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Why The Divisions?

Seven times in Ephesians 4, Paul uses the word “one.” There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. He is writing to the church in Ephesus, a letter that was circulated to other churches.

He introduces this idea of “oneness” by telling them to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Why would he need to say that? Were churches even in these earliest days of Christianity finding reasons to divide?

Do you ever wonder why there are so many different churches and denominations?

This sermon in our series on the church addresses this, and what Scripture says about unity.

Paul says to make every effort to keep this bond of peace because we all share one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The word for “bond” was a word used for the tying together of prisoners. We are all chained together by the person of Christ. That is what brings us together and keeps us together. It is the bond we share.

But it certainly doesn’t always look that way. There are Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox. Within just the Protestant branch of Christianity there are Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Assembly of God, and Congregational to name just some. We have Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Messianic Jewish churches. There are charismatic, Pentecostal, and independent churches. There are Baptists. There are well over 50 different Baptist churches just in North America alone. There is the American Baptist Association, American Baptist Churches in the USA. The Baptist General Conference. The Conservative Baptist Association of America. The Independent Baptist Fellowship of North America. The Original Free Will Baptist Convention. The United American Free Will Baptist Church among others. Just to take our tradition, there is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) which is the denomination to which we belong. But there is also the Presbyterian Church of American, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and several other smaller Presbyterian denominations.

This is one faith under one God and Father of us all? Churches have divided over what Bible to read from, how to do baptism, the meaning of The Lord’s Supper, who should be in leadership, what the mission of the church should be.

Our LDS friends point to the disunity in mainstream Christianity and wonder why we are all divided. They have a point, though uniformity is not necessarily unity. Does God recognize denominations or does he see people in Christ? [1]

There are some reasons for different churches that have nothing to do with hostility. Some churches are different because of where they come from. Some historically came from certain parts of the world. For example, many people from Russia are in the Russian Orthodox church. Some churches are made of certain ethnic groups.

Churches can be different because of geographic location. Different neighborhoods, different towns, different churches.

Sometimes churches just have different ways of doing things. One of the beautiful things about our God is that no one theology, tradition or form of worship can contain all he is. We need the high church liturgy of the Episcopalians, the praise of more casual churches that have worship bands, the power of a black gospel choir, the order of Lutherans, the incense and bells of Eastern Orthodox and other forms of worship to magnify the Lord. Just different ways of celebrating the same God.

Churches can have different names and traditions, but it doesn’t always mean they are divided. Churches are sometimes in, what is called, “communion” with one another. For example, our Presbyterian church is in communion with certain Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Episcopalian traditions. We can share pastors and other forms of church ministry.

I have been in many worship services that brought together different churches. I have been in prayer groups with pastors of different denominations. I have prided myself on having guest preachers from different churches and different ethnicities where I have been pastor. Before being here I was part of the staff at a Baptist, traditionally African-American, multi-cultural church near Salt Lake City. And most people in any given church are not there because of the label on the sign. They are there because it is a place that fits with their way of seeking God. Maybe that’s true of you.

Just because there are different churches doesn’t mean we are all divided. Sometimes its just a matter of different traditions, and those traditions recognize our oneness with others. It’s kind of like Christmas. Everyone celebrates Christmas and there is a lot of crossover. But we all celebrate it a little differently. Right?

One of the things I like about our particular Presbyterian denomination is that we recognize what we call in the Apostle’s Creed, the “one, holy catholic church,” catholic meaning universal. We don’t care if you are from another church. As long as you confess Christ your baptism works. You can share in Communion. You don’t have to be reprogrammed. In this sense we are an ecumenical church.

Many denominations exist because of old theological battles that aren’t happening anymore.

We do need to be discerning. There are people who use the name of Jesus Christ, use the word “church” and say they are believers, but they are not connected to historic Christianity. Nor do they find their life in the Bible alone. I am not talking this morning about groups outside of the circle of mainstream Christian faith. We are thinking of the Christian family when thinking about this “oneness” Paul writes of.

Some churches would not recognize your baptism or my baptism. Some would not let us share Communion. Some would say we aren’t enough of this or enough of that. Too many times Christians value differences more than unity or people. Something about us wants to set ourselves apart from others. Is this egotism? Are we full of pride? We think we know better, can do better, are better than them?

I get that we have preferences. There are things I see in churches that I don’t like. There are churches where I know I would not fit well. Sometimes I think churches can be way too legalistic and conservative. I don’t like churches that get too political. I don’t like churches that are so liberal that I wonder if they even stand for anything Christian. Sometimes I struggle to keep unity with these brothers and sisters.

The oneness that Paul writes of in Ephesians has to do with Christ. Christ crucified and risen is what holds us together. We don’t need to agree on everything to be unified, but we need to live in a common commitment to Christ and recognize that in others.

Part of that unity can come with what Paul says in verse two: being humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love. Being humble means we don’t think we know it all. Being gentle includes not attacking people when we see things differently. Being patient means we give others room to be what they are. And, of course, love “bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things.”[2] Those are the things that can help our effort to maintain the unity in the Spirit.

Our oneness is in Jesus Christ. Not in the order of our church. Not in the issues we are concerned about. Not in our style of worship.

There is an old saying about churches that Christians have used: “Unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity.”

The essentials are what Christian have agreed on over the centuries. Mainly the saving and reconciling work of Jesus Christ,

…the Trinity: one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

…the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

We have liberty in the incidentals. You want to use wafers for Communion, fine. You don’t want to say The Lord’s Prayer every week, you have freedom to not do that. You have bishops, OK. You want to wait until people are of age to be baptized, that works. Those things aren’t what unite us. There is great freedom in a number of things that are not essential.

