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.”