Universal and Local

I have been reading parts of Volf’s After Our Likeness for Contemporary Theology. Chapter 7 (the focus of my reading) is about the catholicity of the church in relation to God as trinity. A more detailed discussion will likely follow later; for now I describe an experiential encounter with the universal-local church connection.

This morning at 10:30 am, Pacific Daylight Time, in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii, the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest voted to support the board recommendation to withdraw from the covenant of relationships with the American Baptist Churches USA. But this post is not about the vote. This blog is about what happened as we voted and then worshiped together while the ballots were being counted. In seven locations across the western United States, 1,334 delegates from nearly 300 local churches gathered via a massive conference call and acted together as the one people of God. While we were voting, the extraordinary nature of this event did not strike me.

Then the ballots were collected, the seven locations were instructed to keep the connection open, and the worship leader picked up his guitar and started leading us:


HOLY HOLY HOLY

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

During Holy, Holy, Holy, I started to feel it. Over 1,300 people across seven locations in four states all singing of the holiness and salvation of our triune God. Honestly, it was almost too much to bear. The readings in Volf, the lyrics of the hymn, the voices rising around me, and the knowledge that hundreds of others were connected to God and to us flew around in my soul and leaked out of my eyes.

As Holy, Holy, Holy, faded into silence, It is well began.

IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessèd hope, blessèd rest of my soul!

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

This hymn was the favorite of the pastor of the local church I attended in junior college. Near the end, we were a house church, gathered in a living room, sharing the cup and the bread, just as congregations have done for centuries–connected by practice and faith.

Today, that congregation of twenty years ago was joined to a room in Pomona where the people of God declared that come what may, it is well.

So, why put this on a theology blog? Simply put, if theology does not happen in the middle of the gathering of the people of God, then does it really happen?

I don’t think so. Such academic discussions may well be called theology, but when they remain purely academic, cut off from the life of the people of God, these discussions are something less than theology.

Today, theology happened.

About Laura

My name is Laura and I am on a journey, pondering the implications of God's glorious design of humanity and integrating every aspects of this design into a description of whole life health.
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14 Responses to Universal and Local

  1. Mark H says:

    I love it!

    Our church (a people currently with no permanent building) has been trialling different venues in the town centre. Last week we were in a hotel and we found there was another church meeting in the next room. As their praise gathered volume, we joined with them (albeit briefly). Apparently as our worship had done similarly they’d also joined with us (again, briefly). We had a wonderful time chatting with them afterwards and encouraging one another. The biggest encouragement was that Holy Spirit had been showing us all the same strategies regarding the town centre, yet we’d never met before.

    I love it when theology merely confirms what God is doing, don’t you?

  2. Laura says:

    Indeed. Don’t ya love God’s surprises!

    I think sometimes we forget that “God himself–in his person, not mere ideas about him–is the source, basis, sustainer, and judge of theology” (a reflection on Barth from my book blog). We get in trouble when we think theology is about what we believe, when the job of theology is to judge and transform what we believe. Sometimes I’m amazed at God’s grace toward us–we can be so stubborn in our arrogance.

  3. carl says:

    Now, I don’t know what the issues were surrounding this vote were. But I find it at least a little interesting that this display of true theology happened while a group of Christians were gathering to declare that they could not resolve their differences with another group of Christians.

    From over here, this sounds awful. I would think that God confirmed theology would have resulted in repentance and reconciliation not division.

    God consoles the sick and the hurting as well as the adulterer and the felon. However, it is important to remember that His goal in the consolation is different in the two groups.

    Just my thoughts. BTW, you have quite the interesting blog here. I keep looking for you to post something to the effect of,
    “I’m just kidding! I don’t know what any of this stuff I just wrote means.”

    Keep blogging. And if you don’t mind, could you send me a link to info on what the split was about? I looked to the link in your article but it is just the statement about the outcome of the vote.

  4. Mark H says:

    Hmmmm. I see your point Carl. I think a lot of other people reading this thread would agree with you too. I agree with you upon second reading, but the obvious somehow alluded me upon first reading. Thanks for jumping in with the necessary reality check.

    I am, however, encouraged that when people are voting over “irreconcilable” theological differences of opinion, i.e. human thinking, that God is still permitted to come in and show that there remains the only true basis for unity, i.e. His outrageously gracious presence. I’ve had the misfortune to witness a few divisions, both personal and corporate. I’ve wept, howled, fallen apart, turned inside-out through my nostrils, and vowed to do what I can to preserve unity. I’ve come to learn that not all divisions are what they seem at the time, and the important thing is for every party to remain in true communion with the one true God. Divisions have a funny habit of not destroying relationships if that can be achieved.

    I don’t know anything about this apparent division (and I don’t want to know), I don’t like division, and I don’t endorse either party over another. But I can pray according to Ephesians 4:3 and Romans 15:5-7 that there is peaceful acceptance by both parties towards one another, inspite of views that cannot currently be agreed upon (and even when those differences have to be formally acknowledged). I thank God for His gracious presence at a difficult time, and I ask that whatever it is that is going on will ultimately bring glory to Him. Amen?

    Laura. Thanks for writing about this, and testifying to God’s outrageous grace. He is truly far, far, bigger than what we think we know about Him.

