where we find unity

January 10, 2008

My Ethics lecturer started out one of our introductory modules a few years ago by saying that Ethics is the place where everything we have done in our theological disciplines come together. Although this was not his words, it is here that we ask: “So what?”. What do we make of all this. You may, or may not like this way of thinking.

I mentioned my visit to Jacques yesterday. Now, on my way there, and while there, and since then, I’ve been thinking about what it is that cause us to find unity. Jacques is from the AFM, the Apostolic Faith Mission, a pentacostal church. I was born, bred and fed in the Dutch Reformed Church, the biggest reformed church in South Africa. I don’t know what the AFM used to say about us, but decades ago, before I was born, when my dad was a kid, “we” considered “them” a sect.

But here I was, visiting this AFM pastor, feeling closer unity and community than with many from my own congregation. What was it that caused this? Usually, or at least so it would seem from my limited perspective on theology and church history, trained theologians were looking for unity in dogma. Those who professed the same, belonged together. Our labels in the broad Protestant tradition reflect this: Reformed, Charismatic, Lutheren, Calvinist, Fundamentalist, Pentacostal… and so we could go on. For the “trained theologian”, how I formulated my faith was the basis for who belonged together.

Now, as it would seem to me, for the “lay person” (sorry, I hate this distinction, but let’s just work with it for the sake of argument) the destinction lay in “how we worship”. To you have a stage or a pulpit? An organ or a band? Do you clap hands, or stand still? Do people fall down in your church, or do everything stay under extreme control? These questions formed who was in and who was out. No names was provided, since the trained theologian provided the names for groups. And yes, we did know that our names differed, but when you wanted to know which churches are similar to ours in this town, where their isn’t two churches of the same denomination. Then this is where people looked.

But in neither of these did we find our unity. Maybe we do find ourselves closer together that the traditional categories would allow, I think it is possible. Maybe we do have worship styles closer to each other than would be expected from the groups we find ourselves in. But this did not form our unity, nor did it break it apart.

We found our unity in our ethics. And not the kind of “personal ethics” part, the sex and smoking ethics part, but rather in the public ethics part. We shared our concern for living as followers of Jesus in a country where crime, poverty and AIDS are extreme problems. We both believe that we are called to make a difference in these places. We are looking for ways to do this. Public ethics, for us, seem to come before dogma when defining our groups.

Are we the only ones? I don’t think so. Why did this happen? I don’t know. Is this a good thing? I think so.

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