People have long lamented the divided condition of the people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. Many efforts have been made to bring about reconciliation between various groups of people. Very little has been accomplished through these attempts.
By far the greatest reaction to the age-old problem has been more or less a mutual “cease-fire” along with a justification for continuing separation with something like, “We really are united – our differences are OK with God because he likes diversity.” If that were so, why would Jesus have prayed for the unity of believers? The unity he desires is that believers be one in the same way he and the Father are one (John 17:20-21). If God likes the kind of diversity exhibited in religion, why would division be so soundly rebuked in the New Testament? The excuse of division by means of sophistry such as this is nothing but the attempts of men to hold on to the things that divide believers at the cost of divine approval.
We have asserted through this series that the things that divide those who profess to be followers of Jesus are human rationalizations and traditions of men. They are fragments and holdovers from reformation/restoration efforts. They are often doctrines formulated as reactions to other doctrines formulated by men, not as interpretations of divine truth. In a fight, people will use whatever weapon that works to defeat the enemy. These battlefield weapons, like cudgels, are instruments used to attack or defend human thoughts and conclusions and are relics of bygone eras and long forgotten battles. Yet people cling to these doctrines and the religious heritage forged by them as essential to their peculiar identities – identities which they treasure more than divine approval.
There is a major movement today to drop denominational identities in favor of “generic,” “nondenominational” names, e.g., Resonate, Revolution, Radiance, Elevation, Mosaic, enCompass, Epiphany Station, Soma, The Bridge, Paradox, Legacy, Spread Church, etc., etc. Sounds like you are walking down the laundry detergent, dairy or toy departments in a supermarket! Denominational names and titles, they have learned, do not “sell” today. But there remains in these efforts a commitment to the same traditional human doctrines that were the basis of the denominations in the first place. To turn the old disclaimer from movies and TV around a bit, “Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty!” These are not honest, forthright attempts to be more scriptural; they are deceitful marketing ploys to cover up a denomination. It is not like Juliet’s line from the Shakespearean play, “Romeo and Juliet” (II, ii, 1-2). “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” The fact is, garbage by any other name stinks just the same!
There is one name that is not found in these “market driven” churches. That is the name of Jesus Christ. Why do you suppose that is? Why is the name of Jesus not prominent in these “off-brand” name churches? All these names like the old “standard brands” push him into the background. He is just not that important. Man is the center of all things religious these days so far as many are concerned.
It matters little whether it be the old-line Protestant denominations, the current “seeker friendly,” “family oriented,” entertainment model churches, evangelical churches, fundamentalist/dispensational churches, the splinters of the various “restoration” movements – all would be swept away by one thing. Preaching Christ and him crucified. Preaching Christ and him alone. Exclusively. Nothing else.
I can hear some scoffing now. “Ridiculous!” “That would never work!”
Before you dismiss this as the ravings of an old, senile fool, hear me out. There was a time in history when this was done – and there were more people converted to the Lord than at any other time. This is what the apostles and the early Christians did. They did not have a background, historical heritage to uphold. They did not have the battle relics of bygone religious wars with which to “contend for the faith.” They had no man-made creeds, dogmas, traditional doctrines to uphold. They had no deduced, inferred answers to humanly created “issues.” They had ONLY Christ and him crucified. That was ALL they needed! And they “turned the world upside down!”
The people who came to faith in Jesus were not separated into various sectarian corrals according to their preference. They all were the “sheep of his pasture.” They all were in the same fold. They all followed the same Shepherd. They wore no distinctive names, but the Shepherd knew them and called them by their own name. They were together as a family – the family of God. They worshiped together, learned together, prayed together, sang together, remembered the Lord together, ate together, gave together, and loved together. They WERE together because the Lord had PUT them together.
This was possible because of one thing. They all believed the same thing. They believed that Jesus was the Son of God – their Lord and King who had given himself for them. Their response was to give themselves, a living sacrifice, to him as the only reasonable response to his sacrifice in their behalf.
When division did occur in the first century, Paul’s response was to call the feuding parties back to Christ.
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
“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 1:13, 17).
Paul’s point was that it did not matter who did what in bringing these people to obedient faith; what mattered was that their faith and their hope were to be in Christ and not in men. The same thing is true today. We need nothing else.
Someone may ask, “How can we know what to do and what the church is to do if we do not have a set of doctrine, laws or something by which we can know precisely what God’s will for us is?” The problem here is exactly the same as that of the Jews of Jesus’ day. They were so committed to knowing and keeping law that they could not see him as both the source and fulfillment of the law. He was, in fact, the embodiment of the law, knowing what it required and keeping it perfectly, even though the Jews only saw him as a law-breaker.
The law given through Moses was a manifestation of the being and character of God. When he was about to give the law he reminded Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). All the law flowed out of this fact. Everything that was law was based on his character. The law was to be a constant reminder of him and his goodness. The law wasn’t an end in itself. It was a way for man to know something of their creator, deliverer and protector. But they let themselves be deceived into thinking they could keep the law perfectly and thus show themselves worthy of God’s approval. By their own doing the law stood between themselves and their God.
Jesus came into the world as the perfect representation of God to man. When Philip asked him to “Show us the Father,” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). He did not come to give a new law to man. He came to reveal the Father so that man might know God. How does that work? How does knowing God help us to know what is right for us to do?
I used to think that Jesus was giving new law in Matthew 5:17-48. I have come to realize that was not the case. When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said …” he wasn’t quoting the ten commandment law – he was referring to the interpretation of that law by the scholars and authorities of that day. So when he said, “But I say to you …”, he was giving the correct meaning of the law. The meaning they would have gotten had they known God. What Jesus gave them was a vision of the character of the Father and hence of the character of man, molded and shaped by his knowledge of God. They had allowed their view of the law get in the way of seeing God.
How does this play out as far as the church is concerned? Has the Lord given a list of rules and regulations for the church to follow in order to be pleasing to him? If so, where do we find such a list? If he hasn’t, how is the church to know what to do to please him?
Think about this question in terms of the figure Paul employs concerning the relationship of Christ and the church. He compares that relationship to that of a husband and wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). Does a loving husband make up a list of rules he expects his wife to abide by in order to be a good wife? Does he order her around like a servant? Certainly not! Yet, the wife (church) is expected to “submit” to the husband (Christ). In the loving relationship of marriage, a wife knows her husband. She knows what he likes and what he dislikes and she tries and pleases him. She does this because she loves him and wants to show her love for him.
It would be absurd for a husband to hide his real desire for his wife to please him in veiled or obscure statements and expect her to infer his meaning. Just so, the church does not have to puzzle out the Lord’s will from incidental narratives in a historical record, drawing inferences from isolated statements here and there. They will know and do his will because they know and love him. Anything else gets in the way of our vision of him. Misunderstanding of this has been the source of so much of the division and animosity among followers of Christ. We can and must do better than that!