A Tale of Two Churches and One Family

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

I don’t know if you know this, but there are two images of church in the NT that are offered to us. Image one is that heavenly image of the church we’d all like to belong to:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. "

If church was like that… we’d have no trouble having people join us left and right… we couldn’t make enough room for them all– it would be heaven on earth… And I’ve had glimpses and moments of church being like that… they are moments to treasure.

But I’ve also experienced another church, and so have you. I know this church well:
"Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
Sounds like Paul had been to a town hall meeting about healthcare!

That’s the church Paul knew very well… and so do we. It is the divided church. A church who longs to be like the first church: (singing We are one in the Spirit) but truth be told, often looks more like a highly dysfunctional family..

Mark Twain used to say he put a dog and a cat in a cage together as an experiment, to see if they could get along. They did, so he put a bird, pig and a goat in the cage. They, too, got along fine after a few adjustments. Then he put in a Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic; soon there was not a living thing left!

A look at church history does not paint a pretty picture when it comes to looking at our family album. We have skeletons in our closet.

Did you know there are over 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today?
In our own Presbyterian and Reformed branch of the family there are 750 denominations. I doubt "Calvin could have conceived of the reality we know as denominations, nor could he have imagined the current relaxed church situation in which people ‘church shop’ and often hop from one denomination to another. In his day there was only one church in a particular region, and all people were expected to belong to the same church body as their secular ruler…"  What then would he say about Presbyterians in America? We have gone through several splits. (One historian called us the Split Ps)

Over 250 years ago there was the Old Side – New Side controversy where a group of Presbyterians who favored revival said the Old Side Presbyterians were dead spiritually. The Old Side (traditionalists) said those New Side Presbyterians lacked intellectual integrity. A heart-mind split in the faith. Sound familiar?

Later, there was a Old School-New School controversy prior to the civil war. One group favored union and believed the Bible called for abolition of slavery… another group believed the Bible supported slavery.

It took us over 100 years to get over that division when in 1983 the Southern Presbyterian and the Northern Presbyterian Church re-united. (We don’t like to rush into anything you know.) That reunion made others mad and they left to go to form their own denomination called the Presbyterian Church in America. Many were afraid of the liberal Northerner Presbyterians who would corrupt the church. Others joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Have you noticed that wherever two or three Christians are gathered, there always seems to be some issue to fight over?

I wonder if Paul would be surprised. I wonder if Calvin and the reformers would be surprised how we have kept subdividing like some cellular organism. Part of me says they would not be surprised at all. Sad, but not surprised.

Sad because both Paul and Calvin yearned for the church to be one. They longed for us to live into the affirmation we say almost every week:

"I believe in the holy catholic church"-catholic means universal…it means whole. It means we believe in one church. Calvin said that there cannot be several churches without Christ being dismembered. There is only one body… one Lord…

That’s how Paul saw it but it is not what he saw in Corinth. He walked into Corinth and found church members fighting with each other… fighting over communion- how to take communion… fighting over doctrine… fighting over whose spiritual gifts… and it began to sound so childish… "I belong to Apollos… or I belong to Cephas… or I belong to Christ… Has Christ been divided? Paul asks? Was Paul crucified for you? And then I love it when Paul says, "I thank God I didn’t baptize most of you… because I’m ashamed of how you are behaving… is this any way for Christ’s church to behave?"

But here we are again, same old people, still behaving the same old way. I belong to the Catholics… I belong to the Lutherans… I belong to the Baptists… I belong to the Presbyterians… I belong to the PCA, the PCUSA… I belong to the Covenant Network… I belong to the Lay Committee… I belong to the nondenominational church… I… I… I… "Dr. Kissling was my minister… Dr. Jones taught me… Luther is my hero… Calvin is mine…" Is it any different?

Let’s confess, we create some of the confusion ourselves… we seem like people who love a good fight sometimes.

