History reminds us that America too has had its own civil war. Sometimes when I look at all that trash talking in the current political race, I wonder how much more it would take to push her into yet another civil war. Let’s hope not.
Any kind of war is a horrible thing, regardless of the cause. War never has a winner; they all only have losers. Sure, you may be on the side that the history books ultimately record as the winning side, but does that really make you a winner? When man’s inhumanity to fellow man is involved, when emotions begin to boil over, can anybody really be a winner? When humans believe that it is their right to take the life of another for the sake of a particular ideal, can there really be a winner? I fail to see how.
Now suppose that a war never had an end. Suppose that children are born and grow up and live their whole lives in time of war. Suppose that is also true of their children and their children’s children after them. Wars such as the 100 Years' War (1337-1453) between England and France must have been like this. Imagine living your whole life and never knowing a time of peace? You might even grow up thinking that war was normal.
Now let me change gears a little.
There’s another war that’s still being fought that has gone on for so long now, for generation after generation, many think it is also normal. It’s a war not fought with guns and bullets, or in political arenas, but rather one fought with tongues and words and religious doctrines. It’s a spiritual civil war that we could perhaps even call the 1000 Years’ War (or more).
What is this great spiritual civil war that I am referring to? It is none other than “Denominationalism.” I’ve discussed this many times before, such as in The Things the Lord Hates, Part 7, but I find it so evil, so vile, that the message bears repeating. Denominationalism has become the great spiritual civil war of the church, and like all wars, it knows no winner.
Why do I say it’s a “civil” war? I do so because, just as a physical war within a country is called “civil” (though ironically it’s anything but “civil”), it seems logical to call a spiritual war within the same body of Christ a “civil” war. Just as a nation is divided amongst itself in times of civil war, so too the body of Christ is divided amongst itself in times of spiritual civil war. The sad thing is that this has gone on for so long now (even Paul dealt with it in 1 Corinthians 1: 10-13) that many think it is actually normal.
I know of situations where neighborhood institutional church groups actually refused to work together, even in a little matter of loaning the other an overhead projector. Why? The unofficial answer was because they were of a different denomination, and where therefore different than us. While that illustration might shock many of us, if we were really and truly honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we’ve also focused on the differences a time or two (or twenty) before as well. After all, it’s normal, right? Hmm.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)
Despite the fact that the Gospel message is one of peace and love and joy and brotherhood in the Holy Spirit, the church has grown up with an ugly and festering sore on its rear end called denominationalism. While we piously get together with those of like doctrine, the evil sinful nature in us called “dissentions and factions” (Galatians 5:20) continues to ooze its venom throughout the body. And again, this has been going on for so long, that we think it normal and maybe even justified.
The fact that Jesus himself prayed that there might be unity in the church (John 17: 20-23) seems to go strangely unnoticed by us. If we did notice that prayer of his, and truly cared, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that the church would have long since done something about its denominational dissentions and factions? Wouldn’t it be logical to assume that we would long since have labeled any form of denominationalism a heresy? (Ouch). No wonder the world calls the church hypocrites; they see the truth of this even though the church itself appears not to.
The interesting thing is, we can still be guilty of the same sin even without officially identifying with any specific denomination. So lest we think we’re all that simply because we do not use denominational handles in our place of worship, the denominational spirit may dwell in us just the same. We could still be fighting the same spiritual civil war as the denominationalists. Our lack of love towards our fellow man, and especially towards those who call on the same Lord that we do, is often just as divisive.
So where do we go from here?
Well first of all we need to unbury our heads from the sand and recognize the problem before us. Do we see this as an issue? Or have generations and generations of spiritual civil war so blinded us that we still cannot see the truth of this evil in the church? None of us really believes that we will be segregated in heaven across denominational lines, do we? Of course not! Then why do we do so here? If we can see that dividing the body of Christ across denominational titles is truly divisive, then we must stop using such titles, and we must do so now. If we continue in this spirit, what does that say about what we really believe concerning Christian unity and brotherhood and love?
Secondly, I would suggest making a real and genuine effort to learn how to fellowship with believers from different backgrounds and traditions. As an ex-Baptist, one of the best things I ever did was to go to work for a Catholic institution, not because I now embrace Catholic doctrines (I don’t), but because doing so helped to break down some of those denominational divisions that I too strangely once thought were normal. In truth, they were anything but normal.
Augustine once said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” I would suggest that there are far fewer essentials to the Christian faith than we have come to think there are. For me, the essentials are neatly summed up in the old Apostles' Creed (Note: Do not be confused by the lower case “catholic.” It does not mean the same as the upper case “Catholic.”). This ancient creed should be the common denominator that unites all true Christians. In my way of thinking, anything beyond that would become the non-essentials that Augustine spoke of.
Thirdly, I would argue, when the body of Christ is dividing and factioning itself over non-essentials, when it continues to identify itself with denominational titles, then it is not acting in love. Call a spade a spade; that is the bottom line. Mask it any way you want to, but failing to fellowship with other Christians over non-essentials is the same as saying to them, “I do NOT love you!” It’s funny, in a sad kind of way, that though Jesus calls us to love even enemies, we cannot seem to love those in the same body of Christ. We truly do need to learn to love all over again.
John Lennon once said, “War is over (if you want it).” Do we want it to be over? Do we yearn for real unity and brotherhood in the church of Christ? If so, we must stop focusing on all those petty things that make us different. If so, we must stop focusing on those evil denominational titles that only prove that what we are really saying is that we are different than those believers over there. If so, we must stop with all the negative attitudes and belittling of the non-essentials that other Christians maybe do hold dear and begin practicing some good old fashioned charity toward them instead.
Until then, I suspect that the spiritual civil war will continue pretty much unchanged.
Postscript: I have a couple big questions left, but I’m going to leave them for you to fill in. So, in the words of Mission: Impossible, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it," is to give me your thoughts on the following questions:
- What do we do when we do not agree with each other on those little things, even though we may agree on the bigger essentials of the faith?
- What do you suppose God would have us to do in such circumstances?
- How will we answer God when one day, as we stand before His throne, He asks us about this very thing?
Peace & Blessings.
Photo Credit: Yoko Ono exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Flickr Creative Commons.