THE WORLD TODAY SERIES #21

Schisms Within the Church (continued)

Besides the dispensation issue there’s the rapture issue, which creates yet more factions, especially among evangelical Protestants. For a- and post-Millennialists, the rapture and the second coming of Christ are essentially simultaneous: Christ appears with His Church at the end of time. End of story. Among pre-Millennialists, however, there are three main factions, all of which interpret the “rapture passages”, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, as Jesus’ “snatching us up” into the air prior to His descent back to earth in His Second Coming to end the war of Armageddon. The factions differ as to their expectation of the timing of this enormous event. While they all connect the event with the seven-year tribulation period, the pre-tribulationists see it as occurring just prior to the tribulation, the mid-tribulationists expect it to happen in the middle of the tribulation just prior to the Great Tribulation of the final three and one half years, and the post-tribulationists think, like the a-Millennialists and post-Millenialists that this event will take place at the end of the tribulation in the same time frame as Jesus’ return to earth.

The relevant Scriptural passages in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians are given below:

“Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So, then this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that you labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also who sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them who are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.

The pre-tribulation view espoused by such well-known evangelicals such as Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, John Hagee and Jack Van Impe is the most common. At first glance it appears to match Scripture, as John, representing the Church, is told to go up to heaven in Revelation 4, before the tribulation events take place. It is also the most comfortable, permitting Christians to duck out of the very terrible tribulation period altogether. Furthermore, it, and to a lesser extent the mid-tribulation view, is the most dangerous position to hold, for the following reason: at some time during the tribulation the antichrist will implement the “mark of the beast” of Revelation 13:16-18; according to Revelation 14, those who take that mark are doomed to the wrath of God and probable eternal separation from Him; but the pre-tribulation believers and possibly also the mid-tribulation believers expect to be gone when that happens. If it turns out that they’re wrong and the post-tribulation position turns out to be the correct one, those holding to the other viewpoints may fail to recognize the mark when it appears.

The mid-tribulationists, understanding that the persecution of the Church has been fairly constant throughout its history, and beyond that also understand that the Church actually is called to suffer, according to the beatitudes, Matthew Chapter 5, and passages such as Philippians 1:29, expect to have to go through at least a portion of the tribulation. But they still expect to escape the very heavy stuff of the last part of the tribulation. In that regard, they’re fond of citing 1 Thessalonians 5:9:

“For God hath not appointed us to wrath but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Among evangelicals, the popular television cleric Irvin Baxter, ever marching to a different drummer than the mainstreamers, is almost alone in espousing the post-tribulation viewpoint. But he does so with good logic to back him up. He notes first that, according to the passage in 1 Thessalonians, the rapture will occur at the last trump. Interpreting that as the final trumpet of the seven-fold trumpet judgments of Revelation 8, 9 and 11, he perceives that this happens quite far along during the tribulation period, certainly well after its midpoint in time. He also notes that the rapture actually constitutes a resurrection, whereas the events of Revelation 20:5 and 6, which supposedly occur as the Church begins to reign with Christ during the Millennium, take place at the end of the tribulation.

To this point a substantial list has been developed of contentions that separate one Christian faction from another. Where is all this heading? Now, having enumerated the major factors behind the numerous schisms within the Church, we have arrived at the bottom line: demonstrating that in spite of all these differences, the true Church indeed is alive and well.

The process of cataloguing the major Church schisms actually should have moved us rapidly to the realization that none of the points of contention noted above, serious as some of them may be, would bar a truly committed Christian from understanding and believing in the core tenets of the Christian faith. We also may appreciate from this description of conflicts that no single branch, sect, or denomination of the Christian Church has a corner on the actual truth. While many of us appreciate Scripture as being inerrant, we also understand that our own interpretation of it is subject to our own biases, suppositions and eminently human foibles. In other words, we all, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:11 and 12, see through a glass darkly:

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. But now we see through a glass darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I am known.”

