Progressive Revival

Progressive Revival

Broken Communion

On December 19, Brian McClaren published a well-intentioned post on this site suggesting that Christians put aside all their political and cultural differences and focus on their common faith in Jesus Christ. 

As it happens, I read Brian’s piece the day after I attended a Southern Baptist Lord’s Supper down in my home state of Georgia that made me fearfully reflect on the extent to which political and cultural differences have come to define our not-so-common faith in ways that make his irenic plea less than persuasive. 

On the night in question, the pastor offered a brief homily reminding the congregation that the Lord’s Supper was limited to “believers” and “the godly.”  Knowing what I know about contemporary Southern Baptist views these days, I had to wonder if I was outside the circle of fidelity and godliness. 

It’s not as though the pastor’s warning was surprising in any sense.  It was, in fact, a pale, watered-down version of the “fencing of the altar” exhortation that was central to the Calvinist eucharistic tradition from which Baptists originally developed.  It was a faithful reflection of St. Paul’s strictures against “unworthy reception” in his first epistle to the Corinthians.  And it was in no way as restrictive in its tone or scope as the Roman Catholic/Orthodox limitation of communion to members in good standing–and without unshriven mortal sin–of their own faith traditions, or even the Anglican/Lutheran requirement of baptism prior to communion.   

But that Baptist pastor’s words did cause me to ask myself whether he or many of the people around me would consider me a “believer.” 

For nearly two millennia, of course, Christian “belief” was measured by adherence to creeds, confessions, and such big theological issues as the Trinity or the Atonement.  Receiving the eucharist “worthily” also usually revolved around more than the moral condition of the communicant, and required in most traditions a common belief about the nature of the celebration itself–transubstantiation or consubstantiation, real or symbolic presence, sacrifice or memorial. 

Nowadays, in the United States at least, such ancient indicia of “belief” have largely receded into the background.  And among Protestants, the old disputes have been supplanted by one big dispute: the proposition of biblical inerrancy, and with it, a host of highly political and cultural arguments over issues of gender and sexuality, from the preeminence of men in family and community life, to gay and lesbian “lifestyles,” to abortion. 

This mattered to me sitting there in that Southern Baptist Church because I am a conventionally orthodox Protestant according to virtually all of the traditional measurements of “belief,” but an enemy of the faith to those who demand subscription to biblical inerrancy and the patriarchal, homophobic, anti-scientific and culturally conservative attitudes that come in inerrancy’s train.   I am acutely aware that what conservative Protestants (and for somewhat different reasons, conservative Catholics) view as God’s ordinances on the limited role of women in church and society, the “unnatural” condition of homosexuality, and the righteousness of war, I view as irrelevant cultural background noise that detracts from and in many respects contradicts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And I understand the gulf that separates those who somehow find in scripture an unambiguous condemnation of abortion as homicide from those who don’t.   The former quite naturally think that ending the “holocaust” of legalized abortion is far and away the preeminent moral and political duty of Christians in this day and age; the latter either don’t see it as a religious issue at all, or like me, view abortion as a decision best left to the gender that God entrusted with responsibility for child-bearing. 

So: according to these very contemporary and terribly polarized definitions, am I a “believer,” or just a disguised semi-pagan who profanes the Holy Name while seeking justification for “ungodly” behavior?  And if I am a “believer,” what does that say about the Christians who believe I’m not?  Are we in communion? 

I can’t really answer these questions, but do know they can’t be avoided or papered over by pleas that Christians just link arms and learn to get along.  I can no more abandon what I consider to be the God-given rights of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters or of the majority of God’s children who happen to be female, than conservatives can abandon the rights of the millions of “unborn children” they believe God is calling them to defend. 

 It’s a wonderful thing that Christians are no longer killing or repressing each other over different opinions about the precise nature of the Godhead or the presence of the Lord at His table.  But our communion is broken in ways that cannot help but spill into politics and culture wars.  “Liberals” and “conservatives” across all the old confessional lines are in irrepressible conflict.  And perhaps God alone can heal the breach. 

