The High Price of Disharmony
- "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." (Jesus praying, as recorded in John 17:20-21)
- And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:44-47)
When I consider the ideals expressed in these scriptures in light of the present condition of the Christian Church (in "first world" nations, at least), I can't help but be distressed. In the Church's early history, it seems that Christ's followers were living in accordance with the words of his prayer for unity. People had responded to the simple, straightforward message presented to them by taking the appropriate (dare I say obvious?) actions.
By using the word "simple", perhaps I've touched on the first issue that has helped foster division. In the verses just prior to the Acts passage quoted above, it is recorded that the apostle Peter had stood before a crowd and recited some Jewish history and prophesy, along with basic facts about Jesus the Christ and the truth about the Holy Ghost (the fruits of which had just been witnessed by all who were present). Peter then said, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." (See verses 38-39).
His words conveyed a plan of salvation that was not at all complicated, the first component of which was "repent." Nowadays, it seems as though that critically important word is usually left out, and then replaced with a boatload of confusing dogmas that have little (if anything) to do with Jesus' saving power. One hears a great deal about praying to receive Christ as Personal Lord and Savior (a title that is never mentioned in the Bible), and about a pre-tribulation rapture (a concept never taught in the Bible), and about various theological theories regarding sacraments, notions of eternal security, and so on.
Different churches take up the banner of whichever teacher or reformer they've decided to cast their lots with. In the days of the apostle Paul, the Corinthians split into factions, arguing, "I am of Paul"; "I am of Apollos"; "I am of Peter"; "I am of Christ" (see First Corinthians chapters 1 and 3). In America, the same thing happens, only the names have changed: "I'm Lutheran!" "He was o.k., but I'm more into Wesley!" "I'm a Calvinist!" "I'm of Calvary Chapel!" "I prefer the Vineyard." "Well, my church is non-denominational!" "Oh? Well ours is inter-denominational!" "I'm a fundamentalist!" "Not me... I'm evangelical!" All of these subtitles are clung to tightly, as if there was something lacking in the name of Jesus Christ. How many different headings do we need? How many trademarked logos and copyrighted slogans? How many signs, bumper stickers, and yellow page entries?
But of course, folks must distinguish their doctrinal positions, right? "Are you premillenial? Predestinational? Do you subscribe to a Pentecostal approach, or take a post-apostolic view? And can you define what each word means in the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic tongues, taking into consideration the cultural contexts of the authors' eras?" Many of the people debating these issues may not even have the slightest idea of what they're talking about. And while the debates rage on, the simple message of what Jesus taught, and of what Christians are supposed to be doing, is obscured. In some cases, it's been lost entirely.
Meanwhile, the people of the secular world have figured out how to provide an education for their children, and public libraries for their citizens, and funding for their poor (not always very efficient funding, but funding nonetheless). Can you imagine, O factional Christian, what we could do collectively if we only believed in the Bible passages referenced above? Can you conceive of how much better things could be if we only cared enough? Instead of sending Christian children to public schools (where they are bound to be taught all manner of nonsense), they could attend Church-funded schools with other Christians; schools where they would belong. And they could feel welcome at those schools not on the basis of how much money their parents can afford for a private education, but based on their willingness to behave according to Biblical principles. This could be done with Christian tithes and offerings, freely given.
Our poor (as well as some of the unbelieving poor) could be more effectively helped by our pooled resources, rather than by way of different churches having separate - and maybe even competing - fundraisers and benefits. Missionaries, ministers, and (yes) even musicians could be more completely supported, so that they could devote themselves wholly to their vocations. Social, recreational, and entertainment opportunities could be multiplied, and offered at lesser cost. In general, we Christians could be essentially self-sufficient, and therefore less tempted to assimilate into a society that hates us. We would be less likely to compromise our values for the sake of meeting our temporal needs. But then again, is that what American churchgoers want?
Incidentally, there are other "religious" groups that are practicing some of these principles of unity rather faithfully. If you've ever visited the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, or if you've ever heard of the Amish, you're aware of this truth. We ought to be ashamed that we are being outdone at our own way of life. But instead, we remain complacent, lest anything disturb the American Dream. What about the Christian Dream? What about Jesus' own prayer, as recorded in John's Gospel, "that they may all be one"?
Note also that in John's passage, it is stated that Jesus prayed for unity "that the world may believe that thou has sent me." In the section from Acts, after the unity of the people is described, it says that new believers were being added to the church daily, mentioning also that the original Christians had "favor" with the people. Aside from the aforementioned benefits that believers could be experiencing as the natural byproducts of unity, there is the aspect of testimony to those who are still outside the Church. Right now, the world sees (and often mocks at) a diluted, fragmented, somewhat ineffective collection of people that only faintly mirrors the cohesive ideal presented in Scripture. What happened? How could the Church have fallen so far? Too many Twinkies while watching too much television? Maybe this isn't too far off the mark, really; too much comfort tends to feed apathy. If we want to see the world changed like it was when the first apostles were on the scene, we should do as the first apostles said to do, and repent.
I don't suggest that Christians adopt the sort of ecumenical attitude that would ignore false doctrines and heresies. On the contrary, when those who truly love Jesus get serious, I believe that the distinction between the genuine Church and the heretical imitators will be much more clearly demarcated for all to see. The Holy Spirit dwells in holy temples; those who try to co-opt the name of Christ without practicing and promoting righteousness will inevitably be devoid of his power, and this difference will be readily apparent.
But first, some things need to change. Let's get back to the basics, so that we can build together.