Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Church of Peter and the Church of John

At the Synod of Whitby in 664 a Northumbrian king name Oswiu decided in favor of the practices of the Roman Church over the Celtic Church.  The matters under discussion, the style of the monastic tonsure and the date of Easter, may seem trivial, but much more was at stake.  Phillip Newell argues that Oswiu chose the "Church of Peter" over the "Church of John."   The Apostle John known for his mysticism and intimate relationship with his Lord was the patron of the Celtic Church.  Peter known for his primacy and his keys was the patron of the Roman Church.   Oswiu's decision was the beginning of a steady decline for the Celtic Church. 

The history of Christianity could be describd as a struggle between these two churches.  Whitby did not bring the Church of John to an end.  It endured within the Church of Peter--but at its margins. The Church of John was the church of the Celts.  It was represented by the monastic community on the Island of Iona and its missionary foundations throughout Europe.  The Church of Peter was the church in Rome.  It was represented by the Pope and his various ecclesiastics attempting to bring order out of what they saw as chaos.  The heart of the Celtic Church was the monastic community.  In Ireland and Scotland these were more like villages than monasteries as we know them.  Abbots, not bishops were their leaders.  The core of the Roman Church was the Cathedral and the bishop supported by his clergy and officials.  The differences between the Church of Peter and the Church of John may be illustrated by the following:

Church of John                        Church of Peter

Mysticism                                Doctrine
Relationship                            Hierarchy
Family                                     Army
Community                             Corporation
Knowledge                              Technique
Vision                                      Purpose
Jesus                                        God
Love                                        Duty
Stillness                                   Motion
Sacraments                              Proclamation
Mystery                                   Clarity
Waiting                                   Working
Acceptance                             Striving
Compassion                            Accountability
Communal Discernment         Personal
Fellowship                               Leadership
Spontaneity                             Organization
Right Brain                              Left Brain

These two "churches" are also found in the Evangelical community.  The so-called Emerging Church shares characteristics with the Church of John.  The various mega-churches share characteristics with the Church of Peter.  The charismatic community is more like the Church of John and the Neo-Calvinists more attracted to the Church of Peter.  Denominations by definition contain elements of the Church of Peter, but can and do draw upon the Church of John.  Denominational leaders often find themselves attacked by the devotees of both communties!  When the Church of Peter and the Church of John cease listening to each other and cover each other with scorn something essential to living out of the gospel is lost.  So what attracts you?  Are you of the Church of John or the Church of Peter?  Why?


  1. I like many of the aspects of the Church of John because it is different from my professional life. I need a way to express feelings. I need to be challenged to be emotional. I need my relationship with God to not be so organized and scheduled as the Church of Peter seems to be. At the same time the Church of Peter is very comforting because of its organization and schedule. There has to be room for both. If we go only one way or the other I think we miss out.

  2. Yep, I think it has to be both--right brained and left brained, but hopefully biblical and Christ-centered. J. Gresham Machen in "Christianity and Liberalism" writes, “The early Christians regarded Jesus not merely as an example for faith but primarily as the object of faith." McLaren is going for Christ as example as are other emergents. I like Scot McKnight's CT review of McLaren.

  3. When working with people with Alzheimer's it's the tradition of the Church of John that has something to offer them. They are still capable of community, family, and relationships. They can relate to Jesus. The sacraments are meaningful. They are spontaneous and present in the moment. The teachings, doctrines and formulations of the church don't speak to them.

  4. So true. My husband has dementia and where we used to discuss books and doctrine, now we don't.