By Jesse Jost
Before Jesus died, He prayed that His followers would have unity and be marked by love. Today, churches are often seen as places of petty division. Church splits are common, and the number of denominations rises yearly. It’s a sorry cliché that “churches are the only army that shoots its wounded,” as almost everyone has been hurt by other Christians.
Why do Christians, who have been showered with undeserved grace and forgiven so much, struggle greatly with relationships with each other?
I am not offering definitive answers here to this troubling question, but rather exploring possible reasons so that solutions can be found.
What is the Church?
The church can be two very different things: First, it can be a place where people who are supernaturally regenerated and indwelt with the Holy Spirit exhibit the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. When this is the case, there is warmth and grace.
Second, the church can also be a place of religious effort where members attempt to earn heaven by good works. This spirit of religiosity may seem very similar to true Christianity but the fruits of this kind of religion are very different: guilt, fear, and pride.
Yet even genuine believers who are saved by faith and filled with the Holy Spirit still struggle with a sinful nature that hijacks good impulses and wreaks all kinds of relational havoc. This combination is why I believe churches struggle so much with relationships.
Christians acknowledge that there is a Moral Law Giver who is holy and calls us to be holy. We also realize how far short we fall of God’s moral standard. This can leave us with a chronic sense of guilt and failure.
A potent way to soothe guilt is to shift our focus to those we believe are failing worse than we are, those who are guilty of “bigger” sins.
This breeds a hyper-critical spirit that is quick to find fault with other members of our church. This also makes for delicious gossip. We can be seen shaking our head with apparent grief as we relay the latest news of moral failure, but in reality our religious ego is celebrating, while the anxiety of self-salvation is momentarily calmed with a sense of superiority that “at least we haven’t failed in that way.”
The gospel says that our only hope for meeting God’s requirements is to be dressed in Christ’s righteousness. Jesus offers us substitution: He takes the penalty for our moral treason and pays for it on the cross. He then offers us the gift of being declared perfectly righteous; He puts his own perfect track record of holy living on our account.
If we humbly live each day acknowledging this declaration, we can be people of grace and forgiveness. We’ll be more aware of the tremendous debt we have been forgiven than of how we have been wronged.
But if we instead want to take credit for our own righteousness, and revel in our own moral achievements, then let us be warned: self effort will never be enough. We will only be able to cling to our illusion of holiness by tearing other people down.
Christians have to cling to beliefs that are often out of step with popular culture. We face ridicule at times for believing that God exists, that miracles are possible, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word. Because of this, we are used to thinking we are right even when others think we are wrong
It’s a short step to move from humble conviction about God’s revealed infallible truth to arrogant conviction that all our beliefs and interpretations are without error and worth defending in the face of opposition.
It is one thing to cling to a belief in God or divine revelation with unshakable tenacity. It is another thing entirely to cling to our belief in the correctness of our own perceptions and interpretations. Holding to a conviction that God has spoken through the Bible is not on the same level as holding to a belief in infant baptism.
Some people seem to fear that admitting that they could be wrong in one area will open the door to a slippery slope where they could be wrong about everything, including faith in God. So rather than live with the possibility of error, they insist they are correct on every little minor viewpoint or doctrinal interpretation. This makes them divisive and contentious.
Can you be both humbly teachable and have deep convictions? Or does admitting you can be wrong lead to being spineless and adrift? I think that being open to being wrong is the safest way to discover the truth.
God is the one who defines and reveals truth; He alone is omniscient and infallible. We, on the other hand, only see a tiny sliver of reality and what we do see is prone to illusion.
An awareness of our fallibility keeps us searching, asking questions, and listening. It is far better to admit we could be wrong and keep searching, than to dogmatically clamp down on a false idea that we defend tenaciously.
Truth is not just an idea that we have to defend. Truth is a Person, a God who, like a father, leads us into a deeper awareness of His beauty and glory.
The human mind that arrogantly declares and defends the rightness of his doctrine is not the most likely to discover the truth. Instead it is the soft heart that humbly acknowledges weak eyesight and intellectual limitations that God delights in and leads to truth.
This humility makes for sweet fellowship. Instead of correcting everyone who disagrees with us or makes a “heretical” statement, we will have instead a willingness to listen and learn from those who see differently.
Knowing God is the One who ultimately opens eyes and reveals the truth will make us less contentious and divisive, without needing to let go of faith and conviction.
Flagging the wrong threat?
Christians believe life is a high-stakes affair. We believe in heaven and hell. We believe that our choices and beliefs matter. There is an appropriate fear of falling away from God and being led astray by malevolent forces or by our own sinful desires. Paul warned people night and day with tears that we all have to stand before God and give an account of how we lived and what we believed.
But we forget that God is the ultimate Judge and begin to see ourselves as the protectors of the church. Don’t get me wrong: It is the responsibility of church leaders to defend the flock from heresy and wolves in sheep’s clothing, and to protect the young and weak from predators.
But not all dangers are equal. If the job of protecting is not prayerfully submitted to God for His guidance and discernment, protecting can get violent and messy.
