Right or Wrong? Church divisions

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“Our church has divided over polity, doctrine and social issues. So far, reconciliation attempts lack any New Testament base, substance or guidelines. How can we move toward a more stable context?”

Jesus said the world would know we were his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Philippians 2:2). Despite these and many other scriptural injunctions demanding Christian unity, many churches today are seriously divided, crippling their ability to carry out the work of Christ.

Far too many Christians use important but nonessential differences as justification for angry words and unkind actions. Instead of saying to one another, “I’m right, and you’re wrong,” we should be focusing on the saving work of Christ that unites us as we consider those who disagree with us might be right, or the truth may be somewhere between our two opinions (Philippians 2:3).

Immaturity and pride

Most divisions in the church arise because of immaturity and pride. When I consider my “perfect opinion” on a debatable biblical matter to be more important than the strong, clear scriptural injunctions to love one another, to pray for one another and to be united in Christ, the burden of proof rests on me to demonstrate it must be “my way” or apostasy.

“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity,” or love, is a helpful quotation generally attributed to Augustine of Hippo that provides a biblical approach to resolving the divisions within a church. Ephesians 4:4-6 speaks of the essentials. Each church must decide this list of non-negotiable core beliefs. The historic creeds of the church, like the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, can provide a guideline. Although Baptists historically have not been a creedal people, these still can help clarify the essential beliefs regarding God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, human beings, the Bible and eternal destiny. These are the non-negotiables; but it is a rather short list.

Explore possible convergences

Romans 14 reminds us there are disputable matters. The vast majority of issues dividing churches today fall into this category. Sincere Christians whose lives demonstrate their commitment to God always are going to see some things differently. Romans 14 reminds us we are not to pass judgment on disputable matters, because it is God’s role, not ours, to judge his servants on these matters. Unity, Liberty, and Charity: Building Bridges Under Icy Waters, edited by Donald E. Messer and William J. Abraham, is a resource from the Wesleyan tradition written to “encourage open theological conversations … (and) explore possible convergences in thought and action.”

1 Corinthians 13 reminds us even if we have all human knowledge, know the secrets of God and have a faith that can move mountains, none of it matters if our lives don’t demonstrate love. A deficit of love, humility and maturity is destroying our churches. And humility, growing in Christ and love will restore unity.

Alan Stanford, senior pastor

Leesburg Community Church

Leesburg, Va.

If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for “Right or Wrong?” at btillman150@gmail.com.

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