Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bad Idea Revisited

Here’s yet another post about the need to reunite the visible Church. They’re a dime a dozen at the moment, a fact which might set off alarm bells in the heads of our premillennialist readers.

As is usually (but not always) the case, well-intentioned folks are convinced the Church cannot be effective on the world stage until it is politically unified:

“The first step in [retaking our culture and rebuilding our civilization] is UnSchisming the Church. And the first step in UnSchisming the Church is to agree that the Body of Christ needs to be whole again. The 3 segments of the Church [Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant] are going to have to agree to that before we can make any movement on resolving this issue.”

Color me a bit cynical on that front, but I appreciate the thought.

That They May Be One

Such ecumenical efforts normally assume their authority derives from the Lord’s prayer to his Father “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

I’ve written numerous times on the unity of the visible Church and what I believe the Lord Jesus meant by these words, so I won’t revisit that here except to point out that no mere external, organizational unity could ever satisfy the Lord’s request.

Further, Bible history warns us what can happen when good men become obsessed with pursuing the wrong sort of togetherness; the kind that is neither of the human spirit nor of the Holy Spirit, but merely a matter of form. Let’s just say it ain’t pretty.

Misguided Overtures

If there existed a trophy for abject failure to recognize the Lord’s hand in the circumstances of his day, we’d have to award it to good King Jehoshaphat of Judah. He lived a life of devotion and service to Jehovah that was truly remarkable. He “sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments”. His heart was “courageous in the ways of the Lord”. There was everything to like about this guy and almost nothing to criticize except for this: he was obsessed with reuniting a kingdom that God himself had divided.

It started with a garden variety inter-kingdom marriage alliance with Israel. Jehoshaphat married his son Jehoram to King Ahab’s daughter Athaliah. The long-term negative results of that union make for interesting reading in later chapters of Kings and Chronicles, but in the near-term it bound the two royal houses together so tightly that Jehoshaphat would agree to go to war against Syria for no better reason than that it was something Ahab wanted. He told the wicked king, “I am as you are, my people as your people.”

Except he wasn’t, and they weren’t. Not then, anyway.

Ersatz Unity and Authentic Wrath

God’s reaction? Not thrilled with Jehoshaphat’s ersatz unity. He said:
Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord.”
To Jehoshaphat’s credit, he took God’s rebuke without flinching and went on to serve Jehovah diligently in many other ways. But he failed to internalize the message God had sent him, and so only a few years later became involved in a bi-national shipbuilding project in cooperation with Ahab’s son Ahaziah. God sent him a second message:
“Because you have joined with Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy what you have made.”
And he did. The ships were wrecked and never sailed for Tarshish as planned.

Making Common Cause

What are we to make of all this? Israel was God’s covenant people. Judah was God’s covenant people. The two nations were all descended from the same man. Like chocolate and peanut butter, human logic tells us they were better together. Except … they weren’t. It wasn’t God’s plan. He had divided his kingdom in part to preserve the moral character of Judah from evil influences and compromise, and this is precisely the sort of corruption that Jehoshaphat’s efforts at unity ultimately produced.

But can we say with certainty that the desire of some evangelicals to work together with Catholics and the Orthodox (and, for that matter, other Protestants) is equally misguided and dishonoring to God?

Not necessarily.

Ground-Level Christian Labor and Denominational Governance

In fact, I think it may well be beneficial for evangelical Christians to make common cause with genuine believers from the high churches at ground level wherever we can find points of agreement. Things like community service projects, home-school outings with a Christian family from a high church, or enjoying one another’s point of view in home Bible studies are ideal because they remind us we are one in Christ without involving us in moral compromises or crises of the conscience like Jehoshaphat’s. They leave dubious treaties and phony alliances out of it.

This sort of ad hoc fellowship reflects the unity of the Spirit and shows love to our fellow believers in a practical way, just as neighbours along the border between Judah and Israel would have been better off acknowledging their common history and heritage and keeping the peace rather than engaging in bloody battles for territory.

It wasn’t ground-level concord between citizens of Judah and Israel that brought God’s wrath on Jehoshaphat. Rather, it was his repeated attempts at organizational, political and institutional togetherness that were offensive.

This is where attempts to reunite today’s visible Church are bound to fail, because they require making common cause at the governance level with institutions that in many cases have rejected the Head of the Church, appointing shepherds who, much like the shepherds Ezekiel condemned, have well-earned reputations for feeding only themselves.

How can God be behind that?

The Path Forward

Sure enough, the writer of the unity post finishes up with precisely this sort of appeal to institutions, leaders, councils and canons:
“The path forward, once we have agreed that this is a thing that needs doing, is to revisit the councils and canons of the Church from before the Schism, get the leadership of the 3 branches of Christianity together, and find common ground that can be built upon. But this isn’t going to be easy, and because of that, it’s something that is going to have to have ordinary Christians involved. If you think this is a worthwhile goal, be sure to share this column with your pastor, priest, minister, bishop, elder, or whatever title your church uses for leadership. Tweet it, Gab it, or Facebook it. Our mission is being undermined by our disunity and we need to fix it.”
I’ll let you judge whether such a strategy answers to the prayer of the Lord Jesus for the unity of those who would believe in him through the word of the apostles. In my book, it’s just another bad idea revisited. Whenever I hear “Our mission is being undermined,” I have to ask myself exactly what mission that might be.

Might be wise to find out first.

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