As some of us in the Church of the Brethren consider leaving, how do we know if doing that is following Jesus? New Testament scripture encourages brothers and sisters to work at loving one another to build Christian fellowship. Jesus’ teachings do not encourage dividing believers over doctrinal differences. He encourages a person in conflict to remove the log in his or her own eye before trying to remove the speck in another’s eye.
Paul also urges believers who are quarreling to stop being divisive and to keep their community together. He advised Christians at Galatia: “let us . . . be guided by the Spirit,” noting that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:25; 22-23 NRSV). Bearing this fruit does not divide. If Christians “belong to Christ Jesus,” they would have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). Some of the passions he mentions are physical (fornication, licentiousness, and drunkenness), but others are attitudinal: quarrels, dissensions, factions, anger, enmities, strife, envy, and “things like these” (5:20-21). He warned, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21).
While calling followers to love and forgive, Jesus also urges being faithful and not supporting anything that interferes with being faithful. Has the Church of the Brethren prevented us from living faithfully? Or is the main problem instead that some have been disappointed with the church in cases where some have judged others to be unfaithful?
The Church of the Brethren has not forced differences on members against their Christian consciences. The differences, although upsetting, may not overshadow other beliefs held in common, such as:
- God is creator and sustainer of the universe and all in it;
- Jesus Christ is God’s son and God incarnate;
- Christ lived and died to save us and all people;
- the most important commandments are to love God and to love my neighbor as myself;
- the Bible is inspired by God;
- the New Testament is our only creed; and
- the good news of the gospel should be spread to everyone.
When the New Testament cautions us to avoid immorality, are these scriptures offering advice about when to divide a church made up of sinners, or instead encouraging members to uphold Christ-like conduct? Some of Paul’s writings recommend not associating with believers who are unfaithful, apparently as a way of disciplining them. Does this rise to the level of dividing a denomination because of different readings of scripture among those who are seeking to be faithful? Paul tells Corinthians “not to associate with anyone . . . who is sexually immoral or greedy. . . . Do not even eat with such a one” (I Corinthians 5:11 NRSV). Because greed and sexual immorality were not extremely rare, and since all people have sinned, with whom should believers not eat?
Jesus ate with sinners and befriended the outcast. Religious leaders were upset by his conduct. Regardless of how one views differences over eating with sinners, some scriptures emphasize loving and forgiving, while other scriptures emphasize purifying one’s associations and removing immorality from one’s midst. Different scriptures enable Brethren inclined toward leaving to justify their decision and Brethren inclined toward staying to justify theirs. Yet in Matthew 18, Jesus goes beyond Paul in suggesting a process of meeting with each believer, three times, who has offended one before treating such a person as a “Gentile or a tax collector,” who even then should be loved. Should this process be more fully implemented before any split?
If a person would not be following Jesus in choosing to leave or divide the church, who or what would such a person unintentionally be following? In Paul’s listing of “passions and desires,” it is possible to see Galatians following ego rather than the Spirit. They were competing for power and control. In predominantly Gentile Galatia, some apparently wanted to force others to believe as they did about circumcision and other Jewish practices. Paul warned those who were saying, “You must believe as I do!” that those with that attitude would find “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Galatians 5:2). Their external practices did not matter as much as what flowed from their inner hearts: “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
How does Jesus help us deal with our differences? Brethren have experience with differences. Many members believe that killing others, even in war, is not following Jesus. New Testament scripture favors not killing, and also not divorcing and re-marrying, yet we accept as members those who have done one or both. Some congregations choose not to ordain women, while others do. Some members choose not to participate in feetwashing, while others always do.
Most Brethren weigh some scripture differently than the writers of it—for example, when it comes to loaning money at interest, touching pork and pork products, saying that menstruating women are impure or unclean, not taking special responsibility for the wife of one’s brother if he has died, and accepting divorce and remarriage. We use Jesus’ teachings to discern whether some Old Testament laws continue to require our obedience when we have put faith in Jesus. In the above cases, some scriptures take priority over others. Should differences over the prioritization of scriptures rise to the threshold of a quarrel that justifies dividing our church, especially as long as the most important commandments (number 4 above) are adhered to by people in both factions?
In translation of the Bible’s words, as in application of its truths, we also have learned to live with differences. Some Bibles say that one of the Ten Commandments is “you shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13 RSV, KJV). Other Bibles say “you shall not murder” (NRSV, NIV). This difference matters, because some do not consider killing in war to be murder, while others believe all war is sin. Do we need different churches to separate those who read one translation from those who read another? Can we be faithful Christians if we meet together with members who have different Bibles or readings of scripture and then prayerfully discuss with each other how to follow Jesus?
Because scriptural calls to work lovingly with other believers seem at least as weighty as the calls to purify an organization, we might be on solid ground if we each try to purify our own conduct without purging other people from our midst. Brethren have often tried to identify unethical deeds without condemning the doer as an evil person who is beyond redemption. To be salt and yeast, believers need to mix with and welcome the poor, the downtrodden, even the wrongdoer, because scripture does not resolve every human difference or clearly specify every sin.
If competing views in scripture do split our beloved community, should not Christians on both sides of the split immediately extend love and hospitality toward those on the other side, because it is a Christian duty to connect across boundaries that separate God’s children? If we need to be that loving toward each other after a split, why not be that loving before a split, and thereby prevent it?
Jesus understood some scriptures differently than did other members of his religious community. Yet as far as we know, Jesus continued worshiping in synagogues despite conflicts with synagogue leaders over whether it was appropriate to heal on the sabbath or eat with sinners.
No matter with whom a person may decide to eat or worship, he or she should ask: If I am inclined to leave (or stay in) the church, am I motivated by the Spirit or instead by “passions and desires” that Paul named in Galatians 5? It is not for me to judge whether another is leaving or staying in the Church of the Brethren because of self-centeredness. Yet each of us should meditate on that question for himself or herself and raise it for others, because the sin of selfish, egoistic motivation is one of the biggest impediments to being Christian and Brethren.
In discussions about sexuality, on all sides some have talked about what is wrong with a brother’s or sister’s beliefs. Some have tried to convert others to their understanding. Now the time has come for Brethren to work even harder to implement scripture that calls for loving those with whom we disagree, remembering that we also agree on many fundamentals. We could trust God to resolve disagreements that we have not resolved ourselves.
Many believe that diverse congregations can be faithful staying in the Church of the Brethren by accepting the challenge to learn to love and serve one another as Jesus loves each of us. It should be possible for the Spirit’s transformative reconciliation to enable us to live together as the Body of Christ serving the Kingdom of God. Every member can strengthen the Body by learning how to love and serve God’s children with different scriptural emphases, following Jesus as the standard for our reading Scripture, learning, and living.
Robert C. Johansen is an Anabaptist political scientist and peace researcher, co-founder of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and member of the Crest Manor Church of the Brethren, South Bend, Indiana. He is author of “How the Peace of Christ Confronts the Wars of the World,” Brethren Life and Thought, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2018), 1-8.