Last week after I told the story about the man marooned by himself on an island who had three huts - one he lived in, one he went to church in, and one where he used to go to church, one member told me that when his family used to tour and sing, they were amazed at how many denominations there are. From the Wesleyan tradition there are the United Methodist, the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist, the Nazarene Churches, and so on. Just on the west side of town, I've seen First Baptist, Southern Baptist, General Baptist, and Primitive Baptists.
When I see so many different denominations, I can't help but think of the line from that corny science fiction film, Mars Attacks, where Jack Nicholson says, "Can't we all just get along?" seconds before the Martian uses a ray gun to disintegrate him.
I also think of Henry Ford, who was once quoted as saying about the model T, "Our customers can have any color they want, as long as it is black." What if we had that type of attitude with our Christianity? I can get along with you, as long as agree with me. Jesus didn't seek out those who agreed with him, but rather the lost sheep; those who needed Him.
Apparently, it is in our human nature to always try to prove to others that we are right and we have the answer. This "My way or The Highway" attitude is the main reasons that churches split. I recently read an article about a church in Centerville, Georgia, "The Presbyterian Totally Reformed Covenantal Westministerian Sabbatarian Regulative Credo-Communionist Millennial Presuppositional Church of Centerville", that has split 47 times since 1911. The first split occurred over whether to take the offering before or after the sermon, and the last split was over whether it was a sin to read your email on Sunday.
They kind of sound like the Pharisees and the Scribes don't they? People who would focus on making a rule for every situation they encounter and not worry about the big picture.
What are some other reasons churches have split? I've read about churches that have split over:
- The color of the carpet
- Whether to have a piano bench. In fact, one service used the bench and for the next service they carried it out.
- How to spell hallelujah
- How to pronounce certain Hebrew words
- Whether to have flowers in the sanctuary
- Whether to use an organ or a piano
- Whether to build a new building
- And whether two pulpits are needed in the sanctuary
A teaching elder at that church in Centerville was stated as saying, "After 47 splits, I think we've got it right, I think our doctrine is pure." But then he goes on to say, "We are up to 6 members and hopefully our numbers will grow."
Of course they only have 6 members, if you are willing to get into an argument and split every time an issue comes up, then you are not going to grow and you will not witness for Christ. Who wants to attend a church where you might be sorted and kicked out at any time?
To be honest, I am not sure this is a true story, but it does open the door for discussing conflict and the lack of church unity.
Data released by a Presbyterian Church Conflict Forum revealed that only 2% of pastor conflicts are over issues of doctrine and 98% the time it is over interpersonal issues. In other words, people get their feathers ruffled and coming out ahead is more important than salvaging a relationship.
The doctrine of Christ is pure; He came for those who need the Great Physician. The resounding message in the New Testament isn't that Christ wants us to sit down and adjust our words until every statement in our doctrine is pure, Christ wants us to adjust our hearts until our motives and our actions are pure.
One time a friend and I were having an intense discussion when she told me, "I hope my words didn't upset you and you don't think less of me." I responded, I've known you a long time and I feel I know your heart. You may be blunt when you speak, but your intent is not mean-spirited." As Christians we are called make allowances for others, as opposed to looking for reasons to get angry.
The world celebrates personal freedom and diversity, but the Bible teaches unity. God made us as diverse individuals because each one of us has something to contribute to the Body of Christ.
It is through our unity in Christ that we are to pray for discernment when dealing with others. Are we to minister and demonstrate agape love to other individuals, even when we differ? The answer is a resounding "Yes". But we are also to hold others accountable and boycott or speak against actions which are morally and spiritually corrupt. With Christ in our hearts, we can be compassionate with all individuals that we deal with, even those who we disagree with.
Our scripture comes from Ephesians and discusses the divine Unity that Christ wishes for us to seek. There is unity in the Bible. It is said of the New and Old Testaments, "The Old is the New concealed and the New is the Old revealed. Christ fulfilled the prophesies of the Old Testament and everything He did was in perfect unity with scripture. And remember, in his day the Old Testament was all the scripture there was.
Paul tells us that God wants us to be mature Christians who are not swayed by every doctrine that comes along, and we are to be in unity with God and the Body of Christ. Through these actions, we can live a life worthy of Christ's Calling for us.
How do we do this? First we are to seek unity with God and live the life he wants us to live. We are to display the characteristics of a Godly person. We are to display:
- Humility; not pride. For human pride is the foundation for all sin.
- Gentleness (Remember the Greek word for meek means strength under control; not weak) We can be gentle while still being strong.
- Our love for one another
- A peacemaking disposition
- Our love for the Lord
- And our faith
Next Paul tells us that we are to seek unity with one another. In God's great wisdom, we each are given different gifts and talents. We are to use these in conjunction with others to build the Body of Christ and be the Hands of Christ in the world. I could never fabricate something with sheet metal, run a kitchen on a naval ship, weld two pieces of metal together, or get in a Winnebago and go from church to church spreading the Good News through song. Those aren't my gifts, so why would I want to alienate those who are different? It is through all of our gifts that the Body of Christ can be joined and knitted together.
A house divide will soon fall. When church congregations have a greater focus on worldly ideas, as opposed to being focused on Christ, those congregation won't last very long. Just yesterday in the paper, I read where the Crystal Cathedral had become bankrupt and was sold to the Catholic Church. The article said the churches demise was due to expenses from "The Hour of Power" television broadcast, from a poor transfer of authority to the next leader, and to a family squabble over church leadership. What a sad situation. Maybe the Hour of Power had run its course, and perhaps the church leaders needed to discern a new mission from God? The world changes and we as Christians must work to discern the best ways to communicate with seekers. Remember, Jesus didn't stay in one place, but traveled into the world to spread the Gospel.
And the last key point Paul makes in this portion of scripture is that we are to be mature Christians who are not easily swayed by false doctrine. We are to pour over the words of God and assimilate them into our beings, so we can recognize the words of Christ, and also recognize when people are taking the words out of context or misusing them.
In the King James Version, Ephesians 4:1 says we are to walk worthily in the vocation God has called us for. The Greek word translated as walk is "Peripateo", which refers to the sphere of one's life. We are not just to lead our lives or walk in the ways of God. We are to devote our entire beings to being totally ingrained with the Word of God, so that our actions, our choices, and our words are a testament to others.
Paul warns us not to be tossed to and fro by every whim of doctrine. Unfortunately in today's world there are too many Christians looking for someone else to tell them what the Bible means. We turn to television evangelist, political parties, pastors, and others to interpret scripture for us.
Did God intend for us to be mindless sheep led by others, or does God call us to be mature Christians able to recognize when others are leading us astray?
As a Christian society many are familiar with Bible stories, but too many times it is the shallow, easy interpretation we recall. We must strive to study God's Word every day.
When Christians are mature and working with each other, unity is achieved and God uses our talents to join us together. Unity comes from choosing God, as opposed to hanging on to our desires.
When we study together, work together, and worship together, God has supplied what we need to be unified for Christ.
Envision the cross, Christian maturity is achieved when we are aligned first with Christ and then with our brothers and sisters.
Follow the advice of the Apostle Paul
- Answer God's calling for your life and display the characteristics of a Christian.
- Seek first to be united with God.
- Recognize the talents that God has given you.
- Seek to be a mature Christian; don't let faulty doctrine sway you.
- Seek unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ - allow God to join and knit you together.
I read you the name of that church in Georgia because the various splits have led to an exceedingly long name. Remember that God's church has only one name - The Body of Christ. Seek God, Live the Words of Christ, and seek unity in all you do. Actions speak louder than doctrine.