As Christians in America, there was nothing we wanted more than to see an end to denominational squabbles. If there were ever to be any hope for Christianity outside of the return of our Savior, then we would have to come together. Our hearts would leap when we heard someone speak of unity, of love, of life, of something, anything, other than minor points of doctrine such as kept us all divided from one another. We didn’t want to compromise the truth or get caught up in any kind of false one-world religion. We knew better than that. But if America were ever to recover from its moral decline, then we would have to start taking our identity as Christians and not just as Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, or whatever.
Hope sprang up within us with the Jesus Movement of the sixties and seventies. Young people everywhere seemed to be hearing the gospel in a fresh new way. Even the main-line denominations seemed to be sprouting ‘born-again” believers. People started referring to themselves as Christians, rather than giving a denominational label. Many people’s lives changed. Young people hooked on drugs and lost in immorality took hope in a fresh new message about a Savior who died for them and who was coming again soon.
We took hope, too, and renewed our strength by reading books by Hal Lindsay and others about the end times and the prophesies in Revelation. Our minds reeled as we watched movie footage demonstrating how the locusts in Revelation 9:1-11 were actually helicopters. Right before our eyes, we saw them rising out of the smoke, heard the sound of their propellers, like the sound of chariots, saw the faces of men piloting them, and even noted how they had machine gun turrets in the rear just as the prophecy said, tails like scorpions, and stings. We were convinced that the last days were upon us. We wanted to be ’sold out’ and ’on fire for Jesus.” We believed that Matthew 24:32-34 was referring to our generation. We were taught that the budding of the fig tree in verse 32 referred to Israel becoming a nation in 1948; and since a generation was about forty years, we felt certain that our generation was the one he was talking about when He said, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Of course, no one knew the day or the hour, but we were convinced that He was near, right at the door. Surely by 1988 we would see all these things.
Then we heard that Hal Lindsay’s personal life had fallen apart. Time went by, and the personal lives of other Christian leaders fell apart. Even some of our lives fell apart. Still we held on to the hope of being raptured, because, in spite of all this, we believed. No matter what the personal lives of ourselves or our teachers were like, no matter what the moral state of Christianity or of America, all that mattered was our personal faith. At least, that’s what our teachers told us.
But somehow, it just didn’t sit right with us that the moral condition of Christianity would not be radically different from that of unbelievers. We knew that the Bible said, ‘Faith without works is dead.” And we certainly didn’t want that to be said of us. Besides, we were still looking for something — a hope that wouldn’t disappoint. That’s why some of us went from denomination to denomination, from assembly to assembly, from Graham to Roberts to Bakker to Robertson to Falwell to Swaggart and back again: we were looking for something real, something absolute, something like the life and power of our Savior and His apostles.
And we wanted unity. It bothered us that the main-line denominations with their form and hierarchy had no trouble being stodgily loyal to their traditions, while groups that showed a little passion and ’life’ got embroiled in doctrinal disputes and personality conflicts and often wound up dividing. So we kept on looking.
Years have passed, many things have changed in our lives, and today we hear a call to ‘lay aside our differences,” quoting our Savior’s prayer in John 17, ‘that they may all be one.” We are told that it is necessary for Christians to come together to pray for America, in order that the many problems that face this great nation could be resolved.
Our Master did pray for all His disciples to be one, ‘just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity ...” (John 17:22-23). But can we, by merely ‘laying aside our differences,” fulfill this scripture? And can Christian America return to the moral values it possessed earlier in this century?
In December of 1914, Christians the world over were rushing headlong into a bloody war. The Christian pastors of Germany, England, and France were blessing the troops and sending them off to do battle with each other. And yet, when Christmas day arrived, something stirred in the hearts of these soldiers, and all along the line of battle they laid aside their weapons, climbed out of the trenches, and came together in No Man’s Land. Here they talked, shared cigarettes and wine, even played a few friendly games of soccer. The same thing happened the next day. But when word got back to headquarters, the generals sent messages of strong rebuke to the troops, and firing gradually started again.
