October 1-4, 1529, Marburg Castle, Hesse, Germany you might not be familiar with this setting but it remains a fairly significant event in Church history. During the Marburg Conference Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met to discuss bringing their reformation movements together. These two men shared many ideas about the Church and were hopeful of uniting as one body. But negotiations broke down over divisions surrounding the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper (Communion). The conversation grew heated and the men parted never to talk again. This was a very unfortunate event in Church history, because the uniting of these reformers may have proved to have far reaching consequences across the continent. The fight was over Luther’s understanding of Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation and Zwingli’s preference of a Memorial. There is a real distinction between these ideas and I leave that to more interested theologians to parse; for my purpose I want readers to recognize that these differences are fairly esoteric and do not impact the lives of the average believer. Though taking part in the Lord’s Supper is important (both men agreed on that) what it does for/to us is not something the average believer must get right. Today, the theological descendants of these two men represent literally hundreds of denominations around the globe. As I reflect on this fact I notice two major themes, one positive and one negative.
The negative first [I’ll deal with the positive in a separate post], as I have read in Church history I know of zero splits in the Church which are over fundamental doctrines. Most separations are over tangential theological issues or major issues with the character or organization of a different denomination. Such separations are truly regrettable in many ways, because as in the case of Luther and the Roman Catholic Church the issues center on abuse of power or in the above case the separation is caused by being overly committed to being right on a less than crucial issue. I truly understand the desire to be right– I have many opinions and beliefs and I would not hold them unless I thought they were correct. My beliefs matter, what my community believes matters. I want my beliefs about God and the world to be as accurate as possible and to some degree I want my communities to help reinforce my beliefs. This means there is a temptation to anger and division with anyone who holds to differing understandings. What makes dealing with these beliefs difficult is that to me each and every one seems important because they all build into a coherent unit. What can easily happen is that as someone attacks one of my beliefs it can feel as if that person is attacking the core of my thought. Therefore I cannot give ground on any small idea least it undermine my whole system. And though after several generations we might come to see that what people were fighting over was really a secondary belief, at the time it feels like it is primary.
When I look back at the divisions which have taken place between denominations I often have to remind myself of this fact because the theological issues seem rather petty. Admittedly, the theological reasons for divisions between denominations are often joined by real or imagined abuses in the system or cultural/sociological rationales and these are much more legitimate. At issue today though is how we handle differences in theology between Christians because these hurdle will arise and we must deal with them appropriately.
I mentioned above that I want my community to believe in the same things I believe, and while this is true it will not happen, sooner or later a division of belief will arise in my community and I will be forced to take sides. This is what inevitably happens and this is why there are so many denominations in Christianity (at least in part) Christians disagree on an issue an then let that issue divide fellowship. This is also why Christians face the temptation to bounce from church to church, they are confronted (rightly or wrongly) and allow the division to break fellowship. But while I desire my community to echo my beliefs and reinforce my understanding of everything, what is actually healthy is if I am in conflict with individuals on some smaller issues. I have said before there is an intellectual core to Christianity and we are unified through that core, but on issues like determinism, sin, forgiveness, the Lord’s Supper there is freedom of individual thought. Why, because much of these theological concepts are truly a mystery to us (at least to some degree). Should I follow evidence, I will rationally think through what I believe, but there are unknowns and some things are unknowable, so I should be gracious when someone holds an honest and educated opinion which differs from mine. I think of Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, two scholars with wildly differing opinions on many aspects of history and theology, yet they were able to frequently come together as friends to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together and debate as friends. These two would be much further apart than Luther and Zwingli and yet came together out of a deep commitment to being united in the faith. I ask what would our churches look like if more Christians made this commitment to coming together in unity?
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
I have heard this verse quoted more times than I can count and yet most of the people who I have heard use it have failed to recognize what it means. Most people who I know who use this verse talk of building a network of friends who will reinforce your beliefs, but using iron to reinforce iron only amounts to a big dull block. For iron to sharpen iron there must be friction. Sharpening happens when friction removes the unnecessary or weak filings on the edge. For me to truly sharpen my beliefs I cannot lock myself in the echo chamber of like-minded individuals, nor can I simply spar with those who are hostile to me. Rather to truly hone my beliefs I must remain with a circle of people with a commitment to a basic core of belief and who differ in secondary issues or how the core is practiced in the world. What drove Luther and Zwingli apart was the need to be right in the secondary issues, which caused anger and hostility to such a degree they could not remain in conversation. Our goal is to avoid such clashes because they inevitably harm us and the Church. To do this we first must be committed to unity with the other side (easier said than done) then we must be committed to listening (again difficult) and lastly we must recognize what is essential, what is not and what is mystery.