Christian Unity 2014: Disciples in the Same Boat

MysticalChurch

Disciples in the Boat Together

Why does the church, the body of Christ, remain so divided? Is there an essential unity in the worldwide church we just don’t see?

When I look back on the last fifty years, I see many things that seemingly contributed to the unity of the church. Here is my list of some of them with my analysis:

1. The Ecumenical Movement. This probably reached a peak in the 1960s in the wake of Vatican II. There was a hope that the initial moves of the Roman Catholic leadership to modernize its church and give some recognition to non-Catholic Christians might progress to something big. It didn’t really happen. The big ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are barely surviving and don’t wield much influence today. Why? I’m not sure, but here are a couple of suggestions. First, the funders and influencers in these groups were white European/American church professionals. The ecumenical movement was always top down and never had a grassroots swell of support. Second, the denominations most involved in the ecumenical movement are generally in decline now. Third, as Christianity wanes in Europe and North America, it thrives in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. These newer communities never were a part of the WCC style ecumenical vision, seeing it as a type of continued foreign domination of their national churches. They wanted to stand on their own.

2. The commercialization of evangelical Christianity. Money has always fueled a great deal of what looks like cross-church cooperation, but this reached almost absurd heights in the 1990s and continues today. Yet Christian media (especially TV) has little appeal to Generation X and even less to the Millennials. It is seen by many as overly political and aligned exclusively with one political party and one foreign policy viewpoint. Another aspect of this is the prominence in Christian television of the prosperity gospel preachers who appeal to a narrow group of Christians and are near pariahs to others. The commercialization of Christian music and worship has had some unifying effect, but this has also caused a doctrinal leveling and blandness that robs the Christian message of some of its vitality and counter-culturalism.

3. The rise of mega churches. This may be the most hopeful development in the realm of Christian unity, because there is an interconnection between large churches and their pastors that has broken down many long-standing barriers in the Christian world. I mistakenly thought that the mega church was dead in the 1990s, a victim of pastoral hubris and immorality combined with staggering debt loads, but there has been a rebirth and renewal of this type of Christianity. The inability for observers to pigeonhole many mega churches in a denomination way is, I think, also a good thing. I’m not sure where this is going, but the new trend to multi-site churches has some appearance of the renewal of denominationalism with a different face. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

4. The opening up of Christian institutions of higher education to all comers. The huge capital investment to build colleges, universities, and seminaries by churches of the past was unsustainable unless these institutions broadened themselves in whom they admitted as students, in whom they allowed to be teachers, and in what programs they offered. There is no single model in this, so it is difficult to generalize, but this sort of scenario wold not be uncommon: a young man who grew up in a Baptist church attended trained for ministry in an Evangelical Free seminary and ended up as a pastor in a Christian Missionary Alliance church. The hyper-sectarian schools of previous generations have either broadened or are dying. Yet I also see the rise of new sectarian schools of a different stripe, some being generated from mega churches. I also don’t know where this is going.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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Racism and Christians

no racismThe media world has been abuzz for the last couple weeks about that villain of the world, Donald Sterling. A media outlet that lacks any filter (TMZ) released the recording of a phone call between the octogenarian Sterling and his 20-something girlfriend in which he made racist comments. He was quickly banned by the National Basketball Association for life, fined $2.5M, and threatened that he must sell his team, the L.A. Clippers.

I have no desire to defend Sterling, a businessman of less-than sterling reputation in Los Angeles. The whispers of his racially insensitive talk and actions have fueled the Los Angeles media for years, so while the legality of making this private conversation public is questionable, the verdict on Sterling as a racist is deserved.

The whole Sterling circus has reopened the discussion of racism in America, and I am deeply troubled by the reality that pokes through when this debate resurfaces from time to time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said yesterday that “more whites believe in ghosts than they do in racism.” His implication is that people like me think that racism in America is long-gone, a battle done. I wish that were true. How many other Donald Sterlings are out there? By this I mean white people who do not act as racists publicly, but  talk that way in private conversations.

Kathleen Parker recently addressed this in a column that did some soul-searching about the Republican party. Parker noted that it is no secret some political rallies display overt symbols of racism proudly. Parker warns, “The GOP is not a party of racists, but it is a party with racists.”

I wonder if this could be said of the American church? Perhaps we are not a church of racists, but a church with many racist members who are tolerated. I don’t want to generalize, but I have too often been around white Christian church leaders who think nothing of dropping a mildly racist comment or telling a quasi-racist joke. Recently, in Nepal of all places, I heard a white evangelical minister from Texas tell a “joke” that denigrated President Obama and his ethnic background. (BTW: I heard in the 2012 election an estimate that 25% of white Americans would never vote for Obama simply because he was a black man.) So if we believe racism in America is a problem solved, I assure you it is not.

The ancient church was challenged by a different kind of racism. It was made up of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). Jews were a substantial minority of the Roman empire’s population, maybe 10% by some estimates. They were influential in the Roman world, yet they were despised by the Romans. This led to a strange mix of persecution complex combined with proud ethnic elitism for the Jews. It was very difficult for them to accept non-Jews into the church at first. Such folks were both their tormentors and their inferiors, the Jews believed. But Paul would have none of this. He taught there was no distinction between Jew or Gentile in the church, all were one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

Can we recover this in the church today? If we truly believed we were all one in Christ, racism would have no toehold on which to stand. If we refused to allow ethnic distinctions to influence our thinking, racism would die a lonely and deserved death. The church of all places should neither be racist nor a place with racists as leaders.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College