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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dealing with Disagreement within the Ranks: Attacking (and Becoming) the Enemy

The Salvation Army, like every other denomination, has a set of doctrinal statements that defines our expression of the Christian faith. However, like every other denomination, we have within us a spectrum of ways in which those statements are interpreted. We have our share of disagreements. And this causes friction.

I have, in recent weeks, been thinking a lot about how to handle these disagreements within the ranks of the church, and I’ve been writing a series of short blog posts on the topic.  And while I’ve been writing them with my experiences in my own denomination in mind, I hope that the posts will be helpful to the broader Christian community as well. 

One of my more vocal critics has commented, “Jeff – you appear to consider the biblical methods that only appeal to you, while deliberately ignoring the more forceful methods the scriptures teach.”

He then listed for my edification: Romans 16: 17 – 18, 2 John 1: 10 – 11, and Matthew 7: 15 – 19.

It has not been my intent to “cherry pick” only the verses that appeal to me, or to paint myself as some sort of saint. In fact, I’ve tried to allow that these biblical methods apply to us all, even if it could be demonstrated that I am wrong. But, in an effort to ameliorate my critic’s accusation, let me treat another biblical approach to dealing with disagreement – one that he brought up for me in 2 John 10 -11 – and more broadly in all three of the Epistles of John.

These epistles, written by the unidentified “presbyter,” were written to address the encroaching of what the author felt to be a damnable heresy into the Johannine community of Christians – 1 John being addressed to the house churches of a large, metropolitan area (perhaps Ephesus, as in tradition) to reinforce their loyalty to the doctrine that they have received, 2 John to the members of the provincial community nearby, in order to warn them of dangerous missionaries with false ideas, and 3 John written to other nearby house churches, within the city, to elicit their hospitality and support for the presbyter’s emissaries. (Brown 99)

The thing about these heretical missionaries is that they came from within the Johannine Christian community, “they have gone out from among us.” (1 John 2: 19) They were not outsiders coming in with what the presbyter saw as a dangerous message, but insiders who had gone wrong. “The adversaries were not detectably outsiders to the Johannine community, but the offspring of Johannine thought itself, justifying their positions by the Johannine Gospel and its implications” (Brown 107).

To understand the presbyter’s hostility towards this group we need to go a little further back in history. In the years prior to the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, it would have been possible (and more accurate) to speak of Judaisms (plural) rather than Judasim (singular). There were numerous competing groups of religious Jews, each claiming to be an authentic expression of the Jewish faith. The more well-known of these were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots – but there were other various shades along the spectrum of the faith. We should also include in this listing the nascent Christian community – who did not yet consider themselves to be a separate faith, apart from Judaism. Until its destruction, the Christians still worshipped at the Temple, and they gathered with their Jewish coreligionists in the synagogues.

After the failed rebellion, most of these groups disappeared, and Judaism came to be defined largely by what was left of the Pharisee branch. And, in that precarious world struggling to preserve a Jewish identity, the theological disagreements between “the Jews” and the Christians became more apparent and more divisive. There was less tolerance for diversity under the Jewish umbrella.  Whereas before the rebellion there might have been a forbearance for other groups, afterwards there was a perceived need for unity.  And the Christians were eventually expelled from the synagogues. 

It was during this time that the “18 Blessings” of Jewish prayer were formulated by the rabbis.  The 12th of these blessings is known as the “Blessing on the Heretics” (blessing here being a euphemism for curse). Though the identity of the heretics in question is debated, it is thought by many to be reference to Christians: “For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim (possibly Nazarenes – i.e. “Christians”) and the minim (“heretics”) be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant"

The Gospel of John seems to have been composed in the wake of this expulsion. You can easily see the vitriol and antagonism heaped upon “the Jews” in that gospel. They are children of their father, the Devil (John 8:44). This schism seems to have created a starkly dualistic mindset in the Johannine Christian community. Everything was understood in this binary, us-vs- them attitude. They are children of darkness, we are children of light. We have truth, they have only falsehood. We are from above, they are from below. We are children of God, they are children of the Devil. They hate us. They kill us!

The split was acrimonious and the hostility dangerously hateful. 

By the time we come to the Epistles of John, the threat is no longer an external one (Them! “the Jews!) but comes from within. Proponents of diverging interpretations of their text – the Gospel of John – began taking sides against one another. And that starkly, dualistic, us-vs. them attitude, refined during the community’s conflicts in the Jewish synagogue, turned inward. The presbyter, the author of the Epistles of John (who was, most likely, not the same as the Evangelist who wrote the Gospel) turned that invective inward.

“As understandable as this sense is, this dualistic articulation is dangerous, and in fact it encouraged Christians of later centuries to see a dualistic division of humankind into believers (Christians) and non-believers, into an ‘us’ who are saved and a ‘them’ who are not. Inevitably such a dualistic outlook will shift over into divisions within the ‘us’ and the cannons that once pointed outwards to protect the fortress of truth will be spun around to point inwards against those betraying the faith from within” (Brown 134 – 135).

Thus the presbyter can refer to those preaching a different interpretation of their shared gospel as “Antichrists” (1 John 2: 18 – 23, 4: 3, 2 John 7) as “deceivers” (2 John 7) trying to lead you astray (1 John 2: 26, 3: 7) as belonging to the devil (1 John 3: 8 – 10), as false prophets (1 John 4: 1) and etc. This is sourly ironic language in letters that repeatedly insist on the need to “love one another.”

This seems to be the method of dealing with disagreement preferred by my critic. He has on several occasions questioned my salvation, and called me a “false officer.” In one spectacularly over-the-top outburst of vitriol he wrote the following – and although he didn’t call me out by name, I’m quite sure that he had me (among others) in mind.

False teachers! Wolves and serpents among the flocks of God's people! Devils dressed in robes of priestly garb; falsifiers! Disgusting! Repulsive! Uncircumcised wretches of erupting evil! Dissenters and liars filled with hell and heresies of old! Darkness has consumed them! Satan has enchanted them with all the pleasantries of the world and like worms they burrow themselves deep into the mission field where the weak are led astray by their winds of wandering illusions of relativism and subjectivism.

You are children of the harlot riding the beast - indulging yourselves in all the fanciful pleasantries of worldliness. I am sickened to my soul by your words and driven to righteous indignation by all your divisive chatter and scheming! The Lord is coming with His sword of righteousness to lay low His enemies which dare to insult Him with their insolence, ignorance and rebellion against His Holy Word. (1)

My critic seems to have mastered the Presbyter’s invective – surpassed him, even. But this approach to dealing with disagreements is dangerous. While it may (potentially) be effective in preserving truth (or one interpretation of truth), this approach effectively turns us into the enemy that we hate. The Presbyter failed to see that by insisting that “if anyone comes to you bringing a different doctrine, you must not receive him into your house or even given him a greeting,” (2 John 10) he was acting in exactly the same manner as “the Jews” who had expelled the Christians from the synagogue.  In attacking the enemy, he became the enemy.

“Those who believe that God has given His people the biblical books as a guide should recognize that part of the guidance is to learn from the dangers attested in them as well as from their great insight” (Brown 135). This forceful method of dealing with disagreement may be effective in putting disagreements to a quick and decisive end, but at what cost?

 - I highly recommend this book:
Brown, Raymond E. The Community of the Beloved Disciple: the Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times. New York. Paulist Press, 1979.

(1) This is part of a much longer post that was shared on Facebook on August 18. I was later expelled from the group where it was posted, and unfortunately do not have a screen shot to display.

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