Last Sunday, in our series on Basic Biblical Teachings of the Christian Faith, we talked about the Church. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ established the Church. He has given the promise that the Church will be here when He returns. The Head of the Church comforts us in assuring that the members of this body will experience a oneness and unity that will give them security in being Christ’s witnesses in a hostile world.
However, someone looking at the Church today could say, “This is not the Church we read about in the newspapers and live with each day. This Church is divided to the extent that one denomination will not worship with another denomination. They will not pray with each other. Neither will they share the Lord’s Supper. The disunity goes on even within the denomination. There they might give allegiance to the denomination’s confessional statement, but there is sharp disagreement on ethical and social issues. For example, in both the Episcopal and Lutheran denominations, there is no agreement within the body itself regarding same sex marriages, and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Where is the unity in this Church?”
Let’s look at the church in Corinth. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you, and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ÔI follow Paul’; another, ÔI follow Apollos’; another ÔI follow Cephas’; still another, ÔI follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius so no one can say that you were baptized into my name” (I Corinthians 1:10-15).
Paul’s group was made up of Gentile Christians. The Apollos group was attracted to Apollos who was known to be a very gifts speaker. The Cephas group were the Jewish Christians who were uncomfortable that no reference was made to the importance of keeping the ceremonial laws such dietary laws and the observance of certain festivals.
Seeing this division, Paul expressed his concern, because it brought a poor witness to an unbelieving world. “These Christians cannot even agree among themselves about what they believe,” some critics of the Church were saying. “Deliver us from being a part of them.”
But what did Paul mean when he said, “I appeal to you, brothers, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Did Paul think it was possible not to disagreements among them? They not only had the scriptures, but they had to interpret them also. Different people would bring different interpretations to some of these biblical passages. Hadn’t Paul admitted, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully . . .” (I Corinthians 13:12). He and Peter had not always agreed on all matters of the faith. The writer of the book of Acts writes, “Paul and Barnabas had sharp disagreements” (Acts 15:38).
Certainly Paul was enough of a student of the human personality to realize that wherever you have people, different ideas bring forth different convictions, and there you can have divisions.
Paul was counseling the Corinthian church not to have a quarrelsome spirit among them. Let the Spirit of Christ bind you together, and then a difference of opinion on certain matters in the church would not become seriously divisive. In our diversity we can have the oneness that Christ talked about in His prayer (John 17).
Now let us apply this teaching to the Church in our day. Jesus prayed, “Father, that all of them may be one . . .” (John 17:21). Here is a modern-day picture of the church in my town. Clumped together in one neighborhood are Methodists, Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Presbyterians. A couple of blocks down the street is an Evangelical Free Church with another Methodist group across the street and down three or four blocks. As you drive south you will find two Lutheran Churches and a United Church of Christ. A bit further on there are an Episcopal Church and a Reformed Church. Wow! The unchurched people laugh and say, “Why don’t these people get together? It would be so much more economical!”
Can there be a unity among the people who worship in these churches? Yes, there can. Within most of these congregations there are those who trust Christ and those who do not trust Him. In other words, there are Christians within these congregations, but there are also people who are not Christian. Does it surprise you that not all church members are Christian?
I can understand, but it is obvious that there are many reasons for people to join a congregation. They like the exposure. It makes a good impression in the community. It keeps peace in a family when an unbelieving spouse is willing to join with the husband or wife.
Those who are believers in these respective congregations constitute the Church. Although there might be different interpretations on some teachings, there is complete agreement on the Gospel that Christ Jesus has come into the world to be our Savior. Through His suffering, death, and resurrection He has atoned for our sins, and grants us forgiveness and salvation. This is the core of the faith.
In this we are united. There can be no division on this teaching if we are Christian. Thus, the Christian Church, that declares with Peter “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), is one.
I am a Lutheran. Many of my friends belong to the Baptist church. We do not understand the teaching of baptism in the same way, but we have our unity in Jesus Christ. Several years ago my son and I attended a meeting of the Promise Keepers. What an experience it was to see thousands of men gather representing many denominations, yet celebrating our oneness in Christ. That was the experience as we stood and sang, “We are not divided.”
Some Christians are blessed with a worship service that is quite formal. We call this a liturgical worship service. I was raised in such a church, and consequently I love the liturgy. Many of my friends belong to churches that have an informal type of worship. They much prefer this type of service. No matter what the form of worship is, Jesus Christ unites us.
As I wonder about the future of the Church, I find concerns in my old soul. However, there are many bright spots for which my soul rejoices. One of the most exciting things is that denominationalism is fading into the background. In the evangelical world, we are seeing people move from one denomination to another. When I was growing up, the policy was once a Lutheran, always a Lutheran. This is not so with our grandchildren.
“I go where I am fed with the Gospel, and where I can best serve the Lord in the building of His kingdom,” they tell me. I believe this is healthy. Why would you go to a worship service, except for tradition’s sake, if you are not being spiritually fed? Why would you worship in a church that does not believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word and the authority in all matters of faith and life?
Is the Church divided? It might look like it is, but visit with a person whose life is committed to Jesus Christ, and you will soon sense a oneness. This is true Christian unity.