There is a fine line between celebrating ‘diversities of gifts’ and committing heresy, so I’m writing this very carefully. After all, even a typo can undermine the whole of Scripture – you may have heard of the Wicked Bible, printed in 1631, in which the word ‘not’ was omitted from ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ As a seasoned proofreader, I trust I won’t make that obvious a mistake, but systematic heresy can be harder to spot!
I’ve been thinking about those writers, teachers and churches with whom we have clear differences, but also enjoy fellowship. For example, I know Christians who very clearly believe in Jesus, but also speak in tongues and practice prophecy. The Free Church is not cessationist, so we would not consider these things heretical, but we might quietly consider it instructional that the Spirit never seems to overtake us in the same way.
There are Messianic churches where the name of God’s Son is Y’shua rather than Jesus, and they blow the shofar to indicate watching for God’s coming and celebrate certain aspects of Jewish culture. Some Christians consider it inappropriate to celebrate a feast such as Passover, where for others it means celebrating the foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice.
And if we imagine ourselves on the outside looking in, there are Christians who see the Free Church as too old-fashioned, legalistic, joyless, or (believe it or not) even too wedded to extrabiblical documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
On a surface level I’ve sometimes found these different genres of Christianity depressing; aren’t we meant to be one, and obvious to the world because of our oneness? On the other hand, while I’ve no problem considering Charismatics true Christians, I’m uncomfortable around someone speaking in tongues. I am happy to take communion at my parents’ Cowboy Church, but I deeply disagree with some of their very Dispensationalist eschatology.
But lately, as a result of broader reading on Christians from different traditions and denominations, I’ve come to think of these secondary differences in a celebratory way. Remember the ‘one body with many members’ metaphor in 1 Corinthians. Traditionally we think of the ‘many members’ as being individuals within the body, but perhaps they could also refer to individual churcheswithin the great, worldwide, even historic Body of Christ? Because it seems to me that the different practices of various denominations show off the many facets of our common faith.
For instance, the Charismatics’ exuberant gifts demonstrate the supernatural power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the characteristic that dominates their worship. The Free Presbyterians’ solemnity, on the other hand, speaks of the great and awesome fear of the Lord that Christians are called to. The Messianic Church witnesses to the world of the promises of God to the Jewish people for millennia past, the promises that are ‘to the Jew first, and also to the [Gentile]’. Even Cowboy Church has its particular aroma of Christ: that of pure, childlike faith, and an attentive watching for Christ to come again.
We see these same principles in Christian writers. C.S. Lewis shows the beauty of logic in faith: two things which seem to be opposed but are actually in perfect unity through the Creator of both. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer went exploring through the rich depths of God’s complexities, and if their ‘discoveries’ contained too much of man’s philosophy, they erred in awe of what they had learned about God’s compassion and abundance.
Some churches and preachers proclaim the otherness of God, others his nearness; some his justice, others his mercy; some focus on creative praise, others on serving people in his name. Like the fruits of the Spirit, none of these attributes should be absent from any church’s theology, but they may excel in one area or another.
The Free Church does not make much use of the liturgical calendar, but I have always found it helpful to celebrate Christmas and Easter because they provide a yearly resting-place from which to contemplate specific acts of Christ. In my day-to-day schedule I praise God for what he has done, but I wouldn’t meditate on any particular event for weeks on end were it not for these reminders. Just as these holidays can help us focus on Jesus’ accomplishments, visiting different churches can help us home in on aspects of God’s character.
A word on heresy. I have spoken here on more or less stylistic differences. There are also grey areas – how serious is the practice of ordaining women ministers, or the various views of the Creation narrative? I have known Christians of different positions on these issues whom I firmly believe to have been true believers, and yet some consider these ‘dealbreakers’.
In my view, true heresy is easily spotted because it detracts from the glory of Christ or the authority of Scripture. We cannot tolerate the veneration of saints, for example, because it detracts from Christ’s position as the sole mediator between God and man. We cannot tolerate Arianism because it teaches that Christ is a created being, subordinate to and separate from the Father. We cannot even tolerate Church-sanctioned gay marriage, because the Bible teaches that this is an abomination. These are all things that demonstrate human ideas, not facets of God’s glory.
The buzzword of the 21stcentury is diversity, and its connotation in popular culture is often one of a moral free-for-all. ‘Not wrong, just different’ is used to justify people’s hedonistic choices. But if we can ‘redefine’ (another buzzword!) those terms to apply to the church, we have the magnificent paradox of diversity in unity. A diversity of gifts. A gorgeous tapestry of faithful, scriptural believers, all encompassed in the great, dazzling Bride of Christ!