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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Inbox: Breeding Atheism

Mac Pier, head of a parachurch organization in Manhattan called The New York Leadership Center, is calling for unity in the church.

Fox News thinks Pier’s “confessions” on behalf of the church are important enough for Bill O’Reilly to spend five minutes quizzing Charles Krauthammer about the church and how its longstanding divisions are alleged to encourage atheism in the world.

Our reader Qman asks, “What’s your take, is it valid?”

Here’s what Pier said:
“We confess that we are a divided church. We are divided by race, by denomination, and by geography. We confess that division in the church breeds atheism in the world. We confess that we have yet to fully answer the prayer of Jesus that we be one that the world might believe. As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, we weep over the condition of our cities.”
So does division in the church breed atheism? I’d say that’s a leap.

The Non-Rise of Atheism

First, it does not appear the statistical evidence supports Pier’s assertion.

If the Pew Research stats quoted here by O’Reilly are meaningful, atheism is not growing significantly at present. Asked to comment on the “rise”, Charles Krauthammer correctly points out that the number of self-identified atheists in the U.S. remains relatively static at around 2.4% of the population. He says, “Those numbers are pretty flat. I don’t see any eruption of atheism upon the land”.

So if a divided church breeds atheists, it currently breeds them at about the same rate as former atheists are electing to self-identify as Christians.

Division over Doctrine

Second, as I’ve looked at that subject and at the scriptures about unity and being “one” over the last couple of years, I’m finding myself less and less concerned about the scourge of denominationalism. Part of this relates to a realization that the sort of “oneness” Pier and his friends at The Park Church in North Carolina are looking to achieve is not the unity the Lord had in mind when he prayed. The Lord was not praying to us, notwithstanding the unfortunate wording of Pier’s confession. People don’t answer prayers, God does. The oneness for which the Lord Jesus prayed was not and can never be accomplished by mere human effort. 

The accusation that divisions among Christians over the interpretation of scripture lead to denominationalism and promote atheism has also been leveled by atheist Kendall Hobbs. I’ve tackled that subject at length, so I will only reiterate this bit from Walking in Lockstep
“All things being equal, Hobbs’ indictment might be quite daunting.

If, for instance, every Christian began the search for understanding on a perfectly equal footing — that is to say with identical default assumptions, background, training and study tools; with an identical amount of time to devote to the study; with precisely equivalent levels of commitment, intelligence, education and spiritual maturity; with a correspondingly equal level of open-mindedness about new ideas; and if there were no innate differences between the sexes, and all men and all women thought alike and studied alike; not to mention that it would be necessary to all start our studies at the same time — then we should rightly expect all believers to arrive at the same place in our understanding, shouldn’t we? We would reasonably anticipate that every believer would come to the same conclusions about what the Bible teaches and to apply them the same way.

But it should be obvious to any rational being including Kendall Hobbs that not only is this rarely the case, it is never the case. No two individuals in the history of the world have ever begun in precisely the same place at the same time to search out the same truth.”

The Inevitability of Division

Division within the kingdom of heaven on earth was anticipated by both Christ and the apostles. False teachers and teachings are an ongoing feature of Christendom to be battled in every century. Unless the entire church is prepared to embrace false teaching (not a good plan), over time Christians who flock to teachers serving up doctrinal error generally tend to end up meeting separately from those who do not. But if we must have division, one unexpected positive of denominational affiliations is that they serve as boundaries that keep certain wolves from easy access to even larger numbers of sheep.

Further, whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. If denominationalism allows Christians with convictions to meet according to the dictates of their consciences, that is all to the good. It doesn’t mean, obviously, that all these different interpretations are equally correct. Existing in a state of sincerely-held sectarian error is far from desirable, but it seems preferable to a disingenuous claim to be in full agreement.

Finally, since it is physically impossible for millions of believers in different countries, states, provinces, counties or even within the same city to meet together anyway, I see the existence of denominationalism as little more than a convenient excuse for people like Hobbs who have already made up their minds about the existence of God to justify their position.

The church, we must never forget, is a work in progress, not a finished product.

Divided by Geography

Pier also claims we are “divided by geography”. I must confess I cannot see a big problem there. From the first century on, the church has existed not just in Jerusalem but all over Asia and beyond. If the message of the gospel has now gone out into the four corners of the earth, that’s a good thing. Short of the Father’s House, I’m not sure how such an issue is to be resolved, now or ever, or even that it should be.

As long as we are conscious of the reality that we and Christians elsewhere in the world are members of one spiritual body; as long as we are praying for our fellow believers, sending teaching aids and gifted men and women as appropriate and contributing to their needs according to our ability, I cannot see a problem with geographic division.

Divided by Race

More serious might be the accusation that we are “divided by race”. Americans are certainly divided along racial lines, and the problem has become even more evident in the last few years. Inter-racial strife is on the uptick, and it’s going to get worse.

But is this reflected in the church? Is racism a major problem within Christian congregations in North America?

My observation is that, while we are far from perfectly embracing the New Testament ideal of “no distinction”, the level of tolerance for other races and cultures is higher among Christian believers than in any other segment of society. If anything, we are too tolerant. Professing Christians are among the most strident advocates for higher levels of immigration and often attempt to make their case from scripture. Some even advocate for it when it’s illegal.

Further, the fact that there are Christian gatherings in North America that are almost exclusively black, Chinese, Hispanic, Indian or Filipino is, for the most part, less a function of racial intolerance than a convenience attributable primarily to common language and culture.

If we ever get to the point in society in which we all speak a common language and live side by side in racially mixed communities in which tolerance and equality are the order of the day but still find ourselves segregating on Sundays, THEN I’d say there might be a problem.

But I cannot see any substantive evidence for Pier’s concern on this subject in the present environment. Atheists, it appears to me, are as inclined to racial intolerance as Christians, if not more so. I cannot see how a church “divided” in such a way breeds atheism.

The Real Issue

Pier’s real issue comes out in his last line: it is not the condition of our churches but of our cities that troubles him. That is understandable coming from him, since it is the vision of the organization he founded to “become a model of Christian leaders impacting the spiritual and social climate of an urban center”, to “catalyze Christian leaders to impact their city” and to “focus on training ministry and marketplace leaders who will collaborate on innovative initiatives in Greater New York”.

Pier wants to transform a North American city. It’s a laudable goal. There is practical value in what he’s doing. But social transformation is not the primary focus of the Body of Christ. Pier’s need to keep his organization viable by drumming up funds and motivating volunteers does not justify the hyperbole, in my opinion.

Are divisions in the church breeding atheism? Pier asserts it, but doesn’t prove it. I find myself unconvinced by either his rhetoric or the evidence of my own eyes.

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