wrote a piece about the Star Wars franchise and the 4th century Roman emperor, Constantine. I said something that caught a few people's attention:
Under Constantine’s rule of the Roman Empire, Christianity became a religion of power, dominance and uniformity that looked significantly different than those that held this burgeoning tradition before his rule.
Some folks asked me what I meant about "power, dominance and uniformity." I'll address this over a few posts. Might be two, might be more. We'll see.

Let's start with uniformity.

To do so, let me go back to another thing I wrote about evangelism a few weeks back. Describing the term "evangelism" I wrote,
The term evolves from a Greek word, "euangelion." This Greek word is also where the term "gospel" stems from. Both, in essence, mean the announcement or announcing of good news. If you read the first four books of the New Testament–which document the life of Jesus from four different perspectives–you'll notice that Jesus' idea of the term "gospel" was likely different than what some contemporary Christians interpret this term to mean. What did Jesus believe to be good news? That God's kingdom, the rule and reign of God, was actively present and accessible.
In fact, the declaration of this news starts even before Jesus' ministry as an adult begins. From his mother's conception, God's presence, God's earthly rule is directly linked to Jesus' personhood (both Matthew and Luke's Gospels make this clear in the early chapters of their stories). In Matthew 1, Mary's fiance Joseph meets an angel who tells him that she is pregnant, will have a boy, that boy's  name will mean "God with us" and he will save his people. 

If the gospel is a message about salvation–as many Christians will argue to be its primary import–than we must take notice of the fact that as Jesus' ministry as a young adult begins, each salvific encounter he has in the Gospels demands something different of each person. Why?

The gospel* message isn't interested in uniformity
Certainly, the Gospels make a clear call to a particular ethic (read the Sermon on the Mount) but it isn't interested in stripping individuals of their personal experience, background or culture–their own story. Each of us has a different story which demands a different intersection with the Holy. Any uniformity, any consistency in the divine encounter is God's. So, the kind of religious colonizing practices that have gone along with much of church history–demanding the abandonment of cultural history, background and experience–are in fact not Christian at all. The model set forth in Scripture demands that those the bear the gospel message be reflexive, responsive to each and every context. The hard work of announcing God's good news is discerning where God's presence is most clear within a particular context or culture. The question then becomes, "If we see God's presence in our midst in this way and this is what we know of Jesus' story in Scripture, how are we to respond?"

A friend of mine used to put it this way, Christians ought have one vision but many voices. Uniformity and unity are two different things. Unity is a biblical call to all Christians–a call to love and care for each other no matter our differences. Yet, Paul's letters in the New Testament make it quite clear that we are not called to uniformity. St. Paul–this first century missionary that had a prolific impact on the growth of the Church–made it quite clear that diversity in the Christian experience was required as it moved from one culture to another.

This is why Constantine's demands for uniformity established a bad habit. A bad habit that has for far too long driven a mostly European, western Christian expression as the norm of Christian experience. Paul argued for something different. And at the fringes of the Church, typically those furthest away from ecclesiastical power centers, you can find expressions of Christianity that are in unity with their sisters and brothers around the globe through prayer, conviction and regular Scripture reflection yet have an authentically local expression for following Jesus.

Okay, that's it for now. More later.

* When Christians talk/write about the term "gospel" we can mean it two different ways, generally speaking. When you read Gospel, with a capital "G" we are referring to one of the first 4 books of the Christian New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). When you read Gospels we are referring to all 4 of these books together. When you read gospel, with a lowercase "g" we are making a general reference to the message of redemption made possible through Jesus Christ.

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