John Roxborogh is a retired minister/historian and has taught at the Knox Centre
First Church Papakura still has a large palm tree on its road frontage. In the 1960’s it was said that hardly a session meeting went by without some debate about having it removed. They also had some very real theological differences, yet for many that era was a golden age when they got on with changing the world in terms of the issues of the day. But for them as for others, there also came a time when commitment to mission proved inadequate on its own for processing sincerely held differences about both mission and theology which needed to faced. The palm tree survived, and so has the congregation – but as a church, like most, it went through some difficult times.
The joy of sharing in something together when you are on the same page is exciting stuff. It can seem like it will go on forever. But there are also times when issues need to be faced. The question is how. Like farming and road maintenance in fine weather, getting the balance between planning (including getting consents sorted) and action makes a difference when weather events hit.
Recalling the Reformation may help us here. The Reformers had to make decisions as stuff happened. They also spent plenty of time reworking their theology. That task could not be wished away by the need to get on and do something. At times a call to action is an escape from responsibility and a failure to address sources of in-fighting. At other times, a call to action is absolutely what we need to heed.
Some calls to action in the history of the Church have been a disaster, as in the Crusades which were in part designed to stop Christians fighting each other.
More recently, the saying associated with the founder of the Life and Work Movement, Archbishop Nathan Söderblom that “Doctrine divides, service unites” was a needed corrective to theological debates which could not be resolved quickly in post World-War I Europe, when action was needed both in mission and in the life and work of European churches. But attention to doctrine could not be avoided either. Time has also proved that there are times when in fact service divides even though doctrines unite.
Being familiar with calls both to action, and to sorting out our theology, being used as excuses for facing responsibilities might tell us that a) the church has to do both; b) different people are gifted more in one than the other and do not always recognize the validity of the other; and c) there are times when it is more appropriate to focus on one rather than the other.
We may not see much “overseas” or “intercultural” mission in the Reformation, but we do see attention to both theology and action in the face of informed awareness of complex and rapidly changing circumstances. Both agree about being “world-changing.” Christians have a message that makes a difference. It changes the world. The problem with in-fighting, is not the existence of differences – that is the nature of the case with a faith which crosses boundaries of time, space, culture, personality, class and gender. The problem lies with how we in practice go about handling differences. If we want to have some sort of sense of shared purpose and renewal, what might we do better. Perhaps three areas are worth noting:
1) Accept that we cannot make decisions involving groups of people, without some sort of political process.
2) Recognize that the reality of politics requires attention to the needs and views of cultural and other minorities. It presents both the benefits of good governance and the temptations of power.
3) Acknowledge that we easily confuse differences arising from the diversity of God’s creativity and that due to what is at the end of the day not acceptable. Here too we pray for the wisdom to know the difference. If nothing else we need to take seriously what Jesus said about letting wheat and the tares grow together.
“Always reforming” means changing ourselves as well as the world. We not only need to get on with it, we also have to process our differences about what it means in our time and place.