The old joke says that wherever two or more Baptists are gathered they start a new denomination. Throughout history churches, denominations, ministries, and Christian friends have separated themselves from each other for the most amazing reasons. Did you know that groups have divided because one believed that the adult immersion baptism should be performed face-first, while the other believed that the person being baptized should bend backwards into the water? Seems like an exaggeration to us, but I assure you that individual churches have divided on far less important grounds.
Why are we so quick to divide? Why do we so willingly separate ourselves from brothers and sisters in the Lord? I don’t have the space for a long dissertation, but I would like to throw out a few things I have been thinking about.
First, we fight out of habit. Fighting against the enemy is part of our heritage as believers. The Jews have fought against enemies for 4000 years. The early Christians not only were afraid of the Romans and the Greeks, but also the Jews. Enemies were everywhere and have always been everywhere. Even within the church there were those who endangered the message. Paul talked about false prophets who would teach compromise and misuse the trust of the church. Terms like apostate, false teacher, or heretic, have almost always been part of our vocabulary. In other words, fighting is familiar—even sacred—ground.
Second, the more the church withdraws from the world, the more we see the enemy in each other. We certainly do have enemies. There have always been those who have wanted to destroy the church’s message, to wipe it out. Philosophers and tyrants have gleefully announced the termination of the Christian faith. But in a culture like ours, where the enemy outside is not obvious and we worship without fear, our conditioning moves us to discover our enemies inside. We argue about big and little things and draw lines of distinction between us with little understanding that the real enemy is something and someone else.
Third, the flesh isn’t gone from us. We all still suffer from feelings of inferiority, isolation, and more. We want to be right, look right, and be accepted as right. It is easy to jump to our own defense when someone disagrees and, unfortunately, easy to seek an advantage when we disagree with someone else. When we hear someone suggest that we are wrong, we hear them saying that we have failed and are unworthy of respect. It doesn’t matter whether that’s what the person meant to say, the flesh reacts anyway. We fight because we want to protect ourselves and those with whom we identify.
Fourth, ministry money comes from loyalty. That’s a hard thing to admit for most of us. It is certainly a part of the motivation from the flesh. To disagree with a teacher or a ministry leader, particularly when it is received as a negative judgment, is to attack the stability or health of the ministry. If the teacher is shown to be wrong, who will trust him in the future? Will supporters abandon the ministry? What happens if they do? Pastors suddenly become more willing to see division between friends or family members than to see themselves out of a ministry. Sometimes ministry leaders actually cultivate the divisions because a quick end to the debate is considered less damaging than the attrition from a long disagreement.
Fifth, we have forgotten how to argue. Disagreement over doctrinal matters is built into the structure of the church (see the last point) and isn’t going away. We certainly don’t have to agree, and good discussion has its own value for us. It is good to think through spiritual things and discuss them with friends. But somehow we have acquired the idea that arguing is bad and those who disagree are just trying to cause problems. Nice Christians keep their questions or points of disagreement to themselves, we think. In the process, we have forgotten how to argue and still be friends and family.
Sixth, by neglecting the work of the Spirit in the centuries that have preceded us, we repeat old and worn arguments. Much time, energy, ink, and verbiage is wasted because we have to start at the beginning of every doctrinal disagreement. Perhaps a little more study would show us how the Spirit led others to work these things out or to discern truth from error. We may not agree with the outcome, but we can save a lot by attending to the discussion of the past. Why was a certain doctrine abandoned so long ago? Why does the church stand where it does today?
Seventh, we do have a real enemy who works to divide us and steal our love and siphon our power away from our real calling. So often we observe that the only one who gained from the battle was the evil one. While one side accuses the other of working with or for him, the truth is that our flesh always is open to his influence and both sides are usually manipulated by him to some extent.
Finally, we simply have not been given all the answers we would like. Let’s admit it: the Scriptures are vague on some pretty important things. In spite of the fact that we have become expert at finding proof-texts to support our side, the truth is that almost all of our arguments seem contrived and weak. Some Scripture texts are worded in ways that defy easy translation. Some points of doctrine are barely referred to at all. If it were up to me, just in regard to the doctrinal questions I have, the Bible would be much longer.
So, could it be that we are supposed to argue? If some things seem important, but are not clearly revealed in Scripture, maybe we are supposed to come together in prayer and debate, discuss, argue them through. Maybe we are supposed to find truth by coming together in the Spirit. If we come together in the Spirit, trusting Him to lead us, perhaps we will find our answers—or at least we may find that we don’t need the answers after all. Maybe just finding each other and our Lord will be enough.