‘The evidence of history goes to show that the bitterest and most furious combats are generally fought between those who agree on fundamentals, for there is no greater annoyance that a man can suffer than attack from persons who accord with him in the main, but who apply his principles to conclusions utterly foreign to his liking.’ (Perry Miller & Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans, (New York: American Book Company, 1938), Introduction.
This quote helps in understanding the nature of disagreement among friends. We can often agree to disagree on the details of more significant matters and remain friends. However, what about differences leading to disputes and then divisions? Miller and Johnson emphasise this point in this quote and their work. I spend most of my time researching the Church in England of the 15th-18th Centuries, and I can attest to this above quote. The Church may agree on the whole and dispute and/or divide on the particulars[s]. The rise of the Puritans within the Church of England created conflicts, and these disputes, among many other things both civil and Church, eventually led to a nasty war from 1642-1646. (Read here for an overview.) So, what was the point of reformation, then? Was it a historical era of the Church, a ‘one and done’? What is reformation? Is it continuous, persistent, and constantly reshaping what currently exists? From what I’m researching, I think the answer is (tongue-in-cheek): yes.
The Puritans – a pejorative term given to them by their contemporaries – were a movement of Christians in the Church of England who emerged in the mid-to-late 16th century to continue reforming the Church since the separation from the Roman Catholic Church earlier in the century. This movement was divided on the issue of remaining with the Church of England and reforming or separating from the Church of England to reform. One of the many issues the Puritans disagreed with among themselves, and the Church of Englandwas a high view of the Lord’s Supper. Both the English Church and the Puritans held a high view. However, the Separating Puritans (mostly the ones who eventually sailed to the American Colonies in 1620) believed that only those who had an active and lively faith could receive the Lord’s Supper. They asserted that the Church of England allowed anyone to the Table without properly questioning one’s legitimacy of their faith. This, of course, was the Puritans’ perception, and it might have been accurate to a degree but not entirely true. At any rate, the difference was enough for a group of Puritans to separate and seclude themselves in the Colonies to establish their understanding of a pure Church.
The Church of England and the Puritans held the Lord’s Supper in high regard, yet they disagreed on who was eligible. The Puritans’ rigid restrictions for approaching the Lord’s Supper and their strict Church membership requirements eventually hurt them when they looked around and realised the Church was declining. The Puritans ceased to exist by the early 18th century, but their cessation gave rise to another movement called Congregationalism. The Separating Puritans in the American Colonies moved further and deeper into the wilderness to hold a high view of the Lord’s Supper. Their congregations became smaller while their vision of the Church faded into the depths of the wilderness. Did they miss the purpose of the Lord’s Supper in reforming the existing Church by restoring the essence of the Primitive Church? What would have happened if the Separating Puritans did not separate? The Church of England and Puritans held the Lord’s Supper in high regard. So, did they disagree and divide over the particular[s] of the Lord’s Supper?
Here, Jesus desires to eat the Passover meal with his disciples (v.15). He begins by taking the cup, saying, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves.’ (v.17) After Jesus breaks bread and commands his disciples to ‘do this in remembrance of Me,’ He tells them that ‘the hand of my betrayer is with Me on the table.’ (vv.19-21) The disciples ‘began to question among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing.’ (v.23)
Verse 24, ‘Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.’ Had the disciples missed the point of this meal and Jesus’ assertion about the betrayer’s presence? Jesus institutes a new covenant with them (v.20), and the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest….the greatest what?? Their curiosity about identifying the betrayer led to a dispute among them about who was the greatest. Though Jesus tells the disciples that the ‘greatest’ is the one who serves one another. (v.26-27)
The English Reformation, unfortunately, caused disputes and deaths among friends over the whole and the particulars of the Christian faith. So what can we learn from this historical glimpse of Christian disagreements by viewing it through the lens of Luke 22:14-24? I think one answer can be found in v.27, ‘For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.’
The cultural context suggests that a place at the table signifies greatness, yet Jesus says that the one who serves is…the greatest. In vv. 14-24, Jesus sits at His Table serving an unidentified betrayer (though it was Judas, the other disciples had no clue), and Jesus serves Peter, the denier (vv. 31-34, 54-62).
Undoubtedly, the Separating Puritans disagreed with the Church of England, causing much tragedy. Could both parties have served one another and worked it out? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s so much more to that story that a blog post can attempt to answer faithfully, so I’ll leave conclusions up to you. This blog post aims to learn from history to prevent deadly disputes.
Here’s how: During the season of Lent, which begins NEXT Wednesday (22 February), Christians give up something and take up something in its place to draw nearer to Christ in faith and grow in his love and grace. Is there something in your heart that you need to give up that may be causing you to separate yourself from someone you love, disagree with, or just someone you don’t like at all?
If so, prayerfully consider giving it up. Betrayers and deniers of Jesus had a place at His Table, and so do we.