Paul refers to the church as a body. You only need to look at autoimmune disease to see the ugly results when the immune system attacks the wrong thing and damages the body. There are spiritual cancers, cults, and destructive behaviours that need to be publicly warned against. But it is heart-breaking when leaders wrongly identify youthful zeal as arrogance and publicly devastate an earnest young person whose zeal for God’s kingdom makes them nervous.
This misguided immune system is, I think, one of the largest causes for spiritual abuse and hurt within the church. The leader thinks he is doing God’s will by discrediting a member and tearing him/her down when he is actually being a puppet of the accuser of the brethren and inflicting terrible pain in the body of Christ’s beloved bride.
Is no immune system better? Not at all, but leaders must recognize that it is not their egos or control or reputations that need defending. This is Christ’s church and every painful act of protection needs to be humbly taken to God in prayer with tears and trepidation. There needs be an awareness of how precious each member of Christ’s body is and how much Jesus himself wants to protect each member. Stay watchful and on guard, but use the rod and your words carefully. Let everything you say and do be motivated by love and not fear or pride.
Not in my group?
I’ve heard people say that they know non-Christians who are more kind and loving than most believers. Before we explore why this may be, we need to acknowledge that churches face unique relationship challenges that few other people groups have to deal with. Most societies form tribes and fellowship groups around similar backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, and hobbies.
In the church, Jesus calls people to fellowship together who, outside of this call, would have nothing to do with each other. The church is an attempt to bring unity and harmony where it otherwise would not even be attempted. Because of this, there will always be natural tension in a church, as people with different cultures, backgrounds, and income levels attempt to worship as equals.
Sadly, diversity is often not the case, and the proliferation of denominations and church options means that Christians have to face fewer differences. But to the extent that churches realize that Jesus “has torn down the middle wall of separation” (see Eph 2) and open their doors to people of all types, then there will be tension and potential for strife.
Sociologists have discovered just how much easier relationships are with those we identify as part of our tribe. We are naturally more trusting and quick to overlook faults with those of our group.
Conversely, we have a natural suspicion and bigotry toward those who are different, whom we label “outsiders.” We stereotype and make snap assumptions about outsiders, rarely questioning these judgements no matter how off they may be.
Christians are called to cast off former sources of identity, whether that was gender, nationality, or political beliefs, and embrace a new identity as a Christ-bearer. Paul said he had been crucified with Christ, and that it was no longer Paul who lived, but Christ.
When our primary identity is Jesus, it will be so much easier to find trust, peace, and harmony with other people who identify with Christ.
But to the extent we add to the simple gospel, and find our identity in anything else, such as our income level, political allegiance, or pet theological belief, we are adding to the potential for strife.
The list of things Christians have found their identity in is discouragingly long: Calvinism, vs. Arminianism, dispensationalism vs. postmillennialism, home school vs. public school, conservative dress vs. liberal dress, charismatic vs. cessationist, primitive church vs. traditional church, etc.
I’m not saying these are not worthy issues to discuss. But when we elevate these issues above the message of the gospel and work of Christ, and start seeing those who disagree with us on these issues as outsiders, we are lighting a bomb of contention.
Jesus said there is nothing special about loving those who are just like us. But when we can embrace those who would otherwise be our enemies, we start to exhibit the earmarks of supernatural love and fulfill Jesus’s wishes for unity.
Not Your Church!
The most frequent cause of strife in the church seems to be when members start taking ownership of their church and desire to take it in the direction they feel is correct. They feel threatened by other people who want to take the church in a different direction.
What is the ideal church? What is the purpose of the church? What should we value most? Correct doctrine? Lively worship or timeless hymns? Should the church exist to make seekers comfortable, or make to make even most mature among us squirm with conviction? How should we dress? How should we organize our church polity? Each of us will answer these questions differently, and the more we want our church to reflect our answer, the more a source of contention we will become to those who answer differently.
But God couldn’t be more clear: Jesus is the head of the church. The church is His body. We exist because of Him. We are saved through Him. The true church is always those who are abiding in Christ and surrendered to His authority.
Can you imagine what a difference it would make for church unity if before every meeting or discussion on what to place the emphasis on, or the direction to take the church, if every person involved prayerfully declared, “Not my will be done, Jesus, but yours!”
This is the unifying purpose of the church: That Christ be formed in each one of us! We will pursue holiness not to ease a guilty conscience, bot so that others will see more of Jesus in us. We will struggle to maintain correct doctrine, not to prove that we are correct, but so that wrong beliefs won’t cloud our vision of Christ’s majesty! Protection of the Church will not be motivated by the need to maintain control, but so that others can experience Christ’s freedom and healing power as they experience Him in a faithful expression of His body!
We are first and foremost sinners who have been saved by Jesus. He is our only reason we are allowed at the table of fellowship. As we boast only in His cross, attractive unity will be achieved, outsiders will take notice, and perhaps they will be just a little more open to Jesus because they see His love at work in us.