The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is 25 this year. No longer in infancy or even adolescence as an organization, I still hear people crack jokes about being “cooperative” Baptists instead of fighting Baptists.
Since I have been in paid vocational ministry, I have seen churches split, close, disband and run off pastors; a deacon board and trustees refuse to do anything about a staff member that embezzled funds; and staff members and pastors scapegoated because of a church’s dysfunction. Sometimes I’ve seen these things from a distance, and other times it’s been up close.
I’ve come to believe that theology has little to do with congregational health. There are unhealthy progressive churches, unhealthy moderate churches, unhealthy conservative churches, and unhealthy fundamentalist churches (perhaps the unhealthiest of all).
Every week I hear from a colleague or friend about conflict in a church, an association of churches, or at the state or national level of a denominational entity.
Jesus’s longest prayer in Scripture pleads for unity. In John 17:20-21, he prays:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Statisticians and denominational leaders seem obsessed with how to reach those categorically labelled “nones and dones.” Perhaps one reason people are done with church is because they don’t need that kind of stress and negativity in their life. Maybe the “nones and dones” haven’t given up on Jesus, just the church.
Perhaps they are done with fractured relationships and contentious business meetings. Done with controlling, pretentious, gossipy church bullies, who cajole, nag and backstab to get their way. Maybe they’re done with watching their church’s budget continually drift inward while people give lip service to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Maybe they’re done with being shamed for not fitting the mold or asking too many questions. Done with hearing, “Oh, our church is the friendliest church around,” when in reality, it’s not.
Jesus prayed to the Father for unity “so that the world may believe.” Might these sometimes self-absorbed, frequently fearful, and consistently conflicted organizations we call “churches” prove the very reason so many are leaving the church?
Of course, no church is perfect, and like any family, every church has its own dysfunction. I fear sometimes though, when we talk about reaching people for Jesus, or about proclaiming the gospel, we haven’t truly considered the gravity of what’s happening in our culture.
Could the reason our culture is becoming so un-Christlike be that too few churches are Christlike?
The purpose of unity in the church is so that the world may believe in Christ.
I’m not naïve enough to think that the CBF and the Southern Baptist Convention will ever kiss and make up. Far from it. The “Baptist wars” of the 20th century still have seismic ripples. I am encouraged, however, when churches on the local level can move beyond brand loyalty for the sake of the Kingdom — a true foretaste of heaven, perhaps.
Daily I read stories of fracture and disunity in churches and denominations. Too often that thing that separates us more than anything — secular politics — leads to disunity, with congregations and pastors on the left and right giving wholesale endorsements of parties and candidates. Caesar can be a Republican or a Democrat, and if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.
When we get to heaven, most of the things we break fellowship over on earth won’t matter one bit. So many denominations and networks on the verge of schism have created groups to “find a way forward.”
In terms of a way forward, I propose a simple solution: live with one another in unity. Easier said than done, perhaps, but according to Christ’s prayer, the gospel hinges on it.
Too many people confuse unity with uniformity. True unity comes from a deep realization that we are all created in God’s image, and that above all we are called to love God and love one another.
Love one another — despite theological or political difference.
Love one another — despite socioeconomic status.
Love one another — despite nationality or race.
Love one another — for Christ’s sake, and for the world’s.
Will you be the answer to Jesus’s prayer? That, my friends, is worth fighting for.