Pastors and denominational leaders from across the political spectrum often complain about divisiveness, polarizing rhetoric, and a lack of willingness to compromise. I have witnessed how this reality affects the dynamics of local churches. Just one example: pastors avoid bringing God’s Word to bear on some of the most critical social questions for fear of alienating a particular demographic within their congregation.
At the denominational level, administrative leaders often put out heart-felt appeals for “unity” at all costs. The inevitable proof-text for these appeals is Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17. Passing reference might also be made to the Apostle Paul’s denunciation of the factionalism within the church at Corinth. Both texts certainly make a strong appeal for unity of believers because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Besides this, we are often told by Christian leaders that unity is essential for our witness to the world. If the Christian Church is torn asunder by partisan strife and ideological divisiveness, then how can we Christians claim to be any different than unbelievers? Isn’t the world supposed to know us by our love and good works (Matthew 5:14-16; John 13:35), and isn’t division the antithesis of love?
But there are other texts of which we must take notice. Jesus tells us that He came to cause division, to the extent that even the unity of the nuclear family might be torn asunder (Luke 12:49-56; see also Matthew 10:34-36). We see indications that there are many reasons—not just doctrinal reasons—why Christians might need to go their separate ways for the sake of the Gospel (Acts 15:35-41). And the Bible minces no words: unresolved relational conflict or unrepentant sin (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:9-11) require the breaking of fellowship.
Behind this is an even more basic biblical concept: the notion of scattering. We see, in both Old and New Testaments, that God will and does scatter His people, and with a purpose. In the Old Testament, the people are scattered as a part of God’s judgment. In the New Testament, especially in Acts, the scattering usually happens as a way of broadening the mission of the Church and the impact of the Word of God in the world. Indeed, while unity is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it is not the “first thing.” God—His truth, nature, and purposes—is the “First Thing,” and He often wills scattering and division for the sake of a greater purpose.
Turning from the evidence of Scripture to the evidence of history, these observations ought to be rather obvious to anyone who isn’t Roman Catholic. If unity—especially institutional unity—were really so central to God’s plan, then every “protestant” reading this must repent of his divisiveness and affirm his full submission to the inerrant teaching of Pope Francis and the magisterium of the Church. (Any perceived sarcasm in that last sentence is fully intended). To the contrary, our Reformation and Evangelical forebearers urge us by their example to put fidelity to both “the testimony of the Scriptures” and “plain reason” above our loyalty to any particular religious institution or leader.
Let us consider the effect of Christianity in the history of our own nation. Historians, even those writing from a predominantly secular perspective, have long acknowledged that the series of revivals known as the First Great Awakening provided the spiritual, moral, and social impetus leading to the Imperial Crisis of the 1760’s and 1770’s, the War for Independence, and the founding of our nation. The fervent Biblical preaching of men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Isaac Backus—calling on Christians to repent and believe the objective truths of Scripture—is routinely acknowledged in history books. But what did this spiritual revival actually look like at the grassroots level?[i]
First, intense “partisanship” developed as the Awakening forced individuals into two opposing camps: “Old Lights,” who argued for the traditional form of church but leaned in the direction of a more liberal Enlightenment theology; and “New Lights,” who embraced revival and ecclesial reform but remained anchored in Trinitarian classical theism and orthodox Protestant teachings of Scripture. In the wake of the revivals, both clergy and laity took their stand in either one or the other camp, sometimes resulting in church splits.[ii]
Secondly, and even more interestingly, observe how individual congregants responded to this “partisanship.” As churches came to embrace either Old Light or New Light perspectives, individual members disagreeing with that stand broke away from the congregation. Often these believers, wanting to act with respect and integrity, would write open letters to their congregation giving specific reasons why they chose to separate. For example, one Jonathan Perry of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, wrote this:
My Resons for Seperating from you are your not walking according to the order of the Gospel as you ought to dwo and in perticular that Transaction Committed and Countenanced by maney of you on the 16th of May last which the Lord made use of to open my Eyes…and he has showon me that you are not a Church of his according to the order of the Gospel.
Another believer sent the following to her congregation:
My Brethren In answer to your Desir I freely Give In my Reasons why I Seperated, I being at a Church meeting and seeing so much want of Love and faithfullness at that time as well as many other times…I taking David’s Advice in the Psalm It is better to trust in the Lord than to put Confidence in Teachers and by Looking to God I am more and more Confirmed in the Religion I am now In…
These examples show that even ordinary, uneducated persons in the colonies recognized the need to put faithfulness in truth—both in theory and in practice—above any corporate allegiances.
Historian Ola E. Winslow makes this observation: “For a covenant member to set himself and his own individual judgment in opposition to the authority he had recognized all his life as final, and to secede from the church of his baptismal vows, was an experience which had no parallel in the lives of many who took the risk.” [iii] This dynamic involved clarifying the differences in opposing ideas, not attempting to moderate or reconcile them in the name of unity. It was practiced in the lives of ordinary men and women as well as the intellectuals throughout the American colonies, and it was something of a grassroots rehearsal for the even greater separation to come when the Continental Congress set themselves and their own judgment against authority and publicly “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Much of what we take for granted today would look very different if our spiritual progenitors had taken a different approach. The colonial populace might not have been persuaded of the need for a political revolution in 1776 if, in the forty years prior, they had been led to believe that compromise and unity are the most important values. They might have regarded the signers of the Declaration as “angry extremists” rather than what they actually were: men of moral fortitude who knew that conviction must be accompanied by action, otherwise it is meaningless.
