Month: May 2011

Sectarianism and the Trail of Blood

There was a time in my life when I sought the continuity of truth in ‘the trail of blood,’ the communities who defined themselves against the established church. As I began to study the history of the church, I became particularly concerned when I discovered that “the trail of blood” generally included the gnostics of the early church who denied the incarnation and the Catharists of the medieval era who denied the Trinity and practiced communal marriage.
When I turned away from a sectarian view of the church to embrace the whole church with all of its triumphs and failures, I sensed a belongingness to this vast community of people. I also experienced a connectedness to history that broke the arrogance of my sectarian attitude and created a humility that allowed me to be defined by the church as the worldwide community of people to which I belonged. This means that I am able to affirm the whole church in all the various paradigms of history.
– Robert Webber, Ancient Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999. p.73.

I read this book when it came out twelve years ago, at a time when my faith was at a formative stage. Reacting against fundamentalism and responding to postmodernism, I’d just started reading theology and I was malleable. I was inspired and influenced by Webber’s book. It was before I’d read Yoder and while I was living with my grandfather, an ecumenically minded evangelical Anglican minister, who probably would have liked Webber very much. Reading Webber I came closer than I ever have in my life to becoming an Anglican.

Reading parts of it again now, it still resonates. This passage stuck out as I read, as you might imagine it would. I’m much less sectarian and much less ‘against’ the mainstream church(es) than a few years ago, say when I aligned myself with the housechurch movement. Working for a denomination has helped me with that, as has preparing some lectures this year introducing theology. I tried to enter sympathetically into a variety of perspectives, and it made me broader.

But still, what am I to do with Webber’s words here? Is to be an Anabaptist to align oneself with the ‘trail of blood’?

And how do we take ‘trail of blood’? Blood spilt or blood shed? Being persecuted and killed for your beliefs (by the mainstream church?) is nothing to be ashamed of, if I read the gospels correctly. Spilling blood for your beliefs – now that is a problem.

Can I have a more nuanced position than the alternatives Webber gives us here? Not every community that defines itself against the established church, but some? The ones that have good reason for distinction?

With his new attitude, could Webber still embrace the sectarian churches? Or are they now excluded from the vast church in all its connectedness through history?

I think the ‘trail of blood’ theory of churches is related to a Landmark Baptist view of church history – that there is a succession of persecuted true Christians culminating in the Baptists. I’m sure it is tied to some terrible fundamentalist ideas. But in a mild form, of at least acknowleding the idea of renewal throughout church history, it has some merit.

I bring the quote from Webber to you because it at once appeals to me and makes me bristle. Yes! And No!

If Christianity is true why are churches so disappointing?

If you ask this question, you will be told this gem of wisdom, a cross between a joke and a proverb:

If you find the perfect church don’t go there, because it’ll stop being perfect.


This is sort of true, but rather annoying to hear, and certainly doesn’t carry the full weight of the question.

I know a lot of people who are very disappointed by church. It is an epidemic amongst evangelicals, and almost a requirement for anabaptist types.  Often some of the fault lies with the complainers, but not all of it. 

It is an apologetics question and a pastoral question.

  1. If Christianity was not true, what sort of churches would you expect to see? Would they differ from your experience of churches? If the churches you have seen were merely a bunch of people trying in their own power to do what they do, would they look any different?
    Not sure. Unfortunately several of the situations I have seen would be much the same. But this is speculation.
  2. To what extent has Christianity generally taken a wrong turn and lost touch with the source of its truth? To what extent has (for an anabaptist) a constantinian compromise, a lack of emphasis on the radical teachings and call of Jesus, an embrace of consumer values (etc – or substitute your analysis of what is wrong with Christianity) made the church disappointing? The shift away from participation, community and love between brothers and sisters?
    This is exactly how I used to answer the problem. But that was when I had the Answer, and was modelling something different. That was when I thought that if people attempted a form of Anabaptism in their loungerooms, their dissatisfaction with church would end. As it happened, my church disbanded and left people disappointed. Now I have questions and am not so sure of the Answer.
    If this analysis of a largely fallen church with pockets of renewal and revival the signs of faithfulness amongst the rubble, how can the church find its way back? Is it a narrow way that only a few will find?
    Working for the ‘system’ has also given me a different outlook. I see students, pastors and leaders asking questions, and most of them earnestly seeking after God. It is not easy to generalise too much when you have to include specific people and churches.
  3. To what extent are people’s expectations of church too high? The church at Corinth was full of torrid problems and divisions and undoubtedly disappointments.
  4. The desire for community and connection in a culture which works against these things make the church’s task much harder. Busyness is a terrible disease in Perth: people too busy for community, for connection.  Some people’s comments have made me think Perth also lacks a culture of hospitality. It is surely not confined to Perth, but it is severe in Perth. Some American friends say it is only in Australia that you could attend a church service and leave without anyone speaking to you.
    And this is so much a part of the problem I see! Congregations of strangers. So few members of churches making an effort to welcome new people in churches.
  5. To what extent does church disappoint? Maybe it’s only people I know it disappoints. There are a lot of people who seem relatively content. The malcontents could learn something from them. And they could learn something from us.

Osama and Jesus: Rumours of Escaping Death

A middle eastern bearded man who was a threat to the empire is summarily executed, while rumours quickly spread that the man did not really die.

Conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden’s death are already appearing days after it happened. Was he really killed? Where’s his body? Why won’t the president release the photograph? If this is the case days later, what will the stories be in a few decades time? In a couple of thousand years?

How does this situation compare to the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Does it lend credibility to sceptics who would see the empty tomb and resurrection stories as the conspiracy theory of an extremist group?

I think the questions are valid ones for sceptics to ask. (Not that I’ve heard them asking them, but the sceptical side of my brain was weighing up the comparison this morning.) But I see a number of important differences.

1. The source of the conspiracy theory is not Bin Laden’s inner circle. It’s people who are much more removed, people without the facts, Americans who are used to seeing conspiracy theories in everything and Muslim extremists who don’t trust anything the West tells them.

2. Jesus’ execution was very public while Bin Laden’s was not. Jesus’ resurrection was also public, with many of his disciples testifying to seeing him in the days after the resurrection. (Of course, the sceptic will ask why only believers saw him, and insist that the empty tomb tradition of Mark is the earliest account, while the resurrection stories are a later fabrication.)

3. The early church responded in a way consistent with Jesus’ resurrection: they grew quickly, motivated by a deep love and hope and performing acts of service and compassion. They did not seek revenge and they did not go through a crisis. I expect both of these could be the outcome within Al-Qaeda. Of course, Al-Qaeda is a group with a very different ideology to the first Christians and they may go through a resurgence stirred up by Bin Laden’s martyrdom. I am not sure what I would make of such an event in relation to the early church.