(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 30, 2015)
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor 1:10, NIV).
Those of us who are committed to the Church have our work cut out for us. In the above passage, the apostle Paul implores the congregation in Corinth to not be divided. Nearly 2000 years later, the same message has never been more relevant.
Congregations are divided. One of the greatest frustrations and heartbreakers in the local church is the conflict and division between the very people sitting in the pews. Some people like traditional worship, some like contemporary. Some folks are liberal and some are conservative. The Jones and the Jeffersons don’t talk to one another because of a disagreement in 1965. 1965! The divisions are not only in the sanctuary, however. In too many church congregations, when a person becomes homebound or forced to work on Sundays, the church, it is as though she or he disappears. And out of sight becomes out of mind, and the people are divided along the line of who can physically make it to the building for one particular hour a week and who cannot.
Denominations/traditions are divided. Personally, I think Paul (and Jesus for that matter) would be appalled at the audacity we have in the Church to split over doctrinal, political, racial, economic differences. Of course we have different ways of seeing the world! Such diversity is a tremendous asset when used in the spirit of cooperation. But think of how arrogant and prideful we are before God that we coalesce and coagulate into homogenous clusters of ideological enclaves? We become so self-righteous that we think we have it right and everyone else has it wrong. We only feel “comfortable” worshiping with people who look, act, think, feel and believe like we do. Before long, we’ll all be home worshiping in front of a mirror, because we’ve already begun to worship that image in the mirror anyway.
The body of Christ is divided. Not only are we divided within our denominations or traditions, we are divided the body of Christ universal. Here’s why this should be an alarming concern to us church people: your average non-churchgoing neighbor might not be informed about the differences between Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Reformed, Restorationists, Independent, Non-denominational, or the rest. But I can tell you that they aren’t stupid. And they certainly can smell a hypocrite when we come walking by. How dare we to preach love and then act with disdain and superiority towards one another in the church? How dare we talk about unity when Sunday worship remains the most segregated hour in the country? How dare we talk about serving God when our divisions reveal the self-serving nature of our true commitments?
So how does a body of people, diverse in so many ways, become united? Well, first, let’s agree on what doesn’t work. We all don’t have to agree with each other, not on everything. And if you think about it, if we have to agree in order to be united, then none of us have a chance to bond to one another, because if you sit down long enough with someone, you will eventually find something with which you disagree. Nobody agrees on everything. Furthermore, you don’t necessarily have to give up your convictions. Now, I sure hope for the sake of a civilized society, we can give up racist, sexist, homophobic, classist and other discriminatory attitudes. But there is no reason you have to stop being conservative or liberal for example, or stop enjoying the red or blue sports team. And you don’t have to like everybody. Yes, that’s isn’t a typo. You are welcome to not like people, even people in your church. Loving someone does not require that you like them. Think of a company of soldiers in the Army. Not everyone likes each other or agrees with one another on important issues in such a group. But they are willing to lay down their lives for one another. That’s called “love.” And it is love in the most Christian sense of the word.
Unity comes from a singleness of purpose. What does unite us is a singleness of purpose. We are welcome to disagree on things, even important things. But so long as we are united on the most important thing, there is plenty of strength in our devotion to such a purpose to withstand the tensions between the less important things. Jesus gives us a singleness of purpose in the Greatest Commandment:
“Jesus [said]: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself”’” (Matt 22:37-38, NIV).
Can you imagine the wounds that could be healed, the divisions that could be sewn up, the crowds that would be drawn to our light if we decided to listen to Jesus and make this commandment our primary and ultimate purpose? Can you imagine what might be done in this broken and burning world if we made love of God and love of neighbor the only criteria for being a member of the body of Christ? Can you imagine the revival and renewal that might take place in our community if we as Christians humbly laid all our other idolatries aside and listened to our Lord? I think it might create a little heaven here on earth.