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Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth - Essay

An essay on the embracing diversity of belief within the Christian community

by Rev. Larry D. Ellis

One's view of scripture will certainly mold their theology of the nature of the church,. There are at least three positions that are widely held among Christians. Some hold that all statements are true and without error of any kind and are applicable for all culture and all times. When numbers are employed, they are understood to be exact. The bible is a history book as well as a book of science when these topics are addressed. All empirical truth is to be evaluated in light of what is said in the scriptures. A second position is that scripture is true and valid for the intended recipient and is infallible in the arena of faith and practice. They must be interpreted in the cultural environment on a case-by-case basis to see if they are universal truth, and hence to be embraced today. A third position says that we live in the age of a new covenant. Certain old testaments absolutes don't apply today and therefore study of the Old Testament is not for directive guidance of our spiritual lives rather a historical record. We are permitted to do in our worship only those things that are actually affirmed by Jesus in the New Testament.

There is a practice of remembering certain "sins" which bring one down an unalterable course such as divorce (more unforgivable than murder in some churches) and propensity toward homosexuality.

Styles of music vary widely in churches. To some music is either unimportant or only important because some of the attendees insist upon having it. In these churches aggressive bible teaching is common, often with the unstated belief that the use of music would detract from the ministry of teaching. In those churches which believe that music is an important element of our worship, the styles of music employed may vary widely. Some use exclusively classical style sometimes resembling 17th century England while others use only pop style that is virtually indistinguishable from Las Vegas including wireless mikes, personality centered performances, lights and accompaniment tracks. To others both these extremes seem out of place in the church - one being out of date and the other too secular. Some churches prohibit the use of choirs or choral ensembles in worship believing that these tend to focus on performance rather than worship. They believe that these groups discourage rather than encourage participation in worship. Other churches develop and benefit from large choirs being theologically driven that choirs like clergy are called to prompt the congregation to widespread participation in worship.

Small group bible studies are seen by many as the non-negotiable biblical model for Christian fellowship. Some of these groups expose a sin of bibliolatry - the worship of the bible rather than seeing it as being or containing the Word of God.

Some denounce psychology as being of Satan denouncing all wisdom of men, yet they interpret the scriptures for large congregations with knife sharp dogma. Other churches seek and employ trained Christian counselors employing psychological and spiritual discernment to administer grace and help to those in need.

There is the prosperity gospel that teaches that God will always bless the faithful. If we or full of faith we will receive earthly riches. On the other extreme are those who are called to a vow of poverty, living and humbly serving God behind the scenes, far from public view.

There is the liturgical church who emphasize the sacraments, office of leadership and employ written prayers and creeds used for hundreds of years. The free church is often very personality based often with spontaneous expression.

There are the Pentecostals and many non-Pentecostals that look every day for God to bring a new miracle. They pray fervently for changes in individuals, churches and society. Some believe that the Kingdom of God starts here on earth - in the church and continues as we gather in Heaven. This theology motivates some as stewards and ecologists of the earth. There are those Christians who believe that God has called them to mobilize armies into widespread political action. Such include Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, and countless priests and pastors. There is widespread disagreement over the pro-choice / pro-life camps. Many believe that human life begins at conception. We must therefore defend the most defenseless with all our might. Others see human life as beginning upon some later point in the pregnancy, some as late as being delivered. Therefore, the right of individual privacy and the importance of keeping the government of out personal lives on this very personal decision is paramount. Both camps are cemented in their positions by their strong system of personal values.

There are the dispensationalists who believe that the age of miracles has ended with Jesus' return to heaven. Some of these believe that the kingdom of God is NOT on this earth and that it will all burn up anyway therefore, stewardship of our earth and its natural resources of water, air and minerals is not a high value.

The theology of the creation has for many centuries motivated the Church to be the center of art, not only music, but theater, painting, sculpture. The church is the steward of the arts - the Renaissance period, Baroque period, paintings, sculpture. Today drama, orchestras, large Christmas and Easter pageants are a regular part of certain Christina worship. Models of this type of value system can be seen in both liberal and conservative congregations.

In some traditions, the clergy normally wear clerical collars while in public and vestments during worship. Others shun any such practice, saying that such is not only unnecessary but carries vestiges of traditions such as Roman Catholic of which they do not want to be associated.

We have a spectrum of theology concerning baptism. Some believe it to be a requirement for salvation such as Church of Christ, Lutheran and Disciples of Christ. Others have what are known as Sacrament – a means of grace. Here baptism, though not regenerative in nature, is an expression of God reaching out and touching us. Such would be the expression in the Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Finally some see baptism as a symbol of what Christ has done in our salvation. This would be the view in most Baptist and Nazarene churches.