So it is with ‘laying aside differences.” It can be done, like laying aside a gun. But the gun is still there; no real peace has come, and when the right pressure is brought to bear, what can you do but pick up the gun again?
Those World War I soldiers laid aside their differences, but since they were still part of their nations, they had other loyalties and other priorities besides preserving the unity they had found with one another. As good and memorable an experience as that Christmas was to them, it was only an experience. It wasn’t a life.
And so it is with our assemblies and conferences and so on. What our Master prayed for in John 17 was that His disciples — and all those who would become disciples through their message — would be one, as He and His Father were one. Clearly, the Father and the Son didn’t put aside their differences in order to bring salvation to the earth. They didn’t just find common ground on the important things and ‘agree to disagree” about the more minor issues. They don’t even have a difference of opinion. They do not belong to different denominations while claiming to be ‘one in the Spirit.” Their unity is perfect. But is this unity possible for human beings in this age?
Yes, but only for disciples who believe the gospel. The gospel according to John says, ‘that they may be perfected in unity” (John 17:23). If it weren’t possible, would our Savior have asked for it? For the world to know that He was sent from the Father, we must have this unity (John 17:21-23). Since this knowledge depends on seeing perfect unity among His disciples, how can it wait until we get to heaven? What good would it do the world for disciples to have perfect unity in heaven where none of the lost sinners can see what is going on? How will they see the evidence necessary to know that our Father loves them?
This is part of the gospel that John preached. But, unfortunately, a different gospel is being circulated today which says that this kind of perfect unity won’t be achieved this side of heaven. This other gospel sounds reasonable, given the strength of man’s sinful flesh. But isn’t God supposed to give us a Spirit that is greater than the strength of the flesh?
Sure, the flesh is strong. That’s why some of the leading Christian evangelists of today have fallen so disgracefully. But Paul says, ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). And, ‘Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:8-9).
Our Father would be very pleased if there were such unity on earth today that the world would know that He loved them (John 17:23). But Christians who are in the flesh cannot please Him, and they know it. So, to cover up their sinful condition, they invent a myth (a tale not taken seriously) that says, ‘We’ll be one in heaven even though we are divided now,” or, ‘We really are in unity, even though we disagree.” Rather than admit that the flesh has such a sway over them because they haven’t crucified it, are still in it, don’t have the Spirit, and don’t belong to Him, they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). If they admitted that His righteous standard was that they would be perfected in unity, then they would have to admit that they were in sin.
And this is exactly what the Bible warns will happen in the last days. ‘In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts. These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 18-19). Such men of the flesh scoff at the idea of unity in this age, because it demands they die to their ungodly desire to exalt themselves, their own opinions, and their own ministries. And it is this self-exaltation that causes divisions.
Paul saw many such divisions in his day. But he was not so carnally-minded that he just accepted them as normal. Instead he urged his brothers,
... that you all agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit. (Philippians 2:23)
Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel ... standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)
Reject a factious man (one who causes divisions) after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning. (Titus 3:10-11)
It is clear that Paul was intent on unity being perfected - just as the gospel promises. He commanded his churches to live like spiritual men who had crucified the flesh, and not like carnal men or like those who did not even belong to Christ. And he expected to be obeyed. Those who promoted divisions were to be rejected — excluded from fellowship. What our Master commanded in Matthew 18:15-17 concerning treatment of sinners who do not repent, Paul applied to those who didn’t repent from disunity.
To read all of Paul’s exhortations about preserving love and unity would be overwhelming. There are so many. And yet somehow today they are overlooked by an entire generation of men who promote the Bible and ‘Bible-believing” churches. These ’Bible-believing’ churches prove that they aren’t Bible-believing by the fact that they are not of the same mind and judgment, and therefore conduct themselves in a manner unworthy of the gospel which Paul preached.
