Summary: There can be no doubt that Christians have many disagreements. However, Christ calls us to be one, and we need to acknowledge our differences, but love one another, celebrate the beliefs that we share, and learn to work more fully as one.
I don’t know if there’s a better time than a Presidential election year in the U.S. to see just how deeply and how much we human beings can disagree. There are the obvious disagreements on polity and practice between the Democrats and Republicans, but even within the parties there is plenty of mud-slinging. The disagreements range from the major to the mundane, and folks are willing to argue ad-nauseum about just about all of them. As if that’s not enough, though, we have to deal with disagreement and conflict in other parts of our lives as well. We may disagree with our siblings about the best way to care for aging parents. We may disagree with our spouse about how to load the dishwasher. We might disagree with a neighbor about a property line, or with our child’s teacher about how to do long division.
Then there’s the church. We see conflict in the church all the time, don’t we? We joke about how a congregation will fight about the color of the carpet. Maybe it’s not always that bad, but we can get in some pretty silly arguments for sure. But we can also get into some pretty major disagreements, whether as a congregation, or a denomination, or even among “Christians” as a whole. As Christians, we still disagree about the meaning and significance of Communion and infant baptism. Within the United Methodist Church, we are arguing constantly these days about the full inclusion of LGBTQ’s into the life of the church. And you all probably know better than I do about various disagreements that have surfaced in this congregation through time. So why do Christians disagree about so many things?
If you haven’t noticed, most of the questions we have dealt with this month as we have sought serious answers to tough questions, have encompassed varied viewpoints on a single subject—different religions, science and creation, the inspiration versus the infallibility of the Bible. These are all issues which Christians approach in different ways. So it is appropriate that we finish today by thinking some about why Christians disagree about so much.
Honestly, if it weren’t so sad, it would almost be humorous that Christians do, in fact, disagree about so much. I say that because it seems like it ought to be pretty “cut and dry.” As Christians, we understand ourselves to be a unified community of believers who are in turn serving God’s purposes of unifying the whole world for God. That’s in fact, exactly what Christ tells us in this passage we heard from John a few moments ago, “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” This is central to our identity as Christ-followers. We are one, we believe in Christ; Christ is God’s son, so what is there to disagree about? Well, plenty as it turns out.
Early on, Christians disagreed about what was required to become a Christian—was it necessary to follow the Jewish purity laws and so on. A little later, Christians were debating the two natures of Christ, divine and human; what that meant and how to express that. After a while, as the Christian church grew in power and influence, there was disagreement about who held ultimate authority in the institution. At the point at which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and thus marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Christians were in disagreement about purgatory, works righteousness, indulgences, and whether or not the Bible should be translated into native languages. Even Methodism began as a renewal movement of the Anglican Church, but over time they separated because Wesley, though not a bishop himself, was ordaining bishops to lead the work of Methodism here in America. On top of that, there was the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years the church and the state were basically one and the same, so there was really no room for disagreement. But after the religious wars of the 1600s, church and state began to separate, and further divisions occurred among churches as they sought to establish footing apart from nations and governments. I could go on and on and on.
So part of the disagreements among Christians emerge out of the shape of history, and the role of society, government, and culture in relation to the Church. But in 2011, the Pew Research Center identified 41,000 different Christian organizations, most of which might be labeled as denominations. Within any given community, there may be multiple churches from a single denomination, while other congregations identify as non-denominational. So obviously, with such varied expression of Christianity around the world, there are other factors at play here as well. I hit on some of them as I sort of ran through the history of Christian division, so let’s go back for a minute a give a bit more thought to a few important factors.