In one of his more passionate letters, Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to “be in agreement…that there be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10). The Bible makes clear that Christians are to find agreement in the midst of diversity. Paul’s contention with the Corinthian church was not that diversity existed—indeed that’s what made the churches in Corinth special—it was that diversity was not to distract from the type of unity that provided a clear, Christian witness of the Good News to unbelievers in Corinthian culture.
In recent years, we have seen a fragmentation of the Christian church rather than intentional movements toward the vision of unity that Paul expressed so long ago. Three stories that ran in the news lately attest to divisions in the Christian Church.
The first came earlier this year when a new Lutheran denomination—the North American Lutheran Church—vowed to split from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. This came after the ELCA started allowing openly homosexual clergy to participate in church leadership.
Another story that made national news was the Georgia Baptist Convention’s decision to break historical ties with Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta because the church had a female co-pastor. Never mind that the pastor, Rev. Mimi Walker, had been on the SBC pastorate role since 2004; and never mind that the church had given millions of dollars and hours of labor to the SBC since its founding in 1914.
And of course, there is the whole Catholic sexual abuse debacle that is making the news for the umpteenth time. How many Catholic brothers and sisters will the Vatican offend before the Church takes some serious actions to avoid future violations and confront past abuses with some sense of transparency?
With countless other churches fighting over a variety of issues, it seems that the fragmentation Christ’s Body is the order of our day. That’s not to say that the topics that cause divisions make for small squabbles in the first place. Homosexuality, women in ministry, and clergy accountability require intense debate and examination. Certainly, the debates will inevitably be heated and common ground hard to come by.
But have we, the global Christian Church, ever once considered that our witness is compromised due to such divisive conflicts? Do we ever think how our rhetoric and public persona might fail to communicate the compassion that the lost severely need? After all, Christianity is first and foremost about people and their need for eternal life, not about having all the answers to every theological conundrum that comes our way.
It would be naïve of me to think that every Christian is going to get along. A plurality of denominations is a healthy asset to the global Church because we are a diverse people; however, does our own unique biblical interpretations, church polities, clergy callings, and worship styles have to alienate us from other churches in such polarized assaults?
I am not sure if I have an answer to that question. Gosh, this article may even garner some heated emails from fellow Christians. I do know, however, that our witness to the world does not negate our God-given niches in the Body of Christ. It does demand some sense of unified compassion, grace, and mystery in a world of turmoil and uncertainty.
Frankly, I think that many people are tired with the Christian conflicts and controversies that pervade our churches. In this age of punditry and bickering, I can do nothing other than repeat some heart-felt lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Cure Thy children’s warring madness; bend our pride to Thy control.”