Recently, I read Christian History magazine, issue 120: “Calvin, Councils, and Confessions–How the Church became the Churches.” Church history is a hobby. I identify less with a particular tradition than with anyone in Christ. I love church history because I see it as my history–Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.
Issue 120 discusses the spread of Reformed ideas. Included are fiery clashes between Protestants and Catholics (with words and swords); Lutherans and Calvinists going at it then ganging up on Anabaptists; Lutherans turning on each other after Luther’s death over his true legacy…. On and on go the tales of Christian in-fighting.
As I read this issue, I became uneasy. Why? The glaring lack of Christ-likeness. Christians aren’t perfect. Our whole history is marred by our own carnality. Still, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). This scripture gives us permission–no, begs us–to ask a tough question: How can we walk in this level of division and claim to be Jesus’s disciples?
I brought my uneasiness to God. Quickly, He pointed out I was lumping all division together, making no distinction between good division and bad. Jesus said, for instance, that He didn’t come to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Jesus also got in theological tangles with scribes and Pharisees.
Being Jesus’s body means He will continue drawing lines and bringing good division through us. Some of the upheaval of the Reformation was due to good division: light separated from darkness, truth from error, God’s kingdom from man’s.
That said, division is part and parcel with our fallen nature; we all go our own way (Isaiah 53:6). People went their own way during the Reformation as much as ever. One article in the magazine talked of a prince who switched from Catholic to Protestant depending on which benefitted him at the time. Doing so created divisions in his kingdom and even his own family. It’s hard to see anything but flesh and selfishness in such divisions.
A fair amount of theolgical squabbling was just men wanting to be right; they were stirred by debate and not God’s Spirit. Still, vital truths were on the line at that time. Had they not been defended, the gospel might’ve been lost.
One fruit of all this is denominations. Denominations are repositories of all this division–good and bad. It’s easy to see how denominations enshrine disagreement. Every tradition has a tale about their “ex” whom they left due to irreconcilable differences.
Then again, denominations show that Christians can have different convictions. God has spelled many things out. But there are areas He leaves for us to decide, areas we are free to think differently on. Jesus asks what good it is if we only love those that love us (Matt. 5:46). Is there anything divine about love that’s only extended to our own kind? Isn’t God Himself three yet one? Isn’t marriage between members of the opposite sex?
Maybe there is divine purpose in churches being different yet loving one another. And maybe we need to adjust our understanding of John 13:35. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you all think the same, worship the same, and are basically Xerox copies.”
Getting rid of all division is neither realistic nor biblical. We just need the Lord’s discernment between godly and fleshly division. We want to walk in the former and avoid the latter as much as possible. To this point, I can think of no better rule-of-thumb than that offered by Richard Baxter, the English Puritan: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Christians of all stripes can say “Amen” to that!