By David Timms
Churches divide over the craziest things.
One congregation split over new seating arrangements in their building. Another congregation fought over whether the Communion table should be front-and-center or placed to one side of the platform. Some dear saints have demanded preferential treatment in the parking lot, while others grumble because their minister chooses to wear jeans. Then people battle over music and worship styles, service times, noisy and energetic children, sermon length, and preaching methods.
We’re always unhappy with something. Perhaps that’s our fallen humanity rising to the fore. We complain and criticize, then divide and leave.
Does anything grieve the heart of Jesus more?
Let’s Do It My Way
Of course, we can justify every opinion and preference we hold dear. We have a thesaurus full of terms to draw forth with a moment’s notice—”dignity, respect, humility, common sense, godliness.” And some of us can even find a verse or two in Scripture to support our position. “It’s so chaotic. Don’t they know the Bible teaches that everything should be done ‘decently and in order’?” “It’s so loud. Haven’t they read, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’?”
Never mind that others use the same Bible—but other verses—to make the opposite point when it comes to their preferences. People who oppose us clearly twist Scripture to suit themselves.
In one of my first ministries, conflict developed over the congregation’s constitution and bylaws and one of the men in the church volunteered to rewrite the documents. He had an agenda—offended by someone from another denominational background who seemed to wield too much influence in our little group of believers. When our volunteer finally returned the draft of the new bylaws, we noticed a typographical error—an error that has stuck in my mind for the past 25 years. He borrowed wording from other documents he had collected and he intended to write that anyone who exercised leadership in the congregation should be “of like precious faith.” His typo? Such people had to be “of like precise faith.” Of course, such a demand would render nearly all of us ineligible for leadership.
The Heart of Jesus
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus earnestly prayed that his followers throughout the succeeding ages “may all be one (unified); even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21, New American Standard Bible, italics added).
Jesus had seen the effects of disunity. He had watched his disciples arguing among themselves about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). He had seen the competition for privileged places in the kingdom of God (Mark 10:35-37). He had experienced the pain of division as many former disciples decided to wait for a more palatable Messiah (John 6:66). He was about to witness the ugliness displayed by one of his followers (Judas) who was pushing a personal agenda (John 18:2, 3).
Disunity posed more threat to the fledgling movement than anything else. No wonder Jesus had so much to say about dying to ourselves, denying ourselves, serving rather than being served, and taking the least and last position. Selfish ambition, personal preferences, and secret, private agendas lead to division and failure. Who wants to join a movement filled with internal bickering? Who wants to join a group of whining, complaining, backbiting, dissatisfied, unkind, gossiping “disciples”?
So Jesus prayed.
He prayed that the Father would shape and transform our hearts and produce unity between us and among us. He prayed that we would know the kind of intimacy and oneness Jesus had with the Father—so that the world may believe.
High Spiritual Stakes
On the international stage, every civil war produces unintended casualties. Innocent bystanders get caught up in conflicts not of their choosing. Parents and shopkeepers, teachers and farmers just want to get on with their lives, but when the tanks and warplanes arrive they find themselves on the run. War inevitably dislocates and dispossesses a lot of people who wanted nothing to do with it. The violence always claims victims who wanted nothing more than to mind their own business.
Tragically, the same is true in the church. Very often, as many of us have witnessed, when the “heavy artillery” gets rolled into the church, a lot of people on the periphery suddenly disappear, forced to become spiritual refugees. Worse, the “war zone” becomes entirely inhospitable to those who may have been considering the claims of Christ in their life. Just as physical wars can crush villages and render regions uninhabitable, so spiritual wars—generally prompted by our preferences and opinions—can poison the environment for years to come. The word tragedy is too mild to describe it.
The apostle Paul used this same war analogy. He knew the stakes when he warned the Christians at Ephesus that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NASB). We think our beef is with someone on the platform or someone three rows to our left, but not so. Behind the superficial disagreement a cosmic struggle is playing out—a spiritual struggle to steal the hearts of God’s people and destroy an enclave of God’s kingdom.
To the extent that we succumb to the tension, we hand victory to the evil one who delights to sow seeds of confusion, division, and accusation among us. Do we have the eyes to see it for what it is?
Striking a Balance
Does this mean we should never differ? That we should never express a contrary opinion? That we should approve whatever anyone else may think or teach? That we must never express personal preferences? Not at all. But we must assess the heart and the spirit behind our responses. Is there a bitter tone in what we say? Is there unkindness, sarcasm, or mockery in our words? Is there a manipulative motive in our response? Is there an element of self-service in our critique? Do our words flow from the flesh or from the heart of Christ and for Christ? These are the hardest questions to answer honestly. They require some deep breaths and even deeper prayers.
Too many people die on hills that are far too small and utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of eternity. We lack discrimination. We exercise poor judgment. In the heat of battle, we find ourselves too vocal about thimble-sized issues and we drag others into the dark abyss of our narrow-mindedness. We would be wise to choose our battles (our hills) with greater care.
A slogan popularized by Richard Baxter in 1679 declared, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” The essentials pertain simply to the gospel—not to our favorite colors or styles. When people move Jesus from the center of the gospel and proclaim a gospel that intentionally marginalizes or reduces Christ, we’ve got a problem. But we must still choose to handle it with love. Clearly, the essentials form a very short list.
The non-essentials form a massively long list, and within this list we must permit liberty. We must! Grievously, the non-essentials form the basis for most of our grumbling and division. Churches, families, small groups, and ministries have been rent asunder by conflict over molehills rather than mountains. Many of us need a sharp dose of repentance for participating in such destruction.
May the Lord grant each of us the maturity and wisdom to discern between the non-negotiable essentials and the negotiable non-essentials. And may all of our actions reflect an indomitable commitment to love that should govern our conflicting preferences.
David Timms teaches at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
A Closer Look at Unity
Unleashed: The Church Turning the World Upside Down
By Dudley Rutherford, Francis Chan, and others
(Standard Publishing, 2011)
Together Again: Restoring Unity in Christ after a Century of Separation
By Rick Atchley and Bob Russell
(Standard Publishing, 2006)
Extreme Church Makeover: A Biblical Plan to Help Your Church Achieve Unity and Freedom in Christ
By Neil T. Anderson and Charles Mylander
(Gospel Light, 2005)
A House United: How Christ-Centered Unity Can End Church Division
By Francis Frangipane
The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity
By Roger E. Olson
(Intervarsity Press, 2002)
Unity of the Church in the New Testament and Today
By Lukas Vischer, Ulrich Luz, and Christian Link
(Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010)