That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.
Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.
I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.
What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.
A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”
To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.
It Has Always Been This Way
The New Testament is many things but, in a very real sense, it’s a record of Church conflict. Start with the Gospels. Jesus’s fights with the Pharisees and the Sadducees were matters of Scriptural interpretation and theological dispute: What is the meaning of the Sabbath and the commands? Who is the Messiah and what will the kingdom of God look like?
In Galatians, Paul squares off with the Judaizers (and even the apostle Peter) over the shape of the New Covenant that Christ’s work had inaugurated. In the epistles to the Corinthians we find him fighting confused, hyper-spiritual and pagan libertinism. In Colossians, he is dismantling weirdo-Gnostic Syncretism. Similar points could be made in the Catholic letters and the Revelation.
In the Patristic Era, we fought over the deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, the unity of the deity and the humanity of Christ, the deity of the Spirit, the nature of prophecy, the unity of the Old and New Testament, the nature and goodness of creation, the nature of grace and salvation, and the purity of the Church. And those are just the biggies.
Next we experienced the Great Schism between East and West and the big ball of yarn involved in that.
Moving quickly to the Reformation era (because Protestant), the entire Western church was in an uproar on various fronts. After the initial break, we see the Magisterial Reformers fighting to retrieve and articulate the gospel and a reformed ecclesiology against Rome’s power, as well as to preserve unity amongst themselves (with greater and lesser success), while distinguishing themselves from the Enthusiasts and Radical Reformers.
Quickly thereafter, you have the regular conflicts within the communions, such as spats between the Philippists and the Gnesio-Lutherans, or on the Reformed side, the Remonstrants and the Orthodox.
Oh, and this was with the Ottoman Empire knocking on Europe’s door.
Over the next couple of centuries you can easily jump into the conflicts in the churches precipitated by Enthusiastic popular movements, Pietism, Enlightenment Rationalists, the rise of historical criticism, or the role of nationalism and the State. Jump ahead and over to the US, after various controversies surrounding both Great Awakenings, as well as the damning, ecclesial conflict over slavery, we could always spend some time covering the fights between the Fundamentalists and Modernists over Scripture, miracles, and so forth.
Each of these paragraphs are only the smallest snippets of wide-ranging, serious, theological conflict and debate that has always been a part of Church history, East and West, Protestant and Catholic, down on into today.
So, yes, it has always been this way. As the hymn has it, to look at the history of the Church is to see “her sore oppressed/ By schisms rent asunder/ By heresies distressed,” all of which leads the saints to ask, “how long?”
The answer, apparently, is “until Jesus comes back.”
Mere, Costly Fidelity
Which leaves us with the question of how to live in with the reality that theological conflict is a constant in the Church? How do we pastor, preach, teach, write, and just go about the business of being the Church in the World under such conditions?
I have no grand solution. I do think there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, theological indifferentism isn’t an option here. I’m all for broadmindedness and having a proper sense of differently-tiered importance of various doctrines. Still, in general, decisions eventually must be made. And on indifferentism about gender and sexuality, Jake, I think, has summed up the problem:
Because the particular issue at stake here (sexuality) is central to human existence, you can’t really afford to pretend the issue isn’t important. Either it is okay to be in a same-sex relationship or it is not. Either way, your answer to that question will have enormous spiritual and existential ramifications. Because it fails to recognize this fact, indifferentism of this sort ends up doing real damage to many people.
In any case, you can’t avoid it forever—the question will come find you.
Second, it’s important to recognize fidelity to the gospel has always been a personally costly, confusing, and tenuous thing. Looking at the debates in Church history, you realize that’s rarely been a straightforward story of black hats and white hats. We think of it that way in retrospect, and sometimes it was, but often it was more muddled for those in the middle of it.
Many of the names we associate with heresies (Arius, Nestorius) were known in their congregations as respected, godly churchmen, while some of the Church’s heroes were known as ruffians and brawlers (Athanasius, Cyril, Luther). Preserving the truth of the Scriptures may end up leaving you in the company of “saints” who “give you the willies”, against opponents who have all of your personal sympathy.
We find ironic turns, as well. Apollinarianism, the heresy that denied Jesus Christ’s human nature had a human mind, takes its name from Apollinaris of Laodicea. Apollinaris was devoted to the Scriptures and a stalwart defender of Nicaea against the Arians. It seems he pushed so hard for for the deity of Christ, though, that he ended up butchering his humanity. A hero in one conflict may become a heretic in the next.
Even worse, often the disputes were between former friends, beloved students and teachers. One of the great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesaria, had the unpleasant task of defending the deity of the Holy Spirit against the attacks of his former teacher and mentor, Eustathius of Sebaste. The man who mentored him in his own personal spirituality ended up turning against both orthodoxy and Basil, leaving his student the task of challenging someone who had been a spiritual father to him. Many of us will see that day in our own ministries.
There isn’t a clear lesson here except that our fidelity to Biblical and historic orthodoxy needs to be rooted beyond the names of admirable but fallible human heroes. History is messy. Church history seems messier.
Maybe that’s why Paul is so forceful with the Galatians, telling them that even if he himself or an angel came preaching a different gospel, a divine curse should befall them (Gal. 1:8). At first that strikes you as a bit of hyperbole—and in the moment it sort of is. But given Paul’s wise self-knowledge, his tendency to leave off judgement of his own works before God’s judgment (1 Cor. 4:1-6), it seems more like he wanted to prepare his people against the possibility he could walk away as he had seen others do in his own ministry. For Paul, his people’s commitment to the gospel, to Christ, had to be rooted deeper in their souls than their attachment to him.
The encouragement, I suppose, is that we’ve been here before. We have not, to my knowledge, entered into some new eschatological end time inaugurated by the 1970s, the Clinton years, Obergefell, Trump, or Caitlyn Jenner’s Time cover. God and his purposes for the Church are the same as they have always been.
As the same hymn has it:
The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her.
False sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor
She ever shall prevail.
The call, then, is to recognize this, put our hands to plough, and pray to the Lord he will preserve us as we work to serve her. Even in times such as these—same as they’ve always been.
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