Unity at All Costs?
“How could anything non-controversial be of intellectual interest to grown ups?” said Edward Abbey once. Controversies are interesting indeed and grown-ups who routinely avoid them certainly prefer a life of pleasantries over one of conviction. But controversies do not always remain in the realm of intellectual interest, they sometimes seep down into the world of human emotions of pain and confusion. As such, just when you thought a controversy has been put to rest, a new one has risen to replace it. In this case, the present controversy is in continuity with the previous ones.
In the months prior to the Covid-19 pandemic two theological controversies plagued the Sri Lankan church. These controversies put the Sri Lankan church in an interesting position. The strange and exploitative practices of two religious figures were no longer an in-house affair. Christianity in Sri Lanka was beginning to become synonymous with irrational and ecstatic practices configured to manipulate people’s vulnerability and exploit their wealth. The careful and faithful witness of the Sri Lankan church that was cultivated through the years of bloody persecution and civil war was now in jeopardy as the two fringe figures and their followings snuffed out other dissenting voices by their overwhelming presence on social media and other media platforms.
Questions were floating around to the effect of “what will the church say and do in response?” “Will other Christians and prominent leaders for the Sri Lankan church renounce these perversions, or will they turn a blind eye to the obvious ideological and theological conflict at hand?” Renounce they did, well at least some did; Those like Dr. Ivor Poobalan (Principal of CTS), Rev. Asiri Perera (President of the Methodist Church), Rev. S. E. Faber (Christian Reformed Church) and others dared to make their denunciation known. Dr. Poobalan in particular was the first to denounce the cultic tendencies of the WowLife movement and its leader, and as such came under severe scrutiny.
Yet amidst all this unrest in the past year or so, some of the most influential charismatic and evangelical leaders and pastors in Sri Lanka have remained silent. Reasons can be given for this from a merely speculative standpoint. As a pentecostal myself, I can see how many of my fellow pentecostal ministers working for the Kingdom cannot theologically account for the discrepancies found with the problem individuals since their own theological commitments find their logical conclusions at similar loci.
The new and improved controversy that has now shown its ugly head in the Covid-19 world is the inclusion of WOWChurch and Christ Embassy — which the wider evangelical community considers more problematic than KRC — in the production of the Sri Lankan version of the song “Blessing.” The song has become somewhat of a movement in its own right with innumerable covers from all over the world. “Blessing,” quite undeniably inspires hope to the current Covid-19 situation that is characterized by uncertainty and despair. The Sri Lankan version of the song boasts of the collaboration of a whopping 50 churches singing in unity. The description for the video reads, “50 churches from around Sri Lanka unite as One Voice to declare The Blessing of God over our beautiful land!”
“What fault could anyone find with a song that pronounces a blessing over Sri Lanka?” you might ask. Must we be so pedantic about the finer points of one’s theology when the world is crumbling around us? Why can we not just get along and speak hope as a united church? All of these are fair questions for those who might dare to critique the endeavor even though the questions are not without their own presuppositions — what one might find as finer points of theological beliefs may be an essential doctrine for another, and what one counts as a cause for unity may be a cause for introspection and disassociation for another.
I think that the pushback against the The Blessing for Sri Lanka — it will be referred to as blessing hereon — can be fairly stated as a concern for what constitutes the grounds for Christian unity. A sentiment has been implied, whether intended or not, in publishing the song advertising the specific churches that were chosen. Ergo this is theological propaganda for who the Sri Lankan church is, what unites us and what we hope for Sri Lanka. The question I am currently concerned with, even though all the three aspects are equally important for discussion, is the notion of “what unites us.” The implicit answer that can be derived from the decisions and choices made for producing the song is that it is certainly not “doctrine.”
It is one thing to make the case that a church and its leader who is suspect is actually doctrinally sound and falls within the parameters of orthodoxy. It is an entirely different thing however, to say that Christian unity is not fundamentally based on the doctrinal affirmations of the Faith (i.e. Orthodoxy). If the latter is true for the Blessing team, then the question follows, “what stopped you from inviting Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons to participate in this production (assuming they did not do so)?”
I must note that it is entirely possible that the churches that participated in this collaboration were not made aware of the other churches that would be participating in the project. Which is still naive but understandable. I like to think that the individuals, leaders and pastors behind this initiative intended well, but going back to the two theological controversies in the past year and the corresponding lackluster response by certain evangelical leaders, this reflects a deep-seated problem within the Sri Lankan evangelical church — the utter lack of concern for theological clarity and doctrinal purity in contending for the Faith. Again it is not the material content that is at issue here, it is the indifference for the form that is problematic. In other words, what I am discussing here is not a reconsideration of what the Blessing team believes as doctrinally essential for Christian unity but quite contrarily their disregard for any systematic criteria for establishing it.
How do I know this? Firstly, their website has no indication of a mission statement or statement of faith to display what delineates this movement. Secondly, those involved in this initiative as indicated above, were relatively silent during the theological crises in the last several months.
