We just started a new study recently on Denominational Differences. In the first class, the speaker, spent the entire session speaking about unity. That is a fantastic way to start off with that topic! Since hearing it, I’ve been unable to think about much else.
Unity is what should be foremost in our minds.
“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.” – Ephesians 4:4-6
In today’s religious world, there exist hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations. This simply should not be. As is mentioned above, Jesus established ONE church.
“He said to them, ‘But, who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” – Matthew 16:15-18
Jesus established His church on the confession of Peter that Jesus was the Christ and Jesus established only one church.
If I look up “denomination” on dictionary.com, I am told that it is a “a religious group, usually including many local churches,often larger than a sect.” English has mutated to obscure the real meaning of this word. It’s real meaning is “a division.” We still use it that way in other places.
In math, a division problem has a numerator and a denominator. That’s the same root word. We divide the numerator by the denominator. We can also express division in the form of a “fraction.” The word “fraction” comes from the Latin “fract” which means to fracture or break into pieces.
Is that really what God intended? Absolutely not! God wanted one church and Jesus established one church. Man fractured that church into pieces. Man broke that church.
So, with that in mind, unity was indeed the perfect place to start when talking about denominational differences.
The speaker did a wonderful job of laying out some ground rules and setting our minds where they should be. He brought up the fact that we should always be moving toward unity and that the goal of unity should be to reconcile all people to Christ as He wanted.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” – Ephesians 2:14-16
The “two” Paul mentions here is both Jews and Gentiles. God reconciles all people to himself through Christ. Our goal must be that as well.
The speaker brought up the idea that often when we engage someone in conversation about God that we are often more intent on being “right” than we are on the goal of unity. God loves that person’s soul and honestly desires for that person to spend eternity with Him. When we forget that our goal is to win that soul to Christ and instead devote ourselves to “winning” the argument, we do harm to ourselves, the person we are talking to, and God.
He went on to point out that on doctrinal issues we must not compromise. Our duty is to God and his commandments first. So, when we are talking to someone about these issues our attitude must be that of teacher and not of conqueror. He pointed out that God doesn’t need sergeants at arms to win arguments for Him. His Word is all that is required to win battles. God needs teachers to patiently teach people what He wants.
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” – Hosea 4:6
A good teacher will be patient with the student. We should take encouragement from the example of Philip:
“So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” – Acts 8:30-31
This example is beautiful. Philip had the heart of a teacher. He showed the eunuch that he truly cared and wanted to help. May we always follow that example.
As I said, since the class, I’ve thought of little else. My thoughts have taken it a bit farther than we discussed in class, and that is the primary reason I am writing this.
Sometimes, we can have the proper attitude when teaching someone who is in a denomination but fail to have the proper attitude when dealing with our own brothers and sisters in Christ. We, often times, revert back to wanting to “win” the argument instead of teaching.
I think there are a couple of main reasons for this. I’ll address them in turn.
We Disagree Over Matters of Opinion
The first one I want to address is one that the speaker brought up by way of example during the class. He told a story about an elder of the congregation that he attended formerly that he didn’t get along with. The disagreement between them was over their different disciplinary styles with regards to children. He thought the other wasn’t harsh enough and the other though he was too harsh. Although the Bible does tell us to discipline our children and even to spank them, it is left up to us to determine when that discipline is required and how much is required. They each had a different opinion of where those various lines should be drawn.
The speaker pointed out the tragedy of brothers in Christ who agree on 99% of topics letting the 1% of disagreements cause such a rift between them. I think the fact that we may agree with a fellow Christian on 99% of the topics that we discuss makes that 1% we disagree on almost unbearable.
We feel like they should be able to understand, as we do, that our way is so much better. And, it is because of that feeling, that we are more apt to quit trying to teach and start trying to “win.” We start asking ourselves (and maybe them) questions like, “Why are you not understanding this?!?!?”