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posted December 27, 2008 at 12:27 am

I am in the same boat with you, Ed. I guess what we are is believers in Christ, but not so much in the Church. I am a pastor and I am often frustrated by the restrictive attitude my companions in ministry have. I prefer to hold open the doors and invite everyone in (I think there was a parable or something about this, don’t you think?). You lose nothing by welcoming everyone to Christ’s table, but you only stand to lose by blocking even one person who might otherwise discover a better path. Well, I can’t get reservations at those high class, bow tie & tails Diners either. So I suggest we keep the doors open, the lights on, and see who comes to the party. Religion ain’t a reward (if it is, they need to rethink the compensation package), its a way of LIVING.

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Asinus Gravis

posted December 27, 2008 at 11:19 am

McClaren wrote, “When respectful conversation and ‘generative friendship’ happen, as Etheridge suggests, all parties are changed.”
Change is clearly a two way street in McClaren’s view–it affects “all parties.”
Perhaps what is holding Ed Kilgore back here is fear that he may end up changing a bit. It is easy enough to think that those old Dixie Baptists need to change–and they do desperately need to change for the better. It is somewhat more daunting to contemplate having to, or needing to, change oneself.
Some of those good ole boy Baptists are deep down decent, good hearted people, who do a hell of a lot of good for those less fortunate in this world.
So, what are you afraid of Ed?

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posted December 27, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Let’s not over-complicate this. As a Baptist minister, I know exactly what your minister meant. As Baptists, truth is not based on traditions, creeds, confessions, teachings, etc (as with Catholics). Our teaching is based on the Bible (more than any other denomination). I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – I’m just trying to make this short and blunt.
Anyway, the Bible does teach that communion is for believers only. This should be obvious. Communion is a confession of the Cross. Furthermore, the Bible also teaches that we should “examine” oneself before partaking. This is a PERSONAL confession. Baptists (in general) would instruct a congregation, but leave the taking of the bread and cup up to the participant. Why? Because Jesus is our great high priest (not the minister) – see Hebrews. Catholic priests withhold communion (because Catholics apparently don’t read Hebrews). So let’s not confuse how both groups operate.
In short (and in a Baptist tradition), do you need to be a believer? Yes. Your choice to partake in communion at that point is up to you. To do so Biblically, one must “examine” oneself and prepare properly for such a confession.

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Your Name

posted December 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm

jestrfyl, remember I mentioned there was a UCC Church in our bible buckle city that I noticed sometime last yr.? When I checked it out this mo. on the net, it said things have settled down now and they were setting up a new site. A new Minister was replaced in Sept., there was no mention about human rights as the article brought out in the newspaper in the last yr. Guess they sent that one packing.

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posted December 27, 2008 at 6:01 pm

I’m right up there with you, Bro. Ed! Try being a Pentecostal pastor (such as myself) and a progressive! Hee…hee…hee. It’s not always easy — but one thing to remember is that faith supercedes patriotism, it trumps nationalism — and that in Jesus Christ all are equals. One young lady once asked me why it was ok for churches like the one our Brother pastors (Baptist) to send women (as missionaries) among the “heathen” in “foreign” lands to “christianize” them, often placing their lives in imminent danger, but the organization won’t let them “have an American pulpit” because “women pastoring would be a sin.”
Just as the slogan I liked from a few years back: “The Moral Majority is neither!”
Not that I have any stones to throw (I don’t). However, let’s get beyond this current religio-/political mess and really show the world the love, grace, peace, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ!

