Mahatma Gandhi was once quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” As a Christian, I am forced to concur with this statement. I don’t mean to make the erroneous claim that all Christians are unlike Christ in every way, but it is my experience (as well as the experience of others) that there are some very un-Christian Christians running around. Furthermore, every Christian has had un-Christian moments from time to time. Lest anyone think I am on the outside looking in on this, let me be frank: I fully include myself in the group of Christians who act un-Christian.
I am not sure which is worse, the way Christians treat unbelievers or the way Christians treat fellow Christians. I’ve seen egregious failures on both sides of that dilemma. Given the fact that Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It would seem that Christians behaving badly with other Christians is worse; not only do we fail the command to love one another, but we also destroy our witness with the outside world. Let’s briefly examine the way Christians have treated one another over the years.
The basic creed that defines Christians from non-Christians is the Apostle’s Creed followed by the Nicene Creed. All Christians whether they be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant abide by those creeds (let us lay aside for the sake of argument the dispute over the Filioque clause of the Nicene creed in which the Spirit is said to proceed from the Father and the Son). The first major split in Christendom was the East-West split in 1054 AD. This split was a largely political split, not a theological split that had to do with the primacy of the Roman See over the other major Sees of the East (Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople). The second major split in Christendom was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which was a theological split over the nature of justification and the authority of scripture. From there the Protestants split between Reformed and Lutheran, and there have been many more splits after that.
Denominationalism is a mess in Protestant circles. You have the major flavors of Protestantism — Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Reformed — and each of these have many more divisions under them. I once saw a chart that outlined the history of Presbyterianism in America and it looked like a plate of spaghetti with lines breaking off and joining together. Who knows how many various flavors of Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists there are. All of these groups are supposedly Protestant in that they protest against the ecclesial abuses of the Roman Catholic church, but the utter lack of unity in Protestant circles makes Jesus’ high priestly prayer that “they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). How is the world supposed to believe that the Father sent the Son into the world if the church that bears his name is not one?
Roman Catholics like to poke fun at their Protestant neighbors by saying they are the ‘one true church’ undivided for over 2,000 years. Really? The catholic church is just as fractured as the Protestant church. The only difference is that as long as the different factions in Catholicism maintain communion with Rome, their doctrinal differences are overlooked. There are prominent Catholic universities where ordained individuals openly teach things that are against official Catholic dogma. I myself went to a Catholic (Jesuit) university, and let me tell you there were plenty of faculty that believed and taught things contrary to church dogma. Catholic unity is a myth!
The end result of these splits is that it gives license for some Christians to behave poorly with other Christians. Catholics think Protestants are damned and going to hell, and Protestants think the same of Catholics. Some fundamentalists Christians think that unless you use the King James translation of the bible, you’re guilty of using a perversion of God’s word, and they have gone so far as to anathematize those who work in translating the scriptures into modern English. I’ve heard a prominent Christian pastor say that if you baptize infants you are violating God’s ‘clear’ teaching on baptism and therefore in sin. Then there’s the ‘worship wars’ that argue over what is proper to sing in worship: Traditional hymns or modern praise and worship songs?
These are just some of the more interesting debates within general Christian circles. When you get into Reformed circles, it gets even more interesting. Reformed Christians are confessional, which means they base their faith and practice on written confessions of faith that are supposed to be faithful summaries of the bible. You would think that Christians who adhere to the same confession would have a greater sense of unity. Guess again. Some of the more acerbic arguments I’ve gotten into have been with fellow Reformed Christians. There is an online forum called The Puritanboard. This forum is supposed to be a place where Christians who adhere to one of the Protestant Reformed confessions of faith (Belgic Confession, Westminster Confession of Faith, or the London Baptist Confession of 1689) can meet to have irenic discussions of things regarding the reformed faith. There was a post on one of the forums regarding Sunday football and Sabbath observation. I chimed in that as a football fan, I routinely set my DVR to record my local game and watch it later. In no way do I skip church or any religious functions to watch the game. Apparently this wasn’t enough for one of the members who began to criticize me for breaking the Sabbath command. After a non-irenic discussion, I was almost kicked off the board for being un-confessional.
Another bugaboo in reformed circles is something called the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). The RPW is implicit in the Belgic Confession and explicit in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In short, the RPW states that whatever is not explicitly commanded in scripture is not to be included in corporate worship. Now this is supposed to be a confessional issue, which means if your church subscribes to one of the aforementioned confessions, you should abide by the RPW. You would think that something that is supposed to bind the church’s worship practice would be explicitly clear. Yet in reformed churches you have one denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which runs the gamut on worship in their churches (everything from traditional hymns to blended to modern). There’s another denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which tends to stick to traditional hymns and psalms put to music with minimal accompaniment. Finally, there’s the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), which strictly interprets the RPW to mean the singing of psalms exclusively with no musical accompaniment. All three denominations are confessional. All three supposedly adhere to the RPW. All three interpret the RPW differently. And as you would expect, there are proponents in all three camps who spend their time criticizing the others for failing to adhere to the RPW.
Now you wonder why the unbelieving world dismisses Christianity out of hand? We’re all supposed to believe the bible, yet between Catholics and Protestants there are major disagreements as to what books are to be in the bible and whether or not the bible is the final authority in matters of faith and practice. We’re all supposed to spread the gospel, but there are major disagreements between Catholics and Protestants as to what the gospel message is. The world is supposed to know we’re disciples of Christ by the love we have for one another, yet individual Christian sub-groups spend way too much time criticizing one another and anathematizing one another. The world is supposed to know that the Father sent the Son by the unity found in the church, yet the Christian church is a fractured mess! To be fair, some of the differences mentioned are not trivial, and I’m not suggesting that we all gloss over the differences for the sake of unity. Having said that, there are far too many splits within Christendom over things that are secondary or tertiary at best.
As I get older, I am growing more and more convinced that no two people who go by the same ideological label — whether that label is religious or political — will ever agree 100% on all points. Yet many Christians think that if there isn’t 99.9% ideological purity with my understanding of the faith, then obviously you’re not as serious about the faith as I am. News flash Christian, you’re not going to get 99.9% ideological purity in your own church (unless your church or denomination consists of five people). Odds are there is something your pastor has said in the past year that has set you off. Seeing that we’ll never get 99.9% agreement on all things theological, perhaps we need to set our sights lower? Differences will abound, and I say “viva la difference.” There is a wise saying that may be overused, but applies aptly to this situation: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” Where differences arise that are not essential, we need to remember those words liberty and charity. We too often substitute “liberty” with “accusation” and “charity” with “hatred” or “suspicion.” When that happens, I can only agree with Gandhi and say, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”