Monday, April 26, 2010

Altared States

The Part and the Whole

On today’s date in 1865, federal troops shot and killed John Wilkes Booth. He had been running for days after shooting Abraham Lincoln. The nation, weary of all the fighting and dying, had little sympathy for Booth. Even Southerners, who merely weeks before had been fighting the armies commanded by Lincoln, joined the search for the ego maniacal actor.

Booth was perhaps the last real casualty of the American Civil War.

The amount of books, academic papers, movies and other media depictions of the War Between the States would take a lifetime to read. Americans keep trying to figure out how and why their ancestors took up arms against one other. Most American families with long roots in the nation descend from people who fought on both sides. That is certainly true of the Scott family.

So why do nations divide into such bitter conflicts?

In Joshua, chapter 22, there is an interesting story about civil war. In that passage, Israel almost goes to war against two of its own tribes. Surprisingly enough, the contention was over an altar! Two tribes had built a separate altar from the one upon which the rest of the Israelites offered sacrifices. This was such an egregious act that it nearly resulted in bloodshed.

Just before the troops marched to battle, the nation sent the high priest, together with representatives from each tribe, to ensure that their information was accurate. As it turns out, it wasn’t. The tribal altar was erected as a memorial. It would never be used for sacrifices but would remind the descendants of the two tribes that they were a part of a nation. The tribal descendants would observe that although their altar was identical to the national altar, sacrifices would be offered only on the national altar.

The tribes were not attempting to be their own nation.

But why was it such a big deal to the Israelites for tribes to make their own altars? Wouldn’t more altars in a country make for a better nation?

Well, yes. However, sacrifices could only be made at one altar, so that every Israelite, of whatever tribe, would have to make pilgrimages to a common place to worship God. That would ensure the national and spiritual unity of God’s people despite their tribal differences.

In normal times, God’s people thought of themselves as Danites, Benjaminites or Levites. Each tribe had its own dialect, dress and customs. However, God intended that the people remember that they were members of a common nation. Allegiance to the nation came first. Allegiance to the tribes came second. What a separate altar seemed to threaten was a division of the nation into rival sects. This would not be tolerated.

As Jesus told us (and as our sixteenth president reminded us) “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

When a tribe sets up its own altar and fails to see its need for the nation, it commits the sin of sectarianism. If the rebellion becomes deeply entrenched and removes those who embrace it too far from the common altar, the rebellious tribe may find itself cut off from its roots.

This is why orthodox Christians view the so-called Christian cults (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) to be outside the boundaries of Christendom. We don’t have the right, and we should not have the desire, to judge whether a particular individual in any such group is or is not God’s child. That is His business. However, we can say, indeed we are required to say, that such groups and the teachings they espouse, are heretical. We can also say that such groups lack apostolicity because they have broken the essential links that connect Christians with the apostles. In such a case, we say, with sorrow, that they cannot be regarded as legitimate Christian assemblies.

Of course, it is not only the Christian cults that have abandoned the apostle’s doctrine in our times. Great portions of the so-called mainline Protestant churches have also abandoned the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” They no longer confess or practice what C. S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” Therefore we must sadly conclude that these groups too have broken ranks and have set up their own private altars.

The Church of the Ages is due a higher level of allegiance than our local church or denomination. The local church is where we live, learn and grow in Christ. It is dear to our hearts. Our denomination represents the customary ways in which we express our faith in Jesus and we grow to love it. However, local churches and denominations earn the right to call themselves “Christian” only to the extent that they hold fast to that core of faith which has been passed from Jesus and the apostles through all generations.

In the last few years, such denominations as the Episcopal Church U.S.A have built their own altars. They have set up doctrines and practices that endanger their Christian identity.

Christian churches around the world of all sorts have responded by pleading to such groups to to recognize the mortal danger of their growing apostasy. The new altars must not stand. Either these churches will repent and return to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, or the other tribes will disown them, allowing them to continue their long descent into liturgical Unitarianism.

The Body of Christ is amazingly broad and diverse. Copts and Baptists, Lutherans and Marionites, Pentecostals and Quakers may appear to have little in common. Indeed, most days they don’t even think about one another. However, they have a common altar. Something flows from a single source to their people. That stream enriches the diverse soil of the peoples of God. When that common source is threatened, then the Church will and should rise up to define its borders.

Fortunately, in the Joshua passage, the tribes explained to their brothers that they had no intention of offering sacrifices on a separate altar. They intended to make their descendants aware of the common heritage they shared with the other tribes.

The nation was satisfied. It left the tribes free to express the covenant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in their own unique way.

A hundred and forty years ago today, a man who had just attempted to rekindle the newly concluded conflict between the peoples of the United States, met justice. The nation – North and South – did not mourn his passing. Americans were busy grieving the loss of a odd, gangly man in a tall hat who had called for a new birth of freedom; so that the “government of the people, for the people and by the people would not perish from the earth.”

The conflict had tested whether this nation or any such nation “could long endure” and it had passed the test.

Last week I drove from my home in Nashville, Tennessee to visit Springfield, Illinois. I crossed no border. I needed no passport.

That is what happens to the descendants of those tribes that honor the nation and do not erect separate altars.

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