Even if one of these churches did reject a factious man, he would have only to go down the road to another ’Bible-believing’ church where he and his tithes would be gladly received. Or else, he could start his own ’Bible-believing’ church if he could find enough people to agree with his opinions.
But the question at hand is: how can all these ’Bible-believing’ churches come together and pray for America? Unless they want to come together in the flesh, in mere pretense, then they would have to repent. Of course, the Christian leaders of today recognize the need for repentance. Christians in America are even being told to repent from their sins and the sins of their nation. And there are many. Galatians 5:19-20 gives a partial list: ‘Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions...”
Well, we hardly need to go any further. Dissension is defined as ‘disagreement of opinion.” A faction is ‘a group of people which is part of, but disagrees with, a larger group.” How could Christians repent from these things? All doctrinal differences and denominations in Christianity would have to be abolished! For a doctrinal difference is a dissension and a denomination is a faction. Galatians 5:21 says, ‘those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” If we are involved in a denomination or have differences of opinion with our brothers, then these scriptures apply to us, as well as to all Christianity.
But what can Christianity practically do when faced with these scriptural facts? There are three possibilities:
Immediately we face some hard choices here. Christianity has spent nearly 2000 years developing its doctrinal lines and denominational barriers. Many people have landed in their present religious situation as a reaction to their former situation. Many have been deeply hurt and have not forgiven those who hurt them.
Christians can’t just do away with doctrines altogether and come together in some sort of flavorless religious soup. There have to be some doctrines and practices established. Clearly, you can’t believe in everything at once: there will not be three different raptures — one pre-trib, one mid-trib, and one post-trib. But here is the problem that has kept unity from coming to Christianity. It is the same problem that keeps peace from coming to the earth. Someone has to die to their opinions.
You can no more get a denomination to give up its beliefs than you can get a nation to give up all its missiles. The nations of the world can’t completely disarm themselves because they know the so-and-so’s on the other side won’t do the same. So, who wants to be invaded by a foreign army? And who wants to be forced to believe what that other denomination believes? No matter how much you preach the words of our Savior, ‘Whoever seeks to keep his life shall lose it” (Luke 17:33), you will still be hard pressed to convince any denomination that its doctrines are wrong and need to be discarded. They will all assume that the other denominations are the ones who need to repent.
But just suppose that somehow all the denominations agree to conform to one set of beliefs, and to give up all other beliefs. What shall that set of beliefs be?
Many people say that the only thing necessary for fellowship is to agree on a few things. True Biblical unity, they claim, is possible if we all agree on:
Go any further than this, they say, and you run the danger of being trapped in legalism. And legalism causes you to break fellowship with those who do not agree with your doctrines and rules of conduct. Breaking fellowship on that basis, they would say, is not love.
Of course, when questioned about the matter, they will admit that some rules of conduct are necessary and some other doctrines are important. You can’t just disobey the Ten Commandments and pretend to be in fellowship. You have to acknowledge them as sins, if you want to have true Christian unity.
But what if some man told his congregation not to have fellowship with those who were idle, or busybodies, or didn’t obey his instructions? Would that man be legalistic? And what if he told them not to even eat with a ‘brother who had a strong desire for wealth or possessions?” Would he be unloving? What if he told them not to associate with a ‘brother” who got drunk? Would he be harsh?
You might think that such a man was not promoting unity. Yet this is just what Paul commanded his congregations in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16. He even went so far as to say that anyone who preached a different gospel than the one he preached was accursed (Galatians 2:8-9). Not that it was entirely different, he said in verse 7 (it apparently agreed with his gospel on the basic points or else the Galatians would have caught on right away), but it was subtly distorted.
In the case of the Galatians, someone added extra conditions to the gospel, but in other cases we are warned that people will take away from our Master’s words. Peter said, quoting Moses,
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must heed everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from among his people (Acts 3:22-23).
John warned in his gospel that he who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36).
So it is pretty clear that the beliefs and practices that everyone would agree on would have to include every word that our Master spoke — and that His words would have to be obeyed. If we settle for anything less, we would find ourselves at odds with the gospel that Peter and John preached.