In the generations that followed, what would our world have looked like if the churches reacted differently to slavery? Christian congregations split over the issue. “Divisive” evangelical abolitionists appealed to the Bible and America’s founding principles, while pro-slavery apologists (including some clergy) rejected the sacred and undeniable moral truths taught by the founding generation and instead presented Southern slavery as a kind of ideal communist experiment.[iv] What if church leaders then had argued persuasively, “We cannot allow ourselves to be polarized over this controversy! We must present a united witness to a divided world”?
Many folks pleading for moderation will argue (as some have done in personal conversations with me) that the current issues dividing us are not nearly as consequential as fighting for national independence or ending chattel slavery. Just as one example: the questions of human sexuality and gender identity, they say, are merely questions of individual ethical behavior, and Christians should be able to hold differing views in a spirit of the freedom of the Gospel. We should be able to stay in good faith conversation and not break fellowship.
Merely questions of individual ethical behavior? Really? That may be the perspective of a shallow and prevaricating pragmatist, but an honest thinker knows that any ethical tenet is rooted in a deeper commitment to metaphysics (a fundamental view of reality) and epistemology (a view of the nature and means of knowledge). So instead of looking to those who want unity at any cost, let’s ask the true believers.
Most Christians who hold to the biblical and natural sexual ethic do not do so out of any “phobia” of, or malice towards, such persons. Rather, their commitment to Trinitarian classical theism posits that, by both reason and Biblical revelation, we can discern a purpose for human sexuality that has been ordained by the transcendent, sovereign Lord of history. Man and woman are created with specific natures, and sexual relations between these two complementary natures serve both unitive and procreative purposes that glorify God and fulfill our deepest emotional and relational needs. To question this may seem like compassion for those of other “persuasions,” but it is actually a rejection of reality and an invalidation of both human reason and the broad witness of Scripture.
As for the true believers in the “affirming” group, they typically view the Bible not as a text containing permanent propositional truths rooted in reality, but as a progressive narrative of a god working in the world to bring about greater justice and inclusion for those who are marginalized. Knowledge is based on individual human experience, which is relative to one’s vantage point and life story. To claim that one perspective on truth is somehow universal and absolute is to engage in an act of oppression and violence against anyone who does not accept that perspective. Therefore, there can be no claims to any universally binding principles that ought to determine and direct human thought and behavior. Instead, one must engage in the constant struggle of advocating actively for any group (like the LGBTQ+ persons) that claims the status of marginalized people. There is no “nature”—there is only praxis.
If you think deeply about this alternative, you will realize that there is no room for compromise. This is not just a difference of opinion on an ethical issue: this is a choice between two different views of reality and truth, and, if I may get more controversial, a choice between two different gods. One is the creator God of Trinitarian classical theism, who reveals Himself in nature and Scripture, who stands transcendent over history and yet intervenes in history to redeem, sanctify, and glorify His people. The other is the god who has no objectively discernible identity, who creates nothing, and who merely works through the processes of history to undo whatever already has been done.[v] These two views of reality cannot coexist in any person or any society. One must eventually triumph over the other. You can be hot or cold, but lukewarmness causes the real God to hurl (Revelation 3:15-16).
To my Christian brethren who refuse to see this stark difference, who desire unity at all costs, and who refuse to make the choice: Make no mistake, the choice will be made for you eventually. It will be made by the true believers in one of those two groups: whichever group asserts its views with greater honesty, consistency, and courage. In the meantime, you are entitled to assume your posture of compromise. But if you do, please be honest and do not consider yourself a truth-seeker or a leader. You are neither.
To those true believers on both sides: let us work to clarify exactly where our differences lie, even if the result is a scattering or separation. Both the Bible and history show us that God uses those things for His glory, and they may just lead to a greater Revolution than we could ever imagine. May it be so.
Jeffrey KahlJeff holds a B.A. degree in history and political science from Ashland University and an M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary. He’s a full time pastor and part time scholar. Like C. S. Lewis, he considers himself “a converted pagan living among apostate puritans.”.”
[i] See, for example, Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford UP, 1986); Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966); William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). For a helpful anthology of the kind of preaching that transformed our nation in the 18th Century, see Ellis Sandoz (ed.), Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991).
[ii] Some historians recognize more than two parties. Evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, for example, discerns “four distinct ecclesiastical parties” that specifically developed in New England, and he includes one party of pragmatic, moderate Calvinists who affirmed the revivals until they caused church splits. See Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 97-100. In terms of actual results, however, there were only the two options of Old Light and New Light. Noll recognizes that schisms in churches were not limited to New England but occurred throughout the Middle and Southern Colonies as well.
[iii] Ola Elizabeth Winslow, Meetinghouse Hill: 1630-1785 (New York: MacMillan, 1952), 230-236.
[iv] For a notable source from the time period, read George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or The Failure of a Free Society , edited and introduced by Jason Stevens. Accessed June 27, 2023. For additional analysis, see C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (New York: Encounter, 2019), 361-373.
[v] The French-Canadian philosopher Etienne Gilson presents the alternative for Christians: either the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas or the religious agnosticism of Immanuel Kant. See Gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale UP, 1941), 114. For a recent biblical and philosophical defense of Trinitarian classical theism, see Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).
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