On What Issues are Christians United?
This page discusses Christian unity on several fronts. A quote from the Student Quarterly said "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity." I thought that was a really good thought from the seventeenth century that should be repeated today for this lesson.
There are a few items on which most Christians are united. I realize that some of the items I have mentioned in my list here don't have 100% unity, but unity is broad enough in general that I'm calling them a win for unity anyway.
- We recognize God as a triune God, commonly identified as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - three distinct individuals in the Godhead, working and cooperating together in purpose and plan with complete unity.
- We believe that the man we know as Jesus (Yeshua) was a member of this Godhead, set His divinity aside, was born of the virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, lived a sinless life on Earth as man, was crucified and died on the cross to provide the means of salvation from our sins, was buried, went to paradise and preached to those righteous individuals who had died before Him, was bodily resurrected on the third day after His crucifixion, took those in paradise to heaven with Him, and is enthroned again with the Father in heaven.
- We believe that He commanded His followers to go into all the world, to preach the Gospel to everyone, to baptize in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to make disciples.
- We believe that the Church is made up of all Christians around the world who have accepted Christ as their Savior.
- We believe that He sent the Holy Spirit to aid in this work and to comfort us in His absence. Today, Pentecost Sunday, is the anniversary of when the Holy Spirit was poured out in fullness, baptizing those that were waiting in the upper room in Jerusalem for this purpose.
- We believe in the practices of Communion and Water Baptism.
- We believe in a literal heaven and hell.
- We believe that Jesus is coming again at some time in the future (perhaps the very near future) to take His Church to heaven. He will resurrect the physical bodies of those Christians who have died to be reunited with their souls which leave the body at death.
- We believe that after the Church is taken at Christ's coming in the air, that there will be a seven year period of tribulation on the Earth as God pours out His righteous anger and judgment on it.
- We believe that Christ will come again and reign on Earth 1,000 years.
- We believe that this Earth will pass away and God will create a new heaven and a new Earth where we will eventually dwell.
- We believe that the angel known as Satan who was ruler of Earth in the distant past, will be bound during the 1,000 year reign of Christ, will be loosed on the world to stir up rebellion after that period, but will at the end be bound and cast into the lake of fire, along with all those who have not accepted Christ as their Savior.
- Our God reigns.
On What Issues are Christians not United?
There are also many subjects on which Christians are not united. My purpose in listing these isn't to necessarily give answers or to get into a debate. It is only to show how far we have fallen from unity. Most of you will know the answers already.
- Political issues: Technically, I'm a Republican, but I vote for whatever candidate I feel will do the best job in office, regardless of their party affiliation (or even whether they are one of the major party candidates). For some races in the recent past, that means I haven't supported my party's candidate for years.
What was Christ's position on politics? He was neutral. The Jewish population was under Roman occupation at the time. It would have been popular with many to support overthrowing the government. Yet when religious leaders tried to entrap Him in this hot issue, Christ said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marveled at him." That didn't necessarily mean that He had no opinion on how the Romans were treating the Jews. But it wasn't His duty to burden down His ministry with temporal issues that had no bearing on the soul or His followers final destinations.
- Major social issues:
- Slavery - The early history of several denominations show they were against slavery. Yet slavery existed in Christ's time. What was the teaching there? Christian masters were to treat their slaves well. Christian slaves were to render good service. There was no outcry over it in scripture. Christians were to treat each other equally.
- Abortion - The debate over this issue is about as divisive as any in the country today. If you poll any church congregation in the U.S. today, you will find those who are against abortion for any reason, those who will support abortion to save the life of the mother, those who would allow abortion in the case of rape or incest, those who would support it in the case of genetic abnormalities, those who are pro choice for any reason, and a few who would like to see it made available retroactively for people like Stalin, Hitler, Bundy, or others. Yet the Bible is almost totally silent on the issue save for the scripture where if two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman so that she loses her child but doesn't lose her own life, the husband of the woman could take them to court if he chose for a monetary award representing the potential lost work value of the child. A far cry from the penalty of murder that is so often bandied about.
- Most typical thou should not do - drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, what is permitted for us to eat, et cetera are divisive. Some have some scriptural basis. We are commanded to not get drunk, for example, and we are to maintain our bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit. Yet there is much division here, and there was some division in the early church over these things that Paul addressed in lessons we will have this quarter.
Most issues like these will have some guidance in the Bible. In these things we need to have charity and not create a stumbling block for any in their walk with Christ, but we must not let them become divisive among us.
- Christian issues: Sadly there are many issues that divide the church that Christ would have something to say about. They touch every major element of the church.
- What makes up the Bible? If you talk to most Protestant denominations, you will get one answer. If you talk to Catholics, you will get a different answer. We can't even agree on the book names for the books we do both include. It used to be that there were only a handful of versions even with the Protestants. Now it seems like there is a new version cropping up every few weeks. I'm not opposed to making God's word more readable (although I still much prefer the King James Translation, but I am opposed to new versions that change the meaning of scripture (whether it be changing the spirit of the original, or making light of sin). God is a masculine entity. The "Mother Earth" or Gaia movement is not of God. Trying to change scripture to make God gender neutral doesn't impress me.
