This is first in a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
John records the last public prayer of Jesus in John 17. Jesus had just finished delivering His final discourse to the disciples when He “lifted up His eyes to heaven” and said:
Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me…
Shortly after praying for the unity of His people, Jesus was crucified. For many of His disciples, those words were the last words they heard out of His mouth.
I just received my new phone book today. I turned to the yellow pages and counted 112 different denominations of professing Christians in the Denver area. These 112 different denominations are all ecclesiastically divided because of each denomination’s “doctrinal distinctives”. Many of them have long and bitter histories of separation. Many of them have theological family trees that go back to a common denomination. All of them are very proud of the doctrinal stances they have taken to protect their denominational distinctives from the harm that they believe would be caused by “unbelievers” in their particular doctrines being among them.
It is very rare these days (perhaps it has always been rare, I have not lived long enough to know) for Christians to publicly confess their sins. But what is even more rare, in fact, it is unheard of, is a public confession of the sin of factionalism. One of two things must be true: either the sin of factionalism is no longer happening, or the sin of factionalism has become such a part of Church culture that it is no longer even perceived. 112 separate denominations, all claiming to be Christian, answers the question.
The thesis of this series is simple. The evangelical Church in the United States is guilty, on a massive scale, of the sin of factionalism. The sinful practice of factionalism has become so dominant in Church culture that Christians are no longer able to perceive it. In fact, it is much worse. Not only is factionalism a regular practice in the Church, it is a practice that the Church takes pride in performing. Individual factions glory in their separateness. Tremendous amounts of time and energy are expended in tossing theological hand grenades back and forth between the various factions. In many cases, a man may make progress up the chain of command in a particular church by demonstrating how vociferously he can attack other factions of believers.
Our factionalism has many negative consequences. Jesus’ prayer indicates just a few of them. The Church today is not sanctified. The Church today is ignorant of God’s Word. The Church today has little conception of the truth. When the world examines the Church there is absolutely nothing there that would cause anyone to believe in Jesus. The glory that we are to have as the Bride of Christ is covered with filth. The world does not know that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of His people.
Our foolish, sinful squabbling between ourselves is a horrible offense to the glory of God. Our ecclesiastical separation makes a mockery of the glorious unity of the Trinity. Our protection of distinctive theological turf has resulted in the total irrelevance of the Church in our country today. I believe the sin of factionalism to be the single greatest sin in the Church today. Our factionalism destroys the visible representation of the very nature of God Himself. As I write this I am unable to find the words to express how evil it is that we glory in our factionalism.
Biblical unity is not an option. God commands that we be united. We have ignored His command. In what follows I am going to examine the biblical principles of conflict resolution. We are separated because we have conflicts and we do not resolve them properly. Conflicts can originate from many different parts of life. In this paper I will examine conflicts coming from three different areas in life: conflicts due to sinful behavior, conflicts that are matters of the weaker/stronger brother distinction, and conflicts due to unwise priorities and personal insecurities. Each of these types of conflict will be examined in turn. Before doing that, however, a couple of definitions are in order.