The Scandal of Christian Disunity: A Broken Witness

Why are there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another?

These meddlesome questions could well be posed in our times as Christians verbally crucify one another over disagreements regarding such controversial issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, the origins of the cosmos and political affiliations.

But these questions actually flow from the pen of Clement of Rome, around AD 95, in his Letter of the Romans to the Corinthians, in which he laments that the schisms in the Corinthian Church, which the Apostle Paul had sternly addressed in his letter to that church, was still rampant.[1]

It appears that significant disunity has plagued the Christian Church since its beginning. This is scandalous since it contradicts two of the clearest teachings of Jesus.

Jesus taught that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13: 35).

I have neither the space nor the competence to comment on the numerous dimensions of “love.” But there are two dimensions on which I have staked my life and my present work. First, loving another person precludes name-calling, demonization and other forms of vitriolic engagement with another Christian, or anyone else, with whom you disagree.

As to a positive dimension, It is my firm conviction that to a provide safe, welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express his/her perspective and then to engage that person in “respectful conversation” about your agreements and disagreements is a deep expression of love for that person, to which Jesus calls those who profess to be his followers.

Jesus also taught, by means of his prayer for his disciples in all times and places, that Christians are to strive for unity.

I ask not only on behalf of these [his initial band of disciples], 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 (John 17: 20-21, italics mine)

It is sad that while enough books have been written about “Christian apologetics” to fill many libraries, Christians often ignore the clear teaching of Jesus that it is the witness of unity among Christians that will best attract unbelievers to the Christian faith. Given the appalling state of discourse among many Christians who disagree with one another, is it any wonder that many unbelievers want nothing to do with us or our professions of faith?

In short, past and present signs of disunity among Christians fly in the face of the clear teachings of Jesus that love for one another and unity in the midst of disagreements are the tell-tale signs of genuine Christian community.

How have so many of us who claim to be followers of Jesus strayed so far from some of his clearest teachings? I will point to what I take to be two reasons. First, this sad state of affairs reflects a colossal failure to exercise the Christian virtue of humility. If I am convinced that I have “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” regarding the issue at hand, it is all too easy to dismiss, often in the nastiest terms, those who disagree with me; too often characterizing them as “inferior Christians” (if they are Christians at all) who do not subscribe to the authority of scriptures (when the truth of the matter may be that they also have a “high’ view of scriptures, but are interpreting some biblical passages differently).

By contrast, if each of us recognizes that as finite, fallible human beings, we all “see through glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), we will acknowledge that none of us has a “God’s eye” view of the Truth about the matter and we can therefore collectively seek to a better approximation to the Truth as we engage in respectful conversations about our agreements and disagreements.

Another reason for the insidious state of discourse among many Christians is that we have simply copied the “ways of the world” rather than seeking to model a “better way,’ a “Christian way” to engage those with whom we disagree. All around us, in the media and public discourse, the norm has become name-calling, polarization and vitriol. And we have too easily succumbed to that sub-Christian mode of engagement.

This lack of willingness to model a better way, a Christian mode of engagement regarding contentious issues, came home to me as I sought to shape the electronic conversation (eCircle) on “Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality” that I am hosting on this web site (as of July 1, 2015). In my own words, I heard the following types of concerns expressed about me or other Christians choosing to embark on this challenging venture: What are the immediate gains or losses for me, or for the Christian institution/organization that I represent, if I engage in such controversial conversations? What will those who support our Christian institution/organization think if they find out that we are even talking about this issue? (Will they withdraw their support?) What if local media outlets get wind of the fact that Christians disagree about this issue? (Is it not better to discuss such contentious issues in private rather than in a public forum). Will not “airing our disagreements in public” cause us to lose stature in the eyes of those who we depend upon for societal legitimization?

What I find disturbing about these responses is that they focus on “what others will think of us” if we dare to talk about contentious issues. None of these expressions of concern adequately acknowledge the long-term gain of choosing to be faithful, come what may, to three foundational Christian values:

  • Truth – are not Christians called to seek a better understanding of the “Truth” about this issue, as only God fully understands that Truth?
  • Love – Are not Christians who disagree about this issue called to love one another in the midst of their disagreements?
  • Unity – Are not Christians called to navigate their disagreements about this issue in ways that maintain unity of fellowship around their shared commitment to be followers of Jesus?

That is the “better way” to deal with our disagreements to which Jesus calls those who profess to be his followers. It is my hope and prayer that my new eCircle will model this better way. Through the eyes of faith, I can even envision our faithfulness to these three values as presenting a compelling Christian witness in our broken world.














[1] James R. Payton, Jr. Editor, A Patristic Treasury : Early Church Wisdom for Today. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013, 33-34.