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posted December 27, 2008 at 7:26 pm

I wonder just how strong one’s faith is, when the Bible needs must be inerrant and one’s love of God is proved through the depth of one’s hatred for those whom one fancies do not follow God’s will.
Living as I do in Europe and being confronted, as I am, with the hateful fundamentalist Christians who have completely destroyed all unity in my American family, I have had it up to here with the conservative, fundamentalist, literalistic, followers-of-ancient-traditions and however else they hateful people choose to name themselves.
The cherry-picking of the Bible, the careful selection of only those natural sciences which are pleasing, the thinly veiled contempt of women, so much hypocrisy and willfulness is not easy to find in any other group. Since we, as Christians, all believe that we shall someday stand before our maker, I do wonder just what exactly their excuse will be for all the people upon whom they passed judgment, all the families they tore apart, all those who might have found peace in Christ but whom they drove away.
I don’t think there can be any resolution or getting along. All we can do is see to it that never again are these hateful people permitted to intervene in the US government as they have over the last eight years. The tyranny of these people against minorities such as us homosexuals is an offense to God.

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posted December 27, 2008 at 11:11 pm

A simple suggestion would be to follow Jesus as he instructed those who would choose to be his disciples. He did not not teach adherence to greeds or promote dogmas. Just do I as do, I believe was his message. We have chosen to follow another man’s interpretation of what he felt Jesus meant by the words he supposely uttered. As we can’t be 100 percent certain, as his word were not initially put on paper. I am certain that his disciples did not follow a creed or dogma; they looked directly to him for guidance. I many ways the churches have reconstituted the same old burdens that Jesus warned the people about. The message of the Lord’s Prayer is that men and women can commune directly with God and no middle man/institution is required.

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posted December 28, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Thank goodness for the voices of progressive Christians and those, like Dianna Butler Bass, Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Walter Bruggeman and others, who lead us toward the emerging Christianity that has a chance of being relevant and powerful for those of us who are seekers in the 21st century.
Exclusivity has no place in my faith and I encourage all people in my sphere of influence to understand that the Lord’s table is for all people in all places in all times. There are no requirements.

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Ed Kilgore

posted December 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Asinus Gravis:
I’m certainly not afraid of exposure to Southern Baptists, having grown up amongst them, albeit in the days before the “conservative” takeover of the denomination and the suppression of “liberal” views in all but a few scattered congregations. And yes, I understand that plenty of these folk are good people living better lives than I am.
But their leaders have drawn lines in the sand on the nature of Christian belief that clearly exclude a lot of people who consider themselves Christians. And while dialogue is always in order, there is indeed a large gulf between us that shouldn’t be minimized and isn’t going away.
To be clear, I wasn’t confused or particularly concerned about what I described as a “mild and watered-down” fencing of the altar at the Baptist Church in question. I brought it up simply because it was the departure point for my own “examination of conscience” about this faith community’s definition of “believer” and my own.
Ed Kilgore

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Russ Carter

posted December 29, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Salvation is personal. NOTHING anyone else does, no sin or transgression, can affect anothers’ personal salvation. HOWEVER, by denouncing others over their ‘sins’ (reproductive choice, homosexuality, et al, ad nauseum) you have engaged in the sins of Pride and Judgement – no less damning in God’s eyes (“For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” – KJV, James 2:10)than anything you are judging others’ about. Do not be so eager to force others to believe or act according to your religious interpretation because you yourself shall also be held accountable. Do not worry about the motes in others’ eyes when you have lumber in your own. In other words, shut up and do the right thing all by yourself and leave everyone else alone.

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Asinus Gravis

posted December 29, 2008 at 8:54 pm

It appears that Russ Carter’s message is “It is all about me!”
The Great Commandment thus becomes: you shall love your God (yourself) with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and then you shall love yourself some more. Don’t waste any of your heart, mind, soul, or strength on anyone else. End of sermon.
It is wonderful how this approach transforms the gospel into following a course of rampant self-interest.

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Ed Kilgore

posted December 30, 2008 at 2:36 am

When I wrote my post, I hadn’t read Damon Linker’s New Republic piece that trod much of the same ground, though he focused very specifically on the Anglican schism.
Damon, a former editor of First Things, knows a lot more than I do about contemporary Christian conflicts. But he appears to agree with my unhappy hypothesis that culturally-focused liberal-conservative disputes have largely displaced traditional confessional and doctrinal differences as the key fault lines in American Christianity.
Ed Kilgore

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