Institutional Christianity has divided over the years into many denominations and sects. At times over the course of history, these divisions have led to bloody conflict. We act with a little more civility than that these days, but our spiritual differences are still a problem. We are supposed to spread the gospel, yet we do not have a unified front.
In God’s eyes, there are not many denominations of Churches, but one Church, unified by one Spirit, one baptism, one faith, and one Word. Why do we see so many splits within our body if there is only one message to proclaim? It is all about the interpretive method. This one seemingly small thing keeps us continually subdividing in to ever smaller and ever more numerous denominations and sects.
Any Church that claims inerrancy of the Bible in its mission statement misses the point if that Church engages in private interpretation. If we claim the Bible to be the true and the inspired Word of God, then make it fit into our community’s shared worldview, we’ve got a problem. We need to trust the Spirit to illuminate the Word, exchanging our cultural biases for his objective truth.
Focusing on the Essential
Instead of diving into the reasons why Churches split or other symptoms of disunity, let’s focus on solutions to bring more congregations into fellowship with the same gospel message. All Christians have the same job description: to spread the gospel. We have freedom to share the gospel in a manner that fits the gifts and personality of our given Church community, but every Church community must share the same gospel message. As a body, we must take care not to confuse or exasperate the world with an inconsistent message.
There are two important aspects relating to unity for every Church to consider.
1. Core beliefs: the objective cornerstones of the faith that cannot be compromised.
2. Freedoms: the particular interests and preferences within the local body that can be pursued and celebrated corporately—so long as the core beliefs are upheld.
We find many passages that discuss worship practices, ceremonies, food customs, and other topics that frankly don’t mean a lot when compared to the heart of the gospel. People get bent out of shape when it comes to piety and tradition. We prioritize our personal preferences over the Church’s core beliefs, or we misinterpret these core beliefs to match our cultural perspective. This has been happening for a long period of time.
God does not have many good things to say about established traditions. Here Christ strongly rebukes the religious leaders of his day:
“So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
To restore unity, we can start by putting “tradition” and “commandments of men” on the back burner by getting back to the biblical basics. Afterward, while remaining focused on the Spirit, we can engage in the ceremonies and laws that suit our personal preferences or cultural heritage.
We are not permitted to water down the gospel, such as we have done historically by blending Greek myths or secular values with Scripture. We cannot add to or take away from the gospel. To recover the biblical gospel message, we need to submit to the Holy Spirit within our local Churches, release our individualistic urges, and allow the Spirit to draw us closer to estranged members of the collective Body of Christ.
The Spirit first needs to come into our lives (and congregations) to give us a new heart before we can keep the law in our heart of unity.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
—1 Corinthians 6:17
“And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
“…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being [heart], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love.”
After we have been baptized by the Holy Spirit through his Word, we will understand why we are to have unity with God and others. The same Spirit is in us all.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Again we look to Christ’s words; in one of his greatest prayers, he asks God to grant that we would believe in the same message, making us one with his new heart.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
The highlighted statements below speak to the law, which we are to follow only after we obtain unity of Spirit from his grace.
“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….
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
—1 Corinthians 1:10; 12:12–13
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”
—1 John 4:11–13
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”
All these verses talk about groups of people within the Church who have a right relationship with God and are united together through one Spirit. The Church will be ineffectual if it is full of individuals trying to find the meaning of life or salvation apart from the Body. It is very clear from a biblical perspective that God intends for us all to join in the true Church—the Body of Christ. This is where the gifts of salvation are distributed.
We are not to be islands. God demonstrates that by giving us the rites of the Church. A person can only receive baptism or communion within Christian community.
One Plan of Salvation for All
One biblical theme of the gospel is that God continues to extend his ancient promise to Abraham that all people on earth will be blessed through his Descendant. By God’s grace and by the work of his Son, he snatches (raptures) us from death’s eternal grip, saving us from wrath and the judgment of the wicked. The new covenant and Abraham’s promises are merged into a single plan of redemption that is administered through the Holy Spirit as he moves in the Church on earth. This fulfills the prophecies that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh through the institutions given to the apostles to be passed down.
God established the Church and allows all the means of grace to be distributed through unity in one baptism, one faith, and one Spirit. Ephesians 4 sums it up.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
All people are the same in the most important regard. We all share the same sinful nature and need a Savior to break our curse of death. And Christ is indeed willing to distribute grace through the Church in the forms of baptism, communion, and preaching of the Word. We also receive distinctive gifts paired specifically to our talents and personality as we pray and read the Word. So we need to interact with God both collectively and individually. However, the collective Body should be our primary focus. Here we can unite in the Spirit and combine our gifts to effectively and efficiently share the gospel message with our world.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
—1 Corinthians 10:16–17
We are members of the Body, not individual Christians who must deal with God and minister to the world in isolation. A personal relationship with Christ sounds nice, and it is nice to have, but God doesn’t invite us to say, “I’ve got Jesus; I don’t need the Church.” Our relationship with God must be on his terms, not ours. We need to follow his prescribed methods and submit to divine revelation, resisting the temptation to develop private interpretations of God’s Word.