- The splitting of the church into denominations. As the scripture today mentions:
1 Cor. 1:10-17
Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided?
We're about the most divided bunch of people you can imagine. Denominations are fracturing left and right. Churches are splitting left and right. I will readily grant that in any large town, it is necessary to have multiple churches to physically accommodate all who would like to worship, but the divisions among us on so many issues is astounding. It works against the plan of God to reach the world when we are not united as a block.
- Communion - There are different methods of taking communion. Some pass out individual cups and others use a communal cup. There are different beliefs about the communion elements. This is particularly noted between Catholics and Protestants. Some churches practice Communion that is closed, allowing only their particular denomination (or their particular church members) to partake. Others allow open communion for any Christian. This is a simple thing. Why should there be any division here at all among the Church?
- Baptism - Is it right to baptize infants or should they be dedicated? Are babies under a state of grace regardless of their baptism status? For baptism of Christians, does it count if you were baptized by another denomination or do you have to start over? It is a command to be baptized, but it is not a requirement to enter heaven. Only your belief in Christ and acceptance of His sacrifice to cover your sins will matter when you die. You may have some explaining to do as to how well you followed Christ's commands, but your salvation is not of works.
- The Holy Spirit - Is the work of the Holy Spirit limited to leading people to Christ? Were the Spiritual Gifts just for the early church or are they equally available today? Is the baptism in the Holy Spirit a separate event? This is a core issue that divides many denominations. Those mainline denominations that do not allow the Holy Spirit to have free reign any time in their services are missing out on a great experience. Those who do not seek the infilling of the Holy Spirit are missing out on a tremendous source of power and support. It is true that the Holy Spirit baptizes you into the Body of Christians and is with every Christian in measure. The immersion in the Holy Spirit - the baptism - is something all should seek.
- What is the role of those Christians who have passed on before? Is it right for humans to bestow Sainthood based on our limited knowledge of the people's hearts? Does praying to Saints have any purpose? The Bible says to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ (John 16:23-26)
- What are the issues of the after life that divide us? Is there a purgatory that has a place in Christianity? Paul (or the author of Hebrews if you don't believe Paul wrote it) said, "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment". Although this is in a passage about Christ, it is still very applicable to mankind. You are judged based on your relationship with Jesus Christ at death. There are no second chances.
- Sin and the church - Homosexuality is dividing the church. Denominations are splitting over the treatment of this one issue, more than any other. You can't escape the unequivocal Biblical statements on this issue. Homosexuality is sin. Love the sinner. Show them the path out of sin. Hate the sin.
The Catholic church in particular, but not exclusively, has been rocked by sex problems between priests and others (particularly children). They have missed Paul's teaching - "I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." I will grant that he wasn't speaking as a commandment, but his advice is sound, nevertheless. The problems of these two issues are gradually destroying the main line denominations.
In all these things, Christ and the Bible are pretty clear about the answers. We need to heal the divisions and get back in unity with one another letting the Bible be the foundation and heal the petty splits over issues that the Bible settles. Most of the items in this list are essentials. God hasn't changed. God isn't going to change. What He has said He will do will be done. Stop the division. Begin to share with one another and seek out the best that each offers for all. Put the Holy Spirit back in the driver seat in your services. Find unity again.
Christian Unity and Us
When you are listening to a speaker, you generally expect that his conclusion will summarize the most important points of the message. During Christ's ministry, He gave many commands. The apostles also added other commands in the letters to the early churches of the area. But for this part of the lesson, I want to concentrate on Christ's last recorded commands as I think they were the most important things on His heart to lay out the direction He wanted His followers to take.
Who can tell me what they were? The last commands were in direct response to the commands recorded at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Taking an example from Mark "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature."
Following this, there are other short excerpts of His interaction with the disciples. His last command is recorded at the end of Luke, as well as Acts 1 which I will use for the text:
"And (Jesus) commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence..."
After a digression about the kingdom, he gets back on His point:
"But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth."
This would truly prepare the disciples to fulfill the commandment to bring the Gospel message to the world - first to their neighbors, then cities around them, then to nearby countries, and finally to the limits of their known world.
On Pentecost, the 50th day after the waving of the sheaf of the first-fruits, the 120 disciples were gathered together in one place and with one accord. They had been meeting in the temple court on an ongoing basis to praise God and pray. Dake notes,
They were committed both to waiting for God's time to fulfill His promise, and to the command He had left them.
When it comes to unity in the church today, everything boils down to this one item. We have His written words as recorded in the New Testament for the business He wants His church to be about. From time to time, the Holy Spirit will reveal other specific things He wants us to accomplish through words of Wisdom, Prophecy, or through Tongues and Interpretation. All of these should be in harmony with the written word that we can verify and should be measured by those with the gift of Discernment as well. As long as these things are done, we can be confident in the direction He wants us to go. Has Christ given us any specific commandments identifying the purpose and works that we should be fulfilling? How are we going about fulfilling the commands He left in the written word?
