Let’s take a brief inventory:
Trinitarian versus Arian.
Calvinism versus Arminianism.
Infant baptism versus believer’s baptism.
Cessationism versus continuationism.
Young earth creationism versus old earth creationism.
Complementarianism versus egalitarianism.
Church organs versus guitar and drums.
Carpet versus tile.
Ok. So those last couple of examples might have been a little facetious. Churches never fight over music or buildings.
But my real question is: At what point do differences between Christians become something worth dividing over?
I could add to the above list more current hot-button cultural talking points such as Critical Race Theory, LBGTQ issues, COVID restrictions, masks, and vaccines, Liberal or Conservative, and Democrat or Republican.
I don’t think I have ever seen politics and culture have as profound an effect on Christians and churches as much as I have over the last few years or so–and maybe especially over the last year. I know it’s always been a reality, but with COVID-19 it feels like everything has gone up several notches. Whether the last year has simply exacerbated pre-existing differences or has given rise to new ones, I don’t know. But it’s incredibly frustrating and discouraging as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.
What differences are fundamental and which are secondary? How do we define what we might call a “gospel” issue? Because not every conflict or issue listed above ought to carry the same theological weight. So, how do we weigh these matters?
Part of what I am wondering is how much difference of opinion can exist within one congregation, in one body of believers? If in one congregation you have significantly different political perspectives, can people of such deep but differing convictions still serve together for the sake of the kingdom? What about theological differences regarding the age of the earth and how to read and interpret Genesis 1 and 2? What if two people in a group of believers reach different conclusions? Can they still serve in the church alongside one another, pray together, and worship together?
At what point do differences become intractable? And is this always necessarily a matter of conviction or is it sometimes relational rather than theological? That is, might it be that the issue is more about my inability to accept that someone else doesn’t share my view which I hold so strongly?
In other words, can I accept someone else as a brother or sister in Christ even if they don’t believe everything exactly as I do? And where do I draw the line? Or better put: how do I determine where to draw the line?
Are Christians destined to gather only in groups where there is agreement on virtually every issue, both theological and cultural? Are we only comfortable having fellowship with Christians who never challenge our assumptions and ideas?
Look, I’m not saying that a Christian can never have a good reason to leave a church or even switch denominations or traditions. I am a trinitarian who thinks Arianism was heresy. I am a continuationist with respect to spiritual gifts. What I am asking is how we make that determination. What is our standard? And before you say our standard is the Bible, remember that people reach very different conclusions based on their interpretations of Scripture. Not that I disagree with saying the Bible is our ultimate guide to faith and practice, just that it’s a little messier than simply making that assertion.
Maybe I can put it this way. What was Jesus praying for in John 17? In case you don’t know what I mean, John 17 contains what is often called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. He prays for his disciples and for those who will believe because of their ministry. After he prays for his disciples, he goes on to pray this way:
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.John 17:20-23
What kind of oneness is Jesus praying about for his disciples and future followers?
Better yet: Has Jesus’ prayer been answered? What would that look like?
I think of what I read elsewhere in the Bible too.
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:1-6
What sort of unity is Paul talking about? And is it the sort of unity that can exist between believers who do differ from one another on some matters? Can unity even exist if there aren’t differences? Without differences, isn’t unity simply uniformity?
Paul’s words also point to the underlying relational aspect to unity. Such unity requires humility, gentleness, patience, love, forgiveness. This unity requires effort to maintain. It is grounded in the very unity of the trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Given the current tenor of cultural conversation on divisive issues, and the inability of many to have such conservations in a civil and winsome way, ought not the church, by the power of the Spirit, be able to provide a better example about how to deal with differences? Rather than join the arguing, are we not able–together!–to bring more light than heat thanks to the gospel of our Lord Jesus?
Perhaps more of us who say we are followers of Jesus ought to turn the above passages from John and Ephesians into prayers of our own. Maybe then we will more clearly see what unites us rather than what divides us.