In the divisions threatening the Anglican Communion, it is easy to forget that the Early Church, too, had divisions that hindered the effective presentation of the gospel. The most obvious was the disagreement between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. It was a significant concern for Paul in his Roman and Philippian epistles.
We can characterise the division as between those who believed themselves to be “Bible Christians”, and those they thought were not. Jewish Christians were absolutely committed to the Bible (that being the Old Testament scriptures). So they observed its food laws, devoutly kept the holy days and seasons, and practised circumcision, the sacramental entry into the Covenant established by God.
Gentile Christians, in their judgement, were therefore not obeying scripture. Indeed, they were maintaining that all foods were acceptable, circumcision was no longer necessary, and the only day especially holy was the first day of the week. Thus, between the two groups, there were strong disagreements on doctrine and behaviour.
Paul was, of course, a Jewish Christian, steeped in the scriptures, with an irrefutable history of fidelity. But he was convinced he had been called by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Indeed, he was on the side of those who knew no need for circumcision — baptism now being the sacrament of initiation into God’s Covenant — and who made no distinctions in food. There could have been no one better qualified to deal with the division in the context of scriptural faithfulness.
In his letters, Paul does not say one side was right and the other wrong. He does speak of those “weak in the faith” and those “strong” (at Romans 15.1, for example). But the essential relationship between the two groups is to be mutual love and concern, “preferring one another in love”, he writes. Harmony and building each other up in the faith are what the gospel demands. The weak must not judge the strong; the strong must not despise the weak.
They were all brothers and sisters in Christ. They must not forget or weaken the communion in Christ. They had both accepted the “obedience of faith”. It was the same covenant of grace that both had been received into.
Those who claim today to be Bible Christians are keen to emphasise parts of Romans, but what Paul says in Romans 9-11 about unity is just as important.
It is therefore apparent in both Romans and Philippians that, within a united response to the gospel of grace through faith, different interpretations of doctrine and behaviour can arise. But, if they do, the different sides must “have the same mind”. This is not necessarily complete agreement, but the “same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.5) — of humility and servanthood, at whatever personal cost.
DEEP divisions on doctrine and behaviour prevail among Anglicans today. Basic to them are different interpretations and applications of scripture. Some believe that they are Bible Christians, and others are not. The latter need to face realistically the challenges of scripture, recognising that God exerts his authority through them. The former, the “Bible Christians”, need to review their understanding of scripture. All of us must recognise that no one tradition can comprehend the totality of God’s revealed truth.
There is therefore urgent need for thorough, learned study of scripture, in a spirit of mutual respect. It will not lead to complete agreement, any more than it did under Paul’s leadership in the first century. But, as he urged, it could lead to a deeper understanding of union in Christ.
Essential to such study will be a recognition that, while the revelation came from God by his Spirit, it was given to fallible and sinful persons, and received within the understanding of their time. God used and still uses imperfect persons. So there are elements of passing significance, as well as abiding truth. The Church in every age must discern the distinction.
Furthermore, interpretation and application have changed over the centuries, not on the essentials of the gospel, but on matters more peripheral. In our day, we cannot ignore the truth discovered about the universe and creation, including greater knowledge of the human race, body, genes, and mind.
All truth is God’s truth. Paul and his contemporaries could understand creation only from the early chapters of Genesis. We now read those chapters as expressing religious truth in story form, not as scientific history.
Not least among the needed studies is the Bible’s teaching on gender and sex. It is all too easy to come to scripture here with our own convictions and prejudices already formed.
The scriptures tell us about the meaning of “being in communion”. Andrew T. Lincoln offers an excellent study in the latest issue of Ecclesiology, where he examines the different uses of koinonia in the New Testament. It cannot be restricted to mean “fellowship with those we agree with, or who agree with us”.
From that study, I am convinced that Christians of any tradition should not refuse to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper with others committed to Christ. We leave it to God to judge if any receive unworthily.
In the search for unity in the Communion, the way different traditions use scripture is vitally important. A doctrine commission, embracing the traditions, to study the authority, interpretation, and application of the Bible would help.
As Anglicans, we have a unique contribution to the worldwide Church: Catholic and Reformed (semper reformanda); influenced by movements such as the Evangelical movement, the Enlightenment, and the Tractarian tradition; planted in a multiplicity of cultures; and exercising authority by episcopal leadership in council with clergy and laity.
Canon Colin Craston served for 15 years on the Anglican Consultative Council, six of them as chairman.