Menders or splitters?
Knowing when to mend differences or make doctrinal stands is no easy task
Have you ever helped split a church? I don’t mean on purpose. I mean joining with others in making your point so vigorously that your church falls apart.
And I’m not referring primarily here to sometime in the past when you disagreed with others over baptism, or the millennium, or who wrote the book of Hebrews.
I’m thinking more of the vigorous discussions we’ve had in recent months about masks, vaccines, and the presidency of Donald Trump. I don’t remember any time in my adult years when I’ve seen more local churches so threatened, fractured, and worried about their very future existence.
To be sure, church-splitting isn’t always a bad thing. The late Jerry Falwell once told me, “Since coming to Lynchburg, I’ve been blessed to help in the launch of maybe 27 new churches.” Then, after a brief pause, he added, “Not all of them intentional.”
These debates—or should we call them squabbles?—are by no means limited to smaller or midsize churches. Even some once-vigorous megachurches are reported at mid-2021 to be stumbling and staggering as they try to recover from the ravages of COVID-19.
Or take it a big step further and note how even entire denominations can find themselves in a mode of debate where many of the participants fear their once-unified body ripping apart. Headlines just a few weeks ago—even in The Wall Street Journal—raised the specter of major rifts in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) with painful splintering as a result.
It appears now, with the avoidance of any telling split at their June Nashville meeting, that the immediate threat of major division in the SBC has passed.
But in the much smaller Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), many worried the denomination might be headed for fracture or division. Many saw an early July PCA assembly in St. Louis as offering some telling indicators of longer-term directions for the PCA. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church is in the process of dividing between liberal and conservative factions that some observers say is too orderly to call a “split.”
To be sure, there may be very good reasons why splits and divisions seem more prevalent in conservative churches—whether we’re talking about smaller congregations or larger megachurches. Conservative churches, almost by definition, tend to be doctrinally fussier than their liberal or progressive counterparts. Liberals, almost by definition, tend to be a good bit more tolerant.
So as I near my 80th birthday later this summer, I find myself reflecting on where I’ve put my emphasis over a lifetime. Have I been more a church mender or a church splitter? It’s been common, every time I’ve taken vows of membership or leadership, to commit myself “to study the peace and the purity of Christ’s church.” When I’ve pursued purity, I’ve in effect put an emphasis on sound doctrine and teaching. When I’ve pursued peace, I’ve put an emphasis on what I have in common with other believers.
For the record, I think that in my lifetime I may have leaned a bit more toward the pure doctrine side and a bit less than I wish toward seeking peace with my fellow believers. But I’m thankful I serve an understanding and forgiving God and that others can make up for my lack and shortcomings.
Every Christian believer has to make those same choices, to a greater or lesser degree. You do that when you decide where to put your membership, where to continue your support, what kind of pastor you will call, what kind of missionaries and educators you will support, and dozens of other decisions along the way.
I hope WORLD readers will be known more and more as folks who are intentional as they do so.
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