Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
-Colossians 3:12-15 (NIV)
When Josh was a little kid, we used to watch Veggie Tales together. Even though I don’t have anyone to watch with anymore, I still find myself remembering one episode or the other now and again. It happened to me just last month, in fact.
The episode I remembered, for you Veg-heads, was the one where the veggies who wore shoes on their heads went to war with the veggies who wore pots on their heads. Yes, I know it sounds silly. Yes, I suppose it was. But what I remembered was the song sung by Junior Asparagus - the one veggie who seemed to grasp the ridiculousness of the war. Junior sang:
“You have a shoe, and I have a pot,
But when we look deeper there’s more that we’ve got....”
The song came to mind when I met a gentleman from the Independent Churches of Christ. We have a lot in common, the two of us. Both the Independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ, the fellowship of churches I’m a part of, come from the American Restoration Movement. We have almost identical beliefs about the stuff that divides a lot of Christians: baptism, observance of the Lord’s Supper, church polity, and so on. What has divided us - officially since 1906, unofficially since before that - has been the kind of music we use in worship. Specifically, the Independent Christian Churches use instruments, while the Churches of Christ use only vocal music.
That may seem rather minor to some. To others, it’s pretty significant. Practically speaking, it makes worshipping together difficult, at best. And so, for more than a century we’ve remained functionally two separate denominations - even though on both sides of the division, ironically, we decry the existence of denominations.
Not surprisingly, this brother in Christ and I discovered right away that we had a lot to talk about. He told me about his grandfather, who had been a preacher in Oklahoma who sometimes debated preachers from Churches of Christ. His grandfather, he told me with a laugh, called us in the Churches of Christ the “non-fiddlin’ brethren.”
I got a good chuckle out of that. “Non-fiddlin’ brethren”: I’ve certainly been called worse.
“You have a shoe and I have a pot. But when we look deeper there’s more that we’ve got.”
That certainly applies to fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren. Or to more significant denominational divides between Catholic and Protestant, Western and Eastern, Evangelical and Mainline. It also applies to Christians who in previous generations might have had no contact but who now rub elbows on Sunday mornings: Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and so forth. Surely, it also applies equally to Christians who are wealthy, middle-class, and poor. Liberal or Conservative. Male and Female.
It’s a fallacy to imagine that New Testament Christians didn’t have problems with division. They certainly did. To start with, they were a Jewish movement that was gradually and steadily becoming more and more Gentile. Think there weren’t any differences of opinion between Jews and Gentiles over whether to serve pulled-pork sandwiches at church potlucks, or what constituted sexual immorality? You can bet there were, and in fact several New Testament books are actually letters dealing with problems exactly like that.
And then beyond Jew and Gentile, there were questions of doctrine. Debates about how far freedom in Christ could take women out of the domestic world and into the public. There were free Christians and slave Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the same household: How did their status as brothers in Christ affect their relationship as slave and master - and vice-versa? Then there were questions of what was appropriate in a community worship service, who should do it, and how it should be done.
You’ll find, in fact, that the disagreements sound pretty contemporary. There was one difference, though: in the New Testament, Christians in Corinth or Rome or Thessalonica couldn’t just leave one church and go down the block to another. What you did was stay, and show each other grace, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and put each other first, and show the same forgiveness you had received from Jesus. And, when it was hard to do any of that, you’d just “bear with” each other. And you’d remember that, in Jesus, you’d been called to peace.
I know that, on some level, it matters whether a church uses musical instruments or doesn’t. I understand that real convictions are involved. But I also know that, compared to what the fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren share in common, it’s a century-old “shoe/pot” division. And I would very much like to not bequeath that division to my son.
Maybe you can apply some of that to some things going on down at your own church. Maybe the Anglos and Hispanics at your church are having a hard time coexisting. Maybe the Democrats and Republicans aren’t sitting together much anymore. Maybe your church is struggling to figure out how to treat the poor among you with justice, respect, and dignity. Maybe some dispute over how to understand a particular set of texts and doctrines is threatening to divide you.
Stuff like that is hard to handle, and scary. All I can say to you, in the words of Roger Williams, is, “We find not in the Gospel, that Christ hath anywhere provided for the uniformity of churches, but only for their unity.” In short, if you’re praying for every church to look, think, and act in exactly the same ways, you might be praying for the wrong thing. Williams, in the end, despaired of unity being possible. I’m somewhat more optimistic, if only because I believe that it’s the will of the One who has called us together, the One whose name we bear, and the One in whom we all live.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote, and that applies to fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren alike. Because, in him, we are brethren - family - and we’re called to peace. If we let the peace of Christ overrule the pride, self-interest, fear, and anger that makes us unable to admit we might not have all the answers, we might take the first steps toward the unity that the Lord wants - expects - in his church.
Pot-wearers and shoe-wearers, standing side by side.
Fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren, playing the same tune.
May it be so.