A Prayerful Admonition

Week of Monday, May 21, 2001

When I was a senior in high school the denomination of my small town Presbyterian Church in North Carolina experienced a split. The immediate cause was the ordination of women elders, but there were larger issues of mainline liberal attitudes toward more fundamental Christian doctrines. So in 1973 the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America split from the mainline southern Presbyterian Church of the United States.

Church splits are nothing new. Historically, we have generally understood the Christian family to consist of three siblings that have resulted from two divorces: the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches separated in 1054, then Protestants from Catholics in 1517. Today there are about 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, 346 million Protestants, and 216 million Orthodox Christians. But there is more. Much more.

David B. Barrett is professor of Missionmetrics at Regent University (Virginia), author of the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press), and the leading chronicler of worldwide Christianity. Today, he says, we have witnessed the explosion of so-called “neo-apostolic” movements. Distinct from Protestants, and numbering about 400 million Christians in 20,000 “movements”, these are believers who “reject historical denominationalism and restrictive or overbearing central authority.” One of the fastest growing church movements in the world, in Barrett's estimation they will constitute 581 million members by the year 2025, 120 million more than all Protestant movements. In two decades these sectarian movements will outnumber Orthodox and Protestant Christians and be almost half the size of worldwide Catholicism. (See State of Christianity 2001 and Global Evangelization Movement.)

What are we to make of this fragmentation of the faithful? Christians are called to pursue two virtues at the same time, but each has their own challenges and the way is difficult. It is always easier to go to an extreme than to remain at the center of Biblical tension.

First, we must aim for ethical integrity and doctrinal orthodoxy. But this can lead to a separatistic attitude and superiority complex: we judge that other Christians have deviated from the Gospel either morally or theologically. We become heresy hunters who imagine that we alone maintain doctrinal purity, or who major on theological minutiae. We become moral hairsplitters judgmental about how other Christians live. We fancy ourselves that our particular permutation of the Gospel does things just a little bit better than the next movement: “we've got the magic and you don't.” Such separatism, of course, alienates us from the world and isolates us from fellow Christians. When this happens, concern for the moral and doctrinal purity of the church has come at the expense of Christian unity.

But unity is precisely the second virtue we must pursue. Jesus prayed to the Father that his followers would be brought to “complete unity”, and not in some vague spiritual sense but in some concrete way “so that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:1–3). Likewise, Paul urged Christians to “be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, for, ultimately, the church is one church (Ephesians 4:1–3). But a premature unity or unity at any price likewise has its own possible peril, that of compromising the integrity of the Gospel.

In the New Testament we see Paul struggling for both purity and unity in the churches he founded. He deplored doctrinal deviations in the churches at Galatia, Colossae, and Thessalonica. He warned Timothy of people at Ephesus who propagated “false doctrines” (1 Timothy 1:3). He also urged peace and unity for those who were unacceptably divisive and separatistic, especially those at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10–17) and Philippi (Philippians 4:2). His most extended treatment of these matters comes in Romans 14:1–15:13 where he discusses the meat-eaters (food) and sabbath-keepers (holy days). There he makes a subtle but important distinction that can help us.

Paul urges Christians to honor their theological and ethical convictions, but with three caveats: remember that we will give account of ourselves to God (14:12), that we should always accept one another and aim for peace, love and mutual edification (15:7,14:19), and that we should not judge one another in what he calls “disputable matters” (14:1). A “disputable matter” is something neither right or wrong in itself, like whether to eat certain foods or observe certain holy days. We can contrast them to what Paul called “matters of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, raised from the dead, and appeared to numerous people.

In the 17th century the Lutheran pastor and theologian Peter Meiderlin had grown tired of the rancor and division caused by doctrinal disputes in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In the early 1620s he wrote a book under the pen name of Rupert Meldenius, all but forgotten until it was republished in 1850 by Friedrich Luecke, entitled A Prayerful Admonition for Peace to the Theologians of the Augsburg Confession. In it he captured Paul's distinction in a phrase that has since become justly memorable: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” German theologians refer to this as the Friedensspruch or “Peace Saying.” Meiderlin's dictum (sometimes wrongly attributed to Augustine) reached the English-speaking world through the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615–1691), who uses it in his book The Saint's Everlasting Rest (1650). Baxter adopted it as his personal motto and urged that Christians must “tolerate tolerable differences.” (See Hans Rollmann, “In Essentials Unity.”)

What would Peter Meiderlin say upon reading David Barrett's research about 20,000 neo-apostolic movements?! First, I think he would praise God and marvel at the power of the Gospel to attract peoples from the ends of the earth. I think he would honor the freedom of the individual Christian to follow conscience and conviction, and do his best to love, understand and engage them. Finally, I am guessing he would pray that they affirm the essentials of the historic Christian faith and urge believers to unite themselves with all those who did likewise.

And what would Meiderlin or Baxter say to me, right here, today?! I think they would urge me to boldly affirm the whole Gospel for the whole world, nothing more and nothing less. Then, they would tell me to “accept one another, just as Christ has accepted you” (Romans 15:7).

There are positive signs on the horizon where Christians have already done some of the heavy lifting. Evangelicals and Catholics have produced two documents of rapproachment, outlining their areas of growing convergence and cooperation. (See “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” First Things (May 1994), and the subsequent clarification, “The Gift of Salvation,” First Things (January 1998)). And just this year, on January 6, 2001 at Washington National Cathedral, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Episcopal Church celebrated their full and mutual communion, outlined in their document Called to Common Mission. Praise the Lord for Christians like them who give heed to Meiderlin's “prayerful admonition.”

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.