Between the 4th and 6th Century AD a controversy boke out particularly among the churches in North Africa concerning a group called the Donatists. They believed that priests in the church had to be perfect in order to serve effectively. The root cause of this was to do with persecution. Some Christians had found ways to compromise without completely repudiating and renouncing their faith under persecution. The general policy of the church was to forgive and to live and let live. The Donatists were purists who saw these men as traitors who should not be allowed to return to or continue in office in the church.
I refer to this example because I mentioned the other day how we will need to wind back on the rhetoric if the church here in the UK is to get through some of the tensions that have arisen during coronavirus. Sadly, as well as great signs of working together and loving one another, as well as wonderful Gospel opportunities there have been divisive points along the way and no doubt the enemy would love to exploit them.
Now, I speak as someone who believed it right to comply with government regulations as an act of loving our neighbours. My perception has been that the rhetoric has been one side but if there are examples of us unfairly ramping it up then we too need to take a deep breath and step back from the brink.
What I have witnessed is a lot of hyperbole where Christians who followed guidance were accused not just of some kind of naiveness but also of:
- Putting our trust in science and supporting a hubristic belief in human ability to defeat death
- Obeying man rather than God and disobeying the command to gather
- Having a Gnostic attitude to physical, embodied worship
- Giving in to tyrannical authorities who have overreached their limits
This has been hard for many who were simply trying to be faithful in their witness and loving in their care for the flock. I suspect in the light of that the risk is that we do become hyperbolic accusing others of being divisive and unloving. I know as well that some church leaders have been deeply upset by questionable tactics of others and that has led to a reluctance to work with some in the future. This can’t be good for ongoing fellowship and partnership.
The Gospel has to be far more important than our personal philosophical outlook and even than our polities. So, it is going to be crucial for us to seek ways to pull back from the brink and to prioritise the essentials that give us real unity in truth.
It will be important to recognise that we may see the actions of others as either rash on the one hand or over cautious on the other but in fact there hasn’t been compromise with the world, nor has then been doctrinal error here. There have simply been different views about how best to honour God in our worship and love our neighbours – to be good witnesses during trying times. People have come to different conclusions in their consciences, often shaped by their contexts nd we should be able to be okay with that.
Let’s not allow secondary issues to become so important that they damage unity and witness. Let’s learn again to both think and speak charitably of one another. Let’s think better of others and let’s seek to have the mind of Christ on these things.