Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Risks God Takes

The Risks God Takes
Why a little church history is a necessary--and dangerous--thing

From the June issue of Christianity Today
Posted online on 06/17/10

My kids are growing up in North American evangelicalism, just like I did. My husband and I load up the family wagon every Sunday for primarily spiritual reasons, but as a byproduct, we are also marinating our offspring in a specific cultural broth. By the time they leave for college, they will have spent 18 years in a Reformational stew.

Church culture is the norm for our kids. They have no reason to believe that Christendom has ever been different, although they do recognize progress in that they can wear jeans on Sunday mornings.
One of the quirks of growing up in certain streams of evangelicalism is a lack of historical context. In my youth, a church father was a dad on the deacons' board. If we had to summarize Christianity's history, we would probably reference the apostle Paul, Billy Graham, and our congregation's building committee.

I would have remained ignorant if it weren't for books. G.K. Chesterton cajoled me to respect tradition as a way of "giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors." My ancestors, it turns out, are a lively bunch. I discovered them scattershot—Augustine's introspection, Eckhart's mysticism, Therese of Lisieux's humility, Benedict's organizational genius. I began to see church history as a trove of devotional information, a 2,000-year stream to be mined for the golden testimonies of saints who pursued God and recorded what happened.

Hungry for context, I delved deeper—and soon realized why we don't share much church history with our kids.

Yes, there are bright lights in the story. But there are also dark moments when the church and state joined hands to form one iron fist. Sacramentalism (the teaching that God's saving grace comes only through the sacraments) was often turned from a means of grace into a way to secure power (for only the church could perform the sacraments). To challenge official church doctrine meant consigning your soul to hell—and the church would likely help you get there quickly.

When Tertullian claimed that "the blood of the martyrs is seed of the church," he could not have dreamed how much blood would be spilled at the hands of other Christians. Like that of Jan Hus, a Bohemian preacher who argued that Scripture should be available to the masses and have the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters. Seeking church reform, he preached against corruption.

When Hus refused to recant his positions before the Council of Constance in 1415, he was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned. But a century later, his blood helped to seed the ideas of Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Out of the pain of their difficult labor, my own church tradition was born.

Then there's the case of Michael Sattler, a 16th-century Anabaptist who was pronounced an "arch-heretic," tortured, and executed for concluding that Scripture did not advocate infant baptism. A few days later, Sattler's wife was drowned for holding the same view.

How do we process these stories? I open my Bible, and I recognize my debt to those who fought for the accessibility and authority of Scripture. My church holds a baptismal service, and I think of those who were drowned for claiming the right to be baptized as adults.

I recognize, too, that without dissenting voices, there would have been no Reformation. This tempers my response to fellow Christians whom I believe are doctrinally unorthodox. I disagree with them as my conscience dictates, but I must also respect them as potential sparks in a reforming fire. As long as the church is made up of humans, it will need reform, and reform will require dissent from the status quo.

The story of Christianity ultimately leaves me shocked at the risks God takes with humans. Even the greatest lights in church history were dishearteningly imperfect. For all his heroism, Luther attacked the Jewish faith so polemically the Nazis later misappropriated his writings for their anti-Semitic cause. Reformer Ulrich Zwingli advocated justification by faith and concern for the poor, but he also endorsed the executions of two of his brightest disciples because they became Anabaptists. Simons was an inspired Anabaptist leader, but he overzealously excommunicated many who did not live up to his pious standards.

Yet God did great things through these flawed people, much as he did with Abraham, Isaac, Peter, and Paul. As long as there is a human element in his church, it will be prone to corruption. But as long as his Spirit moves, there will be reform and renewal.

When our kids are ready, we will give them context for their religious heritage. For now, they do not understand that the church they file into on Sunday mornings is a place as dangerous as it is holy. But if God is willing to keep taking a chance on it, so are we.


Lisa said...

this is fabulous. I majored in European church history in university, and I've been saying for quite a number of years how much context and depth knowing a bit of that history can add to our faith - even knowing the less than shining things.

Foggy Blogger said...

I've tackled this a couple of times in my blog, thank you for tackling in yours, with your much larger readership. :)

Knowing our history as christians does more than just gives us a context for our faith, but it also insulates us from recurring heresies or misunderstandings. *cough*da vinci code*cough*

Having said that, i disagree with you. I think we should be teaching our kids from day one about our history. Before we release them to the world/college they should know who Augustine is and why the Nicene Creed is important and how the Bible came about. How many more kids must we lose in college (where they discover the bad bits about our history) before we learns that church history is just as important for ones faith as is scripture and preaching?!