Ecclesiastical government within a particular church can be quite different from another type of church. Almost all churches have some type of representative board to help make decisions. Some are governed by long distance remote control. Some churches are governed by local congregational decision on many matters. On a formal level there is the representative type of government with one or two boards elected to act on behalf of the congregation. Such would be found in Presbyterian, Assembles of God, and Nazarene churches. Congregational rule is common in many churches; all decision are made by the vote of the entire church membership (or in some cases the male membership). This would be typical in Baptist., United Church of Christ and Church of Christ churches. Governments within churches related to other churches take many forms. Episcopal - Bishops Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal. On a pragmatic level, often the pastor or priest decides the majority of all issues. We also need to understand that there are also those power people in the church who might not be officially elected to decision-making positions, but whose opinions are not to go unheeded by the official bodies.

Symbols are very important in some traditions, optional in some traditions and virtually prohibited in others. The Orthodox and Roman churches not only employ symbols. Many of these symbols become icons. These statues and paintings become a means of God’s imparting his Spirit to us. There is a full embrrassing but less sacramental position in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Churches in the evangelical tradition – most Baptists and Methodist as well as many independent churches take a position that, while they don’t want to be accused of worshiping idols (graven images of God or statues or graphical representations of any of the saints), they will embrace some symbols. This is most commonly used symbol is a cross. There will be crosses in the church, on the pulpit, the communion table and even perhaps on the trays that hold the communion cups. They will permit artwork as an expression of Christian truth. It is critical that these crosses will not ever be a crucifix, a cross with Jesus depicted on the cross. The common expression when a crucifix is that they worship a risen Christ, not a dead Christ, implying that certain traditions focus on Jesus’ death too much or that there is no belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the grave. There is an emerging third position on the use of Christian symbols in Christian worship. For some time the Seventh day Adventist movement has taught that any visible symbol such as the cross or crucifix or statues of Christians is sin. The "Seeker movement" or "user friendly" church now feel that any use of Christian symbols, such as crosses, altars, stained glass, traditional choirs and even organ music, might make a person who is not in the Christian tradition feel uncomfortable. The spaces in which these churches gather will resemble concert halls and municipal auditoriums. Any thing that would bring to mind in a secular person the image of "the institutional church" will be carefully excluded from being a part of their worship environment. In fact many non-traditional items now can be seen as the emerging symbols of this tradition. These would include things such as a major investment in audio/visual systems used in the meetings. Large screens and overhead projectors and synthesizer led small musical groups are a given in this expression of "church".

Some of our Christian groups claim exclusivity in Christendom - Church of Christ, Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist as well as the Roman Catholic. Hopefully each of our Christian groups believes that they are closer to what a true church should be or at least that they are operating within the church with a deep sense of personal call striving to move their tradition toward some particular agenda in worship expression.

Emphasis of foreign missions and evangelism will very greatly within today's church in America. Some churches have large personal and financial commitments to missions through denominational programs. Other churches often fund many independent mission programs such as Youth for Christ, Young Life, Wycliff, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Campus Crusade, and the Navigators. Some congregations will fund their mission causes with a generous fixed percentage of their total income. Others provide little or no money to ministries outside their four walls and over which they cannot exercise complete control, actually saying that "charity begins at home."

Sometimes there is a tension between evangelism with a personal faith in Christ and Social justice made reality in the political arena.

There is wide diversity in the nature and style of authority in the church. Certainly a part of this is to establish accountability for those not in leadership to those in leadership. This can provide protection for purity and accuracy of the doctrine. Some believe that unless everyone is under the authority of others, there is great exposure to heresy and temptation to sin. There is a large portion of the Christian community that would say that biblically based authority at least for the church is founded on MALE leadership. Women are provided "protection" so long as they submit to their father, husband or other spiritual male authority. Others see that fundamentally at the core of Jesus' teaching was the liberation of womanhood from the bondage of cultural oppression that was the practice in the first century religious and political practice. To them Jesus’ vision of spiritual leadership shattered the images of women who were not taught spiritual truth, and especially the Jewish role of women of the day and call the church to withdraw any gender distinction in rolls of leadership and ministry. Women are ordained and called as clergy with a sense of completeness when both male and female are teaching and celebrating communion in the church.

Lifestyle differences vary not only from denomination to another. Mennonites and Amish keep themselves separate from this world and culture. There are large groups of conservative as well as many liberal Christian churches who feel their role of political justice is a mandate from God and a mission driven out of a commitment to be faithful to their central Christian values. Many times local cultural customs and prejudices are heavenly intertwined with the practice of our faith. This can range from social organizations, dress codes, localized codes or morality or immorality.

