Summary: 1. If there is going to be unity in the church we have to give up having to always be right. 2. Our unity is meant to be a reflection of the unity of God. 3. The purpose of unity is that the world may believe.
In August of 1999 in Landover, Maryland, the papers reported that 100 years of Christian fellowship, unity, and community outreach ended in an act of congregational discord. Holy Creek Baptist Church was split into multiple factions. The source of the dissension was a piano bench which sits behind the 1923 Steinway piano to the left of the pulpit. Now Holy Creek Congregation has four different services each Sunday, each with a different pastor — and the piano bench will be put in a different place at each service. The services are far enough apart that neither group will come into contact with the other. An outside party will be moving the piano bench to different locations and appropriate positions, between services, so as to please all sides, and avoid any further conflict that could result in violence.
This is nothing new is it? I have known churches to split over the color of paint or the carpeting chosen for the sanctuary; the kind of music used in worship, or whether the preacher wore a robe.
I began to think of how church splits started very early in Christian history. In the Scripture today we read about a church split where some said they were followers of Peter, others said they were followers of Apollos, some were followers of Paul, and some said they were followers of Christ. To which Paul responded, “Is Christ divided?” Evidently, if we are the “Body of Christ”, he is.
As I read this scripture, I began to think of all the divisions that I could think of just off the top of my head. I started writing them down, beginning with Catholic and Protestant (PROTESTants). There are liberals and conservatives, Calvinists and Wesleyans, Evangelicals, Emergents, Holiness, Mainline, Pentecostal and Charismatic, Fundamentalists — and that is not even going into Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, etc.
Do you realize how much division there is just in the way we baptize? Methodists think that it only takes a little water on top of the head. (Actually, we baptize in three different ways.) Some baptize by pouring water over the head from a pitcher. Baptists think you should be put clear under the water. One denomination in our area thinks that you are not saved unless you are baptized by immersion. Another thinks you should be dunked three times forward into the water.
Joke is told about a Methodist and Baptist arguing about baptism. The Methodist said, “You mean that if I go into the water clear up to my waist it is not enough?” The Baptist shook his head “No!” “What if I go in clear up to my shoulders?” “No,” again was the answer. “What if I go in and everything is wet except the very top of my head?” The Baptist again shook his head in disagreement. “There, you see!,” said the Methodist, “It’s the top of the head that’s important!”
Phillip Yancey writes that at last report there are thirty-eight thousand different Christian denominations on the world. He goes on to quip, “There used to be 37,999 until one person decided he or she had a corner on truth that made his church more ‘pure’ than all rest and formed a new denomination or cult.” Then he tells the story of a friend of his. “Unable to find a church pure enough in the United States, moved to Australia where he still couldn’t find a church with a theology that satisfied him. So he started his own church. Last I heard there were three people left in the church, after numerous splits and divisions: an old man with Parkinson’s disease, my friend, and my friends’s wife. The two men take turns preaching at each other (women aren’t allowed to speak in this church).” And there are so many divisions in our denomination that we have been called, not United Methodist, but Untied Methodists. I believe all of this grieves the heart of God. Jesus’ final prayer that we all become one still remains unanswered.
I worry about the division that exists all across our country that is tearing us apart as a nation. It seems that we are hopelessly fractured and divided into conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, red states, blue states. I have literally had people in my church judge other people and ask them how they can be a Christian and be a democrat. Sometimes I think we are better at pushing people away than drawing them to Christ.
You do realize that you can be baptized, attend church, believe in God and the Bible, know the Scriptures and have asked God for forgiveness and still not be a good person? In fact you can use your religion to beat people up and feel superior to them so that you are justified in being mean to them. Wasn’t this the point of what was happening with Jesus and the self-righteous Pharisees? If you are going to be a good person you have to actually follow the teachings of Jesus and do what he says. You have to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to help you be able to live as Jesus taught. And you have to walk in the way of love.