  5. Laura says:

    Carl, I agree that division among Christians is not what God intended. Sometimes, though, one must make a choice between truth and error. This is the case here (from my perspective..which is all I really have). For over a decade, the leadership of ABCPSW has been in discussion with leaders of ABCUSA attempting to come to an agreement. Last year it became clear that ABCUSA would not budge, and that our theological convictions and values were, in fact, incompatible.

    You can find detail about the issue on the abcpsw website, on His Barking Dog, and on Durable Data. There is also info from ABCUSA here.

    Mark and Carl,

    I can say that as a third generation American Baptist, this has been a tragedy for me. I also have gone through a church split and I know the heartache and destruction that follows. Yet, knowing the issues–the primary one being the authority of Scripture–I could not remain with those who flount the Word of God, even if it is for the sake of kindness. One can be kind and speak the truth at the same time and I think that is what we have tried and are trying to do. The gracious words of those in leadership, the patience with which they held the over decade long discussion on this issue, and the framing of the issue give me great hope for the outcome. Even still, the prayers of the church are much in need, as you both have said so well, division is never a good thing.

    I would only say that sometimes it is a necessary thing, even though our hearts break while doing it.

  6. art Jaggard says:

    Hi Laura,

    You can get a bigger picture of the mess, along with implications for the rest of the denomination here:
    http://www.beaconchurches.phpbbweb.com/

    Art Jaggard

  7. Laura says:

    art, thanks for the link.

  8. Mark H says:

    I’m sorry that I seem to have opened-up the discussion beyond the original intention of your post. I don’t know the details or the history, but I too hope that I submit to the authority of scripture.

    As a joint-heir with you, within God’s wonderful family, I am for you. May I say that although we’ve only met briefly, and only online at that, that I care for you deeply? You see: we are part of the same body – His body.

    I really do understand how church splits feel, and that sometimes they are necessary. Something I have learnt from experience: keep praying for all of the body of Christ, regardless of any division, with a heart of forgiveness, teachability, and accountability, and you will be mightily blessed. God is wonderful. He knows how everything works out and He keeps those who will stick close to Him beneath the shadow of His mighty wings.

  9. carl says:

    laura – please forgive the continued divergence

    mark – If you have been part of an amicable split than you are for more fortunate than me. I have had the misfortune of being part of a group that split from a borderline cult, only to have the splinter group follow in the same footsteps and have to leave them also. (honestly it almost makes me laugh now. This is proof of God’s ability to console) Yet and still agree that it is wonderful how God comes in the midst of strife.

    I think we all agree that He hates division yet requires it at times.

    I have read up on the reasons for the split. (Mark – you may want to look away for a sec) I cannot believe how homosexuality has become the battleground. It is almost as if lust were ok, promiscuity is ignored, and fornication is in the eye of the beholder. The only debate left is who can be the object of this behavior. The line has to be pushed way, way, way back toward righteousness.

    The Spirit of Holiness needs to be welcomed for holiness to reside.

    Laura – Now back to your studies. Post more stuff I don’t understand.

  10. Laura says:

    carl,

    I will continue the divergence on one point. Although the ABC split is occasioned by disagreement over whether practicing homosexuals (or those who hold that homosexual practice is not sin) should be placed in positions of leadership, that is not in itself the issue. As with the presentation of all arguments, a party’s position must first be described according to their own understanding. Once this task is accomplished, critique can begin (including arguing that the stated issue is not really the issue).

    Unfortunately, most (maybe all, but I cannot recall) of the critiques of ABCPSW have not described the controversy according to our understanding. We have always said that the key issue is the authority of Scripture, not any particular sin. Further, I can say without hesitation, that if heterosexual persons cohabiting without benefit of marriage were placed in positions of leadership, we would have the same problem. Critique (indeed, passionate critique) is not a problem, but I do wish the positions would be stated correctly before launching (btw, I am mostly ranting a bit about some blog posts I read in recent days).

    For my part, here is how I see the issue:

    ABCPSW holds that the authority of Scripture is of primary importance.

    ABCUSA holds that denominational unity is of primary importance.

    The particulars are occasional; the key issues are not.

  11. Mark H says:

    Hi guys. I’m encouraged that you’ve both said the issue is about righteousness versus attempts at man-made unity (at least, I think that’s what you’re both agreeing on?).

    I’ve been praying the last few weeks about righteousness – both personally, and for a revival of righteousness to hit the church (i.e. all the church). Holy Spirit got me out of bed in the middle of the night a few days ago to pray about this subject, and hit me with some revelation about righteousness and unity which has still got me weeping even now. When I feel able I will post on my blog about it (I need to be in the right frame of mind to write about it carefully – I believe the material is scriptural, but I believe some would consider it to be controversial nonetheless – whilst for others I’m sure it will not be new revelation at all!)

    Looking forward to more theology posts – especially the ones I stand a chance of understanding!

    Love you guys 😀

  12. Laura says:

    mark, I for one do agree that the issue is righteousness, not man-made unity.

    Today in class, I lead the discussion on Volf’s chapter on catholicity. Funny how God puts a plan together. Here I’ve had this experience that brought unity to the front of my mind AND I’m working my way through a chapter that goes deep into the subject (and, so you know, I don’t get even half of what Volf is talking about… I’ll blog on it when I get to 51% ;-)…maybe after hearing some other points of view in class today).

    We all see so partially–as in a dim mirror–we need each other to shed light, ask questions, challenge assumptions, etc, etc.

  13. carl says:

    amen and amen

  14. Pingback: Unity in Division??

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