Worship is a priority for some circles and others make worship primarily a directive teaching ministry. Some have high outward emotion such as Assembly of God, the Vineyard and the Pentecostal churches. There are the middle of the road traditions such as Southern Baptist, Evangelical Free and Wesleyan. There are groups with a very limited external emotional expression such as the Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopalians. Finally there are the very quiet such as Quaker.

Early Christian churches met only in homes of the believers. Often these meeting were secret to avoid persecution or death. Today, most countries provide a lot of freedom to gather to worship. Certainly there are exceptions such as in many Arabic countries as well as Communist countries such as Cuba and People’s Republic of China. Apart from these places most people can worship if they so choose. The evolution of the Christian movement has its roots in both the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church (Greek). From each of these particularly the Roman their have been a number of derivative reformations. Martin Luther attempted to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church. His followers ultimately established the State Church of Germany the Lutheran Church. There were other state churches established in Scandinavia and England. Major reformers from the Church of England were Charles and John Wesley. Most early reformers gave their energy to reform from within rather than break away and start their own churches. Their followers eventually formed what became the Methodist Church. We have the Puritans who fled England and Holland for religious freedom to the Colonies. We have the Dutch reformed Church from Holland. However, today when there is a particular issue that is viewed differently from those in power in a church, it is a common thing to see withdrawal and the establishment of a new church formed by the dissenters. Perhaps this is an influence brought on by our Western independent mindset. The writer leaves this for your consideration.

Several years ago, some listened to Pope John Paul in Denver speak to 300,000 youth about the importance of a personal and vital relationship with Jesus Christ and weeped with joy over the bright future of the Roman Church in particular. Others are discussing whether or not the Pope was the Antichrist.

There is probably no greater area of diversity within the Christian community than in our theology of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostals expect each Christian to experience the manifestation of speaking in tongues. The dispensationalist teach that in this new age any such manifestation are either a charade or worse yet authored by Satan himself and should be prohibited from practice within the Christian movement. Others more centralist in practice, acknowledge the legitimacy of the doctrine of spiritual gifts, including, tongues, interpretation of tongues and prophecy, even though certain of these manifestations might not be within their own personal realm of experience. For them such expressions are not a litmus test for either orthodoxy or heresy.

Many if not all of these diverse and contradictory beliefs stem from a sincere study of holy scripture by their proponents. At times accepting certain truths seem to be at the exclusion of others that are just as fervently embraced by another group. Our western, structured reasoning process helps push us to be critical of those who are not like we or whose ideas are incompatible with our own. Again, certain Christian traditions are very homogeneous. Even this is changing. Southern Baptists once embraced at the highest level the priesthood of the believer. It was this belief that the individual Christian could read the bible and God’s Holy Spirit would reveal to him or her what God would have them believe and do. Today this thinking is all but gone across the denomination. The fundamentalist in power have purged the "liberals" from their seminaries. Churches who are not in the fundamentalist camp are sometimes precluded from helping fund denominational missions. The Anglican/Episcopal church was founded with the value of tolerating or even encouraging participation from those whose theology was not homogeneous. It was after all an amalgam of both the Protestant and Roman tradition. While diversity in theology is still common, diversity in worship styles is emerging as well. For centuries, worship from the Book of Common Worship was always the practice. Today one can find a number of non-traditional parishes where traditional liturgy is not practiced. Socio-economic diversity is not very common. It seems that most Episcopalian and Presbyterians probably earn a higher income than Baptists and Pentecostals.

It is the writers conviction that each of us can be in different places at different stages of their Christian life. We can be born into one expression of Christian faith and embrace it all our life. We can also transition from one to another and even back at times as we move to different geographic parts of the world or as we continue our spiritual journey. Our unity within the kingdom of God is not based on our sameness, rather upon our love for and worship of the same God. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are our most profound example of God’s affirmation of diversity with unity. A single note played by and entire orchestra is strong but cannot compare to the strength of the same orchestra playing a broad cord with each section of instruments playing the individual notes prescribed by the composer. We need the benefit of our diversity to keep us individually challenged and growing. When we affirm our diversity in the Christian community we can have fellowship with others whom God has great love. When we attempt to invalidate or demean another’s sincere experience of God we inflict pain and suffering as well as place ourselves into the role of God, who Himself declares what it means to rightly divide the word of truth. The scripture's explanation about the Trinity is an excellent example that at the heart of God is the high value of unity. Unity is not based on sameness. It is based on individual uniqueness being knit together by a common calling and purpose given by God. May this become our experience within the diversity of our Christian community.

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