Every city has loads of churches, many of whom greatly disagree with each other on all sorts of issues. On my desk right now sits a section of the newspaper. It has been folded several times to focus on just one particular article entitled “Gay pastors to be reinstated.” According to the article, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, after voting last year to end a policy requiring gay clergy to remain celibate, will now begin welcoming gay clergy into their ranks. Although the article from the Associated Press was very favorable, this decision by the ELCA will bring them into sharp disagreement with many churches, and many will condemn their decision.
There is no shortage of issues or reasons for churches to be at odds with each other. Some churches and church groups are more liberal, others more conservative. Churches divide over what style of music they play, and many Churches of Christ (not the United, but the independent Churches of Christ) condemn the use of musical instruments in worship. Independent Christian churches and Baptist churches have long condemned each other over whether baptism is “necessary” or not, and whether a person can lose their salvation. Charismatic churches, including the Assemblies of God and Pentecostal churches have often wrangled with other churches over “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of “tongues”. (Check out I Corinthians 12-14) And the Catholic Church officially claims that the only way to be saved outside of being a Catholic, is by the grace of God alone.
(Fortunately, the Bible says we are saved by grace, -Ephesians 2:8-9- not by belonging to a particular organized religious group, so I guess that means I’m ok… *whew*)
We could list various issues over which Christianity has divided itself, but I think you get the point. Unfortunately, the point creates a problem, namely that all of our divisions cause skepticism about Christianity itself. If we’re telling the truth, then how come we can’t agree with each other? If Jesus is the only way, then how come we condemn other churches who also believe in Jesus? If Christianity is true and all other religions are false, then why can’t Christians get on the same page with themselves??
Those are legit questions for someone looking at things from the outside don’t you think? And if Christianity wants the world to take it seriously, there needs to be a thoughtful and reasoned answer to why there are so many divisions in the “Church.” Here’s a big one:
CHRISTIANITY IS A BIG WORD, BUT BEING A CHRISTIAN IS MUCH MORE SPECIFIC. Try as you might, you can’t be a US citizen unless you actually have a few things that qualify you for citizenship. You can claim to be a citizen all you want, but you still have to meet some qualifications such as, “where were you born?” or “who were your parents?” or “have you been naturalized as a US citizen” etc… You can’t just wake up some day in Thailand and say, “today, I am a US citizen!” Might make you feel good, but those customs guys at the border still won’t let you cross.
Today, a lot of folks call themselves “Christians” and a lot of churches say they are “Christian,” and there’s not much anyone can do about that, but… are they really?
Jesus said there would be people who claimed to be Christian, but no matter what they claimed, they wouldn’t be allowed across into heaven.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” -Matthew 7:21-23
To me, that’s one of the scariest passages in the Bible, and probably one of the most profound. It’s not what we say or claim, according to Jesus, it is whether we do the “will” of the Father in heaven. Not only do actions speak louder than words (all you folks who reject church because of hypocrites, well notice God doesn’t accept the hypocrites either) but more than that, it’s actions that are obedient to the will of God. It’s His decisions, His view of right and wrong, His commands that matter, not the decisions of human beings -even if those human beings wear robes and carry official titles in a church hierarchy.
Hmmmm…. so just because the pope said it… yes I know the Catholic Church teaches the pope proclaims certain infallible statements, claiming in those moments, he is speaking for God… the bottom line remains that God’s revealed will has more authority than man’s. And doing God’s will is what determines if you really do belong to Christ and whether the word “Christian” actually applies to you.
After all, I’m an American if I belong to America, and I’m a Christian if I belong to Christ. And if Christ doesn’t know me, then I’m not a Christian no matter what I say.
THEREFORE, MANY CHURCHES ARE DIVIDED OVER WHERE THEY GET THEIR AUTHORITY. Some look at the Bible as the authority, the revealed will of God. Others look at the Bible as only a partial authority, or even an out-of-date relic we should no longer follow, and instead they believe God reveals His will through the decisions of church leaders. That second group might sound ok on paper, but is it? You decide:
Conveniently, the second method puts the authority in our own hands, and not surprisingly, it’s been abused a few times. History demonstrates many atrocities have been committed by “Christians” because they claimed God was working through them, or speaking through them. There have been times in history when “Christians” prohibited people from having the Bible, and demanded people instead just listen to the church leaders. The Dark Ages come to mind don’t they?
While every Christian group in the world believes God may speak through someone, there are some churches and groups that will reject the Bible in favor of what their church leaders decide, and some churches and groups that believe what God said in the Scriptures should not be contradicted, not even by a pope, pastor, bishop, or board member.
Not surprisingly, that’s a big reason for church divisions today.
Notice, that’s what happened with the issue over gay pastors. Jeff Johnson, a pastor who will be reinstated to the Evangelical Lutheran Church said, “The actions the church is taking on Sunday affirms the decisions of those congregations. The church is respecting our family, our partners, the choices we’re making.”
There’s no mention in his statement of what the Bible says, or how it should be interpreted. There is no mention of God’s will anywhere in the article. The focus is on the decisions made by the “church” and the “congregations” and the “choices we’re making.” It demonstrates a fundamental difference. Does the authority come from church leaders or the inspired Word of God? If it comes from the church leaders, then they can change their policy and respect different choices. If it comes from the Scriptures, then we can’t just change what we believe is right or wrong, simply because we want to.
Going by what Jesus said, I think ignoring the Scriptures, or following a religious leader ahead of anything said in the Bible, is incredibly dangerous. Anytime we put ourselves, or any human being, potentially above what God has said, we are in danger of going a wrong direction. In fact, I don’t believe ELCA is a “Christian” organization if they ignore what Jesus said. Of course, they will call themselves Christian, but saying it doesn’t make it so.
It’s a big reason for division, and one that’s worth pondering.
(There are undoubtedly some who will want to jump into this conversation and claim Jesus never condemned homosexuality etc… While I disagree, let me say this… THAT is the discussion to have! Since Jesus said it’s not just those who claim to follow Him, but those that actually follow Him, who are part of His kingdom, isn’t the real issue whether or not the ECLA is really following Jesus, whether they really doing the Fathers will? No matter what their church leaders decide, or what they want, the question is what Jesus wants. That’s what makes a person a Christian, or something else.)