On Christian Brotherhood
A rejection of the the spirit of legalism and the cult of progressivism in the Bride of Christ
On the topic of Christian brotherhood, many have heard a wise old adage often phrased something like this:
‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.’
For whatever reason, this phrase has been attributed to St. Augustine over the years, though it seems that Augustine never actually penned these words. Rather, the earliest written expression comes from a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius, though the precise origins are unknown; meaning the saying may in fact be much older. God knows.
The context of Meldenius’ writing, at least, was a tract on Christian unity which was first published circa 1627, in the middle of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This had been one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history up to that time; the fight between Catholics and Protestants was easily politicized, but would no doubt make earnest Christ-followers anxious to see a time of peace restored in the church; to see the re-establishment of piety over barren scholasticism which was so prevalent in that time. Unfortunately, the scars from this war over theological differences ran deep and have been long healing ever since.
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Fast-forward to today.
Though the old scars have been re-opened in different times and places over the centuries, we are perhaps seeing a cooling of the tensions among the laity that we haven’t experienced in centuries. Sixty years after Vatican II, the average Christian, at least in my community, seems willing to look past the denominational lines. True, Rome had previously installed numerous dogmas from the time of the Reformation, which seemed to widen the gap between Christians. And also true, some modern, unfaithful Protestant churches have gone wild in their departure from Biblical truth. But even though dogmas and liberalism have done their best to keep the bride of Christ divided, many are willing to echo that plaintiff wailing from the past that we could somehow return to a time of ecclesiastical union between Christians. And I strongly believe that this is the heart of God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
— Matthew 5:9
Making Secondary Issues Essential
The gospel message is simple. But the Church has, to her discredit, sometimes added to and complicated that simplicity. For instance, when a Church doctrine is declared dogmatic, that is to say that a particular secondary teaching is deemed to be incontrovertibly true, the Church may be in the right. God knows. And its the Church’s job to proclaim truth. But to anathematize anyone in the Church who may disagree with a newer dogmatic development is to effectively make that teaching an essential of the faith!
For instance, consider the earlier Church’s conflict on icon veneration; or the four Marian dogmas which have evolved over the last two thousand years (most recently, the dogma of The Assumption, declared by Pope Pius XII in November 1950). When the Church declares that anyone outside of an evolved consensus on a dogmatic development is now cursed, damned and outside the faith (that is, to be anathema), then, in effect, that teaching suddenly rises to become an essential of that faith and is elevated to the importance of the Biblical gospel which was given once and for all.
This is not to pick on one tradition, as many can point to dangerous flirtations with legalism in the Protestant tradition as well. But if the unchangeable good news has been given once and for all, then we need to consider our ways and tread carefully. Secondary issues need to be treated as such, and we must keep first things first, lest we dismiss the words of Paul. Let it not be said that the church has created a stumbling block to the faith.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
— Galatians 1:6-9
Denying The Essentials Altogether
Of course, the modern concern against any mass adoption of “liberty in the non-essentials” may be in its abuses by Protestantism’s “progressive” wing. That is not to deny that liberal theologians exist in every branch of the Christian family tree (they do), but where there are no bishops / overseers, Protestantism is sometimes caricaturized as the Wild West. Nowhere is this charge more plainly understood than in the progressive Christian movement which is infecting the Church.1
Progressive Christianity is sometimes difficult to pin down, as it is a gradual departure from essential or “orthodox” teachings.2 But it generally teaches that nothing is really knowable except that God is love — and that somehow, that’s all God is — while simultaneously rejecting the biblical definition of love! However, in the reading of the New Testament, it is perhaps best to think of love as a verb rather than a noun. Love is active and willing to engage in tough conversations to snatch someone out of the path to destruction.
Love is not all-affirming, indifference is.
While Jesus taught that we must die to our own wants and desires, “progressive” Christianity teaches that our wants and desires are basic human rights from God because, ultimately, God just wants us to be happy. This false teaching is often associated with the unbiblical notion that Jesus isn’t the only way to the Father and that the cross really wasn’t necessary for our salvation. This venomous off-shoot of Christianity has taken on many names over the years (in my lifetime I’ve seen it repackaged as “the emergent church” and the “christian new age”) but, in sooth, progressive Christianity is no Christianity at all. It is the worship of self, which is idolatry. And due to its denial of the core essentials of the faith, progressivism would be wise to consider the fullness of the old adage, as repeated by Pope John XXIII — it is the essentials that Christians are to unify around. There can be no brotherhood outside of the clear doctrines of the faith.
But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.
— Pope St. John XXIII
Ancient Warnings to the Church
By no means can these examples be applied to broad swathes of people in any Church tradition. On the contrary, Protestants can just as readily succumb to legalism and many Catholics are liberal in their theology.
But the body of Christ is not broken! And so, I assert that we are living in a time when different members of that one, unbroken body are sadly bickering amongst themselves. Figuratively speaking, we have thumbs telling eyes that they need to be more like thumbs; and ears telling noses to listen up. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Despite the disagreement you may have with other Christian denominations, the Body of Christ is not broken — He knows the true sheep from the goats.
The Nicene Creed is perhaps the best and most universal summary of our Christian essentials. And yes, any Protestant should be able to say Amen to the creed — even that sticky part that affirms our belief “in one holy catholic and apostolic church” because the word catholic means universal. And again I say that Christ is not divided.
Let us recall that in the letters to the seven Churches, as recorded in the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes the Church in Ephesus for having good doctrine but forgetting their first love (see Revelation 2:4). So beware — it is possible to check all the boxes of a Christian “lifestyle” without fulfilling the primary objective of love for God and neighbour. Christians need to be people of grace and truth, and so fulfil our obligation to love one another. But to those in Thyatira, Jesus rebukes them for tolerating sin in the Church for the sake of unity (see Revelation 2:20). It is not unity at all costs! Rather, the Christ-follower must repent and seek brotherhood with fellow believers in Jesus Christ.
Sadly, this “progressive” movement is gaining traction even amongst even the bishop / overseers in some older expressions of the faith. Please watch this recent speech by Rev. Calvin Robinson, given at Oxford, to see what I am talking about.
That is, orthodoxy with a small o, if you will. The root word “ortho” simply means straight and upright — for modern usage, think orthodontics and the straightening and alignment of ones teeth.