Party Lines

Screwtape“The congregational principle makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.” ~Screwtape

In his 16th letter to Wormwood, the senior tempter advises his nephew that if he can’t cure his patient from going to church, the next best thing is to “send him all over the city looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.” Once he finds the church that meets his needs and makes him feel comfortable and important, the trick is to cause the patient to be “violently attached” to some party within it. And Screwtape claims that the devils don’t really have much use for Christian doctrine. They’re much more concerned with the things that don’t really matter.

“The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things — candles and clothes and what not — are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials…you would think they could not fail to see the application.”

The difference, I think, between C. S. Lewis’ Anglican Church in 1940s England and our Churches of Christ in 2008 America is that our parties or factions all get together in different congregations. Liberal churches and conservative churches, progressive congregations and traditional congregations; those are our party labels. And members of our  “parties” up and move all over the place—admittedly much more so here in Texas and in the South than in other parts of our country where there aren’t Churches of Christ on every corner—to join congregations that suit them. So our arguing over the unessentials isn’t done at an annual convention. It’s done across town between “competing” congregations, in magazines and books, at lectureships and seminars.

Screwtape refers in this letter to Romans 14 and Paul’s discussion there on one of the hot button issues of his day, the eating of meat. I’ve generally tried to apply Paul’s message of mutual love and patience and respect in that situation to our inter-congregational disputes over hand-clapping, song selection, praise teams and whatever other indifferent thing about which we argue. But upon further review, it’s so much bigger than that! Paul’s talking about the eating of meat! There are huge theological differences between the “man who eats everything” and the “man who eats only vegetables.” There were sharp divisions in the early church over meat offered to idols, meat sold in the pagan marketplaces, meat deemed clean or unclean depending on to whom you talked. Keeping the sacred days of the Hebrew Scriptures or ignoring them altogether was another massive theological issue. This wasn’t just sitting or standing for three songs or where to put the announcements. These were the big things, the huge things, the things that cause us today to leave our churches and go somewhere else.

Paul says in Romans 14 we should assume those on both sides of these issues are sincere in their gratitude and dedication to God and that they’re fully convinced in their own hearts that what they’re doing is right. And leave it at that. Love each other. Serve each other. Encourage each other. Stop fighting and arguing.

“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:17-19).

Paul paints a picture in Romans 14 of brothers and sisters going out of their way, sacrificing their own feelings, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters who hold opposite convictions. He never speaks of leaving to find a group of people who agree on everything. Seeing things differently and acting differently and believing differently is actually God’s plan for his Church. That’s the kind of setting that fosters mutual love and patience and sacrifice and service. That’s the kind of dynamic that produces a Christ-like transformation. Our differences on these things are God-ordained for God’s purposes.

At the end of the 16th letter Screwtape actually rejoices because churches so often split up along these party lines.

“Without that the variety of usage within the Christian Church might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.”




  1. Bird lover

    Well said! That passage from Romans 14 is very beautiful. I had not read it for a long time. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    I am currently reading a book called “Discovering God” which is essentially a history of religion from pre-historic times until the present.

    One delima addressed is why religious people constantly fractionalize. The author disputes some socialogists views that it is about money or social class or something like that. He believes the problem is doctrinal, but does not really present any solutions. It appears all religions (especially monotheistic ones) for all times have divided and fought constantly. Of course, there very many sects in Jesus’s time like Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducess, Essenses and probably two dozen flavors of each. From reading about the early church, it was probably more fractionalized (if that is possible) than is Christianity today.

    Paul certainly presents a simple solution to the problem. Would that we could simply listen. He seems to say that “anyone” serving Christ with righteousness, peace and joy is pleasing to God. What is pleasing to God should be pleasing to us.

    I guess the problem in the formula might be the word “righteousness”. He still leaves that loophole for us to busy ourselves with defining who is and who is not righteous. Can you shed any light on what Paul means by “righteousness?” Certainly righteous applied to those who saw the meat issue differently than did Paul. Paul and Peter had some rather violent disagreement. I wonder if Paul let the “righteous” mantle cover Peter as well.

  2. Allan

    In the OT, righteousness (right-ness before God) had everything to do with keeping the Law. Righteousness was Law-keeping. Of course, imperfect man soon distorted the idea by focusing on the external applications and specific rule-keeping which was NEVER the intention of the Law.

    According to the NT, specifically Paul, our righteousness is in Jesus. He is our righteousness. And love seems to be the value that proves or directs or maintains that righteousness in Christ. In Romans 8:3-4, Paul says Jesus was sent to earth “in order that the righteous requirements of the Law might be fully met in us.” Paul also makes it clear in Romans 13:8-10 that “love is the fulfillment of the Law.”

    If we’re in Christ, we’re righteous. Period. Right?

  3. An interested reader

    Something you said bothers me a little bit. “Seeing things differently and acting differently and believing differently is actually God’s plan for his Church.”

    Although I think I know what you’re trying to say, isn’t that statement in direct opposition to what Jesus said in John 17:11b? “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one.”

    Isn’t unity what we strive for? God knew we would never totally reach that goal. He knew we would see, act and believe differently. I think that’s where brotherly love comes in. But I really don’t think that was his plan for the church.

  4. Allan

    Uniformity is not unity, it’s something else. Mutual love and grace in a group in which all the members are different, that’s perfect unity. In fact, that’s the very definition of Godly unity.

    God created each of us to be unique and special persons with unique and special gifts and abilities. He created the Church to be as a body, with many members, and all those members belonging to each other, serving each other, encouraging each other, loving each other, protecting each other.

    If God’s plan for his children while on this earth is that we grow more and more into his image and become more and more like him, then we all have to be different. If we were all the same and saw everything and believed everything and said everything in exactly the same ways, we wouldn’t need love. We wouldn’t need patience. We wouldn’t need understanding or charity or sacrifice. None of us would have to sacrifice anything if we were all the same. And God has no use for that. That’s why he brings together male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and poor, ignorant and educated. It’s Jesus’ blood that unites us, not the way we look or think.

    If every single person in our church looks and acts the same, our unity is nothing. It’s not much of a statement to anyone. We expect people who make the same incomes and have all the same interests and views to get along. It’s like a country club. We’re more surprised by their fights, not by their unity. But if we’re all different, if we understand things differently and feel strongly about different things, and come from different backgrounds and have different world views, yet maintain a strong unity in Christ, that’s a powerful statement to everybody. And it’s proof that we’re acting like Jesus.

  5. Bird lover

    Thank you for that explanation of righteousness. I would also note this view would be in comformity and spirit of the passage originally referenced to Romans. To say differently would make the word righteous as desonant in the statement rather than integral to it. Again, thanks for bringing the passage to the fore.

    Your reply to “an interested reader” is also inspiring. Have you considered the ministry? How true it is that finding something of beauty and something to respect in that which differs from us is the message that unifies. Your reply inspired me to review the beatitudes to see where they fit into this message. Many do: the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers. Just think, to be called a “son of God” we need only to be peacemakers.

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