In the last session we explored the Biblical canon in the context of the non-canonical ‘gospel’ of Thomas. Here we look at the issue that different groups of Christians always tend to focus upon and prioritise their own particular parts of the Bible creating a kind of ‘canon within the canon’.We imagined that we were forgetful Christians who had crash landed on a desert island. Four different bands of survivors settled on different parts of the island and each could only remember a few small parts of Scripture. Despite this they are committed to carry on living their Christianity guided by these few passages.
In four separate groups therefore we each discussed one of these sets of Bible excerpts exploring the following questions:
What kind of Christians are you? What is you central belief? Do you have a name? (e.g. ‘the Church of….’?)
What do you do when you meet? Do you have rituals?
Do you have a structure (e.g. priests, elders…)
What’s your attitude to women and to LGBT people and other minorities?
What do you do outside of your meetings?
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. (1 Peter 5:8-9a)
Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:18-21)
Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:15-18)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16-17)
If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law … Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal 5:18-21a; 22-3; 25)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:17-20; 48)
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16)
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. (Eph 5:6-11)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood…. Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law… Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Rom 3:23-5; 27-9; 31)
For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men … I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing– if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim 2:5; 8-15)
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered, “You give them something to eat. (Mark 6:34-7)
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.'” (Mark 7:1-2; 5; 14-6)
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-8)
By their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:20-3)
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” etc. are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:9-10)
Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. … So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”. (Heb 5:1-2; 5-6)
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. So the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (John 6:53-6)
Then Jesus came to them and said, ” All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:17-9)
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit… It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph 4:1-4; 11-13)
When our four different groups of survivors discovered each other this is what they found out about these different -but Biblical- denominations.
Canon A: ‘The Spirit Church’- faith in a life giving spirit. The spirit also gives us power(s) and fruitful lives. Worship- seeking the Spirit’s guidance, speaking in tongues, and healings. Structure- fairly flat and non-hierarchical – led by the Spirit (of course). Community made close by strong displays of emotion.
Canon B: ‘The Holy Church of Righteous Men’- must strictly obey the church’s program to become righteous, based on the bible. Requires an individual and emotional response to Christ having been punished on your behalf. Worship- not much ritual, but prayer and teaching. Repudiating those who have been disobedient, including in the privacy of their family life. Structure- no priesthood, but exclusively male elders. As not inclusive of women probably likely to be intolerant of minorities, depending on who is in charge of the rules- emphasising differences between people. Outside of meetings people have close family relationships. (Four of this set of passages were from Paul, which is twice as many as any of the other sets.)
Canon C: ‘The Church of Good Deeds’- tensions between focus on moral action and lack of strict rules. Worship- could be based around exhortation to do good, and a shared meal. Structure- focus on love and unity means there is unlikely to be much of a hierarchy unless tensions between different views warrant one to prevent schism. Women and minorities- very likely inclusive. Probably don’t do much outside meetings other than good works.
Canon D: ‘The Church of Peter’- centred on Christ and his love, and converting people by Baptism. Structure- strong vertical hierarchy based on the tradition of the authority Christ gave to St. Peter. This is a sacramental priesthood like in the Old Testament. Worship- communion-centred services. Nothing in these passages about women, minorities or good works, but there is a focus on a unified corporate identity which also respects that people need to make up their own mind.
We also noted that, as per our discussion of the sources of theology, each of these denominations had a tendency to over emphasise one of the four sources: Pentacostalism- Experience; Reformed Evangelical- Scripture; Reformed Progressive- Reason; Catholic- Tradition.