On the Fellowship of the Church

One of my favorite devotionals to read out of is Our Daily Bread. This morning led me to II John. The devotional mentioned how John is the disciple of love, as seen in such passages as John 15. This morning I flipped back to I John where I read something that stuck a chord with me.

1 John 1:5-10
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The bold part strikes me because it places two qualifiers that prove we are in the light: fellowship and the blood of Christ. I want to focus on the first.

This January I had the opportunity to go to Rome  and visit several Catholic churches. The world catholic means ‘universal’ which is one of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith in regards to the church (the other words being one, holy, and apostolic). When we went into these churches we saw art telling the stories of Christians long ago like Paul, Peter, Ignatius, and endless martyrs. It reminded me that this is part of our history as part of the church, not just the history of the Roman Catholics.

One thing that bugs me is how we as protestants tend to view church history. We believe our church history involves Acts, Luther (whom we don’t know much about), the founding of our church, and our own conversion. We might though in the theology of Calvin, but we don’t usually connect him to anything in history. We so often neglect the 2000 years of Christians who have worked out and developed the theology and church we have today. Countless men, women, and children have suffered to preserve not only proper theology (look at saints like Athanasius) but also to preserve the Word of God and the faith itself. I encourage all readers to do two things: 1) read the entirety of the work that the Lord and the Church has preserved, 2) read the writings of saints past, from beyond the most recent century of Christian thought.

Back to the passage of John, it strikes me as odd how the church is divided in three major ways historically. In his book, The Church: A Guide for the PerplexedMatt Jenson, my teacher, explains the three major schisms of the church.

Approximately every five hundred years the church has undergone a radical transformation. The first great emergence (not quite at the five hundred year mark) occurred after Constantine imperialized the church; but the empire itself then collapsed into the ‘dark ages’, during which time the church became the church of Gregory the Great. The second significant shift occurred in the schism of 1054 in which the Eastern and Western churches recognized their mutually exclusive trajectories. The third transformation occurred in the outbreak of Protestantism after 1517. And today, roughly five hundred years after Luther posted something on the Wittenberg door, we are due for another revolution.

Jenson borrows this idea from Phylis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.  Jenson suggests that the next big thing in the Emerging Church, a church that in a way transcends denominations and even schisms with Catholics and Protestants worshiping together. To define the emerging church is, according to Jenson, like “nailing pudding to the wall”. It isn’t something that is easy to categorize  but it does bring something new to the table. The past millennium has seen two great schisms in the church, while this emerging church could bring a unity as seen in I John. However, the emerging church does bring with it several concerns, and I am not telling people join or be against this movement, rather to be aware of it.

Another attempt at unity may come from the new perspective of Paul. One article I read talked about the attractiveness of the new perspective and describes how it could unite Catholics and Protestants:

Thirdly, the NPP purports to help us slip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul. The NPP says, effectively, if you’ll just understand what justification is and how it works, there no longer has to be a division between Protestant and Catholic on the issue of justification. Now that kind of a rapprochment would be a fairly significant thing to deliver through your new hermeneutic, if you really could, and so some people are very intrigued and attracted to the NPP for that very reason. Wright, in fact, argues that it is literally a sin that a doctrine that was meant to unite the church (justification, in connection with Jews and Gentiles) has been allowed to divide the church (justification, in connection with Protestants and Catholics).

Again, though, our hopes should not depend on this new perspective. It undermines Luther in saying he took his experience with legalistic Roman Catholics and applies it to Romans. To change perspective like this could lead to more schisms and likely wrong doctrine. One of the issues with the new perspective is that it changes justification and places itself dangerously near the line of heresy. Read this article for a summary of the new perspective and critique.

All this being said, church unity exists on two levels. The church in whole, including Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodoxies, as well as us individually. We need to work with the Holy Spirit where we are now to bring unity to the local immediate church. That means living in unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ. I know I struggle with that, but I’m working on it. Even living in a Christian house and going to a Christian school does not necessitate total unity. However, we do know that we can strive for and have fellowship with one another. We are all part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Let’s make sure we act like it.

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