by Pastor Doug Kings
I want to provide a follow up to last week’s Reflections and the events that inspired it. First, let me extend my gratitude to all the people who have expressed their support to me and disappointment and regret at what occurred at the Kiwanis Easter sunrise service. This includes many people in the congregation but also a surprising number from outside it, some who I had never heard of before.
What has been especially gratifying have been those living and working on Anna Maria Island who have said that AMI is an inclusive community and must remain so. Similarly, at their next meeting, the AMI Kiwanis reaffirmed the ecumenical nature of the service. They also decided that the pastor making the offensive remarks would not participate in next year’s sunrise service.
Many people regret the church’s divisions and are often confused by them. They ask, “How can we all be followers of Jesus yet in such conflict about what that means? Why can’t we worship and serve together?” It’s not much consolation but it is clarifying to realize that divisions among Jesus’ followers have been present from the beginning.
The gospels testify to conflict between the disciples even when Jesus was alive (“An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest”). In many of his letters, Paul struggles to reconcile church factions or confronts those who disagree with him (“I am astonished that you are so quickly … turning to a different gospel!”). And in the succeeding centuries, division within the church has been the norm, not the exception.
Today scholars largely agree that, while some New Testament passages try to argue otherwise, Jesus showed little if any interest in forming an organization (church) to carry on his ministry. Thus, the first half-century (or more) after Jesus is now more often described as “the Jesus movement” rather than the early church. Structure and leadership developed slowly, spontaneously, and with great variety.
The desire for church unity is noble but in practice it has grown mostly out of a sense of grandiosity and a desire for power. What, after all, does the phrase “the church” (popular in so many hymns) even mean? There have always only ever been churches. The idea of The Church is little more than a platonic fantasy, like the notion that somewhere there is an ideal TREE from which all real trees draw their identity and meaning.
The events of this past Easter week have reinforced my belief that the multiplicity of churches is not something to lament but to appreciate and even celebrate. Jesus has sometimes been likened to an explosion, creating shock waves that spread out across the world and across history. Churches have always tried to contain that explosion but in practice those waves have bounced and ricocheted in all directions. That is what has maintained the dynamism of Jesus and his gospel for nearly two thousand years.
Not long after the Reformation, people complained of the “dead orthodoxy” of Protestant preaching, as clergy droned on with a monotonous message of doctrinal purity. Soren Kierkegaard railed against the “herd mentality” of 19th century Danish Christians. In his despair at the failure of German churches to resist Naziism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wondered if the only hope was in a “religionless Christianity.”
Not unlike evolutionary forces in nature, the bouncing shock waves of Christianity have caused it to be in continuous transformation and reformation. For authorities who want Christians to all be good soldiers marching in a straight line, this is a constant vexation. They imagine there is one “true” Christianity and one true church, which they represent and are authorized to implement and protect. For the pastor who confronted me on Easter morning, I was clearly out-of-line, and he was not happy about it.
What resulted, however, was an opportunity for people to decide for themselves what they believed and what was important to them. “Christian” became a little less of a label and a little more of an understanding of identity and personal values. This is how we all grow as persons and how “the Jesus movement” continues to spread in the world.
As chaotic as it has been, somehow, I believe Jesus would be okay with the advance of this ragtag, disorganized band of disciples. No doubt his “non-plan” would have flunked him out of any MBA program. Yet down through the centuries, the way of the cross and Jesus’ commandment to love have moved countless millions and continue to move our world, changing lives and creating new hope. That works for me.
Blessings in your life and ministry.