For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)
Someone shared a blog post from several years ago with me recently. It might be of limited interest to a lot of readers, dealing as it does with the history of my little “tribe” of believers, but I found it pretty fascinating because it had to do with a subject I didn’t know too much about. And my not knowing about it is significant, because I think that probably my not knowing about it was intentional.
To make a long story short, the post was an analysis of a letter written in 1958 by a man named Irven Lee, a professor, college administrator, and preacher in Alabama. The letter is a defense of Lee’s convictions that local churches should not financially support para-church organizations (like universities, orphans’ homes, and missions or relief organizations). Lee, and those who share his convictions, believe that Christians are to do things like that themselves, or within their own churches. While I don’t find his arguments particularly convincing — he might make a case that supporting para-church organizations is not best practice, but falls well short of proving that it’s unscriptural or unchristian to do so — I was struck by how well-reasoned they are and how kind his tone is.
I guess that surprised me because I grew up hearing people like Lee referred to as “antis,” and being told that they didn’t care about orphans. In fairness, I guess, I didn’t hear that much about them at all, because by the time I was old enough to understand the issues involved “our” churches and the Non-Institutional churches had had nothing to do with each other for at least 20 years. When I did hear about them, though, they were always an example of “divisive” groups who elevated their own opinions over Scripture, who had left “us” because they preferred to have their way instead of just following the Bible like we did.
A little light research, though, turns up a different story; it’s probably more accurate to say that we’re separate groups now because influential people among “us” decided that “they” should be “quarantined.” “We” spent the next few years eliminating “them” from “our” churches and school and so forth, and that was pretty much that. That, as much as anything, explains why I didn’t hear much about the Non-Institutional churches growing up, or why I didn’t know anything about that church just a couple of miles from my house with the sign that said “Church of Christ” on it.
It’s funny; I gave up long ago that oversimplified view of the “Non-Institutional” churches — mostly because I met some of those good folks. (Nothing will overcome prejudice like personal acquaintance.) I guess I still had in the back of my head, though, the idea that “they” had left “us”. I wasn’t around when someone on “my” side of the divide made the decision to quarantine them, but it makes me wonder if I would have gone along with it.
And here’s the point: it’s best to ignore human efforts to divide people.
That impulse to divide will probably never leave us. Religion, denomination, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, language, skin color, culture, political party, economic bracket…on and on goes the list of identity markers that powerful people have always tried to use to break society down into easily manageable segments. While the division over institutionalism in my little tribe is sort of a quaint artifact of a time gone by, when that seemed like such a big deal, there are still plenty of people in our world trying to divide us along ideological lines that will seem equally as silly a generation or two from now.
And, of course, that leftover division is not just an artifact. It’s also a lingering scar on the face of the church that Jesus died to bring together. It’s like a mass grave unearthed in an archaeological dig; it’s fascinating, and then you think of the carnage behind it and it makes you want to cry.
Right there in your social media feed there are people who want to divide you from those around you, who want to isolate and demonize those who disagree with them, and want you to do it too. They’re right there on your TV screen, on channels that claim they just want to report the news, but who pay “commentators” (not journalists) large sums of money to be the faces and voices of their ideological points of view. There might be someone in the pulpit of your church doing the same thing, proclaiming a different gospel of division, anger, fear, and superiority instead of the gospel of Jesus.
That gospel says that Jesus “sets aside in his flesh” the hostilities that divide human beings. He becomes “our peace” by bringing us together with one another and with God “in his body.” It’s not enough to say that Jesus takes away my sins, and the sins of those who agree with me and are like me. He came to announce that in him there is peace for those are near to God, and for those who are still far away from God, and he poured out the Spirit through whom we can all come to God together.
That’s why I think it’s best to ignore the efforts of human beings to divide us; their motive is control, power, advantage — always. They won’t sacrifice to bring about that division. Jesus, on the other hand, gave up power and control and advantage — and gave his life — to tear down the barriers that those who want to divide us would put back up. That gives him credibility to me, and makes his view of “one new humanity” that much more compelling.
So, yes, ignore the efforts of human beings to divide, even if they sound and look religious. Just recognize it for what it is and refuse to go along with it. May we never again be guilty of trying to divide what the One we call Lord died to bring together. May our words and actions testify to the good news that Jesus has put to death our hostility and comes preaching peace to those far away and those near. May we preach peace as he did, with words that elevate and point to God, and with lives of service and sacrifice for others.
Ignore those who would divide, and you’ll have a lot more time and energy to devote to the One who brings us all together.