Different denominations of Christianity often disagree with one another, so how do we find peace among ourselves in the house of God?
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, describing Christianity as a house with many different ‘rooms’ in it, “I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions. . . It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.
“If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at.
“I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling.
“In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’
“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
A House at War With Itself
Being able to say that all, or even the majority, of Christian churches get along peaceably with one another would be splendid, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, the reality is that many churches maintain underground rivalries in terms of tithe amounts and attendance rolls and ministries are hesitant to work with one another because of bad past experiences with one-upmanship contests with who’s helping more people or whose methods will be the ones followed.
Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, wrote in his Bible in One Year devotional, “[S]ometimes we may be tempted to look down on other parts of the church, other denominations or other Christians and wish they were more like us! ‘If only they did things more like us they would be “proper” Christians or “better” Christians!’ In thinking like this we are, in effect, denying that faith in Jesus is enough. This is what was happening to the churches in Galatia. They were being told that their faith in Jesus was not enough. If they wanted to be ‘real’ Christians, they needed to be circumcised.
“The early church was facing an unexpected crisis, and the apostle Paul had to use every ounce of his skill, diplomacy and courage to avoid a damaging division and split in the church. Paul wants to make clear that he acted under the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit: ‘I went in response to a revelation’ (Galatians 2:2). Paul was convinced of the validity of the gospel he preached, but was also concerned for unity: ‘I did this in private with the leaders… so that our concern would not become a controversial public issue’ (v.2, MSG).
“He took with him two friends: Barnabas and Titus. Barnabas was a Jew and Titus was a Greek (an uncircumcised Gentile)…. The meeting in Jerusalem was to resolve the circumcision question. The ruling reached was one of the most important ever made in the history of Christianity. The decision here prevented a ruinous division within the church. The crisis had become an opportunity.”
Reading about the question of circumcision may tempt us to roll our eyes, but issues every bit as esoteric still threaten to split our churches. How often do we observe communion? Is it in individual cups or one big cup? What kind of music does the worship band play? What instruments are allowed on stage? Do any of the church staff have tattoos/long hair/painted nails/distressed clothing/multiple piercings? Who’s allowed to speak from the stage? What colors are the chairs or pew cushions? (In case you scoffed at that last one, I’m not even making it up. It was a congregation-rattling decision at both my parents and my grandparents’ churches respectively.)
How do we, like Paul, build unity within our churches and with other churches?
When All Things Are Possible
John Bailey, chief operating officer of World Challenge, talked seriously about the two plaques that outside the main sanctuary doors of the church he founded in Jacksonville, Florida. “One of them says, ‘May the peace of God be upon this house’ because we believe it’s important. It’s a culture of our church to have peace. Now you may go, ‘Well, pastor, of course.’ Can I tell you I did about 25 years of ministry before I started this church, and I can tell you that almost everywhere that I have been in ministry, I could write books about the disunity, about the friction with people and churches…and pastors and leaders. I want to say this to you: Church, it’s important that we discover a culture of peace in the house.
“If we can’t be in unity [with one another], how in the world can we expect our church to be in unity? What chance in the world does our community ever have of finding the power of God if we can’t live in peace?
“The other plaque says this: ‘With men, things are impossible, but with God, all things are possible.’”
We may talk at length about team-building strategies and degrees of spiritual maturity, but the majority of these plans will come to nothing if they are not first informed by God’s power and direction.
Sometimes church conflict comes from selfish desires or goals that run afoul of other leaders and believers’ aspirations. Sometimes dissent comes from cultural differences between believers that they may not even be aware of and which must be gently and patiently unraveled. Sometimes disunity comes from a genuine problem that lies beneath the surface of a church or ministry, which people can sense but aren’t sure how to approach. Most often, a lack of peace in ministry comes from some combination of all three. This makes it incredibly complicated, if not outright impossible, to solve alone.
God’s wisdom is necessary to start on this journey toward accord and spiritual health in community, not the least because his Holy Spirit can do all of the hardest work uprooting selfishness and buried wounds in his followers’ hearts. With men, true unity is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.