Social Identity and Misconceptions
There is a widespread rhetoric that Christians subscribe to: “the Christian community in Sri Lanka must remain united at all costs even though we have grave concerns for certain theological positions.” I call this the moderate position. Martin Luther King Jr. in an entirely different context speaks of the moderate position in what is now famously known as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He writes,
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…
It is not completely far fetched to draw parallels from the above to the evangelical and charismatic church as it relates to Christian unity. Some Christians assume that the moderate position is the most helpful and effective strategy for missional witness, but it is evidently causing more harm than good. Whether it be the church’s position against racism, abortion or erroneous teachers and movements, when the Christian community shortchanges truth for negative peace it loses its grounds for moral and social authority in the public domain. Let me break this down in terms of social identity.
Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s). Henri Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, religious community etc.) which people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. “Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. We divided the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ based on a process of social categorization (i.e. we put people into social groups).”
A large number of Christians think embodying a social identity of peace and unity is the only way to maintain an effective and non-invasive presence as a minority in Sri Lanka. But as MLK pointed out for the racial situation in America, negative peace tries to avoid tension and the discipline of contending for the truth. The church imagines that any indication of infighting or inner turmoil is bad for the Christian reputation both socially and politically. Therefore we renegotiate the place and importance of doctrine and thereby, truth for the community of faith and elevate unity far above what the scripture or the story of the Church would allow.
Scripture and the Early Church
Unity is no small thing for Paul, which is why if Paul were to insist on excommunication or disassociation he means serious business. In the New Testament there are several instances where Paul cautions the church against false teachers and even strictly commands separation from certain groups and persons that hold to wrong doctrine.
In Ephesians 4:3–6 Paul writes,
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
It is true that the church of Christ has “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” no matter the confusing denominational plurality that characterizes the church post-Reformation. Hence why ecumenical dialogues and forums for theological discussions between various traditions are crucial and pleasing to God. However, Paul isn’t idealistic or simplistic about unity and the Faith of the church. He goes on to say in verses 11–15,
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
Paul insists that the offices given to the church, which include the important tasks of preaching, teaching and exemplifying Christ through God’s word, are the means by which we reach unity of faith. He cautions against the confusion and disarray that will be caused if the church submits to every new claim to special revelation or novel teaching. Truth telling (in love) becomes a significant aspect of the church’s identity and cannot be exchanged for false notions of unity.
Furthermore, the history of the church is inundated with examples of inner turmoil and contention. It is in those moments that fresh insight and clarity has been brought to bear on the gospel and the Faith of the Church in the form of Doctrines and Dogma. It is worth noting that the early church, pre-christendom, found itself in a context similar to Sri Lanka. Christians were a persecuted minority community with the additional label of “illegal sect.” However, the identity markers for this small but growing community were clear.
Acts 2:42–44 (NIV) 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common.
They certainly had unity but not apart from the authority of the Apostles’ teaching which described for them the nature and content of true unity. Furthermore, we see in Acts 15 the overture for the ecumenical councils that would follow. Some might at this point argue that the councils were convened to deal with specific threats to the gospel. This is characteristic of the evangelical distillation of the gospel to merely a matter of having “Jesus in your heart.” The seven ecumenical councils, that are generally accepted by all protestants, wrestle with the various Christological formulations and challenges because they had implications for all matters of the church including Salvation and worship.
If sound doctrine was not central to Christian unity Athanasius would have gladly embraced the Arian heresy that was quickly becoming the dominant view on Christ’s being. Yet Athanasius and the other orthodox bishops insisted on combating the Arian view because there was a lot at stake. However, it is noteworthy that Constantine’s primary reason to convene the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325A.D. was because he realized that disunity within the empire would prove a threat to his rulership and legacy. His intentions for unity in an empire that was quickly dividing along theological lines were political. This is to say that not all pursuits for unity are noble as they can be highly lucrative for the powerful elite.
What ought to be the identity markers for the Christian community in Sri Lanka? Should it be “unity at all cost” so that we always present a united front to our persecutors? Or should it be “truth telling” both within and without? Judgment begins in the house of the Lord and so must introspection and repentance.
1 Peter 4:14–17 (NIV) 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
It is clear that the non-Christian community in Sri Lanka is neither fooled by nor attracted to the lukewarm and ambiguous responses of many Christians to the teachings and practices of those deemed heterodox. When the Christian community is bold enough to own up to its errors and challenges those within its fold to repent and reform, that is when the world will take the church seriously as “truth tellers.”
The social-identity that now characterizes the Sri Lankan church is neither biblical nor effective. Love is important, but love requires truth. You speak truth to those you love even if that means they get upset with you.
John 18:37 (NIV) “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Circling back to the controversy at hand: The production of Blessing has indicated an exercise of poor judgement at best, and an absolute indifference for the important place of sound doctrine for Christian unity at worst. There is no one holy catholic church outside of orthodoxy. Unity cannot be attained by sitting around the campfire and singing “Kumbaya” or in this case “Blessing.” Sound doctrine is essential for the unity of the church because the only true unity is unity in the truth (1 Jn. 1:1–4; 2 Jn. 10–11).
As said earlier, the growing misconception is that Christian unity must be based on the fact that Sri Lankan christians are a minority community and therefore what unites us primarily is our political interests for religious freedom. This is why the “The Blessing for Sri Lanka” has far reaching implications than the superficial emotions of camaraderie and unity it creates. You may now be asking a question that has not been addressed here necessarily. Namely, “so what do these problematic churches teach and should we consider disassociation in order to preserve genuine Christian unity?” Well… now we are asking the right questions!