Divided We Stand

divided

Some would say I was raised in a cult.

We met in homes. We had no paid clergy. We were encouraged to share what we were learning, though each was subject to the challenges of the congregation and the leadership of the elders. During worship, we were free to call out songs, triggering the guitars and tambourines. We went to the river for baptisms, and joined other home churches at retreats.

Okay, sure, this was California in the seventies and eighties, but it was no hippy fest. Not for me anyway. For me, it was just church.

My experience in the home fellowship had a profound and lasting influence on me. I saw believers functioning like they were supposed to function. The congregation was close. We were accountable to one another. We celebrated and grieved together. We took care of each other.

I was encouraged to develop a personal relationship with God, then take what I was learning to the group. We often sensed the Spirit directing the service, and practiced yielding our own impulses to his. If we needed to go extra innings, that was okay.

Sure, call it a cult. But it worked. Eventually it dwindled because many of the families were called into some kind of full-time ministry—pastors, missionaries, worship leaders, counselors—and the home church movement had begun to mature into more organized ministries, like Vineyard and Calvary Chapel.

In college, I started to attend more traditional churches. At first I was confused and a little frustrated. It was like sitting in a classroom. A group of paid professionals taught and entertained and greeted and prayed while the rest of us sat back for a blessing, paying for it with our tithes. There was little challenge, minimal relationships, and no accountability—unless I wanted it.

My first college job was at a budding mega church. Then I moved to a dying Nazarene church. Then toured churches in England during a six-month stint in Bible school. Then returned to a mega church. Then spent seven years at a Presbyterian church while teaching on and off at Methodist camp and an Assemblies of God church. In the past twenty years, I have come to know hundreds of believers who sincerely love and honor Christ, whether they lean East or West, Protestant or Catholic, Arminian or Calvinist.

It took me a while, but I eventually got the jokes. First I had to study the history of the Church, starting with Pentecost, building through centuries of persecution until Constantine, then reading about the schism between East and West, then between Protestants and Catholics, then the splintering of the Protestant churches. Our history is certainly not something to brag about, especially in light of what Jesus prayed in John 17:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (NLT)

One? Perfect unity? Witness to the world? What about what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 1:12 – 13?

Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow only Christ.” Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not! (NLT)

So they were Paulians and Apollosinians and Peterians, and we are Calvinists and Wesleyans and Lutherans. In light of what Jesus prayed and Paul preached, can we really feel comfortable celebrating our divisions?

seriously

Okay, I’m a realist. I know that a couple thousand years of angst is about as easy to fix as a knotted slinky. And even if you get the knots out, it still won’t slink down the stairs the same way.

It’s like a nasty divorce. Hard to get back to those innocent early years of marital bliss.

I also see the benefits of gathering all the noses into one building, and pooling all the elbows into another. Spleens with spleens, ears with ears. If everyone already agrees, sharing the same taste in music, enjoying the same environment, they can move forward with a comfortable sense of harmony, coming together in worship and bible study without having to defend every word.

On the other hand . . . what are we missing by standing back to back?

In my next post, I plan to explore the concept of spiritual unity, but first I’d like to hear from you. How do you feel about denominations?

Are you comfortable taking on the name of a historical person despite Paul’s warning? Are you comfortable standing apart from your brothers and sisters despite Christ’s prayer? Do we even have a choice?

12 thoughts on “Divided We Stand

  1. Diversity was created by God following the Tower of Babel.

    Learning to love within diversity is a challenge, “bearing with one another in love”. Ephesians 4: 2-8

    In the end, we do become “all in all”. Ephesians 1: 23; Corinthians 15: 24-28

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  2. DIVISIONS BASED ON CULTURE
    (your style, my style)

    For me, each church has a human-constructed culture associated with it. This is like a “vessel.” It could be something casually mainstream like a canvas backpack, or perhaps for Catholicism a marble box with fine gold hammered into sacred renderings. It consists of rituals, worship styles, physical location and adornment, dress code, and the like. A lot of it seems unnecessary and distracting yet inevitable and generally harmless.

    In my limited understanding, the vessel of culture only matters in that 1) certain appearances attract certain kinds of people while possibly repelling others, AND 2) the vessel becomes problematic when the majority of the congregation fails to recognize, are kept unaware, or choose not to open the vessel embrace the Truth within. If the latter is the case, you’re probably practicing dead religion…

    In the case of #1 I believe we as Christians should be tolerant of the variations of human culture expressed in the various churches within the states and abroad. If people receive the “soft gospel” of God’s love in the vessel of a pillow (a very fluffy and comfy church denomination), sure, it’s not a full picture but it IS truth and God can work with that. Psalm 100:1 simply requires that a joyful noise be made, which allows for an infinitely broad range of worship possibilities. Do I need to talk about dress code? Etc.etc.

