A friend recently ask me why Christianity is so divided and that is an excellent question. It is something I have pondered as I look at the broad range of practices, and different views of theology, and disputes over who is the actual authority over the ‘body of believers’ that we call church. I believe the answer to the question is both very complex and simultaneously simple.
First of all, I presume that the reason we ask ‘why’ is because we can think to ask such a question. We can ask because we have independence of thought that allows us to ponder different or better alternatives to the current reality. We ask because division bothers us and unity would seem to be the better ideal and we are probably right.
To answer the ‘why’ we should look at the ‘what’ that divides the church. The short answer to what causes division is sin. Sin is falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and a sinful heart is the root cause of division between people, and is ultimately what separates us from perfection. The church is divided because most Christians (who are independently minded like you) are not fully submitted to the will of God and not fully committed to obedience or love.
It is an idea that seems quite common (both among believers and unbelievers alike) that faith means immediate perfection. That is a misconception. Christian faith is not a matter of being perfect. Christianity is actually understanding we are not perfect and that we need a savior to cover for our past or present sin:
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)
Now, as I blogged yesterday, this reality of our past or present, sin is not an excuse to continue on in sin and imperfection. No, to continue to do evil when we know what is good is to be willfully disobedient and not understand what grace really is. Grace is not a license to continue in sin. No, grace is a reason to rejoice in having a clean slate and then “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) as Jesus told the woman who was accused of sin.
What divides the church is sinful pride and/or confused priorities. Christians divide over theological minutia and, in so doing, are disobedient to what should be their highest priority as people of faith—which is love. Love, in the Christian sense, is self-sacrifice and submission to each other. It is serving rather than always demanding our own way.
Unfortunately, as has been the case going back to the early church, in our imperfection, we get it backwards and want others to serve us. There are many appeals for unity in our serving each other as leaders and in our following the way of love:
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:1-7)
The phrase ‘too many chiefs and not enough indians’ applies to this topic. Christian leadership is not supposed to be about ordering other people around and having our own way. To lead as Christ is about serving others self-sacrificially and to lead by following the example of the one who gave all. Sadly, many seem to want the benefits of Christianity and without contributing their all. Too many in the church are busy building their own independent vision to truly serve with an open heart as they should.
This is not a surprise. It is a part of our lingering unregenerate human condition that we often prioritize ourselves and our own preferences over the greater good. When favorite personalities, human institutions, pet doctrines, or our own personal opinions and interpretations replace of the love of the Spirit, the result is always division. The problem of division is actually a problem of idolatry of various forms. Idolatry among those proclaiming Christianity faith is nothing new.
1) Idolatry of self-worship as found in the example of Diotrephes:
“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 1:9-10)
2) The idolatry of putting human leaders before unity in the Spirit of God:
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-5)
3) The idolatry of putting (even Biblically based) tradition ahead of Christian love for each other:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:11-16)
If you look at various divisions within Christian fellowship you will likely find elements of forms of spiritual idolatry similar to those in the list and passages above. When we worship our personal interpretation, over showing deference to others in love, we have made ourselves and our own judgment an idol. When we worship leader or denomination over unity we are negligent of our primary allegiance which is the living God. When we worship tradition or institution we keep Jesus in the grave and have replaced him with a religion.
The answer to sin, idolatry and division is always repentance. Repentance is to identify ourselves as being among the sinners and as being in as much need of grace as the next guy. The idea one is instantly perfected upon conversion to Christianity is a misconception. Our accepting of grace is not an arrival at perfection, but it is a starting point of a life long process of perfecting and as a result the church is still full of human error because none of us have arrived. Fortunately there is a path towards unity and I will share a few passages of scripture that show it.
1) Make an effort to be perfectly united in mind and thought:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Like Smokey the bear says with a pointed finger, “only you can prevent forest fires.” The point is that we need to take personal responsibility for our own contribution to the problem rather than assume the issue is external to us. There are many ways we contribute to disunity (one is to not show up at all) and the Gospel starts with our personally obeying the call God has given us.
2) Be truly humble, recognize you are just a part of a bigger whole and must pursue unity in Spirit:
“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, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2-6)
People do not seek peace because they would rather be right (assuming themselves to be perfect and righteous) than serve in humility. Many quarrels would be solved easily if one side or the other were able to show love through self-sacrifice. Unlike Cain, who killed his brother, and sneeringly answered “am I my brother’s keeper” when asked about the murder, we are responsible to each other. We honor God in our submission in love. I am not saying to be weak or a doormat either. I am saying to lead by example and do what we would want others to do for us.
3) We need to love unconditionally as a witness of the love of God and so the world can know:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The answer to the question of church division starts with you. We must all repent of our own contribution. We must lead the way for others by example and in the Spirit of love.
Ultimately the church is not a building we go to, it is not a religious institution or rich tradition we inherited from our forebears nor a group of just those who conform to our own expectations and no others. The church is simply a ragtag collection of those who believe in Jesus, those being filled with the Spirit and seeking to do the perfect will of God.
Like the pictures of buildings poking through the fog scattered throughout this post, the visible part of the church that we see on the surface is only a part and not a complete picture of reality. We are simultaneously separate with our own will and yet must be grounded together in the Spirit of God in order to standout above the fog of confusion.
I leave you with the encouragement (and warning) of Paul to consider and a prayer:
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
May God open our eyes to see what the fog of sin has concealed from our view. May we not be consumed by our envy, lust, greed, fear or hate and instead be filled to overflowing with a love that defies understanding. May the enemy of unity both within and without us be restrained so we can grow quickly towards perfection. May we show each other the grace that was shown us through Jesus the savior of our soul and Lord of those who love God.