In the wake of the current debate within the worldwide Anglican Communion over the role of women and homosexuals in the ministry, mention has been made of a possible schism.
Divisions of Christian denominations have often led people to wonder about the sharp and entrenched differences of people who claim to serve a similar deity ÔÇô and read from the same book. In Botswana, Cabinet ministers have, at various fora, expressed government’s frustration at the unending feuds in various churches.
Is the Church destined to be hopelessly divided?
Richard A. Wiedenheft, who has written extensively on the issue of Church unity, makes the point that this is not a new phenomenon. He argues that even a casual reading of the New Testament would reveal that from its inception, the Church was plagued by divisive problems ÔÇô such as personality differences, administrative disagreements and doctrinal disputes. He holds the church at Corinth as a classic example.
“In the late forties A.D.,” Wiedenheft points out, “Jewish Christians of the sect of the Pharisees had tried to force the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians. The controversy grew to the point that Paul and others went to Jerusalem for a big conference. The apostles and elders all came to agreement and the matter seemed settled for a time; but undoubtedly there were many who didn’t exactly go along with the final conclusion. In fact, some time later, Christians from Jerusalem intimidated Peter to withdraw from eating with Gentiles at Antioch. Paul had a confrontation with him in front of the whole group. Strong words were spoken. Feelings were hurt. Emotions were involved. Things weren’t all harmonious and smooth in the Church.”
With the record of the New Testament so full of evidence that of the divisions that engulfed the early Church, Wiedenheft wonders if it is possible that God never intended the Church to be completely united in theology and organization. After all, he suggests, God could have spelled out doctrines in minute detail ÔÇô leaving no room for different interpretations; He could have laid down precise rules for Christian conduct; He could have set up a rigid administrative structure to assure “proper” leadership and harmony within a worldwide church organization.
But He didn’t! Why!?
“Because,” suggests Wiedenheft, “I believe, a completely unified church in the human realm would produce results exactly the opposite of the ones God wants in His true children.”
He argues more must be read into Paul’s statement to the Corinthians that, “I think there must be heresies among you that those who are spiritual may be revealed”. Wiedenheft says this is because controversy separates the “men from the boys, and causes the hangers on to become disenchanted and disillusioned”. He makes the point that controversy helps true Christians to grow in their personal relationship with God.
“Doctrinal conflict in the Church confuses many, but it forces true Christians to think; it forces them to look to God and His Word for spiritual directionÔÇöinstead of to an organization,” says Wiedenheft.
“When Paul wrote to the Romans, he could easily have straightened out their differences by telling them the truth in each area of controversy. But he didn’t… Rather, he told them, ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another….Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind’. Paul knew that Christians learn to love and respect one another by accepting differences without judging.
“If every doctrine were spelled out so precisely that there would be no room for different interpretations, Christians would tend to go to sleep intellectually. They would stop thinking and learning.”
Wiedenheft makes the point that Christianity was meant to allow considerable latitude for Christians to mature spiritually by making difficult decisions, and they grow in faith through problems, suffering, controversy, uncertainty and adversity.
“When we see Christians scattered among various organizations, when we see differing opinions and controversies in the Church, we tend to look at the problems they cause and get discouraged. But God can also see the growth taking place in His children and He rejoices; for He wants His true Children to be clean, white, and mature. And so they will be refined in the fires of controversies, differences and problems ÔÇô including those within the Church,” says Wiedenheft.
A local pastor, however, maintains that the dissensions which prevail in the Church may be traced in general to the workings of human corruption. He ascribes the problems to the ignorance, error, unbelief, prejudice, pride, passion, selfishness, and carnality, which are predominant in the minds of some of the members of the Church, and are but partially subdued and mortified in the minds of the best.
He says some leaders are impelled to divide the Church by the base desire of gratifying their avarice, and procuring a livelihood from the disciples whom they draw after them, describing them as the “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” that Paul warned would, “subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake”.
He identifies tyranny and unreasonable imposition as one source of division in the Church.
“To gratify the lust of dominion, those calling themselves clergy have assumed a power of decreeing articles of faith and imposing forms of worship, contrary or additional to those enjoined in Scripture; and have enforced the rigid observance of these commandments of men, by all the force and terrors which they possessed or could command.
“Like the shepherds of ancient Israel, they have scattered the flock by ruling over it with force and with cruelty… and trampled on the sacred rights of conscience, stripped the Christian people of liberties which their divine master had conferred on them.”
He argues that the ordinary members are not entirely blameless. In that regard, the pastor points out that at other times a church may be broken by the insubordination and turbulence of the Christians who refuse subjection to pastors who are regularly set over them, and who act within the due limits of their authority.
As unity evidently remains elusive for the Church, those on the sidelines have been left wondering if Jesus’ prayer, just a few hours before he was killed ÔÇô “that they might be one” ÔÇô was in vain.