“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated” (George Washington).
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Washington was an American general and commander-in-chief of the colonial armies in the American Revolution (1775–83) and, subsequently, the first president of the United States (1789–97). He died on December 14, 1799 in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Washington was a deist. He believed in nature’s God, but not necessarily in the God of the Bible. His answer to the problem of religious animosity would have been to abandon all organized religion and the Bible and rely on God’s revelation of himself in nature and through human reason. That may have gotten rid of sectarianism and denominationalism, but would it have really brought man any closer to God? That kind of religion can only postulate universal law, but cannot know the nature of a loving God who desires to live in relationship with man. From nature we can know there is a God, but only by his special revelation of himself, that is, through the Bible, can God be known.
There were people near the time of Washington who likewise decried the religious animosities and sectarian divisions of that day – and decided to do something about it. People all around this country began discarding human creeds and practices, calling themselves by the name “Christian” and called on others to join them in a return to the simple gospel preached by the apostles and early Christians. For example, just ten years after Washington died, in 1809 John Mulkey, a preacher right here in the county in which I live, took his stand on Bible truth about the free will of man and abandoned the denominational creed of Calvinistic predestination. Some of the people disagreed with Mulkey, but the majority of the congregation stayed with him, including an ancestor of mine, Hannah Boone Stewart Pennington, (sister of Daniel Boone), and my great, great, great, great, great grandmother. (The historic restored meetinghouse where this took place, Old Mulkey, with its cemetery and grounds, is now a Kentucky State Park).
At first the efforts of the restorationists were stunningly successful. This Restoration, some believed, was about to sweep away the traditional Protestant denominations, at least on the frontier of the new country. But as so often happens, disagreements arose among them and the movement fragmented into a number sects, each disagreeing with the other, sometimes bitterly, about what should or should not be included in the restoration of the church. Animosity has a way of rearing its ugly head, especially in the most noble of efforts to bring people together in the unity for which Jesus prayed.
On a broader scale, there is the animosity that exists between the world religions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions. All too often today this animosity comes to bitterly violent expressions of war and terrorism. With religious partisans who are convinced that their way is the only right way, there is little chance of changing things by reasoning or compromise. Theirs is a mission from God to destroy all opponents and these people will gladly die what they consider to be a martyr’s death rather than concede even one point of their faith.
Is there a way to overcome religious animosity? Can people who have been so fundamentally opposed to each other ever be reconciled? Can they live in peace and brotherhood with one another? If it were not possible, would Jesus have died for the lost of all nations? Would he have given the Great Commission, commanding his followers to make disciples from among all nations? Would he have prayed for the unity of believers?
If the animosities among the religions of the world has not been overcome at this date, how can we expect it to be accomplished in our time? How can Christians achieve that in which others have failed?
I believe the answer to that question lies in a return to what the apostles preached and which the early Christians believed. The apostle Paul repeated over and over what he preached. He was the most successful evangelist of the first century. Largely through his efforts the widely different Jews and the pagan gentile worshipers of idol gods were brought together in the beautiful harmony in a common relationship in Christ.
What did Paul preach that brought about this astounding result? I’ll let him tell you what he preached.
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17).
“… but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
The core – the very heart of Paul’s preaching was Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is what Peter preached on the day of Pentecost – Jesus crucified, buried, resurrected and glorified. This was the message that brought 3,000 souls to salvation that day and thousands more as the same message was echoed throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and into the uttermost parts of the earth.
But didn’t the restorationists do this? Isn’t this what they preached? Well, yes and no. They did preach Christ as Savior, the crucified, buried and resurrected Lord, but they preached something else.
They preached the restoration of the church as essential to the fulfillment of God’s plan for man. They set about to restore the church through human discovery and endeavor and in this there was the seed of division and sectarianism. For instance, Alexander Campbell, the foremost leader of the American Restoration Movement believed that the millennium, the rule of God over all the earth, could only be achieved with the restoration of the church to its original form. Thus, they sought to restore the church by human effort. Because they perceived the denominations as thwarting the divine plan, they preached against the denominational churches because they did not fit the pattern of the New Testament church. But because none could agree on what the pattern of the New Testament church was supposed to be, they divided and divided again and again until the restoration churches became as sectarian as the most sectarian denomination.
Eventually this emphasis on the church overshadowed the preaching of Christ as Savior and Lord. I started preaching in the late 1950’s when another of the controversies over the church and what it could and could not do and be faithful to Christ was just heating up. During the days before, during and after this controversy, the preaching I heard and the preaching that I did was mainly centered on the church.
Now, lest some say I don’t believe in the church, let me assure you that I most certainly do. I believe everything the New Testament teaches about it. I believe Christ purchased it with his blood. I believe it is the body of Christ and as such is to be the living presence of the living Christ in the world. But I don’t believe what men teach about it. I believe we have gotten things backward when we neglect to preach Christ and him crucified by giving primary emphasis to the church. It is wrong to give more emphasis to the saved than we give to the Savior.
Tomorrow we will look at some reasons why I say that and what we should do about it. We will propose this as the solution to all religious animosity and division.