By Michael Mills
[This is one in a series of posts. Read Part 1 here.]
“I wish the Enlightenment had never happened. What a monumental boof up that has forever set the human race on an unfortunate trajectory. Because of that dumb Enlightenment, we now have to deal with this myth of self-sufficiency, the belief that if there is a problem, we can fix it, with our wits, with our intellect, with our determination. It is undermining the foundation of religion. What a bunch of hogwash.” —Michael Mills, 2008
Time has a way of teaching us the lessons that we don’t want to learn. Wisdom, it is called, and boy have I lacked it.
I truthfully remember a time in my life when I really thought the Enlightenment brought more harm than good. Never mind the scientific method that has increased our understanding of the cosmos, the advances in medical technology that have improved the duration and quality of life, or the development of new forms of government that protect the rights of the vulnerable. Nah, the 95% of real good doesn’t make up for the 5% of the maybe unfortunate. To the version of myself that fervently thought that, I now say, “Hogwash on you sir.”
At a different time in my life, the Protestant Reformation was another of my targets.
“Why are there so many denominations?! It’s absurd that there are five different denominations represented on a street corner where there’s only room for four churches! Absurd, I say! This must be Martin Luther’s fault. If he hadn’t come up with his dumb theses, God’s people wouldn’t be so divided. What a bunch of hogwash.” —Michael Mills, 2007
Now, I must give some credit to that version of myself because I do think it’s a fair question. My response to the question was, as I say, hogwash, but the question remains. Why are there so many denominations? Why is God’s Church so divided, not only in practice but in spirit? Maybe it’s Luther’s fault, but I don’t think so. Maybe that one’s on us.
The title of this blog series is called “Becoming Baptist” because I have been Baptist my whole life but I find that I am only just beginning to understand the historical meaning of being Baptist. It is in that sense, that I find I am becoming Baptist anew and it’s not what I thought it was.
As I am becoming Baptist, I have had to ask myself, why? Why Baptist and not Methodist, or UCC, or Lutheran, or any number of other expressions of the Christian faith? That question quickly spirals into others. Why do I need to be any denomination? Why do we need denominations? Why can’t God’s Church just be one? Isn’t this what Jesus prayed for?
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” —John 17:20-21
Now, by no means do I have anything to say to this what would be sufficient to the questions. These are real questions that are worth real thought. So, I encourage you to do that real work.
Instead, I’d like to provide an observation that may guide our thinking.
In one of my favorite portions of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a thought experiment is offered. During the time of the inquisition, as the Church was violently seeking purity, Jesus returns. Although, not with trumpets and apocalypses and whatnot, but as he came the first time. Humbly. He goes about his teaching and his ministry and as he gains some notoriety, he finds himself in a meeting with the Grand Inquisitor.
The Grand Inquisitor is furious at Jesus because, in all of his teachings from the Scriptures, Jesus doesn’t offer much guidance in the way of rules, guidelines, and frameworks. This has made the task of the Church that much more difficult because the Church has had to make it up in order to keep the people in line. Jesus could have made the Church’s role so much simpler if he had just said, “Do this and don’t do that.”
As the Grand Inquisitor is letting Jesus have it, the true source of the problem comes to light: Freedom. Jesus has given people freedom. Freedom to choose to follow or not. Freedom to choose to obey or not. Freedom to choose to be the Church or not.
Ultimately, the Grand Inquisitor can’t handle it and, it should surprise us but, Jesus gets himself killed again because we humans just can’t figure out what to do with Jesus. So, we do what we do to things we don’t understand. We kill them.
The Grand Inquisitor is right though. Jesus didn’t give us much in the way of tangibly how to make this work. Jesus instead gave us freedom.
What we have done with this freedom has often been unfortunate. We have often chosen to be mean to one another because we’re different. We have often chosen to divide instead of working through our disagreements. We have often chosen to demonize our sisters and brothers in order to rise above them.
And this leads me back to the vast number of varying expressions of God’s Church that we see in the world today. We have each been given a freedom to collectively worship God in the manner that we choose. Based on the inherent diversity in the world, we will likely choose to collectively worship in different manners. That can be a good thing or a bad thing and what determines that is the spirit in which we do it.
Being one doesn’t mean being the same. Being one means that we are one in spirit with our sisters and brothers of the faith. It means that we do not need to be, nor should we ever be, mean to each other. We should not be competitive with each other. We should not look down upon or judge each other. We should view the inherent diversity of the Church as a multifaceted and beautiful expression of the freedom that God has given us. And how we are to be to one another should be as equally beautiful of an expression of the way that God is.
Jesus’s prayer was on the right track, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
May we, God’s Church, in all of its frustratingly beautiful freedom and diversity, be one.
Michael Mills serves as the pastor of Agape Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas.