I was looking at a discussion between a group of Christians brought about by the bringing into law of same-sex marriage in England and Wales today. Some were unhappy about the change in the law, others not so. It came to a point, though, when the argument turned into something a little like this,
“Maybe conservative Christians will stop going on about the gay issue and concentrate on fighting poverty.”
“We conservatives already do, it’s you liberals who go on about the gay issue.”
“No, you do.”
“No, you do.”
(Repeat until the end of time)
There were others, including myself, who let out an exasperated sigh. I’m not entirely sure I remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus blesses the conservatives or liberals and says woe unto the other group. These are labels we put upon ourselves which do little but cause internal divisions which end up driving the Church apart. It saddens me.
The homosexuality issue has had this effect on a congregation local to myself. The Church of Scotland have been debating the issue of allowing people in gay relationships to enter the ministry. After much debate the decision was taken to allow churches to opt out of the Church policy that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This decision was seen as a step too far by some in the Church, including my nearest parish church, which saw the minister and many in the congregation leave to set up a new church. This has, obviously, caused a lot of heartbreak and pain for a lot of people and has saddened those of us looking on from other congregations.
It’s happened a lot down the years. If it’s not gay ministers or marriage it’s women priests. Or infant baptism. Or married priests. Or Bibles in native tongues. Or many other issues which have divided the Church down the ages.
Of course, many will say that this is God’s will. After all, Jesus said this
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NIV)
Jesus came to divide us. It was part of his purpose, his plan. He wants to split us so only the righteous, those who are right on every issue, are saved.
I read it differently. I don’t think Jesus is saying that division is his aim, but simply the inevitable consequence of his ministry and actions. He had just spoken about selling your possessions and giving to the poor. He had been preaching against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of the time. He had said that, in order to get entry to God’s kingdom then you simply need to knock at the door and it will be opened. These will have been incredibly divisive messages at the time, going against the accepted religious order of things. These things will have caused argument between those who accepted what he was saying and those who stuck with the status quo. In fact, they caused great division to the point of persecution for Jesus’ followers.
They still do cause great division. His message to us and his salvation are difficult messages to hear in today’s material, self driven world and do still divide this who believe and don’t. His message still leads to persecution and death for his followers in many parts of the world.
But for his followers to be divided by our own readings of issues which Jesus himself never actually spoke of is ridiculous. What divides us is important. We do need debate and discussion over all of these issues, in the way homosexuality and women bishops have been debated recently. But to divide ourselves into camps such as liberal and conservative, evangelical and emerging, traditional and progressive is self destructive. It leads to the situation we have in places where some Christians refuse to worship with others because of their beliefs on one issue rather than share fellowship because of their common ground on so many others.
I’m not saying that we need to give ground if we genuinely believe that we are following God’s will, but I am saying that we should understand three things:
Firstly, those who disagree with us probably believe, just as strongly, that they too are following God’s will.
Secondly, nobody is perfect. We are all wrong on some issues and we need to accept that. Just because the person who disagrees with us on a particular issue may be wide of the mark doesn’t mean that they are further from God than them. We are missing another point somewhere just as badly.
Thirdly, none of these issues are the main, most important thing. Jesus is. This is,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.” (Adapted from Luke 10:27 NIV)
Loving God, loving those around us and helping the poor are the important things. And so is the fact that Jesus died and rose again so that we could forgive and be forgiven. These things all of us in the Church agree on. These things we should all unite around.
We are followers of Jesus. That is enough. It’s all we need to be.