In the previous post (Part 1), we noted an emphasis in Christ’s high-priestly prayer (John 17) on the theme of Christian unity. Jesus desired that his disciples be united in creed, united in cause, and united in charity towards one another. Such unity should be important to us, inasmuch as it adorns the gospel and fulfills our Savior’s prayer. But the unity for which Christ prayed has not yet been realized. What’s the problem?
Disagreements, Divisions, and Denominations
Not long after the Christian church was founded two of her most prominent leaders, Barnabas and Paul, separated because of a serious disagreement (Acts 15:36-41). A few years after Paul’s split with Barnabas, we find him addressing disagreements and divisions within the church of Corinth (1 Cor 1:11-13), which prompted him to exhort the brothers to strive for unity (1 Cor. 1:10).
Unfortunately, history proves that the Christian church has not done well at heading the Paul’s words. Eventually the church split into the Eastern and the Western church. Centuries later, during the Reformation, the Western church split into Catholic and Protestant. And it wasn’t long before the Protestant churches divided into Lutheran and the Reformed and the Anabaptist communions. Then came the Presbyterians, and then came the Independents, and then came the Baptists, and then came the Quakers. On and on the disagreements and the divisions increased and multiplied, so that today-in modern America-there are over 200 so-called Christian denominations!
Not all these disagreements and divisions are bad. It’s not a violation of Christian unity to separate from a false teacher or a false church. The Scripture explicitly commands us “from such turn away” (2 Tim 3:5). The Protestant Reformers parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church because it was no longer preaching the true gospel. Such a division is not a violation of Christian unity. Divisions between true believers and true churches, however, are violations of Christian unity. A good number of the denominations in America are the result of such divisions. How should we account for the proliferation of so many disagreements, divisions and denominations among Christ’s disciples?
Remaining Sin, Hard Sayings, and God’s Sovereignty
To begin with, remaining sin still clouds the judgment and stifles the love of true believers. This remaining sin sometimes hinders us from properly understanding God’s truth (1 Cor 2:14). Our judgment is not always as biblically balanced and proportionate as it should be. Consequently, we may come out on the wrong side of an issue. Furthermore, the remaining sin in a believer’s heart can stifle brotherly love and stir up disaffection and ungodly malice. Such enmity among believers can give rise to disagreements and divisions (James 4:1).
In the second place, Scripture contains some doctrine that is hard to understand (2 Pet 3:16). The Westminster Confession acknowledges this fact when it asserts, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (1.7). I think we’d all agree that there are some teachings in the Bible we can understand with little effort at all. But there are other teachings or passages in the Bible that are more difficult to understand. Even after we consult the Bible experts, we’re still not sure if we have a clear grasp on the meaning.
Thirdly, and somewhat paradoxically, God has sovereignly chosen to allow such divisions among true believers. God could have been more specific and clear regarding certain issues. For example, God knew that there would result a division in the church between those who would baptize the children of believers and those who would not. God could have prevented that division by inspiring Paul to write an epistle, instructing the churches explicitly not to baptize infants. But He did not. God knew that true believers would differ whether the extra-ordinary gifts would continue or cease. He could have had Paul tell the Corinthian church in explicit language “tongues and prophecy will cease when the Scriptures are complete.” He didn’t do that. God knew that genuine believers would disagree as to whether and to what extent the 4th commandment would still apply to the church. He knew that even great men like John Calvin and John Bunyan would struggle with that issue. He could have easily inspired Paul to write in plain language, “To the saints in Ephesus … keep the Sabbath Day holy.” But God did not do that. He gave the church a revelation of redemptive truth that is sufficient, yet partial in nature (1 Cor. 13:9-10). Why? The sanctification of believers (1 Cor. 13:4-7, 13) and purification of the church (1 Cor. 11:19) provides part of the answer. But in my opinion, the full answer remains shrouded in the mystery of God’s sovereignty.
So that leaves us with a dilemma. One the one hand, it’s God’s revealed will and Christ’s earnest prayer that the church be one-that Christians be unified together in creed, cause, and charity. On the other hand, remaining sin, hard sayings, and God’s sovereignty have made the teaching of John 17 seem unattainable. What should we do? What solution can we find to this dilemma? Our next installment (Part 3) will survey several solutions that have been proposed and offer some suggestions for loosing this “Gordian Knot.”