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by Jacob Ninan
Some churches get divided due to personal conflicts among the leaders. Some others get divided because of doctrinal disagreements. Unfortunately both these happened in the very early history of the church too, and happen now and then these days also. Paul and Barnabas saw things differently about how they should deal with John Mark who had left them mid-way through their previous missionary journey. Paul probably felt strongly that such a man could not be trusted in future, but Barnabas was of the opinion that he should be given another chance. This clash of personalities caused them to go different ways forming two separate missionary ventures. The doctrinal issue that troubled the early church was whether or not new believers in Christ should be compelled to keep the Old Testament laws, especially the one regarding circumcision. This did not result in the church getting divided into two, but possibly it prevented some Jews from joining the church and caused some others to go back into the Jewish religion.
Why should there be doctrinal differences when we all follow the same Bible and have the same Holy Spirit revealing God’s truths to us? The fact is that all of us come to the Bible with many things that colour our vision. Our temperament, upbringing, knowledge of the Bible, church background, cultural background, training in Biblical interpretation, past experiences—all of these and more cause us to see truths from a particular slant of mind. Jesus hinted also that our inner willingness to obey what we see in the Bible will determine how much we would be able to see there (Jn.7:17). We can also understand that as our mind gets renewed as a result of submitting to God’s truths, we become better able to understand them (Rom.12:1,2). Without such preparation of our heart and mind, it is possible that our biases and prejudices may influence the way we interpret God’s word.
The way the Bible has been written itself makes it necessary for us to exercise caution in the way we interpret the truths we find there. It has not been written in a systematic or orderly way like a text book describing subject after subject. The revelation of God comes progressively as we travel from the beginning to the end of the Bible, and the Old Testament revelations find their fullness in the New Testament. Truths are distributed all over the Bible in such a way that we need to have an understanding of the whole Bible in order to interpret parts of it. Different literary genres are used there which we need to take note of before we can understand the actual meaning in different passages. Though the historic passages can teach us many things concerning God, people and His ways of dealing with them, all of them cannot be taken straightaway as examples for us to follow. The immediate and the overall context in which we find passages, and their relevance to us in these days are all factors that we need to consider before we form doctrines. All these explain how easy it is for us to come to differing conclusions as we read the Bible.
Some centuries ago the Bible was in the hands of priests who alone could read and interpret it for the common people. But now that it is available to everyone in most languages, it looks as if everyone is making his own interpretation without submitting to any authority. Now there are different churches which are formed not only on the basis of different doctrines but different emphases of doctrine according to the ‘vision’ of its leaders. This gives opportunity to some unbelievers to mock Christians who cannot agree among themselves, and some turn away from the gospel because of this incongruity.
Some people try to justify the existence of different churches as God’s provision for meeting the tastes of different people. We could probably accept this when it comes to differences in the form of worship or conduct of the church. But when different churches teach different doctrines it does not mean that God’s word is open to individual interpretation according to each one’s tastes.
Division becomes inevitable when some people in a church begin to teach heresy or false doctrines. But when this can cover cases like someone denying the deity or humanity of Christ, is division warranted when people differ in understanding 666, the time of the rapture, etc.? But sometimes it does happen that the leader of the church will not permit any interpretation other than his, and then some people may walk away.
If we consider matters such as the meaning of 666 as an insufficient reason to form another church, there are more significant differences among churches that have remained through centuries. The mode of water baptism and the eligibility of people for baptism, whether there is a ‘second’ experience after being born again called the baptism in the Holy Spirit, whether the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased to operate or are still at work in the church, whether God works entirely in His sovereignty or He works along with the free will of man, the roles of God and man in regeneration, whether there are to be clergy or ordained servants of God or whether all are to be simply brothers and sisters—issues such as these have found no resolution in spite of many debates and studies, and hold Christians in different camps. Each camp is fully convinced that they hold the truth in its accurate form. Attempts to overlook these differences and pretend to be one in spite of them also do not work.
If we believe that God’s truth has only one meaning, we have to attribute these differences only to the frailty of man. It does not look like these can be resolved while we are on this earth. But each of us can have a mature attitude towards those who disagree with us. To begin with we recognise that none of us knows everything fully. We see things dimly, and we hope to get clarity only when we stand before the Lord in the life to come. We are therefore to be willing to keep learning, acknowledge our mistakes when we get to know them and make changes to our understanding. It is not that the others are all dim-witted or not ‘wholehearted’ because there are scholars and godly people on both sides of the issues. It helps us to remember that they have their own arguments why they believe what they believe, and that we do not always know those reasons. It is not that we should water down our doctrines or give up our convictions on what we believe, but we can develop a greater maturity of understanding if we try and see if what we believe is entirely right, what the others really believe and why they believe them. “We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph.4:14).
When we stand before the Lord the issue is not how clearly we understood all the doctrines, but what attitudes we kept in our heart and mind when we were on earth.
-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, August 2013
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