Has Christ Been Divided?
Has Christ Been Divided?
by Steven W. Manskar
Can a person be a “conservative” or a “liberal” and a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? Should the church be divided into ideological camps? Does ideology have any place in Christian faith? Is Jesus a “conservative,” a “liberal,” or a “progressive”?
These questions were prompted recently as I was preparing a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. One of the books I consulted was Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & Christian Life by William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas. They assert that a Christian is simply someone who prays the Lord’s Prayer. To be a Christian is to pray and to pray as Jesus taught his disciples to pray.
The Lord’s prayer boils Christianity down to its essentials: God is a loving, self-giving parent whose love is unconditional and limitless; God is holy, i.e. “God is God and we are not”; God is Ruler of the cosmos whose rule and will will ultimately prevail; God’s children give their loyalty and allegiance wholeheartedly and without reservation to God and God’s kingdom; God forgives the sins; Only those who forgive others will be forgiven; We must depend upon God and God’s grace to help us resist and overcome temptation and evil.
When we pray “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Jesus helps us understand that God is Father to all: friend and foe, male and female, conservative and liberal and progressive, white and black and Hispanic and Asian and Native-American, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat and Independent. All belong to God’s family. Because God is your Father as much as he is mine, that makes us members of the same family; we’re related to each other through the waters of baptism. It doesn’t matter if I know you or even like or agree with you, because God is our Father, I have to love you. I have to love you because, as a Christian, I want to be like Jesus. If Jesus loves you, then that means I need to love you too. Being a Christian means loving who God loves as God loves them.
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Not only is God our loving parent, God is also ruler of creation. When we pray, “your kingdom come,” we are doing two things: First, we acknowledge God as ruler. God is the one who claims our primary loyalty and allegiance. Any other loyalty or allegiance must be secondary. Therefore, no ideology, political or religious, has any place in Christian life. The only “ideology” that is acceptable to God is Jesus Christ; the “ideology” of self-giving covenant love. Christians ought not identify themselves as “Conservative” or “Liberal” or “Progressive.” For when we put those labels before the name given in baptism, “Christian”, we communicate to the world that we are “Conservative”, “Liberal”, or “Progressive” first and Christian second. This is a distortion of Christ and the baptism he gives. It divides the church and damages its witness in the world. Christians are not baptized into an ideology. They are baptized into Christ and his household (1 Cor. 1:10-30).
John Wesley addressed this problem in his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:
"Beware of schism or causing separation within the Church of Christ. Such internal division begins when sisters and brothers in Christ, the members of his Body, no longer have love “for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:25). This is the very beginning of all conflict that ultimately leads to every outward separation. Beware of everything that contributes to such discord. (from A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, page 78)
Wesley’s concern is that when ideology creeps into the church the inevitable loss of love for one another leads to division within the body of Christ.
For evidence of his prophetic wisdom we need look no further than the rhetoric used by both sides of the moral and doctrinal arguments that divide The United Methodist Church today. Both sides resort to distortion and even character assassination in their efforts to “win” the argument and get their way. The divisive spirit reached its zenith near the end of the 2004 General Conference when the idea of an “amicable separation” was proposed.
Wesley’s advice for preventing such division within the household of Christ is to
“,,, observe every rule of the society and the bands for conscience’ sake. Never skip meeting your class or band. Never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very fabric of our society. Whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these or our diligence in attending them strikes at the very heart of our community. As one said, ‘That part of our community, the private weekly meetings for prayer, examination, and instruction, has been the greatest means of deepening and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached and of spreading it to others who could not attend the public ministry. Without this religious connection and fellowship, the most ardent attempts by mere preaching have proved of no lasting use.’” (A Perfect Love: Understanding John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’, page 78)
Here Wesley is speaking of the importance of life together, Christian conferencing, to building up the body of Christ, and its members, in love. Wesley understood that grace flows and works best in community. This is the essence of what it means to be a “connectional” church.
Put in today’s context, when people show up regularly for worship and are part of a small group they are less likely to allow opinions to divide them. When persons faithfully watch over one another in love through mutual support and accountability for following Christ and being his witnesses in the world, they grow in love of God, love of neighbors, and love for one another. Christ and his love become their guiding ethos, or “ideology.” All other opinions and ideologies become secondary. Whatever ideologies and opinions persons bring with them are transformed and conformed, by grace, into the character of Christ (Philippians 2:5).
But when Christian conference is neglected, when it becomes optional and not longer an expectation, this is an invitation for division. Christ then becomes one choice among many. This then opens the door for the ideologies of the world to take hold. Neglect of Christian conferencing at all levels of the church inevitably leads to neglect of the other means of grace which contributes the church becoming a voluntary association rather than the covenant community Christ intends for it to be.
Second, when Christians pray “Your kingdom come” they promise to be witnesses to the reality and power of God’s rule in their lives and in world. Jesus gives a glimpse of God’s kingdom in his parables and in the beatitudes:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:20-22).
God’s kingdom is present wherever the least, the last, and the left out of the world are welcomed, forgiven, healed, and loved unconditionally. Those who pray Jesus’ prayer are saying they will be part of this kingdom and will participate with him as ambassadors of reconciliation and love.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave his disciples, and the Church, a powerful gift. He gave them his way of prayer. This prayer is an outline of Christian faith and practice. It tells who God is and who and whose we are: God is our loving parent. God is God and we are not. God is ruler of all creation and his rule is on the side of the least, the last, and the left out. God provides all we need to sustain and give life. God forgives and, by grace, enables us to forgive. We need to depend upon God’s love and forgiveness to resist the inevitable trials and temptations of this world.
Jesus continues by telling those who follow him and join him in his practice of prayer: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9). His way of prayer leads to a way of life.
Jesus’ way means, in the words of Willimon and Haurwas, “bending your life towards God.”
Prayer, and the other means of grace, bends your life towards God. “This prayer is not for getting what we want but rather for bending our wants towards what God wants” (Lord, Teach Us by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, page 19). The goal of this prayer and the means of grace is to form your character into the character of Jesus Christ. Prayer is intended to transform life as you know it into the life of Christ lived in, with, and through you. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Philippians 2:5, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
You are probably thinking that sounds way too hard. I can’t do that. And you’re right. You can’t do it. But God can. And God will. All you need to do is get out of the way and let God’s grace work on you. The good news is that you’re not alone. You’re part of a family who has promised to do all in its power to “increase your faith, confirm your hope, and perfect you in love” (see Baptismal Covenant I, “Commendation and Welcome” found on page 38 of The United Methodist Hymnal). We are in this together, to help, and support, and teach, and love, and forgive each other; with God’s help in Jesus Christ.
Can a Christian be “conservative,” “liberal,” or “progressive?” Of course the answer is ‘yes.’ Christ’s love is offered and available to all without regard to political or religious opinion or ideology. However, Christ’s love will not allow you to remain as you are. His love will form and transform your character towards his. When you enter into life in his realm he promises to love you as you are. And he promises to love you so much that you will not remain as you are. The goal of Christian discipleship is to be set free of the labels, ideologies, and limitations created by human wisdom in order to become more and more like Christ.