The problem of religious division and the animosity that accompanies it is an old, old one. There were religious divisions among the Jews of Jesus’ day. Most prominent of the sects were the Pharisees and Sadducees, both of which played prominent roles in their common desire to get rid of Jesus. Jealousy may have played a part, but mostly their opposition was because of their own misconceptions of what God expected of man and what the Messiah should be when he came. They simply would not look at Jesus as he presented himself to them. They would not “see” him as the Messiah sent from God. They would not see him as the solution to their problems because they thought they already had all the answers. And so they killed him.
Jesus called people like this “blind guides.” They were attempting to lead other blind people when they themselves could not see the light of day.
“Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14).
Twice again he referred to people as blind guides. In Matthew 23, in his scathing rebuke of the “scribes, (Bible copyists), and Pharisees he uses this and other very stern, uncomplimentary words to describe what they were doing. These people were “experts” at the law. They, of all the Jews, had all the nuances of the law figured out. They “knew” what God expected of them and believed they were doing all that was necessary to be pleasing to God. Their narrow focus on law did not permit them to see that Jesus was the way to God.
This is the way it has always been with man. When we become convinced that we are right in some conclusion we will defend that to the bitter end because we believe our integrity, our honor, is at stake. That is doubly true in religion because we believe our eternal destiny as well as our honor hangs in the balance. We stake our eternal future upon our conclusions, confusing them with ultimate, revealed truth. We confuse our stubborn insistence on consistently with faithfulness to God. We make our faithfulness to tradition equivalent to being true to the Bible. As a result of such attitudes, Jesus as the only way out of the confusion is completely overlooked.
The web of human confusion that has resulted in the present condition of division in the “Christian” world is so tangled that to try and understand it, much less to undo it is utterly impossible. There is absolutely no way to justify it and no way to hang on to even bits and pieces of the broken system so as to feel comfortable and secure the familiar surroundings of sectarianism if we ever want to find a way out. It is impossible to wade through this morass of traditions and human interpretations. To enter into such an endeavor would be an exercise in frustration and futility. The only way out is to simply abandon it in favor of something better – something simpler.
This is where the reformationists and restorationists went wrong. They tried to hold on to the parts of the apostate church they did not perceive as having need of correction. They did not see that the whole system was a fabrication of mistaken human assumptions. They thought as just having need of being reworked in order to be workable when it really needed to be discarded and replaced, not with something new and different, but with the original and genuine.
What is the solution to the whole problem of sectarianism, denominationalism and division? What is the answer to the stand-offishness and suspicion between people who profess faith in Jesus? How do we overcome the animosity that comes from our differences?
First of all, we have to recognize that we have a problem of epic proportions on our hands. Then we have to recognize that there is a solution to the problem. We have to recognize that it is the desire of the Lord that we work with all our might to end the enmity and come together as his people in the oneness he creates when he brings people to himself.
We cannot do this by pretending that there is no problem – that the situation of differences, division and exclusion is what the Lord designed and that we have succeeded in implementing his design by creating and maintaining the status quo. We must recognize that no sectarian schism is acceptable with him. As long as we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and pretend that there is nothing wrong or that nothing we can done about what is wrong, nothing will change.
This means that people must care enough to do something about the problem. We should be grieved about the situation as it exists just as we know God is grieved by it. We should see it as a flagrant disregard of the divine design, a thwarting of his purpose for the human race. What is his purpose, his design for man and for all of creation? Paul said that God has …
“[made] known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10).
There is embodied in this statement the solution to the problem before the human race. God’s purpose – his plan for bringing all things together – in Christ. The solution is also seen in the preaching of the apostles. Peter’s sermon on Pentecost consisted of preaching Christ crucified, buried, resurrected and exalted. Paul’s preaching illustrated this. He said …
“… but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is what we must return to in order to overcome the vast problems of today. This is the only plan that is workable. It worked in the first century. It is God’s plan for the ages. It is his plan for today as a solution to the mess that sinful man has gotten us into. If we do not do this we simply continue to contribute to the problem. It is not Christ and…. There must be nothing else. Everything we need is in him.
What about the church? Shouldn’t we teach what the church is, about its work and its worship? Absolutely! But not apart from Christ. We have already seen that as the church we owe our very existence to him. The familiar metaphor for the church as the “body of Christ” should tell us something of what should be taught, or more to the point, what the church should be. The church is to be the living, active presence of Christ in the world. This means that the pattern for the church is Christ. He is not just the authority over the church – the church only has life – the ability to move and do things because of being “in him.”
God’s eternal purpose is realized “… according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Ephesians 3:11). What Paul is speaking of here is the existence of the church being the revelation of God’s eternal purpose or the “mystery” he speaks of in this chapter.
He further emphasized the connection between Christ and the church in Ephesians 1:21-23. He said that God had set him…
“…far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
The church is the “body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” So close is the connection and so vital is the responsibility of the church because of it, that the church is said to bring to the intended end or completion of God’s purpose in Christ. How does the church do this? I believe it is by being the living demonstration of Christ to the world.
What this means is that the church is not an organization with a threefold work to do – evangelism, edification and benevolence. That is an institutional view of the church. Rather, the church is a living entity with a life of glory to live out in the midst of the sinful world. It is human beings being made over into the image of Christ and together reflecting that image into the world in a thousand different ways. The church is the personal, living, active, loving, caring, functional reflection of his love by his people.
I believe we must rid ourselves of the institutional concept of the church. We must be done with institutionalism in whatever form it supplants Christ. Institutionalism does not have to be about “human institutions,” benevolent, educational or otherwise. We can have an institutional concept of the church. When we view the church as an “it” – as something other than “we” or “us” we are as institutional as anyone else. When we consider ourselves “members” of the church “it” becomes something to be contributed to in order to do “its” work rather than we working together in harmony with one another. What God wants is his people acting in this world as Jesus acted when he was here, doing the kinds of things he did – not an impersonal institution dispensing money to a “cause.”
More to come…