10th February 2013

By This Will All Men Know

“Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you.”
1 Timothy 6:20-21 NIV (UK)

In the Church of the Nativity, supposedly built over the very place where Jesus was born, a fight broke out one year between some priests who were cleaning the church in preparation for the Christmas services. Three different denominations share the Church of the Nativity. Each has its own section, and they guard it very carefully. But during the cleaning, Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy became involved in a dispute over territory. So about 100 robed priests got into a scuffle with buckets and brooms. The riot police had to be called in to separate them. They made no arrests because, said the official police report, “They were all men of God”. Well, it’s a strange way for ‘men of God’ to show their godliness!

Although most ‘men of God’ don’t go to the lengths of attacking their rivals with brooms, however, churches do tend to guard what they consider ‘their territory’ very carefully, don’t they? The various denominations take their ‘distinctives’ very seriously, whether it be worship styles, what they allow themselves eat or wear, what days they observe as holy, or which version of the Bible is the ‘right one’. When we do this, we risk making the same mistake as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who paid great attention to minute details, but lost the big picture of what worship is all about.

In John 17:21, Jesus prayed that his church would be ‘one’. I don’t think he meant they should all be exactly the same in every detail. As President of Grace Communion International, I visit churches all over the world. It is unrealistic to expect a congregation in Africa or Central America to be the same as one in Europe or the American mid-West. Even in the early church, Jewish and Gentile congregations did things in different ways.

Are those differences as important to God as they are to us? Jesus didn’t say we would represent him properly only if we got doctrine, worship, or liturgy exactly right. He said, “This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:35 The Message).

That is why it is important that we work together as Christians, setting aside our differences and focusing on what we have in common at the centre of our faith and worship. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to happen nearly as often as it should. But when it does, it is very satisfying.

Recently I was invited to a meeting of leaders from several different denominations. There were leaders from the Assemblies of God, Foursquare, Nazarene, Free Methodist, Salvation Army, Church of God, Pentecostal Holiness, United Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Evangelical, Brethren in Christ and a few others I don’t recall. I was told that this was the second time in the history of the Church that leaders from 13 Wesleyan based denominations gathered together in this fashion.

Instead of bickering over details, we found ourselves enjoying one another’s company, and saying so. It was a reminder that the territory which should concern us as Christians is not our differing customs and traditions. Rather, we have been given a field to cultivate together—a world that has not heard the gospel and does not know Jesus and the life he gives us.

Sadly, we offer the world an unattractive and confusing example when we squabble, fight, and throw brooms at each other. But when we work together in love and harmony, setting aside our differences, we offer a positive example—an example that Jesus said would show the world that we are his disciples. And that’s the greatest privilege we have as his brothers and sisters, and as members of his worldwide and international Body.

Heavenly Father, even as you call us as individuals within a fellowship, help us to appreciate that you call others and into other fellowships. Help us to appreciate what unites us, not what separates us. Help us to see the light of the Holy Spirit in others you have called, and to rejoice in the diversity within unity you call us to. In Jesus’ holy name we pray.

Study by Joseph Tkach

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