"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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
Why can't churches get along? Why can't we all just be together? I heard someone this week on Christian radio talking about some churches in his town, four churches that were all within one block of each other and who hardly ever got together to do anything. I thought to myself, "Perhaps there is a good reason for that ... but how does it appear to the world?"
Some who may read this blog know that Lighthouse Community Church became non-denominational last year (actually, in December, 2011). We left the denomination that the congregation had been part of for 95 years, believing two things: First, that God calls those who know Him to be ONE; and secondly, that denominations actually get in the way of that ONENESS, not only by sometimes straying from a solid commitment to the authority of God's Word, but also by putting up unnecessary barriers to fellowship within the body of Christ.
I met this week with a pastor of another nondenominational congregation who shared that the leadership in the congregation he serves felt the need to have a closer association with a body larger than themselves. For the past several years they have been engaged in such an association, but now there are some "issues" even within this smaller gathering of churches and some have left that association. And while the leadership in the congregation may experience some benefit from having fellowship with other like-minded believers, the congregation as a whole benefits little from such an organizational association.
So what are we to do? What did Jesus pray for and how can we promote a true "oneness" within the body? I have written about this before on this blog, but it is such a crucial subject that questions continue to be asked by many. Let me answer the question I posed above directly, and then propose some ideas from God's Word that will, I believe, at the very least get people thinking about the importance of what Jesus prayed for and what we should be working towards.
Why can't churches get along? Because those within the churches are not all ONE in Christ. The biblical word for "oneness" is different than the word for "unity," even though it is sometimes translated that way. Notice that Jesus prays, "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." To be "one" has absolutely nothing to do with outward, organizational unity. Rather, it requires a oneness of mind and of heart, a oneness that arises from what Jesus talks about earlier in John 17: "knowing You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (vs. 3), and being sanctified "by the truth; Your Word is truth (vs. 17)." True knowledge of God through His Word, of Jesus Christ and the way of life by grace through faith is essential to the oneness for which Jesus prayed and that He calls His Church to display to the world.
When organizations like the World Council of Churches or others get together and talk about unity, they make a mockery of the oneness for which Jesus prayed. By seeking to embrace other "religions" they deny the very truth Jesus came to this earth to proclaim and they reduce the gospel to the "example of the cross," rather than the perfect sacrifice for sin offered to all, but effective only for those who by the work of the Spirit of God put their trust in Jesus Christ alone. The only source of truth for Christ's Church is the very Word of God, found in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. Any other source of authority is the word of man and it destroys the oneness of the body of Christ.
Most people go to a church today for all the wrong reasons. Few know what the church teaches, or if they do, they have not searched the Scriptures to see if the teaching of the church lines up with what God says. Some would probably be surprised to know what their churches or denominations really believe. Others say, "Well, I don't agree with everything they teach, but I like the worship, or I like the preacher, or I like the youth ministry, or I like ..." Really?? This is how you would determine where to feed your soul and to teach your children?!!
So what do we do? We get rid of the labels and brands of churches (even "Bible-believing" doesn't always mean they believe everything the Bible says) and we begin by confessing our own sin and pride in believing we know everything there is to know. Then - and this is the most important thing - we GO TO GOD'S WORD together!! We pray, we talk, we share TRUTH - from God's Word. You might ask, "Well, hasn't that been done?" And I will tell you, "NO!" I LONG to sit down with people who receive the Bible as the Word of God and discuss our "differences." But most are afraid to do so. I am currently preaching a series of sermons on "the end." - the facts surrounding the return of Jesus Christ. For the first ten years of my ministry I didn't believe the idea of a rapture or a millennium, an antichrist and a great tribulation ... Honestly, I just accepted what I had been taught and hadn't had time, or hadn't taken time, to study what God's Word says! I was wrong.
Churches can't get along because people have accepted the labels of denominations without seeking the truth of God's Word. Seminary professors and seminaries have often turned aside from biblical truth in the name of "progressive thinking" and whole denominations have followed them. At Lighthouse, as the Bible says it should be, the Elders and all of leadership, and the people who become confessing members, are encouraged and challenged often to go to God's Word and check out what I say. Do not accept anything simply because I say it!! We put our whole Statement of Belief on this website because we want people to have the time and to take the time to compare what we say we believe with what is taught in the Bible, and we want people to ask questions or to express concerns if something doesn't seem right.
Peter wrote the following in II Peter 3:15-16: "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."
Why can't churches get along? Are you ready for this? Because people are lazy and biblically illiterate and want to defend what they believe and their particular "brand" of Christianity without going to God's Word and being sanctified by the truth. I am not saying that we do that perfectly at Lighthouse, but we try, and we recognize the necessity of opening our Bibles and learning what God's Word says and being able to defend it against the attacks of those who teach doctrines contrary to God's Word.
We join Jesus is praying for the true oneness of the body of Christ, of the Church, His Bride. Where we can serve and worship with those who accept the Bible as the very Word of God, and who trust in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and life, believing that we are saved by grace through faith, being born again by the Spirit of God ... we welcome the opportunities to come together to display the love of Christ and to share the good news of the gospel. We will not, we cannot compromise the truth of God's Word, and we call all who claim Jesus as their Savior and Lord to do the same.
There is one true Church in Allendale, Michigan, as there is in every community around the world. This body is made up of all those who confess with their mouth and believe in their heart that Jesus is Savior and Lord. God knows who these are and WE ARE ONE!! When we stop talking about "our" church and talk instead about THE Church, when we stop talking about a man-made label and talk instead about being a follower of Christ (reclaiming the name, "Christian" from those who have no idea what it means!), when we are willing to sit down together to dig into God's Word and talk about the areas where we have not come to a single understanding of what God's Word says ... then we will be used of God to bring about a true oneness in our communities that will glorify God and speak volumes to a world that desperately needs Jesus. To that end I pray, to that end I labor, and I invite you to join me ... to join US ... for we are not alone!