While there are many distinctions in the Church between different groups, the non-Christian public is often largely unaware of the differences. This means that the reputation of the Church tends to be impacted together, but when Christians are confronted with the failings of one branch, all too often, a game of blame shifting begins.
Blame Hinders Love
One response I often see to this is to work harder at making the distinctions clear to others. However, this often comes down merely to statements like this ‘Oh no, those were group X; I am from group Y and we would never do something like that.’ While I am sure this response is appropriate in some cases, I think it is overused.
Deferring the blame often just makes us look evasive or even vindictive towards others. Where we have a different doctrine to another Christian group, it is almost certainly better to explain the differences in a way that doesn’t throw the other side under the bus (at least not too badly). To do this ideally may require a great deal of knowledge though.
For instance, to explain why the Russian Orthodox Church holds one view while the Roman Catholic Church holds another will be beyond many laypeople’s understanding. In many cases, we will need to rely on being respectful and kind in our words rather than having the exact knowledge.
Being respectful towards our fellow Christians is also part of our obedience to Jesus. In fact, we are called to do more than merely respect each other because Jesus’ command is to “...love one another as I have loved you.” (John chapter 15 verse 12)
Christians Even in Error
Even when we are not certain that another group claiming to be Christians really are followers of Christ, it is still better to be cautious lest we speak ill of God’s chosen people. Even among groups which officially hold a stance which you think is errant or even heretical, I think it is possible you may find individuals who are legitimately following Jesus.
I know some Christians hold that the requirements to be a follower of Jesus are quite high, but I think it is hard to hold such a view given how it is described at various points in the scriptures. Jesus’ call to follow him seems to be quite open.
Of course there is a great deal that we should do as Christians to live consistently with our faith, but the things which are necessary to be Christian are, at least in a sense, simple and straight forward. For instance, consider these statements in John:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John chapter 3 verse 46, ESV trans.)
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John chapter 5 verse 24, ESV trans.)
Jesus has done the hard parts in saving his people, so I think we will find many supposedly errant branches of the Church will still have a good number of Christians in them.
God’s Church on earth is made up of people.While those people are forgiven and are, in a sense, perfect due to the work of Jesus, they are not yet consistent with their new identity. Sin and poor judgement continue. As a result, the Church is prone to problems. The initial divisions in the Church all stem from this. All denominations and all congregations have issues.
Each part of the Church should seek to be better aligned with our identity as Christians, but God’s plan for the Church continues. God is still sovereign and in his plan we know that he will not fail; he will not waste the sacrifice of his son. As with our state as individual Christians, the Church’s destiny is secure. We will be gathered with all God’s people to live with him forever.
It will seem shameful when we realise that we have demeaned other members of God’s chosen people. In doing so we will have broken Jesus’ command to love one another and we may have even besmirched God’s wisdom in choosing to use that part of his Church.
Taking pride in divisions within the Church can be a sign of immaturity in the faith. As Paul writes:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ … For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians chapter 3 verses 1–4, ESV trans.)
Paul’s words are quite harsh here to his fellow Christians, and there is certainly room for rebuke in Christianity. However, it does us little good, if any, to engage in a race to the bottom by putting ourselves over others. We should disagree without demeaning. Distinctions do not have to be made pridefully. It is sad, not sport, when our fellow Christians have fallen into error.
Next time you find yourself facing the impulse to bag out another section of the Church, I hope you will be able to think more lovingly toward your fellow Christians. Show your disagreements in a way that elevates. Do not let pride get the better of you!
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.