But then we run up against another problem. How do you deal with the ’hard sayings’ of our Master, like Luke 14:33? In this verse He told everybody (including the tax gatherers, sinners, Pharisees, and common people), ‘No one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.”
Even if all the Christians agreed that the Son of God really meant what He was saying here — that it wasn’t just vain philosophy or empty words — how would all of Christianity go about doing it? Of course, they could take the Book of Acts as a model and decide to lay it all at the apostles’ feet, like the early disciples did (Acts 4:34-35). But then who would they have for an apostle? And who would actually sell all and give this apostle the money? Ten percent is one thing, or even twenty, but who is going to sell his house and car, cash in his life insurance, take his children’s college savings, and give all that hard-earned money to some jackleg preacher to spend on a Rolex watch?
The bottom line is that in Christianity there is a fatal flaw — a fundamental lack of trust. And for good reason. There is a fundamental lack of trustworthiness. But what else can we expect? Who knows who is for real? Who lives side by side with his pastor the way the twelve lived with the Good Shepherd? And what shepherd today lays down his life for the sheep? Even if a shepherd wanted to lay down his life for the sheep, he would have to admit that he hardly knows who is a sheep and who is a goat. The wheat and tares are all mixed up in Christianity today, waiting for the angels to come at the end of the age and sort it all out.
But still, what is it that makes practical and simple obedience to the commands of the Son of God so hard for Christians today? It wasn’t so hard for the first disciples. They received a gospel which cut them off from all other loyalties and obligations besides obeying His words. Love found a way to obey. They left everything behind them, forsook their possessions, their families, their religion, their loyalties to race or nation. They actually died in baptism and were raised into a new life in a holy nation — free from distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, old and young, etc.
The first disciples didn’t just lay aside their differences like those Christian soldiers in World War I. They abolished them. They no longer had other loyalties or priorities. They were not a part of the nations any longer. Their citizenship was recorded in heaven, in the Holy City. They lived for one thing, and one thing only: to see that their Master had first place in all things.
Jobs meant nothing to them, careers meant nothing, political struggles had nothing to do with them, for they were soldiers in the army of heaven and wanted nothing to do with civilian affairs. They only wanted to please the One who had enlisted them. Even the many denominations of Judaism meant nothing to them. They loved the people in it, but they themselves were totally separate from it. No wonder they were called a sect (or cult) and spoken against everywhere (Acts 28:22).
To them the so-called ’hard sayings’ of our Master were not hard; they were the words of eternal life. Our Savior’s words were only hard to those who, like the so-called disciples in John 6:60-68, had hard hearts and deserted Him when His demands went contrary to their reasoning.
But the true disciples had made a radical departure from the perverse generation in which they were born. They had died when their Savior died. His love controlled them because they no longer lived for themselves, but for their resurrected Sovereign who had undergone death on their behalf. What made the difference with them was the cross — not just the one their Savior died on, but also the one which they carried daily and on which they had gratefully crucified their flesh in order to live a life of self-sacrifice in response to the gospel.
The question we ask today is this: is Christianity as a whole ready to pick up that cross and do away with all barriers, including those of denomination? And the next question is almost the same: does Christianity contain the apostles and prophets who have already been living this life of self-sacrifice? Do the people intimately know their lives and therefore trust them? Are they now ready to arise and command the people to obey every word our Master said (as the first apostles were commissioned to do in Matthew 28:20)? If not, we are faced with ...
Given the current state of Christianity, this would be much more feasible. You, yourself, may have forgotten much of what we quoted here already. As Christians we have had a lot of practice at this one.
When we walked out of church every Sunday after the sermon, we always remembered the pastor’s jokes a lot clearer than the Bible verses he read. And we were never quite sure what it was he said, unless, of course, the sermon was about giving our tithes. Ignoring the commands of our Master came all too easy for us since many times there weren’t even any verses to remember — only smooth words that tickled our ears.
