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.