Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the Christians in a city could come together and form one church? Think of it – only one church for all of Sioux City. What a blessing that would be, right? The unity that God intended for His church – an answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 – experienced here on earth. Christians joining to worship the Lord and serve him together without all that petty bickering and division – it would be glorious! Someone start humming the Doxology so we can all join in!
But then, after the euphoria began to fade, a few uncomfortable realities might begin to present themselves. The Smith family would come up to me after Sunday worship, beaming from ear to ear. They just had their first baby and they want to honor me by asking me to baptize little Buford. Oh no, I would say, the Bible teaches that we only baptize those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. Stunned, and a little hurt, they tell me that they were taught something very different when they were growing up in Orange City where the Dutch Reformed church reigned.
As we began to plan the worship service, one person would share a liturgy she wants us to recite. Horrified, the former Assemblies folks would hold up a new CD with some rocking worship songs they thought the praise band could sing. One of the former Baptists would hold up his worn Baptist Hymnal with the assurance that anything worth singing was carried in the pages of that book!
On Sunday, I would stand before the congregation and suggest that it might be time we elected deacons. A few people would shake their heads and say, “I thought the pastor was supposed to lead the church. That’s how we did it back at our old church.” Someone else says, “Deacons? Pastors? Bah Humbug! We need elders to oversee the church of Sioux City.” One gentleman in the back would stand to say, “I wonder what the District Superintendent has to say about all this?”
Finally, we would decide that maybe it would be good to stop all this arguing and just worship the Lord together. Great idea! So, we begin the service. As soon as we get started, someone in the back jumps up and starts speaking in tongues loudly. Half the congregation stares at him like he has antennas and green skin. “Doesn’t he know that the miracle gifts passed away in the first century?” I would then stand to announce my sermon topic – eternal security – and half the church would get up and walk out. We would still be working out the details of our unity when the Rapture occurred. Oops, most of the congregation doesn’t even believe in that!
Denominations Are Evil, Right?
It is considered a truism today that denominations are evil, that they are a blot on the Christian landscape, causing division, separation and schism in the Body of Christ. We Baptists look down on those lesser denominations and they, in turn, think we are silly. But people are turning away from denominations in droves today and many consider that a good thing. Denominations are the devil’s playground, aren’t they?
I want to challenge that assertion. Denominations – accompanied by the proper attitude – are one of the greatest forces of unity in the body of Christ. Theoretically, it would be great if we could all worship together as one. But we would spend so much time arguing that we would never accomplish anything. But denominations allow us to worship according to our own beliefs and convictions. As long as our attitude toward one another is proper, denominations actually unite, not divide.
I am a Baptist. I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that only those who profess faith in Christ should be baptized – and that by immersion. But half the church disagrees with me. I am willing to accept (some of) those who practice paedobaptism as my Christian brothers and sisters. But I am not willing to compromise that doctrine in my church. You can love Jesus and not be immersed as a believer. But you cannot be a member of our Baptist church. We believe that doctrine is important. I am a (moderate) Calvinist and reject Arminian doctrine, believing that salvation starts in the heart of God and is secure when it is given. It seems clear to me as I read scripture. But half the church disagrees. I believe that Paul’s primary teaching about tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 has one main point – tongues are not important. If you speak in tongues, fine. If not, no biggie. But a lot of my friends say tongues died out in the first century, and are not operational today. Others believe that tongues are the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. We who love Jesus have lots that divide us.
Dealing with Divisions
Soon after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, Christians began to disagree about many things. While the Apostles were alive, they kept the church together by the force of their authority, but as soon as they were gone, the church began to splinter into groups. Church history is the story of Christians disagreeing with other Christians and dividing from one another.
For most of its history, the church has tended to magnify its differences. We have questioned the faith of those who disagree and vilified one another. The church has traditionally prized doctrinal uniformity much higher than church unity. In the colonial days, Baptists were put to death by other Christians because we rejected Reformed practices. I have books written by people who disagree about the details of the second coming, filled with vitriol and accusations of heresy. We have treated brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree on these issues as if they were the Philistines or Moabites.
