“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
Sadly, unity has been hard to come by for the two largest Protestant denominations: The Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church (UMC). The history of each of these fellowships is filled with powerful service for the Kingdom of God over many decades, but each also came into being through divisive events that in some respects, at least faintly, foreshadow the current strife.
The SBC is currently experiencing tension over the handling of sexual abuse claims, Critical Race Theory, and, to a lesser degree, the role of women in ministry. The SBC was itself born of a split in 1845 over a desire to maintain slavery. The Denomination has since apologized for this position.
The UMC has, since 1972, been debating the ordination and sanctioning of marriage of those engaged in homosexual activity. It appears this issue will likely cause an official denominational separation in the near future. Interestingly, Methodism began under John Wesley as a movement within the Church of England, which had previously separated from Roman Catholicism over Henry the VIII’s desire for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
How did these past and current divisions arise? How could they have been avoided? Why have they, in some cases, lingered so long? Is there anything that could still be done at this current state of disunity? The answers to these questions might lie with the writings and actions of James, the half-brother of Jesus.
The fourth chapter of James provides a fascinating analysis into the spiritual root causes of discord within the Body of Christ. In Acts chapter 15, James offers a case study for the resolution of a bitterly divisive issue (apparently within one meeting). Taken together, these Scriptures form a way forward for those in the midst of controversy but who also seek to honor God in Spirit and Truth while fulfilling Jesus’ desire that the world identify His disciples by their love toward each another (John 13:35).
James suggests in his epistle that the true source of the quarrels among Christians is not so much differences of opinion between disputing parties, but the lack of inner holiness within each individual. Specific negative personal traits he identifies include selfish pleasure-seeking, lust, envy, prayerlessness, self-centered prayer, pride, and friendship with the world (James 4:1-4).
He then prescribes an array of countermeasures for each person involved:
- Take the Scriptures seriously—not as a dead document that is irrelevant to one’s inner life or the current dispute(s) within the church (4:5).
- Humble oneself and access God’s grace (4:6,10).
- Submit to God, which in practice likely means obeying God’s revealed will as given in His Word (4:7).
- Resist the devil (4:7). The details for this resistance are provided in Ephesians 6:11-18.
- Focus on drawing nearer to God before addressing the dispute (4:8).
- Mourn that a conflict is happening within the Body of Christ (4:9).
- Do not disparage other believers involved in the dispute (4:10).
The implication of this text is that following the above steps would prevent most crippling church disputes from arising in the first place. Certainly, parties already engaged in such disputes within the church should first address these internal spiritual issues in order to have any hope for a godly resolution of the dispute and a reestablishment of church unity.
The church dispute described in Acts 15 began when some the Judean Christians came to Antioch to teach that Gentile believers in Jesus need to be circumcised before being saved and baptized (15:1). Such a requirement went against the core of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel (see entire Book of Galatians).
The church at Antioch appealed to Jerusalem for direction from the elders and apostles on the matter (15:2). After extended debate, a turning point occurred with the testimony of Peter (15:7), whose undisputed credibility was first established by Jesus (Matthew 16:17-19). He referenced his encounter at Joppa with an angel, who sent him to share the Gospel with the house of the Roman Centurion Cornelius at Caesarea (15:7).
Peter reported that the Holy Spirit, by endowing these Gentiles with spiritual gifts (15:8), confirmed the central truth that it is by grace though faith in Jesus that all are saved—not through the works of the Law (15:9-11). Paul and Barnabas followed Peter’s testimony by recounting the signs and wonders of God had done outside of the Judean bubble among the Gentiles (15:12).
James, who apparently was the presiding officer of the proceedings, identified these Gentile conversions as the fulfillment of the prophets’ writings (5:13-18). Having given this clinching rationale via Scripture, he ruled against requiring circumcision before salvation and baptism (15:19).
After safeguarding the core of the Gospel, James then displayed remarkable wisdom and charity by adding three stipulations that were especially meaningful to the Christians on the losing side of the debate (5:20-21). These stipulations, either already supported by all or posing no theological or practical problems for the Gentile believers, helped foster healing between the disagreeing factions:
- Abstain from things contaminated by idols.
- Abstain from fornication.
- Abstain from what is strangled and from blood.
This entire decision was reduced to writing and sent to the church at Antioch (15:23-29). When it was read by them, “they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (15:31). Wouldn’t be great if every report summarizing the actions of the general conference or annual convention were greeted with rejoicing?
Yes, each denomination must tailor James’s model to fit individual theological distinctives and organizational practices. There are, however, overarching principles here that apply in almost any Christian context:
- Value the inner fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) over political strategy.
- Submit to God’s truth on the issue(s) as clearly revealed in the full Bible.
- Resist the attempts of Satan to create confusion and division.
- Give opportunity to air positions without suppression but in Christian love.
- Factor in how God is currently working throughout His church worldwide.
- Come to a decision without allowing the matter to linger indefinitely.
- Consider the effects upon those whose position was not adopted and look for ways to affirm these individuals by adding meaningful stipulations.
- Summarize the process, decision, and rationale, then communicate it widely.
Ronald Sloan is a retired academic administrator who served at both public and Christian institutions of higher education. He currently teaches as an adjunct music instructor at Taylor University, volunteers at his church, and serves as a court-appointed advocate for children needing special services.