Unity in the Christian Church
1 Corinthians 1.10
Dear Saints in Christ Jesus,
In this sermon I am addressing a topic that most people find uncomfortable: The Unity of the Christian Church. It has always been sad to see that Christians differ with one another about their beliefs. But I have always believed that it is the precisely the uncomfortable topics like this that need the most attention. Trying to ignore denominational differences is like trying to ignore an unnatural sound emanating from the engine of your car. It will not fix itself, and chances are if you ignore it itís only going to get worse. There is another principle of life that spurs me on to address this topic. I believe that there are things we should work on even if we know that we will never find a perfect solution in this life. There are things that God has called us to do even if we canít complete them perfectly in this life. I will always try to improve my relationships with my wife and children even though I know they will never be perfect. I will always fight my personal battle with temptation even though I know I will never perfectly overcome every temptation in this lifetime. I will always work for unity in the Christian church even though I know that there will never be perfect unity in the church on earth. I work on all these things and many more, not because I can achieve them, but because God as called me to each of these tasks. No army ever went into battle assuming that it would experience no losses. Instead it works constantly to avoid those loses and to repair the damage created by the enemy. In the same way the church moves forward, assailed from every side. Losses are inevitable but never acceptable. When we are wounded we seek first aid. When we are damaged we seek repair. In this way the unity of the Christian church may never be perfected, but it will be enough to achieve the mission God has given it to bring the light of Christ into the darkness of the world.
Schisms in the Church
Why are there so many different denominations? That is a question that young Christians eventually face as they become aware of the fact that the earthly church is not perfect. Can you remember the first time you experienced this? I was in the second grade when I realized that my friend Terry was Roman Catholic. I didnít really understand what that meant, but I did understand that Terry believed certain things that I did not. I vividly remember the day in his backyard when he told me that he had earlier said ten "Our Fathers" and twenty "Hail Maryís" as directed by his priest. I still recall a camping trip with our family during which we attended the "campground worship service." The pastor finished preaching and then gave the invitation for anyone to come down to the front and give their life to Jesus. No one moved, and he kept pleading for someone to come down. He said that he knew there was someone who wanted to give his or her life to Jesus. I was in the third or fourth grade, and I felt sorry for him. I whispered to my dad, "maybe we should go down there?" My dad leaned over and said, "Itís OK Mike, weíre already Christians."
There are many reasons for the differences between Christians. Some of the differences are good and are God-given. The Bible describes the church as a body with many diverse parts. Certain Christians are given special gifts and opportunities. Some churches have unique challenges. All them are a little different. But when it comes to doctrine God wants all Christians to be of the same faith and belief. In the New King James Version we read:
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Unfortunately Christians donít always have that one mind in regard to what they believe and teach. As Paul describes this problem in 1 Corinthians 1.10 almost all English translations use the word "divisions." But I think you would do well to know the word in the original language. You will see a little different connotation. In this verse Paul says there should be no schismata. This is the word that gives us the English word "schism." A "schism" is not quite the same as a "division." A schism is a tear in the fabric or a split in a piece of wood. A schism can and should be mended. A division implies a complete separation. We would never speak of a "schism" of soldiers. But we know what a "division" of soldiers means. It is a separate unit. The Corinthian Christians were torn by different beliefs, but they were not completely separated from one another. Paul was not about to allow them to accept these schisms but wrote two letters to help them mend these problems. It is also interesting to note that the word for "be perfectly joined together" is also the word that means, "mend, restore, set right." In fact it is the same word that St. Matthew uses in the Gospel lesson for today when James and John and their father Zebedee are mending their nets (1). The Corinthians had some serious tears in their doctrinal fabric. Some had come to accept immorality, others were confused about the Lordís Supper, many were misusing their spiritual gifts, and one group was even denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
This is the first point that I want to make. Schisms in the church are nothing new. There were schisms in the Galatian churches, among the Thessalonians, and the Philippians. In St. Johnís Revelation the opening chapters describe a number of serious problems in the churches of Asia Minor. Nevertheless the church was not destroyed by these schisms. As long as we are still sinners, and as long as the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, there are going to be schisms and other problems in the church. We donít walk away from it or give up on it because it has suffered some spiritual wounds.
