“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Galatians 5:14-15
In the last article of this brief, two-part series, (December 15, 2018, p. 139) we considered the immune system with which God has equipped our bodies to fight infection. This marvelous component of our bodies is designed as a means to protect us from the host of microbes—viruses, bacteria and other microscopic organisms—that populate our world. These microbes play important roles in the creation when in their appropriate niches, but can wreak havoc on our bodies when they manage to penetrate the physical barriers (skin and mucous membranes) that separate our “insides” from the external world. The various cells of the immune system, as well as the systems of communication that direct them to areas of infection, form an intricate network of defense that is required to maintain the health of the body.
At the same time, our bodies must contend with the fact that they contain an armed force that is constantly seeking an enemy to destroy. This force of microscopic cells is armed to the teeth with a host of chemical weapons that it can use to neutralize, engulf, digest, or poison foreign invaders. Like the chemical weapons of modern warfare, those used by the immune system can be indiscriminate in their destructive power. If unleashed at the wrong time or place—or aimed at the wrong target—they can cause incredible damage to our bodies just as well as to invaders from the microbial world. Without proper control, our immune system is a powerful army primed for destruction of any target that crosses its path.
This biological power comes at a cost, as defects in the immune system underlie an incredible range of human diseases. Some of these diseases emerge from deficiency in the immune system, such as AIDS, while others are the result of immunological hyperactivity. We call this latter class “autoimmune” diseases, because they represent a literal attack of the body upon itself. Autoimmune diseases include a number of relatively common conditions, including type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. While the precise causes and symptoms of these diseases vary widely, each has its origin in an immune system that is improperly turning its focus on an internal target rather than an invading pathogen.
It would be helpful if scientists and physicians could explain precisely how autoimmune diseases arise, but the reality is that little is known about the early stages of their development. Like many diseases, there is certainly a genetic component that makes some individuals more susceptible than others to getting an autoimmune disease. But most of the patients who develop an autoimmune disease do so for no obvious reason, both before and after the condition is diagnosed. One common feature that we do know about, however, is that autoimmune diseases can arise after specific types of infection. This has led some scientists to suggest that viral infections can serve as a sort of trigger for autoimmune disease.
The basic premise behind this suggestion is a case of mistaken identity. Recall that cells of the adaptive immune system actually learn what to attack based on the molecular pieces and parts of microbes that are randomly presented to them by cells of the innate immune system. Because all biological organisms are made up of the same basic materials (proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids), there are some chemical similarities between the molecules that make up a virus and those that make up a person. Suppose the piece of virus that is used to “educate” adaptive immune cells is chemically similar to a component of the nervous system. This might activate the immune cells correctly to hunt down the virus throughout the body, including in tissues of the brain or spinal cord. Once at those sites, however, the immune cells might fail to discriminate between viral particles and nerve cells, thus leading to their indiscriminate destruction in addition to pathogenic viruses. This mechanism has been suggested to account for some cases of multiple sclerosis, which results from the improper destruction of cells in the brain and spinal cord by the immune system.
Let me be absolutely clear that this scenario is not a universal explanation for every autoimmune disease. We cannot say unequivocally that all of these conditions arise because of a basic similarity between pathogens and human-derived molecules. What we can say, however, is that all autoimmune diseases represent an uncontrolled form of inflammation in which human immune cells are improperly attacking otherwise healthy tissues because they are inappropriately targeting a human target rather than a true pathogen. In all cases, one component of the body (immune cells) is attacking another part of the body rather than a true enemy to its health. It is mistaken self-destruction.
We can use this understanding of autoimmune disease to build upon the analogy connected to our immune systems that we treated in the first article of this series. In that article we compared the work of the immune system to that of the church in its work of maintaining spiritual health and purity. The unifying principle was that the church properly excises false doctrine and unbiblical practices through a series of steps that closely mirror the processes used by our immune systems. As stated in the first article, this is necessary for maintenance of a healthy church and it is fundamentally biblical.
But there is more to be said because, if there is danger in the power of the immune system, so too is there danger when a church responds to the “infection” of false doctrine or practice. Think of that danger as a sort of inflammation that engulfs the church amidst a very real controversy of doctrine. It may well be that the initial trigger is a very real and dangerous teaching or practice that must be dealt with by many ecclesiastical bodies over a significant period of time. And it might take a lot of time for the problem to be resolved. Such work is necessary and it is biblical but, when the response of the body is inappropriately targeted, it comes at a grave cost.
In this context I wish to point out three related ways in which an initially proper church controversy can burn out of control in such a way that it causes wrongful, indiscriminate damage to the body of Christ.
The first of these is an elevated sensitivity—call it a hyper-vigilance—to differences of position that inevitably arise within a church controversy. This sort of hypersensitivity to differences goes far beyond the content of distinct positions and begins to impinge upon the motives and intents of those involved. The festering discontent that this attitude stirs up usually results in an incessant attack upon the officebearers who have been tasked by God to resolve the controversy. No decision is good enough, or precise enough, or sufficiently broad, or stated correctly, or of the right tone to please the hyper-vigilant critic.
Reputations are called into question, and men are condemned as being ineffective or unorthodox in their work. Yes, it is true that these men are weak means that God has chosen to use for His purpose, and that men can make mistakes. But when the suspicions about motives or intent begin to creep into the environment of doctrinal controversy, the inflammation of doubt and disrespect for office far too often results in damage to the church—by the church.
In this kind of inflammatory environment, a second problem easily emerges. This problem is that perceived threats to personal preference become elevated to the level of attacks upon doctrinal principle. Rather than rightly understanding that issues of preference should be handled by the wise counsel of consistories who know their local congregations, members of the church begin to inflate their preferences into matters that end up at the classical or denominational level. Such work inevitably distracts from the real problem at hand and dilutes the work of ecclesiastical bodies. Under such circumstances it is unclear to many in the pews what the real problem is—or was—and the inevitable result is confusion.
Amidst this confusion, the third problem—a spirit of schism—reigns unchecked. Arguments begin to stray from an articulation of clear doctrinal principle into denigration of the other “camp.” Brother is pitted against brother, and both parties bite and devour each other with vicious words. At some point the initial issue becomes entirely obscured by the personalities, and nothing is left to defend except the side one is on. Attacks go on and on in a relentless circle of chronic damage to the church.
The eventual result of chronic autoimmune diseases—if left untreated—is a corrosion to the integrity of the body. Constant immune attacks on various organs or tissues of the body eventually weaken its ability to carry out its natural functions or even to resist real threats of infection. The body weakens, and then dies.
The result of “autoimmune” disease in the church is corrosion of its unity, its fellowship, its ecclesiastical structures, and the sacraments. In its wake is the
spiritual loss or defection of members—especially young people. Those on the attack may still see this as the process of purification, perhaps even an opportunity to off-load the “unspiritual” element of the church. But in reality, this isn’t purification—it’s putrefaction. The body of Christ is not purified—it is corroded to death. And Satan laughs.
Any otherwise faithful church or denomination can fall prey to the violence of wrongly targeted internal strife. This is not a new problem, as evidenced by the fact that both Paul and James had to warn saints in the early church to put away the spirit of division and strife caused by their self-serving interests or theological preferences (I Cor. 1:10-17). The danger was real then—it remains so today.
But this is not the end of the story, for there is grace from God to resist the spirit of strife and division. This grace is manifested in two words. Paul gave us the first one in the opening verses above: love. James gives us the other in the closing verses below: humility. We pray that all God’s people learn more and more to know the grace, peace and unity that He gives us with these two words.
But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw night to God, and he will draw nigh to you, James 4:6-8.