Now, the pendulum has swung, and swung hard. This is a different Christian world than the one I grew up in 40 years ago. Promise Keepers and other movements have drawn the church together in ways we could not have imagined in my younger days. But with this blessed movement has come a tendency to discount doctrine. Some use doctrine and theology as dirty words, seeing no value in the pursuit of truth – no, to them it is divisive and dangerous. Let’s just love Jesus and live together in peace, they say, disregarding theology and doctrinal differences. But a church without doctrine, without discernment, is in deep danger in a world dominated by Satan’s lies.
So, this is our challenge. We must find a way to disagree without division. We must be one in Christ without compromising our pursuit of truth. We will erect that Brick Wall of Doctrine around those truths that are fundamental to the Christian faith. But there are many doctrines that simply do not warrant a Brick Wall. All you need for these differences is a friendly picket fence.
Building Picket Fences
A picket fence is a friendly way of separating neighbors. It is not a brick wall that divides, it just establishes boundaries. You chat over the fence, have picnics together, have cookouts in each other’s back yard, watch over the other’s homes and value the neighborhood you share. Around many doctrines we do not need a brick wall, but a simple picket fence. The brick wall is the boundary for the neighborhood, keeping out the enemies; false brethren who would tear down the work of God. Inside the brick wall, we share the neighborhood, chatting over the picket fences, fellowshipping together and blessing one another.
Yet, we keep the picket fence. We Baptists can baptize believers, have deacons and vote on everything. The Presbyterians can sprinkle babies. The Bible churches can have elders. The charismatics can speak in tongues and prophesy. The Methodists can methodize. The Episcopalians can episcopize. We can all follow our convictions on our side of the picket fence. We try to be good neighbors, have as much fellowship as we can, then go back to our homes to follow Christ according to our beliefs.
The Community of Faith
I would like you to see the Christian world as a community, a city. Around that city is a Brick Wall that keeps out the spiritual predators, the wolves – the enemies who would undermine the truth and destroy the church. We have looked at the Brick Wall in some depth. But, even within the City of Faith, there are neighborhoods. There “Baptist Creek” and “Charismatic Heights.” There is “Reformed Ridge”, “Assembly of God Acres” and “Methodist Willow.” In each neighborhood, there are individual homes. Each of those homes represents an individual local church.
Each local church is a separate entity with its own beliefs, practices, and preferences. These homes are of different sizes and styles. There is nothing wrong with each of these homes remaining separate. But we must also be good neighbors. Across the street from Southern Hills Baptist Church is the Morningside Assembly of God. It is a strong church with solid leadership. But it would be tremendously difficult for us to worship together or form one congregation. We have significant theological differences and we have divergent practices that would make it hard for us all to live in one home. But we are friendly neighbors. The pastor is a friend. We help each other. They use our parking for their big neighborhood parties. We share an Upward Basketball ministry. Most importantly, we speak well of each other. I don’t run them down and they don’t run us down. We speak well of each other.
It is necessary for us to have separate houses – at least until heaven. But it is not necessary for us to have a Brick Wall between us. We have a friendly picket fence and that is all we need. We are good neighbors. In our own ways, we proclaim the message of Christ and from time to time, we have a backyard barbeque together. Separate homes but good neighbors – that is the essence of the picket fence.
A Picket Fence Example
When I was a pastor in Cedar Rapids, there was another church about a quarter mile from mine. There are few doctrines (other than the basics of salvation) on which we agreed. Their pastor called me because they had some new believers that wanted to be baptized, but their building has no baptistery. We opened our doors and filled the tub. Neither of us compromised our doctrine, but we opened the gate in our picket fence and had the neighbors over for a visit.
So, here’s the point. Sometimes, you need a Brick Wall. When people compromise truth that is fundamental to the gospel of Christ, we have to stand firm and contend for the faith. But there are a lot of doctrines that do not require the drastic Brick Wall. They only require a friendly picket fence.
May we never build Brick Walls when a simple Picket Fence will do.