Godís Concern for Schisms
Schisms call for first aid. This is the second point that I need to make. St. Paul says, "I plead with youÖ" Far worse than the schisms in the church are the many voices today that call us to ignore them. One such voice is the ecumenical call: "Doctrinal diversity is wonderful. We should celebrate our different views of religion. Weíre all going to the same place anyway." On the other side of the spectrum we have the nondenominational cry for simplistic solutions as though doctrinal differences are such minor little things: "Letís tear down the walls. Letís get past denominational differences. Letís get on with the work of the kingdom." Neither of these approaches is Biblical. The Apostles spent as much time preaching the Gospel to the lost as they did correcting the doctrine of the faithful Ėmending the inevitable schisms that would arise in the church. In his charge to Titus, Paul said that a pastor must continue "holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (2). The main problem in the church today is not that it is torn with schisms. The most serious problem is much worse: People ignore the schisms, accept them, or approach them with simplistic whitewash.
God is concerned about His beloved church so torn apart by differences in belief. He doesnít want to see the tears become worse and worse until they result in total separation from Christ. Salvation is just too precious a gift. We are all born in sin. We fail ourselves, others, and God. But God doesnít fail us. He gave us His perfect Son in exchange for our imperfect lives. He forgives, cleanses, and washes away our sin. This is the heart and center of His word, and this is worth protecting.
He also doesnít want to see the church crippled and weakened in its ability to spread the Gospel. Above all He doesnít want to see His people become bewildered and discouraged by these schisms and then to leave the church in disgust and disappointment. He wants us to work on these things. He wants us to get out the needle and thread and begin mending, and the sooner the better. So many people are falsely convinced that there is nothing that can be done about schisms in the church.
There are individual Christians, churches, even entire denominations that have experienced the healing of doctrinal schism. Martin Luther was torn with doubts about God. His kindly and wise confessor, Father Staupitz, directed Him to the study of Godís word. Luther found healing as he turned to Godís word. Several years ago I was listening to KFUO radio. They were interviewing some leaders of the Worldwide Church of God. I was so overjoyed to hear to that this denomination was returning to an orthodox view of Christian doctrine. It does happen, and it is happening around us all the time.
How to Repair the Schisms
How do we get this mending going? How do we get to the repairs that are so needed? To do this He has given us two great gifts. The first is mentioned directly by Paul in this passage. Paul says, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Notice what he does not say. He does not say, "Listen to me because I am a leading apostle, and you are to do as I say." Nor does he appeal in this way: "The majority of Christians believe these things and so should you." Instead he appeals directly to the Word of God in Christ.
It is important for you to see that the phrase "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" really is referring Godís word. What is the first word of Scripture that you learned? For most of us it was "Jesus." The name of God is the beginning of all Scripture. It is the center of all Scripture. When Paul says, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ," he also means by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and everything we know about Him from the prophets and the apostles. If the word of God has the power to convert us in the first place, shouldnít we believe that this same word has the power to unify the Christian church? When there are divisions in the Church we all need to turn to Godís word to find answers, to resolve differences, to find unity.
The second gift that God gives us is His Holy Spirit, who always works through the word of God. In the Gospel of John Jesus gives us this promise: "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth" (3). Jesus encourages us to pray for the Holy Spirit. When we are troubled by differences among Christians, we can turn to the word of God for help. We can also turn directly to God the Holy Spirit, who always accompanies the word. This is my simple prayer: "Lord, straighten me out. If necessary straighten the other fellow outÖ Please straighten us all out!" God answers that prayer, and it is God the Holy Spirit who enables us to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (4). This is one of many great confessions or creeds that Christians say. As we ask God to give us the truth and as we clearly confess that truth publicly, we will be led into that unity that God desires.
Schisms are an unfortunate problem. There will be schisms in the church as long as God entrusts His truth to weak human beings. But schisms are not to be tolerated or ignored. He does not want His saving Gospel of forgiveness of sins in Jesus to become tattered and destroyed. To help us keep that Gospel pure He has given us His inspired word. When we study it in the light of Christ, it will not only create in us the gift of faith, it will lead us together to unity of faith in Jesus. Amen.
(1) Matthew 4.21 (2) Titus 1.9 (3) John 16.13 (4) 1 Corinthians 12.3
Pastor Michael P. Walther
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois
Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 27, 2002
Michael P. Walther, Copyright, 2002
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