In any case where the Church's focus has strayed, it needs to immediately get back to being united with God in whatever direction He wants to lead us. As long as the Church has its primary focus on any other mission, there will not be any lasting unity and the mission will ultimately not be successful. The basics haven't changed in 2,000 years. Our focus needs to be Go, Make Disciples, Baptize, and Instruct. All of these parts are equally important. We can preach, and have people accept the Lord as their Savior, but if we don't instruct, they will frequently drift away. If we don't actively go and witness, then even if we have the best instruction in the world, it will be ultimately only self serving and not lead anyone new to Christ.
There are a tremendous number of other good things that should be associated with a particular church's existence (and by church here, I'm referring to any group of Christian believers whether associated with a physical church building or denomination, or just an independent group) and many churches do fill many of these roles. As you read the second and third chapters of Revelation, you see letters to seven churches. Are there any similarities with any churches you know of today? Many are commended for their works. Yet the church of Ephesus is rebuked for leaving their first love. What is this first love?
If you were brought up outside the church, what was the first thing you wanted to do when you became a Christian? Lead those you knew at the time to Christ lest they die and go to Hell. I can't prove one way or another that this was what Christ was referring to when He said the church had forsaken its first love, but it is my opinion. They had gotten wrapped up in doing stuff just as much of the church has today. Many churches have programs for everything, because we wouldn't want our kids actually interacting with the worldly equivalent of the programs. Much of what is done has virtually no chance of winning anyone to Christ, unless a non-Christian happens to wander in off the street. The churches exist solely to instruct those who should already know the answers.
Everything the church does needs to be evaluated in light of whether it meets one of the commandments of Christ - Go and preach, make disciples, baptize, and instruct. Do the various items in the worship service serve to praise and uplift God and our spirits or are they just routine things with no power? Do we bring our needs to the church because we know the people there will pray and God will move, or do we keep them to ourselves because the power of God is not present? All questions to reflect on.
The other key to the success at Pentecost was that everyone was united in the plan. When God moved, the 120 were ready. They went out witnessing and preaching in foreign languages that they didn't previously know. The Jews who were gathered in Jerusalem were astounded. 3,000 were added to the kingdom during that one revival through direct one on one or one on a few preaching and ministering. Unity is a powerful thing. Not everyone is called to preach or to be teachers or assume other critical positions in the church. But if there is unity, then every single person can be praying continually for the success of the body's mission. Have you prayed for your church (or the church) today?
What to do When Unity Fails
Nonetheless, there are times that we aren't united. Perhaps we have very good reasons for our lack of unity (or think we do). Any significantly large body of people are likely to disagree from time to time. The question remains: What do we do then?
- Satan is always working to destroy harmony and unity in any body of believers because the church is a more potent weapon against his plans when it is in harmony and when it is in unity. Remember first that we fight against principalities and powers. There is a battle going on in heaven above every place where Christians meet. Pray first for the spiritual forces of God to take the upper hand. Many times they are hindered, even though God is on their side. Just read about the angel that came to speak to Daniel in Daniel 8. The forces of Satan hindered him until Michael came to his aid. God's purpose was carried out, but it was delayed for 21 days.
- Pray earnestly about your own attitudes in what is going on. It is possible that the body is united and wrong, that the body is united and right, that the body is disunited, and of course you can be right or wrong. It is certain that none of us is perfect. You need to determine what God wants you to do and do it. Remember next that "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" applies today just as much as it did in the past. You need to follow God's will for you and it may take prayer and fasting to see the correct response.
- Try not to tear down God's work, even if you are sure the body of believers you are in disagreement with is in the wrong. You might end up back among them some day and there is no point tearing down bridges you might want to cross again. Even if you never return to that particular body while on Earth, there's a good chance that you'll meet some or most of them in heaven since most of the things we are in disagreement about aren't things that have eternal significance anyway (assuming the church accepts and follows the Bible in the first place). Satan lives for the chance to use disgruntled Christians against one another. It makes his job convincing the world not to seek out fellowship with the Church so much easier.
- Remember that the time is short. Is what you disagree with truly that important considering the damage changing churches may do to your kids? There is much merit in sticking with a course of action. If you are the father in the family, take the leadership role and make some decisions, even if they are unpopular. Pray and do what you feel God is telling you to do.
- Finally, remember that God's command to be at peace with all men, to the best you are able, includes your brothers and sisters in Christ. When there is cancer at the top of an organization, you are in a very tough position. That's why we need to be really careful in who we promote to positions of responsibility. They must follow the Bible and not the whims of what the world wants to believe. On that final day, God will be coming back for a church that is living up to His standards that he set over the last several thousand years. He isn't interested in the current day amendments to His Word that many are preaching and teaching.
I am really stressing unity today, both because it is the lesson for the day, and because I think that it is really needed in the Christian Church today. The Church is under attack on all fronts. If we are not united together, we will be defeated separately. There are a host of denominations, churches, and Christians out there. Many have different styles of worship - and that is OK. The point is to find somewhere where you can be united with the focus and intent of the church, and to make the most of what is offered. Time is short. We need to stop flitting from spot to spot every couple of months, settle down, and get down to Christ's business.