To put it another way....

One of the most troubling things to me, as I look at the state of Christendom, is the widespread division, both in terms of doctrine and practice (to use fancier words, orthodoxy and orthopraxy). It's not just that there is so much in-fighting and church-splitting (though that is a tragedy in its own right), but that the teachings, traditions and practices are so divergent as to almost make them separate religions altogether. This problem, because I find it so troubling, is actually a large part of this blog's raison d'être.

We all have the same starting point: the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. His death, burial and resurrection is at the heart of all Christian teaching. Though many of us disagree on some things about Christ, we are all, in essence, trying to follow the same Savior. It's not as if we have different Bibles either (Deuterocanon/Apocrypha aside). We are still primarily looking at the same Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. Translations come and go, and with them different wordings, and sometimes the books get moved around and/or combined, but ultimately, we have the same Holy Scriptures, and we're all looking to them, to learn about the truth of God's love for us.

But probably no book in all of human history has been interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different ways as the Bible has. For centuries, its contents have been presented in so many ways (often very contradictorily), the cacophony of hermeneutical options can be truly dizzying to anybody approaching the text, even those (like me) who have spent their whole lives being familiar with it. How can we have one faith when we can't agree on what that faith is? As far as I can see, the confusion, at least to some degree, comes with the fact that the New Testament does not seem to go into a lot of detail on many issues. Often we are told to do something, but not how to do it.

Take, for example, the Lord's Supper. While we are instructed to do so when we gather together, we aren't given explicit instructions on what we do when we partake of it. All we know is that the Lord took bread saying "this is My body," and took the cup saying "this is My blood." In the process He told the Apostles to "do this in remembrance of Me." Beyond that, it would appear we are more or less on our own to figure out what to do. Therefore, over time, different people have come to different conclusions as to how to do certain things. It's not too hard to get the impression that it doesn't matter what you do, so long as you're getting the gist of it.

And yet, it does matter: Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, tells us that we must "examine ourselves" when we take it, for doing so "in an unworthy manner" will eat and drink judgment on ourselves, and for that reason many of his audience were sick or even dead. However, he does not elaborate on exactly what this means. Those looking for a detailed theological treatise will not find it there; in these passages you get only a general description of what should take place. Thus, practice in this regard varies widely among churches, from the elaborate ritual of Catholic Mass to the simple Lord's Supper service many Protestant groups participate in.

Likewise, we have in Scripture no formal order of worship, no format for preaching, no specific instruction for many of the things which we as Christians are commanded to do, yet it is clear that these are actions we should be taking, that they are to be important parts of our lives. Worship isn't an extra-curricular activity; it is one of the central aspects of the Christian life. And yet, the details, it would appear, are left up to us. Neither in the epistles nor in the book of Acts do we find full descriptions of the early Christians' meetings; only that they did meet, and did so regularly, and that certain things went on (breaking of bread, preaching, etc). What we wind up doing is gleaning what we can from the New Testament what we should be doing, and filling in the gaps according to the tradition of our choice.

In contrast to this, worship in the Old Testament was different: the descriptions of the Law (primarily in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) go very much into detail on the various practices, whether it's the various burnt offerings or cleanliness laws. There was no ambiguity. It was to be done exactly that way. And punishment for doing something wrong was often severe, including death (as in the case of Nadab and Abihu). Likewise Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant, which was specifically prohibited. God let the Israelites know, in no uncertain terms, exactly what He wanted them to do.

So why, then, did He not do the same thing with the New Covenant? Certainly we have no need for sacrifices and such because Christ became the one final sacrifice for us, but why were we (apparently) given so much leeway in determining how we conduct ourselves in worship? Why is there no New Testament version of Leviticus? Does how we serve the Lord no longer matter? While it is true that not every single facet of the Jewish religious experience was mapped out in the Old Testament Scriptures, they were prescribed far more specific actions that we as Christians have been.

However, though much of early Christian worship services was based on Jewish synagogue services, the early church's teachings (and, presumably, practices) came from both epistles and unwritten traditions prescribed by the Apostles themselves. Writings from the Church Fathers describe more fully the practices of the church in its first few centuries, but since they are not Scripture, they are regarded as non-authoritative by many Christians, and so are often completely overlooked, despite some having been written by people who studied directly under the Apostles (such as Ignatius of Antioch). If Scripture only tells us so much, and we do not rely on the witness of those closest temporally to the era, is it not then just guesswork?

Thus we find ourselves coming to our various conclusions, at odds with each other in nearly every way imaginable. Over time, group has grappled with group, be it over the nature of Christ's divinity, heresies such as Gnosticism, methods of baptism, hymnody, iconography, and so on. There are few topics over which Christians will not quarrel. And it's not a new phenomenon: groups threatening to split apart the church by preaching distorted Gospels popped up immediately, and are even addressed in the Epistles (for example, Galatians 1:6ff). Despite Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to this day we fight and divide, giving no quarter to those who do not see things our way. Those that do try and bridge the gaps are seen as compromising. Thus by building some bridges we burn others.

How then do we handle trying to do what God wants, while maintaining relations with those who argue with us over how? I've seen far too much of the "us vs. them" mentality to believe that that's the way we ought to act. And yet, you don't have to look far to see that this is the way things are.