Christian Church Controversies Today: Are They Worth Schisms?
Create Community Instead of Controversy
From time to time, as a part time seminarian and licensed American Baptist minister, I’ll be exploring various issues of faith. Feel free to comment from your tradition to what you read here. My only request is that you respond out of love, whether you agree or disagree, rather than anger or hate. Vitriol, bile, verbal bomb throwing, and all caps shouting are not welcome. Society provides too much of that fare on a daily basis as is. That said, here we go.
Do you get the feeling that Christians are spending a whole lot of time arguing over minutiae today? I do, and it gives me a sinking feeling. Don’t get me wrong here, not all arguments on issues of faith are bad or a waste of time. Trying to understand God and what God intends for us is hard work. As one of the early theologians wrote, and I paraphrase, “Trying to get close to God is like climbing a ladder into a cloud. The higher you go the more lost you become.” Being finite, and grappling with the infinite, does lead to lots of complicated and sometimes vexing questions. After all, it took the early church several hundred years and a few excommunications to come up with a working understanding of the Trinity. Being a Protestant, I have an appreciation for Martin Luther’s arguments, the ones he tacked up on the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral … and didn’t figure would amount to anything. As a Baptist, the nineteenth century argument over the abolition of slavery was extremely significant, dividing Baptists North and South in the process. (My ancestors were on the North side of that divide.) In the 1960s, another Baptist, working with many others, Martin Luther King, Jr., was driven by his faith to speak up for civil rights here in the United States. These have all been big issues worthy of Christianity’s attention.
However, today, some of the issues that divide us seem awfully small in comparison. Or perhaps it’s our approach to them that’s small. I’ll let you decide for yourself which issues those might be. I really don’t intend to start yet another argument here … really.
I’ve decided to let P.T. Barnum, that preeminent showman of the nineteenth century – purveyor of mysteries in his American Museum and eventual partner in the “greatest show on earth” – tell a story that I believe puts some of the arguments that threaten to divide Christianity today into perspective. P.T. tells a story in his autobiography about growing up in a small New England church in the 1830s that had no heat. The issue was whether or not installing a stove for warmth in frigid New England winters was an inspired or a demonic idea. The resolution of the issue would take several years. P.T. states:
“Another year rolled by; cold November arrived, and the stove question was again mooted. Excitement ran high; night meetings and church caucuses were held to discuss the question; arguments were made pro and con in the village stores; the subject was introduced into conference meetings and prayed over; even the youngsters had the question brought up in the debating club, and early in December a general ‘society's meeting’ was called to decide by ballot whether there should or should not be a stove in the meeting-house.
“The ayes carried it by a majority of one, and, to the consternation of the minority, the stove was introduced. On the first Sabbath afterwards two venerable maiden ladies fainted on account of the dry atmosphere and sickly sensation caused by the dreaded innovation. They were carried out into the cold air, and soon returned to consciousness, after being informed that in consequence of there not being pipe enough within two lengths, no fire had yet been placed in the stove!
“The following Sunday was a bitter cold day, and the stove was crammed with well-seasoned hickory wood and brought nearly to a red heat. This made most parts of the house comfortable, pleased many, and horrified a few.”
Amusing isn’t it? I can’t help but wonder if some of our “burning” issues today will be viewed like this several centuries from now. What I want to note, however, is that it took at least two years and much effort to resolve this issue in P.T.’s small church. I wonder what wasn’t getting done during that time? I wonder how much disunity was sown in that congregation? I wonder how many people were neglected or were driven away from the church when this debate turned acrimonious? Today, what worries me most, is the thought that we Christians are neglecting the call Jesus gave us to be out among the poor and the outcast, offering them hope and help. Are we ignoring Jesus’ called to feed and tend His sheep in favor of trying the resolve issues as trite as whether or not to install a Franklin stove? Would we rather split than create community? In John 17 Jesus prayed that we Christians might all be one. It hasn’t happened yet. Today would be as good a day as any to start.
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