Surely the dominant characteristic of the 20th Century Churches of Christ was our propensity for splitting churches. A lot of good was done by the Churches in those days, with many missionaries sent, colleges founded, and such — but the Church was greatly weakened by internal conflict that kept many Churches from cooperating with others.
For example, even today we are losing campus ministries much faster than we are founding them because so many of our ministries were cooperative efforts among local churches. Those churches have now fallen out fighting — and so refuse to cooperate in campus work. The result is that no one church is large enough to support the ministry and the ministry dies.
Many missionaries have found themselves losing financial support when a sponsoring church splits and neither half can afford to continue the support. They now have to pay for two preachers and two buildings, and so their mission budget gets cut.
Now, division has many roots, but the tap root — the one that goes straight down and supports the tree of division — is an attitude that purity of doctrine is more important than shared community. Part of this is due to a misunderstanding of grace, and this misunderstanding comes from a flawed hermeneutic.
We see this flaw exposed even today in the way we carry on our conversations with those we disagree with. You don’t have to look long at the Church of Christ internet forums (or a few of the comments posted on this blog) to see examples of hateful, rude speech directed between brothers. Indeed, you don’t have to look long to see outright lies told in an effort to persuade. I mean, it’s amazing how glad many are to bear false witness when it suits their purposes.
Now, contrast this state of affairs with the Story. The Story encourages us to listen to God through his scriptures. We are to relate to God, however, not his writings. We are to worship the Word, not the word. Therefore, as important as true doctrine is, it’s not as important as the Truth.
(John 14:5-7) Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus does not so much teach truth as he is truth. The way to salvation isn’t just through his teachings, it’s through him. When Thomas asks how to know the way, Jesus says, in effect, “Know me.”
Now, I’m big on doctrine and big on scriptures. I don’t wish to be read as making light of them, any more than Jesus is. Rather, Jesus’ point is that the scriptures point to him. He didn’t come to give us scripture. He gave us scripture to help us find him.
Jesus lives on earth today. Well, at least his body does. And his body on earth is the church. It’s the covenant community that replaces — “fulfills” might be a better word — Israel and God’s very personal relationship with Abraham. The church benefits from God’s covenant with Abraham and has access to God much as Abraham enjoyed, thanks to that covenant.
God dwelled among the Israelites within the Holy of Holies. He dwells among his people today through his Spirit, indwelling each of us — and just as important — indwelling each congregation, which is a temple of the Spirit.
And so, what does it mean to split a congregation? What does it mean to divide God’s people from each other? Well, it’s to split the body of Christ. It’s to demolish a temple that God himself built to live in. And so, it’s no surprise at all to read —
(1 Cor 3:16-17) Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
Each “you” is plural in the Greek. Paul is speaking of a local congregation — not our physical bodies (that’s later in 1 Corinthians).
One reason that many Christian marriages survive is because Christians don’t consider divorce to be an option. Therefore, they do the hard work necessary to work things out. Our congregations, however, consider splits very much an option and so they often fail to work things out. And their leaders often stoop to very sinful behavior, authoritarianism, and such to hold the congregation together rather than seeking unity in Eden.
You see, if we see that Jesus came to bring us community such as Adam and Eve enjoyed, we’d see a church split as among the worst of all sins — and we’d see that the way to avoid the split is to work hard to be community, to love and be loved, to forgive and endure. We’d stop reading 1 Corinthians 13 just at weddings and we’d read it for it’s intended purpose: to hold congregations together in faith, hope, and love. We generally actually share faith and hope. We often fail to share love.
Now, the key to staying together is to sell out for the Story. One critical plotline that I’ve not discussed much is the grace plotline. You see, Adam did nothing to merit Eve. She was a gift from God. And Abraham didn’t earn God’s covenant. It was a gift. Nor did Israel deserve to be the Chosen People. It was God’s gift.
Just so, we Christians don’t earn what we’re given by God either. It’s a free gift. And as it’s a free gift, we can’t tell our brothers they don’t deserve it. No one does.
And so, in short, had the 20th Century Churches of Christ understood the Story, things would have been very different indeed. I’m not saying things would have been perfect or that no church would have split. We’d still be flawed, broken people. But we’d have been more aware of our flaws and brokenness, more reliant on grace, and so more willing to extend grace to each other. Things would have been very different indeed.