Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Christian Controversies

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, was the kind of churchman that makes me proud. He was a systematic thinker, who attacked heresy and produced a clear and cogent case for Christianity. Though I’m sure the tradition holds that he was a nice guy, who gave up lots of stuff for the poor and took care of those in need, he’s remembered not for what he did but for what he believed. He approached the faith with humor and wit and wrote the kind of arguments that must have made even his opponents smile.

The New Testament lesson appointed for Irenaeus’ feast day is 2 Timothy 2:22b-26. It’s a great statement for the contemporary church—especially for a diocese like Alabama as it seeks to elect a new bishop. Particularly, I’m drawn to Paul’s advice to Timothy on Christian leadership: “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” The leaders of our church would do well to revisit these verses from time to time.

One thing that has so far impressed me about the process for the election of our next bishop has been the tone with which conversation about the candidates has been held. At a delegates’ meeting last night, someone commented that no one is talking about candidates in terms of “conservative or liberal.” The focus, instead, has been on leadership. “What sort of leadership will this candidate bring to our diocese? What kind of vision for the church does she or he have?”

Irenaeus’ fervent and constant battle against Gnosticism—a heresy that once threatened to undo the Church—reminds me that we need not ignore the important controversies of our day. But Paul reminds us to have nothing to do with those that are “stupid and senseless.” Christian leadership is exercised not by becoming embroiled in every gust of conflict but by standing for what is important to the faith, guarding that truth, and sharing a contagious excitement that stems from a conviction that the true faith is life-giving.

So what makes a controversy “senseless and stupid?” I wonder what Paul had in mind. He certainly felt that anything that threatened to ameliorate the power of God’s grace (e.g., the circumcision controversy) deserved his full attention and efforts to expunge it from the faith. What were those issues that he passed on? Beyond those things that were hallmarks of the faith, Paul seemed to promote unity above conflict. For example, he was willing to let people figure out on their own whether meat offered to idols was off-limits, arguing that community was more important than consistency. Maybe that translates into the present day. Maybe not.

Our faith is a beautiful gift from God. Irrespective of the character of other faiths, Christianity has a unique message to offer the world—a message that I believe is salvific as no other message is. The truth of that faith—the core of our belief—is where we start. Sinful humanity redeemed by a loving God, who transforms us through the gift of himself and calls us to help transform the world. Are the topics that occupy so much of our time and energy really worth it? Are we losing sleep over something that threatens the core of our faith, or are we wrapped up in something “senseless and stupid?” “Choose your battles,” my mother always said. Some are worth fighting. Many, however, are not.

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