I love the story of the two monks who were living together and they got along very well. In fact, they decided that they should have a quarrel like ordinary people. Since they had never had one before, they were not quite sure how to begin. So one of the monks looked around, found a brick, and placed it squarely between him and his brother in Christ. "I will say, ‘It is mine,’ he instructed his brother. ‘Then you say, ‘No, it is mine.’ This is the sort of thing that leads to a quarrel.’Are you ready? He asked his brother. ‘I am ready,’ his brother said. ‘Okay, ‘ he said, regarding the brick, ‘It is mine. ”I beg your pardon,’ his brother said, ‘but I do believe that it is mine.’"no it’s no; it’s mine,’ the first monk said. ‘Well, if it is yours, then take it,’ his brother said. Thus the two brothers failed to get into a quarrel after all.

They have a lot to learn about fighting, don’t they! Paul wished there were more Christians like them in the church.

Paul was not happy with church fighting and ego driven faith because he knew it led to divisions. Neither Paul nor Calvin believed in a divided church… they believed in the one church of Jesus Christ. That church to them was not about following individuals or even agreeing on every doctrine… the church consisted of people who listened to the word of God and followed Jesus Christ. Period.

Calvin considered it a grave and serious matter to separate from the church. As long as the word was being preached and the sacraments administered… you have a church. No need to leave for any other reason.

In fact, the reformers and Protestants first intention was not to leave the church at all but to reform the church… not to start a new one. In some ways, they were booted out of the church. Excommunicated. They did not choose to leave.

So much of our division (and the reasons we give for dividing) would be confusing to Calvin. He wouldn’t understand a church splitting over non-essentials. Over issues. Even over doctrine. Calvin distinguished essential from nonessential doctrines. And for him the list of essentials was short. It included the belief that ‘God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like’ (Institutes 4.1.12,2:1026).

Calvin declared that there are many doctrines over which reasonable Christians may differ. Disagreement over nonessential matters is not sufficient to justify a church split or leaving the church. Calvin urged believers to listen to one another, quoting 1 Corinthians 14:30 "if a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.’

He also noted that in Corinth the entire congregation was infected with error, yet Paul recommends no church split. (Indeed he doesn’t recommend anyone leave the church). Instead the apostle calls the Corinthians to claim and live out their unity in Christ ."

Well today, we would do well to remember Calvin and Paul. While there are many Christian denominations, Calvin reminds me that we are still part of one church-in spite of our difference. I like the way my theology professor said it to me, "Denominations are simply different ways of being a Christian."

So we recognize other denominations as part of the one Church of Christ. Because Christ is not divided. Oh, I know some denominations don’t recognize us… I know that… but we recognize them. And I’m grateful.

Because you see my mother was raised Baptist and my father was raised Lutheran. When they married, they found the Presbyterian way of being a Christian speaking to them. But never did they claim others were less than Christian. If I ever did that my Baptist grandmother would haunt me!

And in my lifetime the denominations have been working to express that unity. Many of us have affirmed one another’s baptisms. You don’t have to be re-baptized to become a Presbyterian. You were baptized as a Christian… not a Presbyterian. When it comes to communion-ALL Christians are welcome… it is not a Presbyterian table… it’s the Lord’s table. Others will offer the same.

We have gone so far with the Lutherans and others as to recognize each others ministers as full ministers. What this means is that the Kirk could one day be served by someone who is a minister in the Lutheran Church. And I could serve a Lutheran congregation. It’s a healthy sign. A sign of the work of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve come a long way since Calvin’s day. A long way to go, but still a long way in affirming that amidst our diversity, we still belong to one another and are members of one larger family… in Christ. I think Paul would be encouraged and affirm every desire to work for the health, to pray for the peace and unity of the church.

Today, I’d like to close the sermon by using the words Paul spoke to a divided congregation… as he prayed for their unity, as a vision for the church… and an expression of our hope that we may live more faithfully together as brothers and sisters of our Lord. Amen.

Affirmation of faith: 1 Corinthians 13
13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


Leave a Reply

Close Menu