We chuckle at the cartoon because it seems preposterous. In light of the many church councils, schisms, schools of thought, reformations and denominational fracturing over the last 2,000 years, the suggestion that we have the monopoly on God’s truth is laughable.
“Jesus is so lucky to have us.”
When I look back on my seminary career, I sometimes find myself scratching my head. The three-year experience of earning a Master of Divinity required a broad range of study. Included in the course of study were language requirements, systematic theology, Biblical studies, pastoral care classes and a wee bit about congregational life (Somehow, I must have missed the classes on budget and finance, non-profit human resources and how to develop an internal network for our church’s technology needs).
But there was one other area of study that the seminary mandated that we take. It was church history.
“Church history? Really?,” many of us said aloud.
With so many challenges facing the church of the 21st century, the seminary wanted us to focus on the history of the church from Christ to the present? How would the study of 21 centuries of crusty old decrees and doctrinal disagreements prepare us to pastor and lead churches today?
It turns out, there’s a lot to learn. Most of the challenges and issues that we face today (yes, today), have been studied, prayed over and debated on long before we appeared on the scene. Like any study of history, we can learn from the successes and failures of those who have gone before us so that their plight was not wasted.
In truth, I enjoyed my study of church history. I found it fascinating to see how God worked through the lives, ideas and hopes of people from so many different eras and cultures. We are not the first to wrestle with the challenges of cultural relevance and indifference. We are not the first to wonder how the church and the state should properly interact. We are not the first to consider how empire-building affects the global Christian witness.
And we will not be the last.
This realization that our (relatively young) Christian tradition doesn’t have it all figured out motivates me to respect other Christian traditions and to find ways to learn from history and from one another. The word ecumenism is defined as “the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches.”
As a study in Western Civilization will tell us, the story of the Christian Church is one of fracture. We are a splintered family, broken and mended time and time again. For me, our long story does two things: It gives me hope, and it makes me humble. The fact that God would choose to work in so many different ways among so many different people to reveal the truth in Jesus Christ is nothing short of miraculous. Personally, I am not threatened by this suggestion. Indeed, I am inspired by it.
You’ve heard this one before, but it’s worth retelling:
A woman died and found herself at the Gates of Heaven with St. Peter. He intended to show her a tour.
“There,” he pointed, “is where the Roman Catholics are located,” noting the people genuflecting and making the sign of the cross together.
“And over there,” he motioned, “are the Pentecostals,” clearly identified by their hands in the air and their ecstatic expressions.
But then he got very quiet and put a finger to his lips as they approached another group of people.
“Shhh,” St. Peter told her. “Those are the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”
We have so much to learn from one another. When we make space to listen, we will find ourselves humbled at God’s work in different places and in a different ways.
But perhaps most importantly, we’ll learn that we’re not alone.