Why is the church so divided, one denomination disagreeing with another, arguing over whether or not it is better to hold a ‘liberal’ view that allows great freedom, or an ‘orthodox,’ or some people call it a ‘fundamentalist’ view? Isn’t the church supposed to be one unified and harmonious body? I wish we could all just set aside our differences and get along. What do you think?
You are certainly not alone in wishing that various groups–you specifically highlighted liberals, orthodox, and fundamentalists–just put differences aside and get along. I will briefly look at these three groups and suggest why this may not be Biblically possible at this time in Kingdom history.
Establishing truth, not harmony, is the purpose of the Bible. Jesus Himself said that He would engender strife in the world. “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).
Modern attempts to define words in such a way that all listeners outwardly agree to one meaning, while internally nuancing another meaning is a misspent effort at the illusion of harmony. If an Orthodox, Liberal, and Fundamentalist all nod at the words “Jesus,” “truth,” and “salvation,” it does not mean they are in agreement. Jesus judges the thoughts and intents of the heart. Just because a group of people say they “believe in Jesus” does not mean that He sees them all as believers. “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:23-25).
Orthodox comes from two words meaning “right opinion.” It was not used in the Church until about the second century. Then it came into use to address the accepted teaching and practices in the Christian Church as opposed to the occasional rise of non-Biblical heresy. Over time it has picked up the meaning of the “traditional practices and beliefs,” or the “real” church. Both branches of the historical European church assert that they are the “real” church–the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic (“catholic” actually means “universal” or “general”). Add to this mix “Protestant” and you can see that orthodoxy can be interpreted many different ways. Early Church history seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit gave wide latitude as to how various local gatherings of Christians worshipped. Differences in practice should always be allowed the widest possible acceptance. However, a true understanding of Who we are worshipping and why we are worshipping is far more critical. This leads to discussing the other two groups you mentioned.
Liberal vs. Fundamental primarily stem from differing views of the Bible. Liberal’s tend to see Scripture as fluid. Man and reason are the final arbiters of truth. Liberals do not necessarily believe that God wrote the Bible, or, if He did, it was not intended to be read literally. It is meant, they say, to convey general truths like “love your neighbor,” “honor the poor,” “seek peace,” etc. It does not matter in their theology whether Jesus is God, or just a great model for men to follow, or even if He never actually existed in history. Since theology colors actions, their salvation takes on a “social” flavor. By developing the good within mankind (they say we are all children of God and brothers), the earth will gradually evolve into the Kingdom of God. For example, because homosexuality and women’s rights are important current social issues to them, they selectively interpret the Bible. They conclude that since Jesus never said anything about homosexuality He must have condoned it. Conversely, Paul was a hate-monger, and his writings are not valid for the modern church since He judged homosexuals and believed women should support their husbands’ leadership. Of course, I over-simplify since there are many different “liberal views.”
Fundamentalist are generally focused on the integrity of the Bible. They see the scriptures of the Bible as having been given by an unchanging God, as His very breathed words, and they are to be regarded as truthful in what they affirm, literal in the sense that they are the words that God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired the biblical writers to pen (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20). Thus, they constitute a set of “fundamental truths” that must be obeyed. Jesus is historical and as such He is the only way, the only truth, the only way to salvation (1 Tim. 2:5; Acts 4:12). For the fundamentalist, God’s Word is as true and authoritative today as it was when it was first committed to writing (Matt. 24:35).
The Fundamentalist asks first: “What does God say?” The Liberal often qualifies this with: “but, does it make sense when compared to the knowledge and reason of man?”
Admittedly, individuals within each of these worldviews can go to extremes. Unnecessary discord is the result. However, these are significantly different worldviews. They cannot all be true. Truth will always divide! Therefore, there is also a level of necessary discord. Paul the apostle indicates that there should be a clash over truth on earth and that he himself was in pursuit of maintaining tension between believers and those who choose deceit: “But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:12-14).
In the midst of so many worldviews being presented today, each individual must expend all the resources at his command to be sure he chooses the correct one to base his life on. This is the point of the famous parable of the Pearl of Great Price: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matt. 13:45-6). If there is only one worldview that is true, then it is impossible to water it down so that others–holding different worldviews–will always feel comfortable in uniting themselves to it. Truth is divisive! But, truth does not require belligerence, it simply requires that we be ready to give account of our faith: “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). And, if our reasoned presentation provokes the hearer, we are not responsible: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled” (1 Pet. 3:14).