    In the case of #2, I’d say you’re looking at either an unhealthy church or a pseudo-church. It will probably die out on its own, and I suspect anyone led by the Spirit will be taken out of there… Not sure if knocking on their door and informing them of how they’re going wrong is fruitful unless it’s clearly God-guided–I’m assuming that at the root of an unhealthy church is a sin issue… Or a lack of knowledge. Divisiveness on the basis of it being an unhealthy church MAY be justified… not sure on that one.

    DIVISIONS BASED ON FOUNDATIONAL TRUTHS
    (believer or not)

    Within each vessel is at least a portion of Biblical Truth (I’d like to believe). Even with things like Mormonism and Islam, I believe Truths are being offered there albeit at a very low truth-to-untruth ratios. That’s what gives them draw and power.

    I suppose the bare minimum requirements for it to count as Christianity would be recognizing the sinful/fallen state of humanity + the character and attributes of God + the character/attributes/actions of His Son Jesus = all leading to the receiving of salvation/eternal life by faith (belief + action) through grace. Anything short of that SHOULD be clearly divided from…

    Once those three things are established, I think it all counts as the Church, by the grace and mercy of God. As Christ said, if you’re not against Him you’re for Him (Mark 9:40). Granted, just as in Revelations some churches will be more reprimanded than others. Some are being led by selfish and wicked shepherds–who will consequently be judged harshly later on–but that means their congregations are still His sheep, you know?

    DIVISIONS BASED ON ALL THOSE OTHER TRUTHS
    (leavened or not) & (tolerant love)

    Concerning controversial non-foundational truths (e.g. women/non-straight pastors, miracles today vs just in the early church, and any other hotly divisive Christian topic), some issues are more worth having distance over than others.

    1 Cor. 5:9-11 “… you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler” gives some pretty clear dividing lines. Although the unit of analysis in this verse is the individual believer, churches tolerating such sinfulness in the congregation are also dangerously unhealthy–thus, should be treated with caution. A sin leavened church (to the best of my knowledge) doesn’t make it an un-church, just a poorly functioning one.

    Yet, over non-sin related issues like free will vs predestination, head coverings, the presence/functions of the Holy Spirit, etc.–Ephesians 4: 2-8 comes into play. Sure, discuss it/hash it out in love. But if they don’t agree even after each side has taken their turn, I suggest prayer that God reveal the truth in His timing (to both!). Plus, some spiritual teachings are steak and not milk–are you sure the spiritual food being offered is “age appropriate”?

    DIVISIONS BASED ON FUNCTION

    Personally, I don’t imagine each church needing to be a heterogeneous mix as a “mini-Body of Christ.” Rather, each church is an organ (or a part of an organ) and the entire cluster of churches is the Church Body. Thus, sorting by type is fine and actually necessary for at least some parts to function. Can we examine a foot and say it has too much muscles and bones? Or the rear and say it has too much fat? Those “misproportions” are actually necessary for the tasks required from each part.

    Certainly, these variously specialized and sorted churches should communicate and collaborate with each other to an extent (at a bare minimum, recognize the validity of each other), but more importantly they should act in love and submission to Christ since–as the Head–He wisely coordinates it all.

    —————————————————
    I know the lines between culture, foundational truths, and non-foundational truths are not as clear as I make them out to be here. I’m just a sleepy college student monologue-blogging this extensive response to sort out my own perspective on things, and I’m quite open to feedback, related-Bible verses, or even just silence.

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    • Nancy, I love your brain. And not just because it tends to spin in the same direction as mine. If more of us thought through these kinds of things, we might pause before settling into our comfort zones and defending ourselves against anything that seems unusual or confusing. I mean . . . God is not the author of confusion, right? That must mean every other denomination is of the devil! 🙂

      I plan to read through your thoughts a couple more times. It helps to challenge my own. I appreciate you taking the time to do it. Very helpful.

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  3. GREAT NEW POST, JOHN!!

    I have often wondered had the Catholic Church listened to Martin Luther in the late 1300s & early 1400s, to “clean up its act,” how our church history would have developed. One church? A true Catholic Church?

    Are you familiar with the young Chinese classical pianist, Lang Lamg? Nearly 34 years old, came to the US at 15, playing since three years of,age. Phenomenal! Studied with Gary Graffman at the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, PA.

    He will be featured soloist withe the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall on TUES., OCT. 13th. Grieg & Rachmaninoff concerti. Already have our plane tickets with American. Tickets go on sale July 20th at noon Pacific Time. I’ll be on the phone early!!

