In conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" My new acquaintance replied, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! What franchise?" He answered, "Baptist." "Me too!" I said. "Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" "Northern Baptist," he replied. "Me too!" I shouted. We continued to go back and forth. Finally I asked, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?" He replied, "Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!"Funny, but all too true! Maybe you've noticed we tend to concentrate on the things that divide us more than we remember the things that we have in common. And the thing that followers of Jesus Christ have in common is oh so important!
I know we have some folks here this morning who perhaps haven't been in a church building in awhile. I'm glad you're here. I also know there are many reasons that may have kept you from coming back to a room like this. You may have had a bad experience with a preacher in the past! (I know. It happens.) Your children may have grown up and left home, and since then, you've had a difficult time finding your place. It could be that some broken relationships led to your departure from church. Or, it could be you grew tired of the divisiveness of church. Did you know that in studies when non-church people are asked, “Why do you not go to church?” the number one answer is always the same? “We grew tired of the divisions.” Look, I'm a preacher, and I've spent virtually my entire life around the church. And from the ultimate insider, let me say, “We're sorry.” We confess that, yes, we sometimes allow petty things to build walls between us. We have refused to fellowship folks because they do not believe or act or worship just like we do and I want to apologize on our behalf.
I'd also like to help us understand how some of this happened.
Certainly, division has manifested itself in many ways throughout history—inside and outside of the church! But in our context, one of the most obvious places we see division is through the many denominations that exist in our communities. Just drive down the street (any street) in Tyler and you'll see it: Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Church of Christ, Independent Bible Church, Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912. Denominations divide Christ’s Church in ways God never intended! But did you know that denominations have not always been around? In fact, they are a relatively new phenomenon in the church. You may not realize they were actually born on American soil! We invented the electric light bulb, we invented the airplane, we invented baseball and we invented Christian denominations!
Briefly, it happened like this: Until the 16th century, most Christians were in “one” church. There were a few exceptions to that. But, by and large, there was one large, united church. Now, it wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was united. In fact, some folks noticed that it wasn't perfect and they set out to reform the church. And one of their revolutionary ideas was this: Let’s allow the Bible to be our ultimate authority. Now, in our corner of the Christian world, we have always taken that for granted. But no one had ever said that until the 16th century! Until then, the church and the leaders within the church had been the ultimate authority. They used Scripture, they studied Scripture, but, they never viewed the Bible as the ultimate authority. This was a new idea in the 16th century! And that new idea changed everything.
These reformers began to translate the Bible into languages that the everyone could understand. If the Bible is going to be the ultimate authority, people have to be able to read it! So they translated it into German and French and English. Ordinary people like you and me began to read and guess what? They found that all agreed with each other 100% of the time! Not exactly. They found that it was possible for well-meaning people, people who love God, people who are trying to do what God wants them to do—they found that these kinds of people could go to the same text and arrive at different conclusions. And when that happened, factions began to form within the church. Protestant vs. Catholic. Then wars took place within the church. Not figurative wars, but real wars, with guns and cannons! People fought over whether France or England or Germany would be Protestant or Catholic. Until finally it was declared through a treaty. As of today, if your monarch is Catholic, your country is Catholic. If your monarch is Protestant, your country is Protestant. But people, the average person, had no choice.
Until America arrived on the scene. In this new country, religious leaders initiated what has come to be called the “Great Religious Experiment.” For the first time, people had the right to choose. “I will be Protestant.” Or, “I will be Catholic.” Or, a little later on, “I will be a Methodist Protestant,” or a “Baptist Protestant,” or a “Church of Christ Protestant.” People were given the freedom to choose how they would practice religion, and that changed everything! One thing it changed was the mission of the church (or many parts of the church). Now, one of my main goals as a church leader is to get you to come to my church. Remember, this had never been an issue before! You didn't have a choice of what congregation to attend. Everyone was part of the same group anyway! But now that people could choose, church leaders began to do things to compete for adherents. A better preacher will attract more people, a nicer facility will attract more people, a better youth ministry will attract more people, a guest-friendly congregation will attract more people. And all at once, the goal of many congregations became to attract new people. Instead of the goal that had been at the center of the church from the beginning: To glorify God and make disciples that looked like Him.
So, I'll confess that many church leaders like me—we love big churches! And we rate our success and failure based upon the size of our congregations. That entire system has led to brokenness and fractured relationships and division. And as only one member of that system, I say to you, “I'm sorry.”
