The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One

antietam_bodies_in_front_of_dunker_church

Dunkard Church, a key landmark in the Battle of Antietam, and some of those who fell.

The scandal of the Church in America is that there is no apparent Church but only churches. I suppose you could argue that it has always been this way, although I do not think this lessens the scandal. The proliferation of denominations and independent churches reflects our strong independent streak and that we do not wish to be answerable to each other. I do think it is a contributing factor, but I think the scandal goes deeper.

The scandal is that our captivities to racial, sexual, economic and political identities and ideologies has left the Church in America a deeply divided body–divisions that reflect and in fact parallel American society. We are a far cry from the beautiful and radical ideal that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in a similarly divided society: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I am deeply troubled for what this means both for the Church in America, and for America itself. I have lived here all my life, and through the cataclysmic year of 1968, but I have never been so troubled. What disturbs me most is not the newly installed administration, nor all the push-back by others who oppose it. It is that I see believing people lining up on one side or another of these fault lines, and many others, and often not the least troubled at the things they are attributing to their fellow believers–sometimes vicious things. Nor are we troubled that we are often advocating diametrically opposed positions and invoking the name of Jesus as we do so. Often we are engaged in a tribal warfare of words between conservative evangelicals, progressives, Catholics, mainline churches, and churches of people of color. Often, we aren’t listening to what anyone outside our own “tribe” is saying.

My pastor made an observation in the midst of preaching through the gospel of Matthew that I have been mulling over. He observed that when the religious establishment colluded with the political powers of their day, the result was the killing of Jesus. While I believe that Jesus is risen, I also believe that the visible manifestation of Jesus, called “the body of Christ” is being torn apart, perhaps as the scourges used to whip Jesus before crucifixion turned his back into bleeding ribbons of skin. Church, do we see that this is what we are doing to ourselves? Is it a wonder that so many churches are declining?

Perhaps it has always been this way in our national history. The churches of the North were deeply divided from the churches of the South before (and after) the Civil War. They preached the same Christ from the same Bible, but the North advocated abolition while ignoring its own racism and complicity in a national economic system that depended on slavery. Southern preachers defended “the peculiar institution” even as slaves and former slaves turned to the same Christ, formed churches, and yet were excluded from being consider full human beings or the opportunity to worship at the same altar.

We often talk about in our American history of the breakdown of political efforts to avert war, but has the Church in America ever reckoned that the blood of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War is also on our hands? Our dividedness then aided and abetted and inflamed the divides in our land and tore country apart even as it tore many denominations into northern and southern counterparts, some lasting to this day. One wonders what might have been if church leaders from North and South, who may have been educated in the same seminaries, had reached across the lines and said, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

I am not an “America First” person, but rather a “kingdom of God” first person. The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to take the gospel to the nations has precedence in my life. Nevertheless I deeply love this country and the constitutional structures and freedoms that allows us to be many and yet one, e pluribus unum. What troubles me as a kingdom person who regularly affirms “the communion of the saints” is that this communion often does not extend beyond the church doors–sometimes not even within them! If we cannot model a unity that would consider it a scandal to speak with a divided voice as a church (and often bitterly against each other), then how dare we call on our political leaders to act with civility and to consider the common good when we will not do this even within the body of Christ!

I believe this is urgent, my brothers and sisters. We have had one civil war in our history that the Church made no effort to stop but in fact aided and abetted by our conflicting messages and inflammatory rhetoric. Another may take a different form where our political factions take up arms (Lord knows we have enough of them) in our cities if they cannot resolve their differences or be heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President. We could fall into anarchy or tyranny. I like to say that children who play with matches inside the house often do not realize they can burn the house down until they do. Our incendiary and inflammatory speech may not stop there. It didn’t before the Civil War. Church, I’m asking, is it time to say “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same?”

[Tomorrow, I explore what I think must be done.]

2 thoughts on “The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One

  1. I have entertained the suspicion for a many years that the content of sermons preached on Philemon during the decades prior to the American Civil War would make a fascinating historical study. With the story line of a runaway slave being converted, then returned to his Christian master there would be Biblical and practical issues for either side of the abolition divide. The lingering effects of the divisions during that era are still being addressed in our own day. Examples may be seen in the many resolutions passed by the Southern Baptist Convention on race, racism, and racial reconciliation during the last 3/4 of a century (1941-2016): http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/search/results.asp?query=racism.

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