Churches in Hawaii and other exotic locations regularly see a considerable number of visitors, often outnumbering the local residents. One Sunday this month (September 2009), our Maui assembly included vacationers from Churches of Christ in Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and California, holding doctrinal opinions as diverse as the places they called home. It is a joyful thing to receive fellow-believers because they love and follow Christ, without having to apply some creedal litmus test to determine their worthiness. Unfortunately, not everyone yet experiences that particular joy, as a visitor at an evening meeting recently brought to mind.
My lesson that night concerned the times in which we live, between Jesus’ first and final coming. Here we stand, one foot in the Present Age, the other in the Age to Come, balanced between the “already” and the “not yet.” Joel and Peter both call this interim period “the last days.” It is the age of the gospel, the day of salvation, the time of the church, the era of the Spirit — all of which I find enormously exciting and enlightening. However, the words “Holy Spirit” had no sooner left my lips when this particular visitor spoke out with absolute certainty to tell me that the Spirit was given only to the Apostles and those with whom they made physical contact, that we have the Bible instead, and that God’s work today is all done by words on a page. Then, not being a one-subject man, he similarly informed me of “the truth” on every other topic that I mentioned.
Afterward, when I inquired about Churches of Christ in south Texas where he lives, he told me that his was the only “sound” church around, adding that San Antonio and Houston both have scores of Churches of Christ, but “probably no more than two faithful ones” per town. All of which reminded me that the shadow of sectarianism still obscures the gospel sunshine in far too many hearts. Sectarianism (factiousness) bubbles up from the cauldron of our fallen sinful nature (Gal. 5:20) and it exemplifies the very mind-set which Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to correct (Luke 18:9-14). But what the sectarian lacks in substance, he makes up for in stubbornness (1 Tim. 1:6-7). He mistakes noise for “soundness” and substitutes heat for light. Sectarianism presumes to judge other people’s relationship with God, something Jesus expressly forbids (Matt. 7:1; see also Rom. 14:4). It ignores the goal of healthy teaching (1 Tim. 1:3-5), and it produces the predicted results (1 Tim. 6:3-5).
Tragically, victims of such teaching suppose that their doctrinal system is perfect and that anything different is heresy, ensuring that they will never learn better — apart from divine enlightenment, which they insist never occurs today. When we encounter sectarian belligerence, bombast and bluster, it is easy to respond in kind, forgetting that our struggle is spiritual and not personal. Because the sectarian is not the enemy, we must always respond with gentleness, leaving room for God to do his work (2 Tim. 2:24-26). And if we ever wonder whether he is able, we need only to look in a mirror to know that it is so.