This past Sunday was All Saints’ Sunday, a day of reflection on the saints who have gone before us. When the names of the church members who died this past year were read and a candle lit in their remembrance, I fondly thought about three of the deceased that I knew. A hand bell sounded a somber note after each name was read. I remembered during my youth donating money for a hand bell in honor of my grandmother who was a professional singer. Each All Saints’ Sunday, as a hand bell rings, I remember my grandmother’s life of faith and love for her grandchildren. I reflected about all my Christian family members who died during my lifetime. They were a personal witness to Christ.
My thoughts this year were also deep reflections on the Church. The United Methodist Church (UMC) is dividing into separate denominations. Issues that have been long simmering burst into flames this summer. The conservatives are leaving after winning past General Conference votes. Methodists are attacking each other over ethical, doctrinal, and governmental policies. The adherence to the Book of Discipline has been undisciplined. Once the pocketbooks and feet leave the denomination, difficult decisions will need to be made. The focus over the next decade will not be on Christ, but how to move forward amongst the divisive rubble left behind.
My inner-city Austin church has been spared, at least for the time being. Although the congregation contains both conservatives and liberals, peaceful co-existence has prevailed. My former Houston-suburban church voted to leave the UMC and affiliate with the upstart Global Methodist Church. Many UMC churches will be voting over the next months. One thing is for certain: the UMC will decline in membership and financial strength. A reorganization will eventually happen; time and resources will be inwardly diverted.
My 2012 version of the UMC Book of Discipline contains 879 pages. Countless years and resources went into the construction of this verbose legalistic book. The origins of Christianity had one Savior and a small group of dedicated working men and women. I am not sure if the early Christians would have called our modern Christianity progress. How did the Church get from a small group of disciples into such a complex organization?
Dr. Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) was a German Protestant theologian and Professor at the University of Berlin. He is best known for publishing The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992). His book was originally published in 1912, translated from German to English by Olive Wyon, and published in two volumes. Troeltsch makes clear from the beginning “that the rise of Christianity is a religious and not a social phenomenon.” (page 43) The Roman and Jewish culture had many problems, but their issues did not create Christianity. It was God who revealed in simplicity. The early Christians did not build structures like the Romans.
This past Sunday, the Scripture reading was the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12) which are the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–7:27). Christ’s teachings were counter to the prevailing culture. From theology of “pure-hearted self-surrender to Him who seeks men’s souls and to the Fatherly Will which calls them to the vocation of being His children, … springs an active realization of the love of God even towards strangers and enemies.” (page 56) The movement was revealed by God, not by the existing culture.
If Christianity was a social movement, then it would have sought power within the existing society. Early Christians did not seek societal power and accepted the current rulers as instruments of God. “On the one hand, they maintain that solidarity due to a religious motive, common responsibility, and care for others towards those who for the time being are in a subordinate position; and, on the other hand, they maintain resignation, love, and the duty of obedience as a religious motive towards those who for the time being are their superiors.” (page 79)
Early Christians did not pour money into church buildings, professional staff, programs, education, and legal documents. “Bishops of the primitive period were still simple handicraftsmen, traders, and, under certain circumstances, even slaves. The priestly office was only an honorary post, alongside of which a man earned his living as a citizen.” (pages 99–100) Christians were part of the world and came together on the first day of the week to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “The dividing-line was not drawn between the world and the Church, but between the present and the future.” (page 100)
As I pondered the saints who went before me while surrounded by the saintly members of my local church, I wondered if modern Christianity has missed the point of the Gospel. I like the comfortable pews, beautiful sanctuary, heavenly music, and preached Word by an educated clergy. But the served elements and spoken liturgy during the communion service can be offered anywhere and at any time. Baptisms can easily be performed with a basin of water in a home, pool, river, or lake. The Word can be preached within homes, outdoors, or in public facilities. Today, many church buildings are underused or sit idle because of declining Church attendance.
Perhaps it is time to reflect on what gave rise to early Christianity and why it spread so quickly within a broken world. Decisions as to who can be clergy, how to fund the annual budgets, and what legal paragraphs go into The Book of Discipline, fall away as relatively unimportant. The UMC membership is declining along with most denominational US Christianity. Reversing this trend by plowing more resources into existing church buildings, programs, or legal documents will not be successful. What binds Christians together is accepting the call of God and God’s command to love our neighbor, not the current institutional divisiveness. The saints in the Church Triumphant are members of one Church, not denominations or local churches.