Dangerous conflicts in the c.21st church

Posted: March 9, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

We often hear about conflicts going on in the church, either local, regional or international. Most times the conflicts we hear about are the obvious, visible ones: womens’ ordination, worship styles, music, use of money, etc. These are the troubles that break the surface of our peaceful fellowship.

But what about the conflicts going on down below the surface, deep in the church’s soul? The sources of all those apparently disconnected surface troubles – what are they? At the core of the church’s soul is the gospel of Jesus – or else something else where it should be! So our deepest conflicts and tensions are theological ones. These often unseen troubles drive everything else that we do see.

So what are the conflicts in our faith that threaten or hamstring us as we settle into the 21st century? Here’s my top 9, presented as a series of questions. And then one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them…

1. Can we reconcile our concern to preserve Jesus’ uniqueness (‘there’s no one remotely like him’) with our concern to see people become like Jesus and share in his works (‘you will do greater works than these that I have done’)? As long as the two are felt to be in tension or competition, one will prosper at the expense of the other, and our own achievements will seem like a threat to Jesus’s.

2. Can we stop treating Jesus’ humanity and divinity as rivals? Liberalism and the historical Jesus guys treat Jesus as largely human and not much divine.  We are tricked into reacting, making Jesus out to be about 90% divine and only 10% human. Can we get up the confidence to explore fully the blessing of his incarnation without feeling that this threatens his divinity?

3. Can we deal with the tension between our proclamation that Jesus is now Lord over creation, and our dismissive attitude to that creation? When we talk as though the creation is worthless and soon to be thrown in the cosmic incinerator, surely that seriously undermines Jesus Lordship?

4. Can we develop an atonement theology that facilitates and does not hinder our mission aspirations? I.e. one that works with our desire to connect with the ordinary lives of ordinary people? Our current emphases in this area seem to have little to say into the life experiences of our neighbours. The result is that on the one hand what we do find to say into their lives is often not a word of gospel, and is not felt (by them) to be good news. And on the other, the atonement we proclaim as gospel just doesn’t seem to get much traction.

5. Can we reduce the rivalry between our doctrine of personal, free salvation in Christ and our belief in the church, so that emphasis on one doesn’t detract from the other? If our gospel preaching leaves people uninterested in church, then those who push church are suspected of undermining the gospel of justification by faith alone. The horizontal and the vertical become rivals for our loyalty. The result is a lack of attention to developing real living Christian communities that function like bodies.

6. Can we reduce the tension between faith in the Jesus of history and faith in the Jesus who is present and active with us here and now? At present it feels like we have to choose: either we know and experience God’s presence in Christ amongst us, or we trust in his finished work for us 2000 years ago. Is there some way  that both of these can grow?

7. Can we deal with the conflict between our emphasis on a holiness that means separateness and distance, and our mission calling to be like Jesus and come near to the lost? As long as godliness and mission are in competition, one will prosper at the expense of the other.

8. Can we integrate our thinking about works ministry and word ministry so that they are not felt to be competing alternatives? Our evangelical abandonment of compassionate works is currently an open disgrace. But we’ve done it in the name of gospel loyalty.

9. Can we somehow reduce the distance between Jesus’ insistence that his kingdom is for the poor and the weak, and our own vision of the Christian life, in which addiction to wealth, lifestyle and power is normal? Because at present this disparity creates a credibility gap so wide, our churches are left open to public ridicule.

What have I missed?

That’s a lot of conflict. I can’t help wondering if we will make it through this century with so much baggage, whether we will survive the damage caused by so much internal tension. I know we’ve coped with much of it for a long time, but we’re not as strong as we used to be.


I suspect that there’s a conflict or two that are driving all these tensions, also. I don’t think it’s an endless regression. I think this one is bedrock:

Can we make some serious inroads into identifying and rooting out the Platonism from our faith tradition? We probably can’t lay it to rest totally in one generation, but it would be good if we could move forward decisively on this.

  1. Nuria says:

    I think there’s a real faith / works dichotomy that we still struggle with. Perhaps the ongoing result of Luther’s difficulties reading Romans and James alongside one another? This issue seems to be under the surface of at least points 1 and 8 in your list.

    I’m currently reading 1 John – try 1 Jn 4:7-12 as a good example of someone who seems to not even feel the tension.

    I think part of it is that we sometimes over emphasise Pauline theology, and don’t do a good enough job of putting Paul in conversation with the other NT writers.

    Sometimes I also wonder if we just find John harder to understand because he’s so much more Eastern. So maybe you blokes do all need to grow bushy black beards as Mike suggested some weeks ago! 🙂

  2. Jonathan says:

    Yes, I think faith/works hang-ups are a troubling part of our inheritance from the Reformers. Point 1 of my list is trying to get at this, so thanks for clarifying! Luther esp. emphasised the alienness of Christ’s work and gift so strongly, that it can seem that anything happening in us is a threat to the gospel. He also taught about union to Christ, but his heirs (us) haven’t picked up on that nearly so strongly.

    Calvin on the other hand was very strong on Christ within us. ‘As long as Christ remains outside us, all his works and gifts cannot benefit us at all’ – or words to that effect, in the Institutes. But Gaffin points out the Reformed tradition has drifted away from this emphasis on union and transformation.

    I’m afraid many believers I know still seem to think of faith and works themselves as opposites in some way – rather than thinking of faith in Christ and faith in works as opposites. Hardly an encouragement to throw themselves wholeheartedly into good works!

    I always appreciated A W Pink’s insistence that works were a necessary accompaniment to faith, not just an inevitable one. Not a favourite author, but he was on the money at this point.

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