But why, if God is actually God, is there so much disagreement among His followers? Why are we constrained to see through a glass darkly?

Seeing God with my own very blurry vision, I can’t claim to have the ultimate answer to that question. I’ve asked it myself to respected theologians without having received an answer that I would consider to be satisfactory. But I do know from Scripture itself that God’s revelation of Himself to mankind is progressive. That may quickly be verified by noting that whereas Jesus existed before the foundation of the world, He didn’t physically show Himself to mankind until after the passage of several thousand years. Again, Paul revealed some very profound secrets regarding the nature of God in his New Testament letters, which, of course, weren’t generally available prior to Jesus’ sojourn in the flesh.

But I also suspect that progressive revelation is a good thing, as there were enough hints and apparent conflicts in the Old Testament about what Jesus would look like when He did appear that the topic got people to actually think about their Messiah to come. The very same thing can be said about our contentions and disagreements: our multiple schisms. It’s in the arguments, in our attempts to reason through our disputes that we actually come to an intimate understanding of God and His character. If we all agreed, we would be quick to form a universal, monolithic religion about our common knowledge. We would descend into routine, worship in form but not in spirit. Worse, that massive structure of knowledge and tradition would be a prime target for corruption, as actually happened to the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages (that Church does not necessarily relate to the more modern Catholic Church, which Protestantism helped to restore to a more benign presence).

It’s possible, then, that beneath the surface illogic of the multitude of sects within Christendom, this characteristic not only displays evidence of a passion for God, but supports a clarity of worship. That’s a good thing. It’s beneficial to the community of worshipers, and that makes it logical.

The very history of the Church tells us quite eloquently of the practical necessity of dissention among Her members. Such actually is essential for a vibrant, healthy Church. We all see through a glass darkly because God expects us to. He wants us to, probably at least to the limited extent that our differing opinions are enough to keep us apart but are insufficient to adversely affect our salvation. The tension, like physical exercise, will keep us on our toes. The bottom line, then is that Churches in dispute with each other are, for the most part, alive and healthy, precisely because they care enough to argue. Despite their squabbling, their members are fully capable of recognizing that behind the heat sufficient commonality of understanding prevails such that they all still are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Sadly, this situation does not apply to the multitude of modern churches that have come to disagree with the traditional tenets of Christianity that truly matter. Post-modern, emergent, or whatever they call themselves, these congregations, while they may possess a few truly Christian members, are something else entirely.

A large and growing number of Churches belonging to what used to be known as mainline denominations are refusing to hold to the kind of firm convictions that tend to engender dispute, electing instead to become fat, indulgent and basically meaningless. These churches are attempting to attract half-hearted ‘picky-choosy’ semi-Christians with services that are convenient, entertaining and relevant to modern tastes. In the process they have relaxed Biblical standards to the point of redefining God into a jolly Santa who, in the name of accommodation, dispenses his largesse and a false love while turning His back on Moses, Paul, the prophets and, in effect, a very large portion of Scripture.

What these so-called churches fail to realize is that they are attempting to compete on the same terms with the pre-existing satanic religion of materialism, in effect joining that religion to the de facto rejection of Christianity. From the beginning of His mission on earth, as recorded in Matthew 4:1, 2, 8-11, Jesus shunned that approach:

“Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. . . . Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceedingly high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”

Again, in John 18:36, as Jesus is in the process of being arrested He states:

“My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is my kingdom not from here.”

It’s not pleasant, but it has to be said: the churches that attempt to accommodate themselves with the world are no longer Christian. Their god is the world and its delights, not Jesus. As will be brought out in the next chapter, they have rejected some major tenets of the faith.

Before leaving the subject of fallen-away Churches, it’s important to differentiate between the Church leadership and the layperson. Laypersons, not involved in setting Church doctrine or policy, may attend Churches that are no longer Christian while individually being Christians, even devout ones. A particular Christian legitimately may be led by conscience or Holy Spirit to attend a fallen-away Church with the motivation of restoring it to Christ from the inside.

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