We all know there are divisions in the church today. There are large groups, small groups, corporate churches, independent churches, and then factions and rivalries inside and among many of them. I think we can all agree this is not an ideal situation — that Christ’s intention is for us to be “at one.” Often we think the way to achieve that unity is for “all those people out there” to just “come to their senses and join my church.”
But what if there isn’t anything wrong with “them”? What if they are already in God’s church, and the problems lie with us picking and choosing a “my church” to stick with? Take the churches of my faith background as an example. There are literally hundreds of different groups that are all keeping the 7th Day Sabbath and God’s Holy Days of Leviticus 23, and each of them considers that a defining “thing” about our particular variety of Christianity. Yet there are still people, especially in the larger or more exclusive groups, who think if you aren’t keeping the Sabbath with their church is doesn’t really count. And then we tell ourselves we’re better than “mainstream Christianity”!
There was a similar problem in the New Testament church, with divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers. Up until Acts 10, the disciples assumed only Jews were being called to know Jesus Christ. Then, God showed very clearly that He was opening up the chance for salvation to everyone.
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. (Acts 10:1-2)
This man was already serving the God of Israel, but the Jews wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. Unless there were other Gentile believers around, he didn’t have anyone to fellowship with except his family. Some of us have probably been there, without a local group to fellowship with or feeling like we’re unwelcome in the ones that are there. In Cornelius’s case, God took care of this problem by sending him a vision telling him to send for Peter, and then God told Peter to go (Acts 10:3-27).
Then he [Peter] said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. (Acts 10:34-35)
And just to clear up any lingering doubts in the minds of Peter’s Jewish companions, God gave Cornelius and his family the Holy Spirit before they were even baptized.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. (Acts 10:44-45)
They really shouldn’t have been so surprised. Christ’s ministry on earth was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), but He still spoke with a Samaritan woman in John 4, healed a Gentile woman’s daughter in Matthew 15, and had this to say in John 10:
And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16)
From the very beginning of the New Testament church, Jesus made it clear that He wasn’t going to work with just one group or one type of people. He had bigger plans.
Several things happened in the aftermath of Cornelius’s conversion. First, Peter had to defend his choice to even talk with a Gentile. Once the whole story was known, though, there wasn’t much to say.
When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” (Acts 11:18)
That wasn’t the end of the squabbling, however, because church culture started becoming an issue. The way I see it, the whole circumcision debate that became such an issue in the early church boiled down to a group of people who thought everyone else had to worship God the exact same way they did. They didn’t want the Gentiles bringing in any of their culture or ideas about how to worship, and they certainly didn’t want anyone to “get away with” anything.
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)
There’s quite a discussion about this question in the rest of Acts 15. The basic decision was to lay no unnecessary burden on the new converts. Precisely why physical, male circumcision is unnecessary under the New Covenant is something addressed in Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 7:18-19). My point is that this question was a big deal to some people, and it caused division, dissension, and dispute in the church. Yet the consensus upon examining the issue was that it wasn’t really anything to get worked up about either way. There were far more important things to focus on, like the keeping of God’s commandments and developing a relationship with Him.
So far we’ve seen church culture/background divisions and doctrinal divisions in the New Testament church. They also struggled with another sort of division that we face today, regarding which human teacher you follow.
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. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:10-13)
Paul would no doubt have much the same thing to tell us today — that we should stop squabbling about who we follow or what group we’re in and be unified in Christ. The message is not to convert everyone to your faction and then get along. It’s to be unified right now — to be peaceful with the people you’re currently squabbling with both inside and outside “your” group. There are Biblical guidelines for resolving conflict (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 6:1-11), and none of them involve starting a new church group because you can’t agree on when the barley in Jerusalem is ripe, or excommunicating a family because they want to keep the land Sabbath on their farm (true stories).
We have different ways of dividing ourselves now other than Jews vs. Gentiles or circumcision vs. uncircumcision, but the principles laid-out for how these groups were to interact give us guidelines for how the churches of God should look today.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. (Rom. 10:12)
There is no difference — how strange that must have seemed to them! As strange as telling a former Catholic and a former Baptist who meet in the same group now that there was never any difference between them in God’s eyes; as strange as telling a Sabbath keeper with a Worldwide Church of God background that there’s no difference between them and a Messianic believer.
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation (Eph. 2:11-14)
There used to be dividing lines, but no longer — they are all done away in Christ.
For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2:18-22)
There aren’t multiple groups in God’s eyes. Every person He has called into His family is part of the temple He is building. He doesn’t expect everyone in His family to look or act exactly alike, so why should we?
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:12-25)
And there you have it — God is working with a wide variety of people who are filling different roles as He sees fit. When we decide a certain person, or type of person, doesn’t have a place in our church group, that’s like saying our bodies would be just fine without an eye or a foot.
God knows what He’s doing. He doesn’t make a habit of calling people to follow Him unless He has a plan for working with them. It is not our place to decide who God is and is not working with, or who He should call. How arrogant is it for us to assume we can decide which people God takes an interest in?
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. …
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. … So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Rom. 14:4, 10, 12-13)
There are times in the church when we have to make judgements concerning right and wrong. Sometimes the fruits seen in a person’s life call for them being excluded from fellowship until they return to God’s way of life, but those incidents should be rare and very carefully considered (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). As a general rule, the actions we need to be most concerned about are our own. God isn’t going to have people in His family who can’t get along with each other and who refuse to work with certain people. His plan is for the whole world to repent and be saved (John 3:16-17). If you’re excluding people from God’s family, even just in your own mind, then your thoughts are not in line with His.
At the end of the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of the future where “a pure river of water of life” flows out “from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” A tree of life grows by this river, and the “leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” who will see God’s face and live in His light (Rev. 22:1-5). In this future, what do we see the Lamb’s wife — the church — doing?
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Rev. 22:17)
We’re welcoming anyone who wants to come, inviting them to freely partake of what God is offering. We aren’t picking and choosing who’s allowed in — we’re inviting everyone to come and learn. This is something we have to start learning how to do now. I think sometimes we expect all this will be easy when we’re spirit beings, but if that was a magic cure-all for bad attitudes, Lucifer wouldn’t have fallen (Is. 14:12-21; Ezk. 28:11-19). It is imperative that we learn how to relate to one another now, for if we cannot be faithful and obedient on a physical level in a command so important as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” why would God entrust us with true riches? (Matt. 22:36-40; Luke 16:10-12).