Faith in God is supposed to bring new life, peace, understanding, and healing to creation. So why does it so often seem to bring the opposite? Why does faith in God so often lead to division and hatred? Why has the church, for most of its existence, been a battleground for nasty fights and bitter quarrels?
There was originally one Christian church. Now we have roughly 41,000 denominations, many of them the result of church wars. Occasionally, over history, this kind of stuff has blown up into persecution, oppression, religious wars, crusades, and jihads. Do you ever wonder why is it that the people we have to fear most in this world are those who have the most intense religious faith? What is it with people of faith anyway?
If you are not asking these kinds of questions, the public is. The witness of angry, fighting, hate-filled Christians often drowns out the witness of the Gospel and makes a mockery of everything Jesus stood for.
The first major church fight, described in Acts 15, was over circumcision. Viewed from a detached perspective, the argument seems incredibly petty. As do most of the fights that split churches. Really? With all of the problems and challenges in the world, this is what the Creator of the Universe cares about? But the real issue, as in most church battles, was identity. As Christians, who are we?
Paul knew first-hand what happens when your identity is in the law. He stood by and nodded approvingly when his associates invoked the law to stone Stephen to death. He had to live with that on his conscience for the rest of his life. Rules and laws are good and necessary for keeping order. They are disastrous for establishing Christian identity.
Paul had come to see that Christian identity is tied up in one thing: the life and teaching and death and resurrection of Jesus. Focusing our identity on being the people who follow Jesus will not solve every issue in the church, much less society. We can’t always agree on what it means, in every instance, to be a follower of Jesus. There will always be disagreements and even conflict in the church.
How do we, who claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, prevent differences of opinion from exploding into anger, hatred, and division that negates all that Jesus stands for?
I think there are four key Bible verses that help us be faithful witnesses to Christ in any situation:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In church wars, people are more concerned with winning than with fairness. You rarely see civility, much less kindness, in religious disagreements. You never see humility. When people cannot do any of the most basic things that God asks of us, disaster is guaranteed. If we can do all of those, we will prosper in spite of our differences.
Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissension, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.
Paul’s advice to modern churches: “Don’t waste your energy on arguments over the rules.” That will kill the faith and accomplish nothing good. It will split churches into warring factions whose antics convince others that what the church preaches is a joke. Save your energy for proclaiming the Gospel and serving those in need.
1 Corinthians 13:2
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If people heeded this, there would be no such thing as holy war. Paul says that acting in love is more important than being faithful. He says it doesn’t even matter if I am right on doctrine — if I don’t act in love toward others, then God wants no part of what I’m doing.
Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
He did not say, “By this all will know you are my disciples, if you protect the purity of church laws and tradition, or believe the right doctrine.” We are the people who love as Christ loved us. That is what Jesus said gives us our identity. That’s what a Christian disciple is.
The long, sad history of church wars teaches us that the Christian church does not need more members. It needs more disciples: those who stand out clearly for all to see, as the people who love one another as God first loved us.
May the peace of God, that unfortunately so often eludes human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.