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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Unity in the Body of Christ

"I have never considered myself a Calvinist, nor called myself one. I wear the title, however, because it is imposed upon me without regard to my wishes or feelings. In fact, I have hardly read anything by Jean Calvin, except for selected quotes in this or that article. I've not read Calvin, nor do I follow his teachings (for I would have to have read his teachings to know what they are), so I cannot be a Calvinist. I wish people could consider me for what I am -- a Christian, a child of God, a follower of Christ."
— David

"I used to defend myself as a Baptist—believed it one hundred percent. Now I find myself distancing myself from that claim."
— Vicki

"Christians, it is needless to say, utterly detest each other. They slander each other constantly with the vilest forms of abuse and cannot come to any sort of agreement in their teaching. Each sect brands its own, fills the head of its own with deceitful nonsense, and makes perfect little pigs of those it wins over to its side."
— Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, 'I follow Paul'; another, 'I follow Apollos'; another, 'I follow Cephas'; still another, 'I follow Christ.' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? ... Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not mere men? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building."
—The Apostle Paul
It has almost reached the point where I do not dare to utter what my beliefs are for concern of having someone quickly affix some label on me and either pronounce judgment on me or, on the other hand, embrace me and welcome me into their sectarian stronghold and commend me for coming into the truth. And it seems these people are too quick with their labels, itching to brand me if I utter anything that they might think is even remotely similar or otherwise related to this or that heresy.

For instance, I remember one evening mentioning how I agree with some particular thing Augustine had said and immediately I had some Catholic priest accuse me of being a Manichaean (a third century Persian religion that was something of a hybrid of Gnosticism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, and whose teachings certainly lead me to wonder if Bahá'u'lláh was at all influenced by it). Even more recently I was discussing with a friend of mine the doctrine of 'propitiation' and the explicit consequences of affirming that Christ died for all mankind without exception, including the biblical contradictions it creates, and we welcomed some fellow into the conversation who wondered about me, "I'm just curious if you're coming from a TULIP perspective or if you're saying that the salvation of Christ is available to all, and some refuse to accept it" (TULIP being an acrostic unique to Calvinism which intends to summarize the Canons of Dordt). I replied that I was, and had been, restricting myself to strictly scriptural discussions. "I am coming at this from the Bible," I asserted, and welcomed anyone to indicate the moment I say anything unscriptural.

But isn't that something? I didn't even mention Reformed theology or Calvinism or any Reformed theologian or preacher or Calvinistic literature. I was discussing propitiation within the context of the extent of atonement, and I am viewed as Calvinist. "The way you describe how the wrath of God is still on the sinner," the fellow explained, "the language you use, it is similar to Limited Atonement, where Christ's death was only efficacious for an elect group."

"Except that was from John 3:36," I replied, "not any of Calvin's writings or the Canons of Dordt, etc. God, his wrath, sinners, propitiation, all these terms were derived from the scriptures."

"I know, and I don't question the biblical nature of what you're saying. But there is an apparent resemblance between the two ideas."

"Question for you, then," I said. "If all these terms are scripturally derived and scripturally consistent, why are they 'Calvinist' terms and not 'Christian' terms? Should they not be 'Christian' terms, and when we talk about these things, shouldn't we be viewed as 'Christian' rather than 'Calvinist'?"

What happens when we toss these labels around? We create divisions, barriers, disunity. Not only is it deplorable but it is also antithetical to the unity in the body of Christ we are commanded to strive for. We are supposed to contend for the truth and critically examine scriptural teachings and ideas but we expend far more energy battling sectarian distinctives and eponyms ("a name derived from the name of person"; e.g. Calvin) and church history with its schisms, creeds, heretics, reformations, and apostates. Celcus, while harsh, was not too far off the mark. If I happen to mention that my Bible studies have led me to contemplate whether or not Christ died for truly every person who has ever lived, hackles go up and people prejudicially groan about the glacial landscape of the Calvinist heresy and polemic proof-texts are loaded and cocked. No one says, "That's interesting. What biblical reading led your thinking this way?" No one says, "Let's have a look in the Bible at what you found." No one hears me say "Bible studies"; they hear "Calvinism" and all roads to communication are shut down in favour of polemic rebuttals. Unity is not sought; rather, barriers are erected. We do not in love examine the scriptures to discern the truth; rather, the person's views are assigned a label and a judgment and we prepare to fortify our position. Paul's reproach is as relevant today as ever and we ought to be completely ashamed of ourselves.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
— Ephesians 4:1-6

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
— Colossians 3:12-17