Carolyn Arends said...

Lisa -- thanks for the input, means a lot. I'd love to take more church history -- there are so many things (both dark and shining) to discover and learn from.

Carolyn Arends said...

Foggy Blogger (you of the great blog name) -- thanks for the input. I agree with you -- sooner than later kids should be educated -- certainly sooner than I was. But some church history just isn't rated "G", and I think for some information a certain degree of maturity is required.
Thanks for the comment!

Foggy Blogger said...

Oh yeah, there's some tasty bits in our shared history ;) However even early on we can start introducing our kids to early heroes like augustine,luther, or even some of those crazy ascetics! (Julian of Norwich anyone?) Granted very cleaned up and sanitized. Plus we can start teaching our kids big picture stuff. Like the destruction of the temple or the creeds and the councils that created them. Which risks being more boring than graphic ;) We can also start introducing kids to past rituals and spiritual practices.(maybe skip the self-flagellation stuff) There's also the illuminated gospels like the Book of Kells. We can also introduce them to people like Pearl Buck, or Gladys Aylward.

We can introduce our kids, even the wee ones, to a whole bunch of our history without having to get into the sordid bits! Though at some point, around jr high and up we do need to be willing to discuss those bits too. So they dont come as a shock to our kids when they learn about them from a hostile teacher in college or in HS.

Its important for kids to learn about JC and to study their bibles, but its their communities and sense of shared history that maintains their faith, long after they have left the nest.

John said...

Hello! I am a fan of your music and I am also a Lutheran christian and pastor. Here is what we have said about Luther and the Jews. There is much more to this than your brief blog by its briefness is able to note. God bless!!!

Q. What is the Missouri Synod's response to the anti-Semitic statements made by Luther in volume 47 of Luther's Works - On The Jews and Their Lies?

A. While The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod holds Martin Luther in high esteem for his bold proclamation and clear articulation of the teachings of Scripture, it deeply regrets and deplores statements made by Luther which express a negative and hostile attitude toward the Jewish people. In light of the many positive and caring statements concerning the Jews made by Luther throughout his lifetime, it would not be fair on the basis of these few regrettable (and uncharacteristic) negative statements, to characterize the reformer as "a rabid anti-Semite." The LCMS, however, does not seek to "excuse" these statements of Luther, but denounces them (without denouncing Luther's theology).

In 1983, the Synod adopted an official resolution addressing these statements of Luther and making clear its own position on anti-Semitism. The text of this resolution reads as follows:

WHEREAS, Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are a continuing problem in our world; and

WHEREAS, Some of Luther's intemperate remarks about the Jews are often cited in this connection; and

WHEREAS, It is widely but falsely assumed that Luther's personal writings and opinions have some official status among us (thus, sometimes implying the responsibility of contemporary Lutheranism for those statements, if not complicity in them); but also

WHEREAS, It is plain from scripture that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all people--that is, to Jews also, no more and no less than to others (Matt. 28:18-20); and

WHEREAS, This Scriptural mandate is sometimes confused with anti-Semitism; therefore be it

Resolved, That we condemn any and all discrimination against others on account of race or religion or any coercion on that account and pledge ourselves to work and witness against such sins; and be it further

Resolved, That we reaffirm that the bases of our doctrine and practice are the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther, as such; and be it further

Resolved, That while, on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther's negative statements about the Jewish people, and, by the same token, we deplore the use today of such sentiments by Luther to incite ant-Christian and/or anti-Lutheran sentiment; and be it further

Resolved, That in our teaching and preaching we take care not to confuse the religion of the Old Testament (often labeled "Yahwism") with the subsequent Judaism, nor misleadingly speak about "Jews" in the Old Testament ("Israelites" or "Hebrews" being much more accurate terms), lest we obscure the basic claim of the New Testament and of the Gospel to being in substantial continuity with the Old Testament and that the fulfillment of the ancient promises came in Jesus Christ; and be it further

Resolved, That we avoid the recurring pitfall of recrimination (as illustrated by the remarks of Luther and many of the early church fathers) against those who do not respond positively to our evangelistic efforts; and be it finally

Resolved, That, in that light, we personally and individually adopt Luther's final attitude toward the Jewish people, as evidenced in his last sermon: "We want to treat them with Christian love and to pray for them, so that they might become converted and would receive the Lord" (Weimar edition, Vol. 51, p. 195).

Carolyn Arends said...

John - Thanks so much for sharing this -- it's very helpful!