Christian Unity: How Promoted, How Destroyed
The great curse of the church of Jesus Christ is division. Christ foresaw that strifes and divisions would be the weakness of the church and the curse of the world. The church of Christ is the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Whatever weakens its power and destroys its influence, injures the world and ruins man. Jesus Christ foreseeing this, in the prayer in which he poured out his soul to God, besought earnestly that his disciples "might be one," that all who believe on him through the words of the apostles" may be one, even as I and my Father are one." He prayed they might be one, "that the world may believe that thou has sent me." It is clear that without that oneness among his children, the world could never believe that he was sent by the Father, that is, that he was the Christ the Son of God. Without this belief that leads to acceptance of him, as Lord and Savior, and the obedience to God, through him, no man can see God in peace.
The apostles in their teachings, everywhere sand at all times, condemned and warned against division and strife within the churches as the cause of weakness and inefficiency, of corruption and defilement — that unfitted them for temples of the Holy Spirit, that disabled them from saving their own members and from proving a savor of life to the world.
Christ warned, "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Paul said, "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye 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." (I Cor. 1:10) He asks, "Is Christ divided?"
The church is the body — the spiritual body of Christ, and if Christ is not divided against himself, the members of his body cannot be. When his people divide and strive, they divide the body of Christ himself; they rend his spiritual body, and sever its members from each other, and serve his spiritual, worse than his murderers did his fleshly body. His enemies pierced that body, but his children is under the spiritual body, part from part, and leave it torn and lifeless without power to save itself or others. In every letter written by the apostles the sin of division is condemned — the danger is signaled and Christians forewarned against it as the sure premonition of death. The Master and the apostles not only warn against a danger so threatening, and so fatal and fearful in its results, but they give directions how to avoid division, and the way to promote and maintain unity. The Savior prayed that his disciples might be one, and he gave clear directions as to how they should remain one:
"For I have given unto them the words which thou gayest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee." — "I have given them thy word, and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. Neither pray I for these alone but for them also which shall believe on me through their word." (John 17:8-20.)
The apostles also admonished them to speak the same thing, and the oneness of the word, which guides and directs all, secures the unity of the body, growing out of and guided by the word of the living God.
Notwithstanding the prayer and warning of the Savior, the entreaties and expostulations of the apostles, and the specific directions of Jesus and the Holy Spirit to maintain unity, the professed followers of Christ have been divided into striving parties from the beginning, often resulting in war and bloodshed. Many efforts, through the centuries, have been made at union, which have proved abortive.
About the beginning of the present century an effort was made to find ground on which all sincere worshipers of God could stand in unity and work together in harmony and love, for the honor of God and the salvation of man. The ground or fundamental basis of union, was, that all should lay aside all theories and practices based on human authority and standing in the wisdom of men, and in all religious service take the word of God as the only guide and do only the things required in the teachings of Christ and the apostles. It was expressed in the adage, "where the Bible speaks we will speak, where the Bible is silent we will be silent." If they were not to speak in matters of religion without Bible authority, much less could they act without Scripture direction. This meant, no one could teach or practice anything in religion not clearly taught in the Bible. All would do what the Bible required. and would ask of no one to do or to submit to what it did not require. This bound all to the word of God — to what was commanded by the Lord. It bound them to do all that was taught, it bound them to reject everything in religion, not taught in the word of God. This would bring unity through the word of God, as the Savior taught it must come. For a time, the effort at union on this basis seemed to work well. Men and women from all churches in Christendom and from no church, came together on this basis, and laying aside all theories and practices not required by the word of God, diligently sought to learn what that word required, and guided by the things taught in the Bible, they walked in harmony and love, and success without precedent in modern times, crowned their labors in calling men and women to Christ.
Of late years, this unity of faith and harmony of action have been much disturbed. Divisions and discords, threatening the disruption of church and Christian fellowship, have entered in and have well-nigh destroyed the peace, and much weakened the efforts of those seeking to unite all worshipers of God in the unity of the faith, and in the bonds of love. This is a dire and fatal disaster to befall an effort so full of promise of good to man, and of honor to the Lord and Master. Can we find the cause of this disaster?
From the beginning there have been two classes in the church. One disposed to strictly construe the Bible and to cling close to its teaching. This class, in all questions that arise, ask, What does the word of God require? And they restrain their practices and service within the requirements of the Divine word.
The other class, interpreting the word of God more liberally or loosely, ask, Is it forbidden? What is not forbidden, they claim the right to practice. A little thought will show the one class walks by the requirements of the Bible. The other class walks in the wisdom of men. These do the things suggested by that wisdom, unless it is specifically forbidden by the word of God. The practices of one class necessarily spring from God and his holy word. No practice can be accepted with this class, that does not come from God, and that is not required by his holy word. God is the author of all religious service with this class. The other class looks largely to its own wisdom, and the wisdom of men for authority and for guidance in things of religion, and anything man's wisdom approves may be used in religion unless specifically forbidden by the word of God. These paths rapidly diverge. And those walking in these diverging paths cannot walk together. They cannot live in unity and harmony.
These diverse ways of regarding the services of religion, led 'to the first division among Christians. They have in all ages of the church, led to divisions. In the days of Luther, the question of infant baptism was raised. He asked, Where is it forbidden? and because not forbidden he retained it. The same question came up with the Campbells, father and son. They adopted the rule to practice only what was required. The son said to the father, Infant baptism is not required in the Scriptures. He responded, It must go then. Under Luther's rule, he and Melanchthon were forced to advise Philip of Hesse, that bigamy is allowed, because not specially prohibited.
Under this rule many gross and hurtful perversions of the truth, as well as many sinful and corrupting practices may be brought into the church because they are not 'specially prohibited in the Scriptures. This principle of interpretation releases men from a close adherence to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, and gives wide license to the introduction of human wisdom as the rule in the church and the life of a Christian. The substitution of human wisdom for the will of God subverts the church from the ends for which it was instituted.
-- David Lipscomb
editor, The Gospel Advocate