People divide up. Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them. It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race. It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.
But where division should not happen is in the church. Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2-6)
I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us. With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.
Paul further elaborates:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)
The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.
We should stand united against this:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10)
Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special. He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship. We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.
A church divided against itself…
The church today is divided up into many denominations. There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues. After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.
Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today. My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.
My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree. Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.
Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application. Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.
For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style. First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs. Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.
This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.
What is the problem?
We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow. We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism. The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.
But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are? I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”
And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith. It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people. It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)
The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards. But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others. It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.
The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards. They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination. And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.
Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?
Some things to consider…
1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church. Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division? If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church? What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)
2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations. I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that. But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns:
If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)
Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12)
3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination. It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke. For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!” Many are in denial—but that is their pride.
We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault. There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble. Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.
4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership. There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith. Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application. However, that can come after baptism. There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months. And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it. We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service. Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection. However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy. Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.
We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards. There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division. We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.