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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

November 6, 2007

So Right You're Wrong

He came into my church right as worship was starting, with a tape recorder in one hand and a notebook in the other. He walked down the center aisle and took a seat in the second row. He rarely looked up from the notes he was taking, especially during the sermon.

I always sat in the front pew. After the service ended, I stood up and scanned the congregation for people I didn't know so I could welcome them to the church. He was sitting right behind me.

“Hello,” I said. “Welcome to our church. Do you have any questions?”

“Are your pastor's sermons always this bad?” he asked.

Well, that was not your typical opening chit chat. The red alert sirens started going off in my head. But truthfully it actually had been a bad sermon, a rare off day for my pastor.

So I said, “This was just a bad day for him. He is actually a really good preacher.”

“Well it would be difficult for him to be worse than he was today.”

“No, really,” I said. “Listening to him preach really had an effect on my life. In fact, because of the way he presented the Gospel, I heard God's call in my own life and I am about to start seminary.”

“Whatever would you want to do that for?” he asked.

OK then. This man clearly came from some kind of ultra-conservative background. I decided to make sure he knew, right up front, some things about us so if he was looking for a church home he could quickly rule us out.

So I said, “Because some day I would like to become an ordained minister.”

He opened up his notebook and wrote that one down. Then I spent a good 10 minutes explaining some distinctive things about Methodists while he frowned and told me all the reasons we were wrong and, basically, on the road to hell.

Finally I asked, “Why have you come to our church? I don't think you are interested in becoming a regular attender here.”

“I publish a newsletter that critiques the churches in this area, analyzing them for how well they present the gospel and adhere to important Christian doctrine. My publication helps people choose churches that believe what the Bible says and keeps them away from those that teach error. I will publish my findings about your church in the next issue.”

“Who reads your newsletter?” I asked.

“I have developed my own mailing list,” he said. “I would be pleased to mail you a copy of my current issue. What is your address?”

Well, there was no way I was going to give out my home address, so I told him he could mail it to me at the church. I pointed out the address to him on our bulletin. Then I guided him out of the building.

The newsletter, such as it was, arrived in a plain brown envelope. It had been written on a typewriter, single-spaced, with no margins. I mean, the sentences bumped right up to the edges of the paper. And it was thick. Twenty-four pages of non-stop invective.

In the issue I received, none of the local churches he'd visited passed his tests. Somehow that didn't surprise me. He had a very narrow view of what was acceptable doctrine, which basically left out all Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, many Baptists and most Presbyterians. If your church did not believe and teach exactly what he thought you should, you simply were not Christian.

I only ever received that one issue, and I never did get to see what he ended up saying about our church and my pastor's unfortunate sermon. But I have no doubt we didn't pass his tests either.

This man was the picture of divisiveness.

*****

In John 17, Jesus emphasized how important unity is for those who follow him. He thought it was so important that in this chapter we find him praying for unity for both his disciples and those who would follow them (that's us). Jesus wants his followers to have the kind of unity that will make them one with each other, as he and the Father are one. He tells us this unity will make us stand out and will draw people to him.

Divisiveness destroys the unity Jesus wants for his followers.

*****

In the accounts of the early church we can see what happens to the gospel when there is unity among believers. In Acts 4, the people are unified, and the gospel is preached with great power. There are miracles and many people come to Christ. There are dimensions to what God does when the church is unified that are beyond what we can fathom.

Conversely, scripture also shows us what happens when there are divisions. Divisiveness was a big problem in the early church, as people were trying to sort out the basics of the gospel, the standard beliefs and what they meant for everyday life. There were a lot of different opinions, and people ended up following different leaders who taught different things. Paul had to address the issue of divisiveness again and again in his letters, especially in cases where his own authority was being challenged—which was often. He admonished the Corinthians to stop “rating” their leaders by choosing one over another and to stop treating each other so badly at Communion. At the end of Philippians he urges the two women Euodia and Syntyche, who have been quarreling, to be of the same mind in the Lord. Previously they had been faithful workers for the gospel, and their current disunity was holding it back. When the church is not unified, we miss out on a lot of what God wants to do for the world through us.

*****

Divisiveness comes in several different forms. Sometimes there are power issues within the church—people vying for control. Other times the consequences of the sin of an individual can explode through the body like a bomb. Think of what happens when a prominent national—or local—church leader falls. People take sides. Fights break out. The church is wounded.

The divisiveness addressed most often in the New Testament is a different animal. It comes from people holding different opinions of doctrine and different interpretations of Scripture.

Judaizers were the main contentious faction in Paul's day. Jewish Christians correctly reasoned that Jesus was a new facet and completion of their faith. Many of them believed they should do what they'd always done in obeying the Law, in addition to believing in Christ, and they thought Gentile Christians needed to do this too. Paul—who had been a Pharisee and scrupulous adherent of the Law himself—did not see things this way. So sometimes the Judiazers swooped into Paul's churches after him as he moved around (such as in Galatia) and confused the congregations by telling them they all had to follow Jewish traditions, laws and customs in addition to believing in Christ.

