Sunday 17 March 2013

Church Unity
Yesterday I wrote about the appointment of Pope Francis, and now further.

We have just witnessed a new Pope being elected and have reason to believe he is more inclined to accept there are other Churches in addition to the Roman Catholic Church. In fact it is reported he is willing to participate, and has done so, in ecumenical services. This is indeed hopeful and encouraging and can only be to the benefit of both Anglican and Roman Churches especially, and to other Churches willing to share. Christianity generally will be advanced by such co-operation.

In the 4th Chapter of Ephesians Paul writes forcibly on this theme. He saw the Church as the family of brothers and sisters in Christ, and like earthly families wanting to meet together in their Father’s house.

Anyone who has been in the Church for some time knows that no Church is perfect; there is usually one person who is a storm centre. The Church can be a place of joy, but also one of heartache and pain. Paul always wanted the Church to be one that brought credit on Christianity. Paul wanted us to act as he understood what Christ expected from the Church. He would never have understood different denominations, each with their own theology, and would have bitterly condemned any Church which excluded people from sharing in the Eucharist.

One of the greatest hindrances to the Christian gospel being accepted by people is the bitterness in which religion has been practised. In Northern Ireland there has been disgraceful hostility and much of it fostered by the Church. Catholic priests have been supporters of armed conflict and extreme Protestant Churches have called Catholics hateful names. There has been much discredit on both sides, and the troubles which have existed, leading to so many lives being lost could have all been avoided if the Church leaders had sat down together and agreed to condemn all violence. I say without intending to be biased, indeed with respect for the authority which Catholic priests command, that if they had told their members to stop hostilities, such is the authority in which they are held, their word would have been listened to.

Paul laid down some basics of the Christian faith. Humility; which means setting one’s life beside the example of Christ Himself. Gentleness; which means being angry for the right purposes, and not ever seeking to cause dissension. Peace;in that we seek to have good relationships with each other. Love; which is not the emotional kind, but that of a caring person, and withholding bitterness. We are to hold one another up, to sustain and support each other, and to live according to the way God has spelled out in His Holy Word, holding to those principles. All these virtues have been missing in religious disputes. We may expect different faiths to ignore each other, but not within Christianity.

Here Paul is stressing the Church in its entirety must be as one. We may conduct our services in different forms, but we should have the same doctrinal beliefs and not have the situation where one is teaching one thing and is at variance with another. I have often been struck by the hypocrisy of weeks of Christian unity and I stopped attending years ago. I am happy, eager, and always ready to join in worship with any fellow Christians in any Church, but I think it a mockery to talk about unity and then refuse to share services together

When I first became a Christian it was with a group of Christians in Kenya, where the members were from all different denominations and countries, yet all one in Christ Jesus. We had no difficulty in bible study or prayer meetings, but at gatherings in so called Christian unity weeks, each denomination tends to stay together and there is a refusal by some to have full Communion with other Christians. If we are really sincere about unity, we have to be prepared to let it happen without reservation or conditions, which is not always practised.

Even within my own denomination (the Church of England) there are bitter divisions over the question of women bishops and homosexual clergy. A quick reference to Scripture (and tradition) would resolve the questions in a matter of minutes, but that would not produce the answer that some seek. Yet by prolonging the public debate to the delight of the press and non Christians, enormous damage is being done to the wider Church. True faith would say if I am harming the Church I will not pursue my personal desires. Real Christianity is being ready to make personal sacrifices for the wider good.

Paul laid out the ground rules for unity. There is one body, Jesus being the head of the body. Individual presentations may vary, but all should lead to the one purpose of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. There is one Lord and one faith by which all Christians are bound to one another in complete surrender to Jesus Christ.

Paul wanted to see a world turning to Christ with one baptism as acceptance of repentance and the confession of Jesus as Lord in the one faith. . The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ on which the Church is built, consisting of those who confess Him. If there is to be complete unity there must also be an acceptance of the gospel truths laid down in the Bible. We now have a situation in which some teachers are giving false teaching and we should all be prepared to test what is taught by searching the Scriptures, for false teaching will destroy the Church.

There are now those ready to deny the very Word that God gave. Some preachers are now extending teaching so that it is in line with society’s belief that the 21st century justifies an amended gospel to embrace current thinking. God however was not just a God for the first century, and experience combined with general intelligence, teaches that a copy is never as good as the original. The importance of authoritative teaching is that that all may properly play their part in the work God meant us to do.

Paul finally warned that there will always be those who need to be entertained with novelty. This is so often extended to practices which frankly make the faith look and sound ridiculous. God wants you to come to a place where there is stability and reverence, combined with intelligent, sympathetic and pleasing presentation, without being presented with every trendy gimmick. Too many Christians are unstable because they have had no solid basis of doctrine and just don’t know what to believe or why.

Paul thanked God for the Church, and that is something we should all do. Our calling is to follow the example given by Paul so that we stand out in our communities. Let us all seek to have a Church, even if it just be our own local one, where the true gospel is taught as God intended when He inspired those 40 men to write the Bible; filled with men and women who care for each other, ready to support each other in times of trouble, ready to welcome strangers who come into our midst, and who are never reluctant to confess they are Christians.

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