There is only one Holy Spirit. The same Spirit in us was poured out on the saints of the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophesied that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), and Peter referred to that prophecy on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost was an extension of the new covenant that Christ began in the upper room with his small group of disciples. His disciples recorded Jesus’ words; empowered by the Spirit, they would share the details of the new covenant with the whole world.
Through the Spirit, the apostles preached the good news to their local congregations and made disciples; these new believers then spread this gospel of the new covenant promise to the world. This model handed down to us is the example that we ought to follow.
The Word states we have unity in Christ alone. Paul states this many times through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, including here:
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Paul expounded on this theme for the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 8. It may be hard to maintain unity with fellow believers when we don’t share their personal preferences and interpretations of how worship should be conducted. However, the Bible shows us that God allows great freedom in certain areas. The key for a local congregation is to adhere to core doctrine regarding our shared reliance on God’s gifts of grace to us; then we may practice our freedoms as we worship God.
The Church has been debating minor issues for its entire existence—we even see this in squabbles among the disciples when Jesus was personally on hand to speak truth. Paul offers this exhortation for peace.
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s….
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”
—Romans 14:1–8, 13
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“[P]ut on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Only by regeneration can we be united. Notice that “new” and “renewed are part of the same process over time. (In a similar manner, the regenerated or restored earth is called “new” in some passages.) Other passages describe us as a new creation. We will retain our identity, and the earth will still be the same earth to some extent, but the old nature will finally pass; all things will be made new.[footnote]See Revelation 21:5.[/footnote] The key concept for us is that renewal is a process of salvation. We are transformed over time.
Some clashes within the Church have been particularly intense:
· After Pentecost, new Gentile Christians entered the Church and chafed at some of the lingering distinctly Jewish traditions. They brought with them their own cultural heritage and biases. This clash of Hebrew and Greek perspectives is a frequent topic of concern in the book of Acts and in many epistles. The apostles helped the Church successfully navigate this tension without the Body splintering.
· In the Great Schism of 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church.
· In the Protestant Reformation (beginning in 1517), reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin inspired an exodus from the Roman Catholic Church.
We have access to some interesting writings from the Protestant period that discuss the reformers’ struggle to develop their Church model; they had to decide what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to change. Which traditions were no longer helpful or relevant to the community?
The leaders of the early Church had to engage in similar conversations to determine how much of Judaism belonged in this new Body that God was forming. Not all teachings or traditions needed to go, but some were needlessly offensive to the growing number of non-Jewish believers.
The writings of the reformers may be able to help us yet again today, even though they are hundreds of years old. The issues facing the Church have not changed much over the centuries. In this case, Lutherans were debating whether to keep or abolish certain practices that remained from the Roman Catholic Church. Their community had grown up with these traditions, but were they necessary?
“Thus the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive from God gifts; on the contrary, the worship of the Law is to offer and present our gifts to God. We can, however, offer nothing to God unless we have first been reconciled and born again. This passage, too, brings the greatest consolation, as the chief worship of the Gospel is to wish to receive remission of sins, grace, and righteousness.”
—“The Defense of the Augsburg Confession,” Article V[footnote]“The Defense of the Augsburg Confession,” Article V, paragraph 189. bookofconcord.org/defense_5_love.php#para189. Accessed May 30, 2019.[/footnote]
“And nevertheless we teach that in these matters the use of liberty is to be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended, and, on account of the abuse of liberty, may not become more hostile to the true doctrine of the Gospel, or that without a reasonable cause nothing in customary rites be changed, but that, in order to cherish harmony, such old customs be observed as can be observed without sin or without great inconvenience. And in this very assembly… we have judged that such public harmony as could indeed be produced without offense to consciences ought to be preferred to all other advantages [other less important matters].”
—“The Defense of the Augsburg Confession,” Article XV[footnote]The Defense of the Augsburg Confession,” Article XV, paragraphs 51–52. bookofconcord.org/defense_14_traditions.php#para51. Accessed May 30, 2019.[/footnote]
The Lutherans did not want to dilute the gospel by making it too friendly to the world or to human flesh, but neither did they want their ceremonies or traditions to offend the young in the faith. A visitor or someone new to the faith needed to be able to find the gospel in their midst.
This great advice from hundreds of years ago still applies today: don’t water down the gospel, and don’t make the gospel difficult to understand with overly exclusive culture or traditions. It is still that simple. Let’s ask for unity.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
—1 Corinthians 3:18–23