And in all things charity – or love. Like in a family, we may not all be alike, we may have differences, we may even grate on each other now and then, but we are a family and we hang together through love.

Jesus prayed for the oneness of his people. John 17 is the real Lord’s Prayer. What we know as The Lord’s Prayer that we say every week to close our Prayers of the People is really the Disciples’ Prayer. Jesus gave that to us, his disciples. But John 17 we hear Jesus praying himself to the Father.

He prays for his disciples, but then he prays for those in the future who will believe in him. That’s us. Jesus prays “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Wow. Just as the Father and the Son are one! That is a pretty strong unity.

Three different times we hear Jesus pray for the unity of his people. Our oneness was important enough to Jesus heart for him to pray about it.

And the reason for this oneness is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” We hear him pray for this twice.

Are the divisions among churches one of the reasons people don’t believe in Christ? Do people see only separation and lack of harmony? Does it grieve our Lord’s heart to see churches not with one another?

When we talk about the sins of people we are good at pointing out sexual sin. We point out drunkenness and gossip, anger, and pride. But what about the sin of schism. Schism means to split or divide over differences of opinion or belief. Is God going to let this go? The stakes are pretty high for lack of unity.

“I believe Christ died and rose again. So do I.

I believe we are saved by grace through faith in the work of Christ. So do I.

I believe we are all sinful and need the forgiveness that comes in the cross. So do I.

I believe the Bible is God’s Word to us and is authoritative in our lives. So do I.

I believe that all disciples are to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So do I.

I believe we should only sing traditional hymns in worship. I believe we should sing contemporary songs. Well then, I am through with you.”

The church needs to repent of our schism and disunity. It has not glorified our Lord. Our divisiveness has hurt our mission. There have been too many church games and theological gymnastics going on at the cost of people knowing the love of God for them.

The great evangelist Billy Graham was known for his powerful crusades that he would hold throughout the world. His crusades would draw hundreds of thousands of people, and many came to Christ because of his ministry. Billy Graham never did a crusade in a city unless all of the churches in the area - Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and others all signed off and said they would welcome him and work together. When Billy Graham would come it was an exercise in Christian unity. And people from all kinds of church traditions would come to a stadium to worship together and hear the gospel together. And there was great fruit. A lot of people have come to believe because of those crusades which were founded in oneness.

Unity is not uniformity. I love the diversity of the church. I love the different traditions, ways of worshipping God, and how varied Christ’s people can look.

When I entered seminary for some reason I missed the student orientation to the library. I can’t remember why but I missed it and was told to come to the post-graduate student orientation. I went to the room and we were all asked to introduce ourselves and what church we were from. There were Roman Catholic priests, Protestants pastors, lay people from the Methodist church, Lutheran bishops. There were people from the U.S., Africa, and Europe. Different people from different churches all in one place to study. Everyone belonged to the same Lord. There was a sense of oneness. It gave me a sense of how Christ’s people are in many different places and how richly diverse the church is.

There are different styles and ways of being a church. Unity can have great diversity.

My late grandmother was a quilter. The kind of quilts that she made were called crazy quilts. They were quilts made from different pieces of cloth – dresses, ties, tablecloths, shirts – whatever she could find. It didn’t matter what color. It didn’t matter the design. Garnett Hughes took these different patches with different colors, designs and textures, made a border, and quilted them together to make one whole, unified quilt. You can see why the name “crazy quilt”.

The larger Church of the Lord Jesus Christ can look a little crazy. We’ve got some cousins down in some of those nondenominational churches in the South…I don’t know. Jesus didn’t pray that we had to be perfect. He didn’t pray for total agreement in every issue in life. He didn’t pray for everyone to look alike, speak the same language, or worship in the exact same way. Our Lord prayed that we would be one just as he is one with the Father.

Part of the power of the Gospel is that it brings people together who otherwise would have nothing in common. The people whom God puts us alongside in church might be, as C. S. Lewis said, “that very selection of neighbors we have been avoiding all week.”

We have Republicans sitting next to Democrats. We have doctors sitting next to stay-at-home mothers. We have young people with body and facial piercings sitting with staid and proper senior citizens. We have people of different socio-economic, educational, and racial backgrounds worshipping, singing, serving together all because they share faith in Christ, and that needs to grow and happen more.

Maybe one of the reasons Jesus prayed for all of us to be one just as he is one with the Father is because it is only in the power of God that this can happen. It is something that has to be prayed for.

The Bible commentator C.K. Barrett, said that unity of the Church is a “supernatural fact which can be explained only as a result of a supernatural cause.”

Maybe we should not only pray for it but live for it. How can I contribute to the unity of Christ’s body wherever it is found?

Whenever different churches gather together to worship,

…whenever pastors of different traditions come together to pray and support one another,

…whenever Christians of different varieties share in a service or missionary project together,

…whenever youth groups from different churches join in an event together,

…whenever people who work together acknowledge their shared faith in Christ though they may be from different parts of the family…

…the prayer of Jesus is in the process of being answered. And this is happening all the time. It needs to happen even more.

Our Lord prayed for oneness because God’s holy strategy in the world is for his followers to be placed in the world, and to live out the love of Jesus Christ together.

When believers are united in Christ, the gospel exerts a powerful influence within the world. Jesus prayed for oneness among his people. Are we helping Jesus answer that prayer? If he prayed for it, then I want to be a part of the answer.

Prayer: O Lord, bless your church with unity. Convict us of our pride and the divisions we have set up. Tear the walls down and unite us. Do this so that people will see us and come to believe in you.

[1] Snodgrass, NIV Application Commentary, p.223 [2] 1 Corinthians 13:7

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