This is Part 2 of a four-part series. To read Part 1, click here.
In a denomination that no longer exists, we often ended meetings with the singing of Psalm 133.
A song of ascents. Of David.
How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion .
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
How good and pleasant, indeed. One might also add, “How rare.” Obviously the psalmist never heard of building programs. Surely his congregation didn’t have to decide on the issue of psalms versus hymns, or accompaniment as opposed to a capella. Folk music, guitars, handbells? And those are only the in-house issues. What about the “us versus them” matters, like how to deal with apostate or liberal or liberalizing denominations and congregations. What about this biggie: eschatology. No, David had it easy. No wonder he could write about brothers and unity and all that good-sounding stuff.
But such is not the situation in the church of today, especially in the West. We have all those issues—and many more. A recent contributor to an online forum on the topic “Seduced by wealth and prosperity” voiced her feelings this way:
I have seen fights over alcohol use, dancing, the nature of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, Calvinism, a fence around the preacher’s yard and many other things as the object of a fight among believers. I will fight for a few things, but I will keep the peace when the questions are peripheral issues, which do not pertain to the existence of God, the Deity of Christ, and the basics of redemption.1
American ecclesiastical history is full of church splits and the creation of entirely new denominations over relative minutia. A chart graphing American Presbyterianism looks like a deformed octopus with many extras arms. When seeking ordination in one of these bodies, I was required to write a paper on denominational history. I titled it “Split Ps.” The history of other Protestant bodies in the U.S. is no easier to read.
As our commentator above remarked, there are times when standing and fighting is the only option for a Christian. Christianity stood at a crossroads in this country when a Presbyterian General Assembly, in 1923, had the audacity to reaffirm its collective acceptance of five fundamental doctrines of the Church. These essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity were, and are, the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, His substitutionary atonement on the cross, His bodily resurrection, and His miracles.2 Thus began what has become known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Debate.”
In response to the orthodox position taken by the General Assembly, a committee of Presbyterian ministers issued a document called the Auburn Affirmation, which stated, essentially, that the five fundamentals were mere suggestions arising out of man’s interpretation of Scripture. They were never meant to be binding or absolute. More than 1,200 ministers signed the Affirmation.
It was a time to fight. The absolute bases of the Christian faith were at stake — and were being attacked by alleged ministers of the gospel. Denominations were torn asunder. New ones came into existence, even as the old ones continued their march toward modernism. New seminaries rose from the smoke of the battle. New mission boards were created with the purpose of sending out only missionaries who knew the saving grace of redemption. Christians battled against heresy and apostasy.
But such instances are the exception. All too often, Christians will separate over matters they could have worked out. I once pastored a church on a relatively small island. When I first arrived, I was awed at the number of churches for such a small population. Soon, however, I found out that this was not a matter of spiritual vitality, but rather contentiousness. It seems that whenever church disagreements occurred, no matter how inconsequential the subject matter, the first reaction was to split and start a new congregation. The churches were even known by the names of the leaders of the founding faction. On one corner would stand “Mr. Smith’s church,” while across the street might be “Mr. Brown’s church.” Christ was neither recognized nor glorified by such a situation. Whatever happened to “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”?
If the world sees us stand for the truth, that’s one thing. If it sees us quibbling over nonessential matters, our witness is compromised. In his first epistle, John wrote:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.3
Love for our brothers and sisters needs to be a hallmark of the Christian. It’s difficult to worship with those against whom we have hard feelings. It’s not easy to labor together for the sake of the gospel, side-by-side with those against whom we have grievances. It’s easy to push visitors away from our churches by our bickering and backbiting.
Yes, there are times when honest disagreements arise within the church family. These need to be handled in love — and often in private. We have a responsibility to deal with our problems in a healthy, loving manner. We also have a responsibility to show the world how redeemed sinners can emulate their Lord.
In our next installment of “Meltdown at the Core,” we’ll take a look at the “Seduction of Christianity.”
1. Quote used with the writer’s permission.
2. Note that while the General Assembly did manage to affirm its belief in the historic doctrines of the faith, it was only by a narrow margin. Four hundred thirty-nine members voted in favor orthodoxy, while 359 voted against. A protest against the decision was lodged.
3. 1 John 4:19-20.