You may hate history. You can’t see it, rarely touch it, and it often seems to have nothing to do with your life. Who cares who won the ’48 World Series or crossed the Rubicon? It’s hard enough to read the newspaper, and figure out what’s going on today. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with hating history, as long as you’re prepared to live with its consequences.
There is a reason this magazine is printed in North America, but in a European language. There is a legacy that North American nations refer to when they say “republic.” And there is a reason why two billion people around the world say, “Jesus is Lord,” but sit in different churches. That last reason, at least, is worth looking into.
There are approximately 34,000 Christian denominations in the world today (World Christian Enclyopedia), and we belong to one of the least well-known ones. So when we talk to our friend/neighbor/cousin about why we don’t attend the church down the street, it’s good that we understand the theological differences between Church X and Church Z, but it’s a shame that we don’t usually know why there are different churches. Sure, you can blame Martin Luther, but that won’t tell you what really happened or help you understand why people who claim to sincerely love God and love Christ have continually condemned, excommunicated and made war on other Christians.
We have all seen the effects of division and schism. If we look back over our shoulders at the last two thousand years of Christian argument, denouncement, and separation, it may help us to deal with where we are today, and ask ourselves how we can fulfill Jesus’ plea: “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are” (John 17:11b).
It starts with controversy. Usually over an issue where both sides can be seem to have valid and persuasive points of view, so that an observer would have to think for a while before coming up with a reasoned, scripturally sound conclusion about who was right. Controversy begins with discussion over an issue, and while it remains solely a controversy, it’s still fluid; there are lots of ways to end the debate. A few of them are even positive.
Controversy can be solved by appealing to a higher authority. A legal dispute goes before a judge, a theological dispute goes before a spiritual judge. And if that judge can be trusted as infallible (Solomon, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus – someone who is blessed by God with a spirit of wisdom), then that conclusion won’t be disputed. For us, the option of appealing to a divinely inspired judge hasn’t come around for nineteen hundred years.
Controversy can also be solved by the various parties agreeing that the subject isn’t worth debating. You think the house would look better in white with blue trim, I like the red, but whatever… It becomes a matter of opinion, or a conclusion that’s subject to other factors. (“If the red’s cheaper, let’s go with that.”) No one necessarily agrees to disagree, but they agree not to shout at each other.
Controversies can be solved by consensus — we think. It remains unproven. Keep reading this discussion and you will find that in every century of human existence we have tried to end a debate by getting together in a large meeting (Sanhedrin, Jerusalem conference, Nicaean synod) to come up with some mutually agreeable solution to the problem. Unfortunately, that has never happened. Committees have never universally agreed on anything. The question becomes, when the tyranny of the majority has made its decision, what happens to the losers? Since the rest of us agree, what should we do with you? This, as often as not, is where divisions begin.
This is where the controversy ends. You go sit in your corner, and I’ll sit in mine. Now we can safely ignore one another in the knowledge that, as the righteous party, we will prevail. Division will end most of the arguing, as well as the personal discomfort that comes from associating with people you disagree with. Now that only people who agree with one another (on the ‘important’ things) are together, the real work of the gospel – loving God and our neighbor – can continue.
The critical moment that brings division is this: when we realize that the people we are debating with are not “really” followers of Christ. Once we have decided that a person who believes _______ clearly does not understand/is not following the way of Christ, we feel relieved of our moral responsibility to yield to our brother. After all, someone who can believe/do THAT obviously isn’t really our brother.
Case Study 1: Jesus of Nazareth – what started it all
In the first century, a group of people who spent their lives studying the word of God, hoping to live by its commands and teach the world how to do the same, held a trial. Before we add all our emotional fury to this case, let’s look at the roots of it.
A Galilean was preaching some dubious things. Not surprising. Galilee was infested with Greeks and other gentiles, and the Jews from this area were known for their superstitions, misunderstandings of Scripture, and tendency to borrow foreign ideas. Now this particular Galilean said that he was the Messiah. Well, that had happened before. Judas of Galilee [to pull a name out of our hat] did the same thing, not that long ago. People claim to be the Messiah, get a following, get the Romans nervous and sword happy, and then vanish on the wind. It’s happened before, and now it’s happened again. And, as every good Bible student should know, this man failed the most obvious test – he wasn’t from Bethlehem.
So, Pilate is a bloodthirsty magistrate with no tolerance for Jewish religious ideas. Another false Messiah will only lead to another massacre and more harsh restrictions for those of the faithful who are trying to keep to the tried and true word of God. It’s not just that this man is a false prophet (which should get him stoned immediately – remember the words of Moses about dreamers), but he’s one who can start yet another riot that ends in Roman retaliation. He’s a politically dangerous heretic.
But he’ll get a trial. After all, the Pharisees and Sadducees thought they were students of scripture. Some of them had memorized the entirety of God’s word (and all of them read it in the original language). They even read the commentaries on Scripture, and some spent their time in public lectures and debates about the meaning of a phrase, or the way in which one should apply a particular verse. These were people who wanted to appear righteous, and appear to do things the right way. So instead of inciting the mob or attacking him clandestinely, they took this man to trial.
Now, wouldn’t you be surprised if I wasn’t talking about the Lord Jesus? Imagine if I had been describing Judas of Galilee, or one of the other false Messiahs. Wouldn’t we have grudgingly said, “Well, good for them. They knew this guy was an imposter, and they stopped him from spreading lies. Isn’t that exactly what we’d have done in their place if one of our own members said he had direct revelations and started gathering followers”? Before you answer that, think about it long enough to see the situation through their eyes, and remember that, like them, we are not divinely inspired judges.
But it was the Messiah. And we can all point to their proceedings and say, “Shame!” They produced false witnesses, listened to slander about him, and some of them (Caiaphas, etc.) had already made up their minds before listening to his testimony. This is not how a trial should go. Fair enough. It was not a fair trial. But it was one conducted by people who faithfully read their Scriptures and prided themselves on living according to them. That will set the precedent for every schism we consider after this – they were always begun by people who used the name of God in their decisions.
We know how the trial ended. A man was condemned to death. What’s interesting is a consideration of what the Sanhedrin hoped to achieve. Peace. They felt that with the death of this man, his following would disperse, the Romans would relax, and they could all go back to the important work of obeying the Law of God. In their minds, this should have reunited the country and ended the arguments over whether this was or wasn’t the Messiah. See! He’s dead. Therefore, he can’t be the Messiah. Now we can go back to praying together. “It is better for one man to die…”
One almost pities them. The religion they practiced would never be the same.
By killing the one, true, Messiah, the controversy was ended by a resurrection. God demonstrated that this man was His Anointed, and now those who followed him would be permanently divided from those who did not follow him. Their attempt to end the controversy in a consensus decision – Is this man guilty of heresy or not? – ended in the creation of a new faith.
The shape of that faith would be determined by another gathering of sincere Bible students, the Jerusalem Conference, and it’s the only such successful gathering all of us can point to. Lord willing, we’ll talk about that next.