    Traveling to Lexington, KY (flying) on May 25th for ten days. Driving down to the Pigeon Forge, TN area to visit friends while in Lexington & visiting Susan’s family. Flying out to Salt Lake City, UT in mid-June to,visit friends that we made when we were out there in mid-December 2013 to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir &”Orchestra’s annual Christmas Concert. On Wed., July 1st the Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra will be on their biannual Summer Tour, this time on the East Coast, with the July 1st concert at Carnegie Hall. What a thrill,it will be to,hear them in that famous music icon! Want to see the “Freedom Tower” that has just been completed in tribute to the victims of 9/11. And hopefully a Broadway show. Then cap off the summer with an Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise on the Holland America Line out of Seattle & back — July 25th thru Aug. 1st. All Christian Cruise with the top names in Southern a Gospel & Dr. Charles Stanley of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church & his son, Andy Stanley. Charles Stanley is host of “In Touch Ministries” & prolific author. He has been going on this cruise for about 20 years. This may very we’ll be his last one, as he will turn 83, I believe, in late September this year.

    Will you all be able to visit CA this summer? We’ll plan to get together before our summer 2015 ” Odysessy” (spelling?) begins. Been forwarding your posts to persons that we know will appreciate.them. EXCELLENT INSIGHTS!

    HOPE TO SEE YOU SOON! GOD BLESS!

    Susan & David

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    • Thank you, David. Sound like you have quite a lineup this summer. Yikes! I’m jealous. Be safe. And enjoy the music and the sights.

      No plans to visit CA this summer, though we will think of something in August to celebrate our 20-year anniversary plus Lucas turning 16, Micah 13, and Casey 10. Quite a year. I’m sure we’ll do SOMETHING fun.

      Yes, let’s get together soon!

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  4. John – finally getting a chance to reply… As for me, I have struggled to identify myself with any particular denomination, and even with the idea of “church membership,” though I am a minister myself, and want to show my commitment to a community of Christ-followers. I think the same caution applies to pledging our “allegiance” to our country, boy scout troop, etc. Something just doesn’t feel right about it. Yet, I risk accusation of being anti-establishment or, downright un-American.

    Some recent movements have responded with an “I like Jesus, but not the church” mentality (see Dan Kimball’s book). I don’t think that’s the answer either. It’s like saying to a friend, “I like you, but your wife really irritates me!” We cannot love Christ and write off His Bride.

    A year or 2 back, a couple of Catholic priests from the area came to our campus for an event and some inter-denominational dialogue. I felt a close connection with one, sensed His passion for Christ, and enjoyed sharing with him. Midway through the day, he explained to me that Catholics aren’t allowed to take communion with Protestants, and educated me on the history of this great divide. I was baffled. It would seem that the one thing that should UNITE all Christians (e.g. John 17) would be Christ’s body and blood – His atonement for sin! Yet, theology has divided us. I literally felt sick. I still take communion alongside Catholics, if I have the chance, and I believe Jesus would do it.

    That said – I don’t have an answer for denominational division. Perhaps, as Jesus did, we should earnestly pray for Christ’s church, that they would experience communion with the Father intimately… That walls would be broken down. Better yet, we should start a NEW denomination called “People of Unity,” or something catchy like that. Then we could talk bad about all the other people who are so divisive! =) Haha.

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    • I agree, Dan. I love Christ and the Church, and want to spend my days exploring this incredible life with other believers. I would never abandon the community of faith. But, yes, the club mentality is distracting.

      I understand why denominations developed and why they may be necessary, but I prefer to explore Christ with a diversity of believers in a diversity of settings with a diversity of gifts. Like you, I feel fortunate to have done some of that.

      As for solutions . . . I agree that starting some new church with some fancy name is not the answer. Of course love goes a long way. And humility. And a healthy sense of curiosity. God grant us the heart and mind of Christ as we approach one another in fellowship, learning to yield to one another in love.

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  5. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring…

    “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

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  6. I’m so behind on my reading!! I can’t lie. I’m kinda proud to be an SBC-er. But I am also a closet Calvinist. (Shrug) no big deal. Although, I am increasingly frustrated with fellow believers calling out other anointed men of God on Facebook (i.e. Warren vs. MacArthur), especially on non-essentials. They are trying to ‘educate’ the rest of us but it’s rooted in something ugly. Pride that they more than the rest of us. Meanwhile it’s also causing division in the global church. It’s a real shame.

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    • Don’t Baptists have Calvinist roots? I guess it depends on which Baptists we’re talking about.

      Yeah, I agree that our efforts to “educate” one another in the church are often rooted in the same wickedness that perpetuates things like bullying and racism. We are herd animals. It’s so hard for us to live in a variety pack of humanity, and maintain a curiosity about the thoughts and feelings of others. We tend to pull back and throw up our defenses. Love is stifled. Fear is fueled. And we splinter even further.

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