Monday, June 27, 2016

A short history of church fights

When John Calvin took over as the primary Reformer, pastor, teacher and architect of government in Geneva in the mid 1500's the first things he did were write a catechism and a confession of faith. Then he tackled church order - how the worship service would run. He ran into some serious headwinds there. Calvin was doing away with the Roman Catholic institution of mass. He did not like it at all. None of it. So, he came up with a different order. It was centered on the Eucharist and included Scripture, prayer and psalm singing and a sermon, of course. Calvin believed Christians were free to choose their own order of worship. God, he said, did not make any one order determinative in Scripture. Calvin believed strongly that the Eucharist displayed the gospel so well that it should be done every week. Not everyone agreed.  Others thought weekly reminded them too much of the mass. Some argued a couple times a year was plenty. Calvin was not budging. He tried to have the Eucharist celebrated in a different Reformed Church each week. It didn't happen. Eventually, the conflict over the Eucharist led to Calvin's removal from Geneva. It wasn't the theology of the Eucharist that was in question. None of the main Reformers believed the same about the meaning of the Eucharist. But, Geneva was Calvin's city. It was how often the Eucharist was to be celebrated that was argued, often bitterly.

Not a whole lot has changed. Christians still do not share a common understanding of the Lord's Supper. In some churches it is every week and others a few times a year. Some churches do not allow Christians from other traditions to take communion in their church. In some churches wine is served and in others grape juice. The frequency of the Lord's Supper is still hotly debated. Not over theology but often it's over a point of convenience or its is too hard to overcome the inertia of the way it has always been done.  One of Calvin's biographers wrote that Calvin failed to make the Eucharist a weekly celebration not because of theology or ethics but his plan fell apart over politics. He couldn't find a way to persuade people to see it his way. He alienated people and that led to his departure from Geneva. His was a pastoral failure.

Calvin was a great theologian and systematizer. His Institutes of Christian Religion remain one of the few basic books of theology that all theologians after him refer to. He was a hard worker who studied hours a day to the detriment of his health. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. He lived at a time when a person could be run out of town or worse, burned at the stake, for an unpopular theological position. Much of his life was spent on the run. He was a man who would have preferred to stay in a quiet room and study and write all day long for the rest of his life. What happened instead was that he found himself at the center of a great theological and political time of upheaval. He believed God had put him there or else how would he have ever wound up there. So he bore it as best he could. Not always well or happily. Obediently, he served God as best he could see how. From our distance it's easy to see how he failed and the mistakes he made. How can we judge? Most pastors still see more damage to their ministries from a decision to push a change like the hours of the worship service, or whether to sing choruses or hymns, or whether to sit in pews or chairs than any error of theology made in a sermon. And they still can initiate a good fight over the frequency of communion, as well.

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