If I were more disciplined, I would obviously write something that would highlight Advent or provide a bit more on the incredible joy signified by this Christmas season. And I really think I should. But I cannot escape the pastoral and leadership intensities that have framed the past 6 months. It would be too much to explain and also inappropriate for some of the churches and individuals involved. But I find myself rather continually drifting back to a famous quote by St Augustine. Here it is:
“In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.”
Stuff just sounds weightier in Latin, right?
But here is the simple English of this phrase (that almost everyone is sure that is NOT from Augustine. But assigning his name to anything just adds to the weight.
In the essentials unity
In the non essentials liberty
In all things, charity
This is a wise and good approach. But the formula largely disintegrates when two parties disagree as to what is essential and what is non-essential.
On the far right, almost everything can be labeled “essential,” especially my version of the “essential.” In the first months of our Christian walk, Sue and I were sharing the gospel on a Friday night on the University of Minnesota campus. We were confronted by another band of “witnesses,” what was known as The Children of God. They all discarded their birth names and took on biblical names. So, Sue and I met Simeon and Rejoice . I was a 14 month old believer in Christ who had adopted the Assembly of God path of theology and practice. (I had discarded my Roman Catholicism years before and embraced philosophical materialism as the only path to true enlightenment. And I threw in a good shot of Zen Buddhism as well.) But on that night, Simeon confronted me when he knew I was a Christian and ran me through a 3 question litmus test:
1-”Do you believe that you have to be born again to go to heaven?” (Yes)
2-”Do you believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues” (Yes, although I no longer live in that camp)
3-”Do you believe in the Rapture of the church (and then he added some verses from Jeremiah to define however that was supposed to occur.) And I said something like “I’m not too familiar with that scripture”. And on that admission, Simeon went after me with a kind of prophetic fury. Apparently Simeon was seeking to ascertain the weaknesses of my spiritual armor and lovingly rectify my disorder. That didn’t occur right then and there.
Later that night, Rejoice shared with Sue some personal good news: She and Simeon were going to get married later that night.
Sue – ”Who’s going to do the ceremony?”
Rejoice – ”God.”
Sue – ”God?”
Rejoice – ”Yeah. Like in the garden of Eden. The very first marriage.”
What could one possibly say. God had spoken to them and they had a biblical precedent. And despite our own neophyte status, we knew this was some deeply aberrant stuff and tracked with them through the evening. I think Sue did succeed in getting Rejoice to put on the brakes, but I had very little luck with Simeon, especially with my “bad” theology of the Rapture and what I think had resulted for him as a serious hormonal storm. It’s not too difficult to construct a serious theology when my feelings and hormones are leading the charge.
Here’s my point: Simeon wasn’t interested in achieving any kind of unity with me. Rather, in his insecurity and ignorance, he was going to get me on the path of life and probably feel quite self-satisfied in so doing. This “Rapture” revelation from Jeremiah was a hill worth dying on. And our lack of agreement was not going to be resolved apart from my recapitulation. And what could I say to his God-originated call to marrying Rejoice that night. I was just a bit over-matched.
But back to Augustine (or whomever).
Who gets to define the essentials?
The posture of the ARC has been 3 ancient creeds:
The Apostle’s Creed
The Nicene Creed
The Chalcedonian Creed.
But even when these creeds are declared as indisputable essentials, there will be disputes. That was one of the things that carried a great deal of comfort for a young Catholic boy. We had the Pope (apostolic succession) and he was infallible. (A finality to all arguments). But Luther and Calvin and Wesley among many others had different perspectives. World changing perspectives in fact.
But these reformers were not a gentle crew by and large. They regularly bordered on vicious in assailing each other. Sorely lacking in “caritas”. One of their great understandings was that the church was always both reforming and being reformed. In the middle of the battle, a great deal of humility is required lest we start attacking each other and defiling Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.
A few decades ago, the ARC linked up with an ecumenical group known as The Sword of the Spirit. They were way ahead of us particularly in building community together. And we learned so much from these devoted believers. Most of them were Roman Catholic and the evangelical wing would regularly get just a bit disturbed by what appeared to be a much stronger Catholic influence than the Reformed posture. But it was so enlightening to hear the concerns of the Catholics which stood as a polar opposite question of whether the Protestant wing was becoming too influential.
The problem rather regularly seems to arrive here: what others consider essential, you consider non-essential. And vice versa. It’s hard to agree especially when one has shed a bit of blood defending what they considered an essential truth.
For example, about 8-10 years ago we began to address the need to adjust our practices in 3 areas:
Gifts, Generations and Gender.
It got a little heated, especially on the gender issue. So many of us had fought some tough battles in that arena, on both sides of the complementarian/egalitarian argument. And the adjustment was criticized on both sides:
“You’ve gone too far and it won’t be long before we start sliding down the inevitable ‘slippery slope’ and we’ll begin marrying gays and ordaining women elders.” OR
“You haven’t gone nearly far enough in recognizing the Christ-centered gifting in women and their contribution to the church.”
Sometimes it felt a bit like we were either Nazis or Neanderthals. Actually, these were only side arguments (but those are often the steamiest) and folks behaved well in the middle of essentials and non essentials. Questions and arguments still abound and will undoubtedly continue on a wide plethora of issues. Important issues. Like…
- How should church government unfold? What is the scope and breadth of an elder’s leadership? How does the congregation contribute to the overall vision?
- How is the mission of a local congregation to live out the call to be “Salt and Light”? What does it mean to be incarnational and trans-formative?
- What are the parameters and expectations of mature discipleship for any believer in the congregation? Who is called and responsible to fulfill that divine commandment?
- How do we understand and assimilate different generations with variable understandings of a whole set of biblical values? Are there different and legitimate differences between the Builder/Boomer/Gen X/Millenial generations? Do we need to be intentional in hearing each other?
- What about the challenges put forward by different giftings and voices? Apostolic? Prophetic? Evangelistic? Pastoral? Teaching? What needs the present emphasis?
Well, I’m not going to press this ad nauseam. You get my drift. This is a lot harder work than what it looks like on paper. But the 3rd part of the quote remains utterly determinative—”In all things charity”. Finally we are going to have to directly respond to the new commandment of Jesus in John 13:34.
BY THIS…By this…By this will all men know you belong to me
IF…IF…if you love one another. And that certainly will never mean a weak, flaccid hug and smile in the face of our differences. But it will regularly and deliberately return to that new commandment of the new covenant written in the blood of the Son of God Himself
May God have mercy on us as we do th hard work of sorting through essentials and non-essentials and the intentional determination to obey the Savior and keep charity front and center, never letting it slide off the stage of our faith.
Peace, peace and joy to the world this Advent/Christmas season