In Titus, the problem is the same, except that the Judaizers were members of Titus's own congregation in Crete. They were stirring up all kinds of controversies and arguments and quarrels about the law, probably the purity laws—arguments that Paul considered foolish, unprofitable and useless. Their arguments were sapping the strength of the church, using up its time and energy, and   taking it away from the important work at hand. In this epistle, Paul tells Titus (who is a Greek, not Jewish Christian) what to do with the divisive people in his congregation. He is to warn them twice to knock it off, and after that have nothing to do with them—they are to be cut out of fellowship.

Paul also tells Titus that because they insist on their own points and are not showing charity towards other Christians, divisive people are warped, sinful, and self-condemned.

*****

The kinds of things that Christians argue over has changed through the centuries. Early on it was the nature of Jesus. Was he God? Was he man? Over several hundred years the church hammered out the doctrine that he was both. Today we argue over things like the how the atonement works, or how God is going to end the world, or how literally we are to read the Bible.

While the nature of the issues has changed over time, there is one constant to divisiveness. Divisive people insist that in order to be Christians people need to believe or do certain things in addition to believing and following the core message of the Gospel. That's what the Judaizers believed—you weren't a Christian unless you also kept the entirety of the Law.

*****

Now, it is not necessarily divisive for a church to have its own distinctives, in essence to say “here's how we in this part of the body of Christ choose to live out his commandments.” There are historic peace churches like Quakers and Mennonites, which are focused on non-violence and pacifism. There are Holiness churches, like the Church of the Nazarene, which emphasize ways of living that are pleasing to God. There are Pentecostal churches thatexplore the experience of the Holy Spirit. Specializing in different parts of the Gospel is not, in and of itself, divisive.

But it is divisive when people insist the way they experience God is necessary to be a Christian. Or that the way they interpret Scripture is the only correct way to do so. It is divisive when a set of rules is added to Scripture. Or when people are told there is only one way for Christians to think about issues of the day. To take some of the current controversies as examples, it is divisive when someone insists that you're not a Christian unless you subscribe to the “substitution” theory of atonement. Or that unless you believe God will end the world via the “premillenial, pretribulation” scenario, you are not a Christian. Or that if you don't believe the Earth was created in six literal 24-hour days and is about 6,000 years old then you don't believe the Bible and are not a Christian.

When people supplement the core of the Gospel—who Jesus is, what he did for us and what he commands of us—with anything extra that they say we must believe or do, they are being divisive.

*****

Thinking back on it, I went to a pretty divisive seminary. At my school, to try to figure out every single point of doctrine was a huge source of pride.

I remember there was a lot of Catholic bashing. In seminary I learned there is a whole segment of evangelicals who do not believe Roman Catholics are Christians. There was “Arminian” bashing, too. Heck, I didn't even know what an Arminian was when I heard the bashing for the first time. I thought they had something against Armenians . It turns out that as a Methodist, I am an Arminian.

There was this thing that kept happening to me in seminary. You go to the first session of a class, the professor asks everyone to introduce themselves, give a bit of their background and what kind of church they come from. When it was my turn, I said I was a Methodist, which apparently surprised my instructors and classmates. They would come up to me at the class breaks or at lunch time and ask me at what point I made my decision for Christ. “Wow, you grew up Methodist?!” they would say. “When did you actually become a Christian?”

That's divisiveness.

*****

With the advent of the Internet, anyone can create their own Christian web site. (Guilty as charged here on john2117.org.) There are a lot of people who create sites specifically to tear down other Christians. Go online sometime and do a search on the name of a well-respected Christian figure of your choice, either living or dead. I can almost guarantee you'll find several websites devoted to how they couldn't possibly be a Christian because they don't adhere to doctrinal standard x , and how you need to stay away from their body of work because of its dangerous nature that will suck you into heresy.

That's divisiveness too.

*****

Don't get me wrong. I am very interested in where the boundaries of the faith lie. As an orthodox believer, for me the faith includes what's in the ancient creeds of the unified church (before the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox split in 1054). I teach a class on basic Christian beliefs at my church. It's really important to me that people understand the things that the Bible teaches very clearly, over and over, in both the Old and New Testaments. Foundational things like who God is, who Jesus is, who the Holy Spirit is. What's wrong with human beings, who's responsible for the creation of the universe and why that matters. What God wants from us in our lives. What faith is all about. What the church is for. Who's going to win in the end.

What's not as important to me are the non-essentials of the faith, the stuff that Christians have been arguing over for centuries. Exactly how God created the earth and how long it took him to do it. What's going on in communion. How sanctification works. When we get into the hows, we get into the controversies.

It's not that I don't have opinions on them—I do. It's just that on this stuff, I won't have any problem when I meet Jesus face to face, and he points out to me all the places I was wrong.

But some people are different. They believe they or the theologian or Christian leader or tradition of which they are a part has it all figured out and other Christians who hold different beliefs are wrong or not Christian. They like to argue about it. They condemn people outside their circle. They place adherence to their beliefs above other important aspects of the faith. In their quest to be right, sometimes they get to the point of not living out important points of the Christian life.

They are so concerned about being right that they're wrong.

They are divisive.

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that have nothing to do with them. Sage advice, right out of Titus.

.

But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.

After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions,
since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

—Titus 3:9–11