A House Divided?

Not very long ago, something occurred to me while reading one of Paul’s epistles in the New Testament. As was the custom in his day, he always includes a greeting to the letter’s recipient at the outset. Here are a few examples:

To the church of God at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called as saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord—both their Lord and ours. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:2-3

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy: To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to you and peace.

1 Thessalonians 1:1

Each epistle was written to followers of Jesus in various cities throughout Asia Minor, and some to churches that Paul had planted on his missionary journeys.

And in each of the above examples notice how Paul addresses the church in the singular.

Church, not churches.

And even in some of his other letters, he greets the saints in the city. Like here:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:1-2

Even here, he’s addressing all the saints in Christ Jesus. Not just the Baptists. Not only the Wesleyans. Not only the Catholics, Pentecostals, or Anglicans. All the saints.

And what occurred to me is that I can never do this. For example, I’ll never be in the position to welcome someone to the church of Jesus Christ in the town in which I live. I can never point and say, “There’s the church of Christ in our town.”

Because in our surrounding area there are more than a dozen Baptist churches, a few Wesleyan churches, a Pentecostal church, and a Catholic Church. That’s all within a 15-20 minute drive. And it’s possible I’ve missed one or two.

Paul would have to write a lot more letters today.

Now, I could get into all the reasons why, especially in our day, this is a problem.

For instance, I could point out how each of these individual congregations are trying to maintain their own building no matter how much attendance numbers have dwindled and how impractical it is.

But what really gets me is that even in our small municipality it means there are more believers than not who I will never worship with, have fellowship with, and share ministry with.

I don’t know about you, but I find this disappointing. I know a lot of great, really wonderful fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around here, and it’s really sad that I’ll never have the chance to stand alongside them on a Sunday morning as we lift our voices to praise our triune God. It’s sad that I’ll never sit in the same room with more of these believers brainstorming and praying about how to reach our community for Christ. It’s sad that instead it can feel like—even if we always say it’s not—a competition.

Though the scriptural context is quite different, our present situation makes me think of Jesus’ words:

If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

Mark 3:25

Now, someone might say that some of these congregations could simply work together. They could share an outreach ministry. They could run a VBS or an Alpha course or something else together. They could partner together for the sake of the gospel.

And some of this does happen. There are some things afoot. For that I am thankful.

But often it doesn’t. Often it’s a lot more difficult than you might imagine. Sometimes it feels like suspicion. Sometimes it seems like fear. Sometimes it feels like an insular instinct to protect what’s yours. Sometimes it comes down to being dead-set on holding onto the past and resisting change. Sometimes it’s institutional inertia.

But change is coming, like it or not.

All I know is that after being a church-goer all my life, a Christian for 30 years, and a pastor for nearly 20 years, my own thinking on these matters has shifted. Even over the last few years this is true. Maybe two years of COVID has had this effect.

As I scan the ecclesiastical landscape, it seems to me that we’re going to have to adjust ourselves significantly if we truly want to participate in the kingdom of God here and now and in the coming days.

Here are a few specifics that I think are more or less a given:

1. Denominational identities already matter less and less to upcoming generations. People are much more interested in spirituality, God, friendship, authenticity, and having a purpose than whether a church is Baptist or Anglican. Sometimes such denominational labels are actually a reason people stay away.

2. Individual congregations will need one another more, not less. Because it’s not about building up our particular church but the church. It’s about the kingdom, not our institutions. Our situation may require us to reach out to sister congregations to work together. There are encouraging stories of church mergers that tell us a new direction can inject fresh life and hope into the body of Christ and the surrounding community. Maybe there is a sense in which the numerical decline of individual congregations is an opportunity God is presenting to us.

3. We will have to be willing to give up some (maybe a lot) of what’s familiar about church to follow Jesus. This means trusting God—really trusting. It means letting go of what we think church needs to be like. It means being open, ready to receive fresh direction from the Spirit. It means putting God’s purposes above our preferences. It means wanting what God wants more than what I want, and being able to recognize the difference. It means sacrifice.

Times are changing. Our cultural environment is continuing to shift in profound ways. And in all of this Christ calls the church to be a witness to him. I think the only way to do this effectively in the days ahead is to do so together.

One thought on “A House Divided?

  1. Yes! Yes! I feel this way, too. I’ve been researching church history and this division goes WAY back. I feel that as we get closer to Jesus’ return, the denominations will be less important and the basic doctrine more important.

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