The Balkanized Church

Balkanization: To break up (as a region or group) into smaller and hostile units. Webster’s Dictionary Balkanization is a term coined to describe the political and ethnic divisions in that region of the world known as the Balkans.

For the past 30 years I have worked internationally in a variety of capacities. Most of my focus has been on international development, substance abuse and crime prevention and most recently mobilizing and capacitating communities to respond to the HIV & AIDS pandemic sweeping across Africa. Of particular interest and concern to me has been the role of the Church and NGOs in responding to poverty and disease. For the purposes of this article, I intend to focus on the Church. The Church is organized and works within geographic and political boundaries. It cannot escape them – yet, the Church often claims to transcend them by virtue of the nature of the gospel it proclaims. Balkanization, a term often used to define political and social sectors has created political division and been the source of conflict for decades if not centuries. Well, Balkanization is also a source of conflict and struggle within the Church.

The “Church” is not nor has it ever been an easy entity to define. Throughout my journey, I have worshipped with Nazarenes, Methodists, Anglicans and even Mormons. My academic background is in the History of the Western Church. I take pride in the fact, that I have studied, thought about and engaged the Church in diverse and multi-faceted ways. I have a love-hate relationship with this creation of man. Yes, there are those that will dispute the claim that the Church is created by man. To be sure the community of faith is a called out community – but the current institutional expressions of that community defy any connection to its New Testament roots.

The Church created by man to organize his/her beliefs and to find some kind of fellowship with people of like mind, is something different to each individual who encounters her. For me the Church has been home, family, a refuge and a constant source of frustration. As one of my Seminary professors use to remind us: “The Church is scandalous humanity seeking God’s grace and forgiveness in a community that continually seeks perfection.” That reminder has kept me coming back to the “Church”
throughout my life. But I often question what it is I have come back to and is it really a universal community.

Today, unfortunately, the Church is as balkanized as it has ever been. A  gospel that is universal finds itself captured by the geographic, ethnic and ideological boundaries of the people who created it and who serve in it. Church growth, cultural anthropologists and cultural competency experts stress the importance of accommodating the gospel to the particular social and cultural regions of the world. We preach that the Christ confronts and transforms all cultures and yet we seek to package our Christ in cultural terms that often create an ecclesiology that is as diverse as the nations of the world. This reality has forced the Church to think regionally and structure itself in ways that assure the inclusion of all regions in the shaping of polity and doctrine. In this reality – there is seldom any cross-cultural or cross-political accommodation.

Seldom do conversations about differences in Church polity across regions begin with the common source of our salvation – Jesus Christ. It usually begins with why you and your culture don’t understand me and my culture. Therefore I and my culture are sovereign over you and your culture – especially if you are living or working in my culture.

Jaroslav Pelikan, noted historian of Christian thought at Yale University says, and I paraphrase, doctrine is that which the Church
teaches, believes and confesses in response to internal and external threats. Doctrine or for that matter polity or governance are seldom positive affirmations but rather structures created to protect or defend. In his work, The Christian Tradition: A History of the
Development of Doctrine
, Pelikan lays out a pretty convincing case. I have to concur. In the practice of the Church, regardless of
denomination, seldom does the transcending message of the gospel actually transcend the political realities of the region. We can stand in Christian worship and in circles of fellowship and affirm the universality of God’s love and grace, but when that love and grace needs structure or organization love and grace usually collapses under the weight of regional, geographic and even ethnic ideology.

I believe a central theme of the gospel as it relates to our coming together is found in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
 Imagine if we took that literally
and seriously. Imagine that such divisions were sacrificed on the altar of unity and we were known for our love and compassion and not our geographic division, or ethnic difference or even more salient our gender. Imagine governance that was anchored in trust, reconciliation and a mutual goal to make Christ-Like Disciples of the Nations. Imagine a world that really was not a world to be imagined but a world that truly was anchored in faith and action – faith in our God and faith in each other.

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