We were told, ‘All you need to do is just believe,” while our Master says, He who does not obey the Son shall not see life ...” (Acts 28:22).
We were told, ‘You don’t have to give up all; you just have to be willing,” while our Master said, ‘No one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33).
We were told, ‘We are supposed to be in the world, but not of the world, because God needs good lawyers, bankers, senators, presidents, and influential businessmen, too.” But our Master said, ‘That which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
We were told, ‘We’re one in the Spirit, brother. Let’s just agree to disagree,” in spite of Paul’s pleading, ‘... that you all agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10).”
We were even told that the unity our Master prayed for in John 17 was only possible if it allowed room to disagree and have diversity of opinions — that what He prayed for was a unity that would ‘transcend” denominational barriers while still leaving the walls standing. But the truth is that there were no denominations among His disciples when He prayed that prayer. There was potential for them developing if the flesh went unchecked, and they did begin to develop in the still-united assembly at Corinth. But Paul wanted to stop the flesh from destroying God’s temple. So he addressed the Corinthians as men of the flesh (1 Corinthians 3:1) and warned them, ‘If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17).
We were told a great many things to keep us trapped in the rubble of the long-ago-destroyed temple of God. We were told that the temple had not been destroyed and could not be destroyed. We were told anything and everything that man’s fallen reasoning could devise to try and keep us content with the status quo, so that we wouldn’t make waves or stop giving our tithes and offerings. And for so, so long we believed it, living among the ruins and meandering down the broad way, comfortable and secure except for our screaming consciences. And this may be exactly where you find yourself. But there is an alternative ...
Not all of Christianity will ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd when He speaks to them through one of His sent ones. We didn’t. We used to live amongst the rubble of the demolished temple, unable to even become disciples because no one with authority was there to show us how to give up all, take up our cross daily, and walk as our Master walked.
Paul had that kind of authority. We could read about it in 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Romans 1:5. He had grace and apostleship to command obedience. He said to follow him and imitate his example. It was right there in the Bible, but Paul wasn’t right there in our midst to be a living example.
Our TV preachers and hired pastors didn’t have that grace and authority, but our God had mercy on us. He raised up men out of the dust of the rubble of Zion. He put a truly anointed message in their hearts — one that demanded a practical response.
The message was this: LOVE. Love your God with all your heart, your soul, and your strength. Hold nothing in reserve. No time, no thoughts, no purposes, no possessions. Love your brother as Messiah loved you. The absolute clarity of this standard showed us all that we needed a Savior. No matter how much we thought we had believed in Him, we saw clearly that we had never obeyed Him.
We came to know what love is when we had a revelation of our Savior’s sacrifice, a revelation that compelled us to take up our cross and waste our lives on Him and on our friends the way that He wasted His life on us.
We have been brought together out of all sorts of doctrinal viewpoints and cultural backgrounds. All these dividing walls have been abolished by the cross and we are free to work out our differences. As hard as it sometimes is, we have discovered the secret of submitting to one another out of reverence for Messiah. It makes ‘agreeing to disagree” totally unnecessary.
We are learning to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath or dissension, as the apostle Paul commanded (1 Timothy 2:8). Our prayers are not being hindered by hypocrisy like they once were. The God that we serve does not honor the requests of a multitude assembled in a pretended unity. But He does hear the cry of one lost sheep and searches that little sheep out.
We have been told it is wrong to say that we have found the truth and that God isn’t working through the many different churches and ministries. Whether we are right or wrong, you will have to decide. But we cannot keep from speaking about the mercy of our Father who brought us out of a parched land where we had desperately searched for this life that we are now experiencing. We are eternally grateful that we have been found.
We were told we ‘only had to be willing” to give up all and that we could ‘agree to disagree” because those who told us had never met a Savior worth sacrificing their possessions, opinions and life for.
Now, at last, we have.
His name is Yahshua.
In Him we are one.