But you need to understand that we did not invent division. The way we see division most readily in the church is through our denominations. But division was in the church from the beginning. It just showed itself in different ways. Division is part of the fallen, human condition. And two millennia ago, the apostle Paul wrote about division in his own time.
Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? (I Corinthians 3:1–4 CEB)Look here: Even the first century church was divided! They were not perfect. They were human like us, and they divided into factions based upon their leaders. Some gravitated toward Paul, others toward Apollos, others toward Peter. Each group claimed superiority over the other. Sound familiar? If you were here a few weeks ago, you remember how Paul mentioned this in the opening chapter of this letter. And this is not the last time he will mention it. Division is serious business. To explain the gravity of its seriousness, listen to what Paul says about it.
If there is division among you … You do not have God’s Spirit!Wow! This is why Paul is so concerned about division. This is why WE should be so concerned about division. When we divide, we keep God’s Spirit from acting among us. And Paul couldn't accept this because Paul had seen what God’s Spirit could do! He knew that God’s Spirit had the power to change the world and he didn't want anything to stop that from happening, least of all fights and divisions among God’s people! If you look closely, you see throughout history what happens when God’s people unite. Have you ever read the book of Acts? That book is filled with story after story of God’s Spirit doing extraordinary things! Miracles, healings, resurrections, conversions. I've had so many people ask me, as a minister, over the years, “Why don't we see those things any more?” Church, is it possible that our divisiveness is hindering the work of God’s Spirit among us?
In the early 19th century, an extraordinary event took place here in America. The place was Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Interestingly, this event has a lot to do with us, because the preacher at that church was Barton W. Stone, the earliest preacher in our Churches of Christ movement. One week at his church, tens of thousands of Christians showed up for a revival. People from all denominations: Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, you name it—they were there, and they all worshipped together. They set aside their divisions and simply worshipped. Stone, who was a rationalist and not prone to talking like this, he said extraordinary things happened. He said people were prophesying, people were being saved, people were experiencing the Spirit like they did in the book of Acts! When unleashed by the power of a unified church, God’s Spirit does extraordinary things! And it doesn't have to be through charismatic gifts!
I was at the PATH luncheon a couple of weeks ago and I heard the Very Right Rev. M. L. Agnew describe what God did when Christians in Tyler came together. He told the story of how he, an Episcopalian minister, joined hands with ministers from across this city. Ministers from many different denominations, including Charlie Siburt from Glenwood Church of Christ, and all of these Christians joined hands, regardless of their differences, and they created PATH. For 30 years, God’s Spirit has used this united effort to bring hope to hopeless people in our city. You see, when unleashed by the power of a unified church, God’s Spirit does extraordinary things!
I want you to notice one more important thing about the 3rd chapter of I Corinthians. Look there in verse 16:
Don't you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person, because God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.In our hyper-individualistic culture, we may have missed the point of this verse. We like to sing the song, “The Lord is in His Holy Temple,” and we think that means we, individually, are God’s Temple. But there is a linguistic issue here you need to know about. In Greek, there are two separate words for “you” (individually) and “you” (plural). Just like there is in Texas with “you” and “y’all.” But in normal English, there is only one word for both: “you.” So, it is difficult, when we read the Bible, to know what the writer means. Well, it is important here. Paul writes, “You (plural) are God’s Temple.” If anyone destroys God’s Temple (the church), God will destroy that person. Because God’s Temple (the church) is holy. That is what you (plural) are.
Another reason the unity of God’s church is so important: We are the Temple of the Living God. God lives in us and God is shown to the world through us. I think it is fascinating that Paul wrote these words when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing. Paul grew up a Jew and all Jews believed that God lived in the Temple. So, for him to say the Temple is now the church, God’s Spirit has moved out of the Temple in Jerusalem and into the church. That is a radical statement! And a powerful one for us! The same God who created the world is in us. The same God who caused a worldwide flood is in us. The same God who parted the Red Sea is in us. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is in us. The same God who did all of those miracles in Acts is in us. The same God who did those amazing things at Cane Ridge is in us. The same God who caused people from all Christian tribes in Tyler to join hands and start PATH—He is in us.
I get excited when I think of what God could do with a united church! What could God’s Spirit do, unleashed by the power of a united church?!