Often we forget that the topic at hand is a matter of opinion and make a “crusade” out of it. To combat this, we need to be able to distinguish between opinion and command. Paul had quite a bit to say about opinion:
“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.” Romans 14:2-6
Paul is talking about matter of opinion here and makes it clear that we are not to judge a brother on those matters. Paul was dealing with vegetarians versus meat-eaters and with people who thought a certain day higher than others versus people who thought everyday was the same. We can look at this reading and say, “Well, those are silly arguments” and at the same time defend our own silly arguments. Here are a few examples:
- One cup or many
- Where announcements belong during service
- Songbooks or Powerpoint
- Should the preacher use Powerpoint or not
- Should the collection immediately follow the communion or be done later
- Should the invitation be attached to the sermon or done at a later time
- Should the song leader use a pitch pipe, a tuning fork, or nothing at all
- Should we bow our heads or kneel in prayer
- Should the congregation borrow money to build or save up and then build
- Should the congregation run a bus ministry or not
- Should the congregation have a website or not
- And a million others…
None of these are problems until we start judging one another over them. Sometimes, we start making statements that follow the form: “Anyone who does X is Y” where X is a matter of opinion and Y is a perceived sin. For instance:
- Anyone who kneels to pray is being pompous.
- Any congregation that has a website is being worldly.
- Anyone who quotes scripture from memory instead of reading it from the Bible is being prideful.
- Anyone who uses a tuning fork is being showy.
- Anyone who doesn’t offer an invitation attached to the sermon is violating scripture.
Isn’t this precisely what the Pharisees did?
“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.’’” – Mark 7:1-7
Anytime we let a matter of opinion elicit a judgement on a brother from us, we are lifting our opinion up to the level of a commandment from God and we are worthy of the same response that Jesus gave the Pharisees. The Pharisees had an opinion that everyone should wash their hands before eating. Jesus quoted scripture to show them that they were doing wrong. We need to guard ourselves against that behavior or we might have the Lord think of us, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.”
Sadly, though it happens far too frequently. I know of congregations that have split over silly matters of opinion. Let’s resolve to not let that happen in the congregations where we serve! There is no doubt that we all have good ideas from time to time and it is normal to think our way is the best way to do something but let’s not try to force that on someone else. And, let’s certainly not accuse someone else of sin when they aren’t doing it “our way.”
On matters of doctrine, we should not budge…but on matter of opinion, we should not judge.
We Disagree Over Matters of Doctrine
Sometimes we will disagree with a brother or sister in Christ over a matter of doctrine. In these instances, we need to remember to keep a firm grasp on our emotion.
It is far too easy to become emotional over a matter of doctrine. After all, we want to defend the Word of God! That is a noble sentiment. The problem is that when we become emotionally involved in a discussion, we are much more likely to lose our temper.
When we lose our temper we are not holding firm to the proper attitude of teaching that our speaker talked about. We start saying things to wound the adversary instead of saying things to win the soul.
Sometimes, as was mentioned in class, we may feel the need of getting that brother or sister in Christ to abandon their false doctrine because we understand the urgency of the situation. We stop teaching and start challenging.
We may start saying things like, “Well, maybe your life would be better if you would…” or “If you would get out of the sinful situation you are in, then …” Instead of teaching them we have begun to attack them. And like anyone who is attacked, they go on the defense. Ears close, eyes glaze over, anger sets in, and the conversation stops. You beaten them…but at what cost?
You have been like Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, as they held fast to the opinion that Job was being punished for sin. Instead, we should be like Elihu who tried to teach the others that God is just all the time and that his mercy is great. God rebuked Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, but did not rebuke Elihu!
Matters of doctrine are vastly important and it may come to a point that we have to withdraw from that person because they will not give up their false doctrines. But, until that point, we should maintain that heart of a teacher and keep reminding ourselves that that person has a soul that is as important to God as ours is.
I am certain there are other things that cause problems between brother and sister in Christ and perhaps I’ll write more on that at some later date. But for now, I will leave you with this thought. Let us always strive to maintain unity as Christ wanted:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” – John 17:20-26