It’s instructive to see how we behave depending on the options available in our home town. For example, I’m familiar with a town having only one Church of Christ, a struggling congregation of about 50. The church has non-institutional members, progressive members, no-Sunday school members, and even a one-cup member. You see, we will tolerate some diversity of belief when the alternative is to be all alone.
In a town with two churches, the isolation of the churches drives them to diverge in doctrine and practice. Progressive members tend to attend the church with more progressive leadership. Conservative members drift toward the church that reflects their views. Over time, the churches become very different, and churches that were once close drift apart and even disfellowship each other.
Had those two congregations begun as one, larger congregation, this may not have happened. Rather, with strong leadership, the members would have come to love each other so much that separation would be unthinkable. Grace would be a welcomed teaching, because grace allows Christians to stay with people they love. People who love each other look for ways to be together. Our frequent division is plainly symptomatic of a lack of love, and the love is missing because we insist on being isolated. “Divide and conquer” is a strategy that works well for Satan.
When we’re isolated from each other in separate churches, we can actually celebrate our division, as we are “protected” from the false teachings of the others. Of course, as we’ll never hear their reasons for believing as they do, those of us who are in error will never be corrected. We’ll just spend our lives having our error affirmed by our preacher. It’s all very comfortable and very wrong.
Here’s the solution: our elders and preachers should be in fellowship with elders and preachers in other churches. They should study the Bible together. They should study books together and discuss them. They should consider one another deeply loved brothers and seek to establish a common understanding of God’s word–at least sufficiently common so that we can worship and work together.
But we never do this. Can you think of one Godly reason that we refuse to study the Bible together? Can you think of one Godly result from this evil habit?
Now, in some towns, the preachers get together periodically for fellowship and support. This is a good thing. But it’s woefully insufficient. After all, the elders are ultimately responsible for doctrine, and so the elders must be involved in any serious effort to reach common doctrinal ground. Of course, some elders are weak and rely on the preacher to tell them what the Bible says. These elders especially need to get away from a domineering preacher and study with other elders and let the Bible guide them.
This is important. It’s more important than just about any other issue facing the Churches of Christ today. Our isolationism is destroying us and God’s work through us.
Now, some will object that if our leaders are studying the Bible together they may have a secret agenda to merge churches and that would be terrible. Well, those who object need to stop being on Satan’s side and get on Jesus’ side. Unity is a command. A selfish insistence on preserving a comfortable status quo is sin.
Finally, a merger isn’t always the necessary or even desired outcome. Perhaps it would be enough just to finally think of each other as brothers and sisters–the kind of brothers and sisters that you are closer to than siblings in the flesh. Perhaps there’s good reason for multiple congregations, perhaps due to geographical distance or the need to be close to a particular good work, such as a campus or inner city ministry. Merger isn’t a command. Unity is. And having the same name isn’t unity. Serving Jesus together, side by side, is.