Partially because of my own decidedly martial bent in personality and interests, one of my favorite hymns is the martial “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Included in this song is a series of lines that (as is often the case) reflects our aspirations as Christians far more than it reflects our actual behavior and practice: “We are not divided, all one body we. One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.” In looking at my family, both my physical family as well as my spiritual family, I can see that the decided shortfall has not been unity in hope (we all share a blessed hope of resurrection in Jesus Christ at the last trumpet) or in doctrine (with minor exceptions, most of them relating to specific prophetic speculations or government/politics, we share the same fundamental beliefs), but rather unity in charity. And I do not say this to point any fingers at anyone else, as plenty are pointed directly my way.
While the lack of unity within my physical and spiritual family, and the question of its effects on me and on my own role in its continuance, has long been a question of deep and often unsatisfying soul-searching for myself personally, the issue of the fractured nature of the Church of God was forcefully brought into the open yesterday by two seemingly contrary events that caught my attention. For one, an internet acquaintance of mine wrote a book review about a work written about the fragmentation of the Worldwide Church of God largely over endless political wrangling and a desire of people to be seen as carrying the mantle of Herbert W. Armstrong (I want to read this book.) . Second, a friend of mine spearheaded a rather popular effort in encouraging unity among young people of separate organizations, to show that our political differences do not mean a cessation of care and concern for them, an effort I wholeheartedly support.
One of the obvious questions immediately asked was whether it was possible for there to be unity among the various organizations of the Church of God without the threat of persecution. While all things are possible with God, I am pessimistic about how such greater unity could be found on the large scale short of a miracle. It is likely that any cohesion within the greater body of Christ, given the reasons that we have divided in the first place, would require an external pressure that is greater than the internal pressures that divided us in the first place. Furthermore, for those internal pressures to be solved, there needs to be a drastic change in approach from the top down that is difficult to conceive at this late hour given the decades of practice people have in behaving as they have thus far.
Let us get to brass tacks. How did we end up so divided anyway? In many ways, the unity of the Worldwide Church of God was on the surface. At least by the time of the 1970’s (before my birth, at any rate) there were already fairly open conflicts between different wings and camps with different ideas about governance. There was a large number of people who saw themselves as powers behind the scenes, who cultivated their own personal following, and who desired the power and the glory of government for themselves. We cannot place all of the blame for the divisiveness of the WCG and its many offshoots on the many and obvious leadership failures, though, as for every would-be leader who desired to be seen as the successor to Herbert W. Armstrong there were at least half a dozen willing tithepayers who wanted someone to tell them what they had to do to please God, and another half a dozen people or so who did not want anyone telling them what to do about anything once they had possession of what they believed to be God’s truth.
Each of us, furthermore, has our own responsibility in this mess. Speaking for myself (because I know myself best), I have always tended to be a bit suspicious about authority and this suspicion has been helped and aided by the insecure and abusive behavior of authorities in light of my outspoken bluntness and honest questioning of others who are not used to and are not fond of being questioned. On all sides of our divisive culture there are a variety of scars, wounds, baggage (call it what you will) that need to be addressed. There are a lot of abusive actions and hurtful deeds and words that we need to simply apologize for and stop doing, which is far easier said than done. At the very least, among those of us who share the same basic beliefs, there needs to be a development of mutual respect and a cultivation of love rather than fear, of service to others rather than lording it over others. A practice of godly Christ-like leadership, and a focus on helping all of us as believers better live up to our godly responsibilities would go a long way in helping make us a more unified body of believers. It is easy to say, and very hard to do.
Given that we are where we are, what can we do about it? We are at the point where it would require drastic and serious cultural change on all sides of disputes to be more unified. Positions of authority have to be seen as opportunities to serve God’s people, and not ways of rewarding cronies and punishing rivals or competitors. People who have been hurt have to continue to love and respect others anyway, and do what God has commanded them despite the despicable way they have been treated in the past by self-appointed leaders and wannabe Diotrophes (see 3 John). It is far easier to like and get along with people who are likeable and friendly, and we could all stand to work on being less prickly and less ferociously defensive and more warm and gentle, even though that is hard for some of us (myself personally also). Basically, we have to cultivate those behaviors that build up others and work on overcoming our natural tendencies to tear others down (natural tendencies that are obvious, easily recognizable to others, and often frequent in use). It is my hope that we can all learn to cultivate these behaviors and that we do not need massive persecution to look at our own petty squabbling as the waste of time and energy that it is, and do a better job accepting God’s authority and less time seeking our own. Only time will tell, though.