In the discussion following an earlier post, a friend asked me how close a kinship I see myself having with the present-day Roman church.
Answering that question prompted me to reflect a little on how my perspective has shifted over the last few years. Five years ago, I would have had a very easy time answering that question: I would have just laid out my beliefs next to the Roman Catechism, and compared. “We agree here, and here, not there, here’s okay…whoa! Not on that one…,” and so on.
Kinship, in other words, was a matter of common belief. We were as closely related as our doctrinal statements.
This has the handy effect of making kinship an entirely at-will relationship. Change your doctrinal statement, and we’re not relatives anymore — or maybe we just go from being brothers to being distant cousins.
And it’s just as foolish as that analogy. You can’t write something on a piece of paper that will make your brother no longer your brother, and instead a third cousin or something. You may, of course, change the nature of your legal relationship under certain circumstances. However, no matter what it says on the legal paperwork, he is your brother; this is a fact of history and biology and it can’t be changed by fiat, or by anything else, for that matter.
Likewise, those who share a saving relationship with Jesus Christ are fellow children of the Father, and we are all brothers, no matter what our differences might be.
I am not suggesting that common belief is unimportant — far from it! But common belief is not the whole picture. There are other forces at work here. Each of us is born into a certain family, and we are also part of a certain stream of tradition within our common faith. These things place us in relationship with all sorts of people that we might not have chosen, but we didn’t do the choosing — God did. I am Protestant by birth. More narrowly, I am a part of the independent, nondenominational Bible church tradition. More narrowly yet, I was born into the Florida Bible College tradition — both parents are alumni, and FBC was a major formative influence for them. Through my parents I have a certain relationship with Ray Stanford, whom I never met, and Mark Cambron, whom I only met once. They were instrumental in founding FBC, and taught my parents there. Even though I did later choose to study under his tutelage, I have the same sort of relationship with Dick Seymour, because much of what my parents taught me, they learned from him.
In an important way, I could sever all these connections by converting to a different strand of the Christian tradition: Lutheranism, or the Roman or Eastern churches, for example. Furthermore, most of the people in my past would agree that by converting, I had severed my connections with the Protestant, Bible-church, FBC tradition. They’d be half right. But they’d also be half wrong.
Again, there is that pesky saving relationship with Jesus to consider, and it doesn’t just go away when my doctrinal statement changes. If I suddenly run off and join the Oriental Orthodox churches (not gonna happen, but just to talk about it), I do not sever my connection to Christ. I am still a member of the Body. And–not to put too fine a point on it–when the Oriental Orthodox churches gather on the morning of the Lord’s Day to pray and worship, they worship and pray to Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–which is to say, the true God. Weird as we may find their worship, filled with bells and smells and strange pictures, they are nonetheless in communion with the same God we serve.* If I were to join them, I’d be joining a group of people who love, serve and pray to the same God I do, and I’d be continuing to love, serve and pray to Him, not to some other god.
Second, and just at a practical level: How would I convert? By changing my present beliefs and practice, correct? But that won’t change the past, and so there’s also an important way in which my connection to my heritage can never be severed. It is a fact of history, and I can’t change it.
The modernist response to this is to shrug and say, “So what? I didn’t pick to be born into this tradition; I don’t owe it anything.” But we know that this kind of thinking is not in tune with the way God made the world. I didn’t pick my parents, but I must honor them nonetheless. I didn’t pick the country where I was born, but Jesus still tells me to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. So here’s the question: what sort of honor is due to our ecclesiastical heritage? And how do we give due honor while still holding that heritage up to biblical critique, which we most certainly must do?
I’m not sure I have a well-rounded, wise answer to that question yet, but I’m pretty sure that pretending my heritage doesn’t exist isn’t it–and that heritage goes all the way back through the Reformers, through the medieval Roman church, through the (relatively) undivided church of the seven-ish ecumenical councils, through the early persecuted church to the apostles. All of it.
*Point of clarification: this is not to say that everything about this worship is God-honoring. In fact, there are elements of the worship in the Eastern churches in which I could not participate in good conscience. That’s a separate debate. The point I’m making here is that the worship is, in fact, addressed to Yahweh, the Triune God of Scripture, which is to say, the same God.