Church Infighting: Causes and Origins

Don Miller had an interesting post regarding infighting within the church (  I couldn’t find a place that allowed me to comment on his site, so I’m going to develop this more here.  Go read his post, then come read mine.

OK, presumably, since you reached this point, you went and read Miller’s post.  While I know you probably find it ironic (and a little hypocritical) to find that I agree with him, le me explain why.  While the church DOES need to take stands on certain matters of doctrine, the attitude with which we do so need not be so excluding and alienating as what many churches do.  A lot of emotions ran through me while reading that post; some frustration, a little agreement, and perhaps some humility (but let’s not push it).  There were questions and statements that came to mind as a result of said emotions, such as “Well, churches aren’t interested in having conversations most of the time.” I also had a tendency to answer said questions and statements with my own retorts, such as, “Well, they should be more interested in that.”  See what Don Miller does to me?

Anyway, it got me thinking.  The church has had infighting for the last 2000 years, the first documented example being Acts 15, when Judaizers were pushing for Gentile members of the Way to become circumcised and follow Moses’ Law.  The infighting came from the apostles themselves, or at least people sent out from them, who misunderstood the word.  The Council at Jerusalem, essentially the first Ecumenical Council ever, decided that this was NOT how Gentiles were to be included in the Way, considering it to be against prophecy and teaching.

As far as I can tell, this was to be the pattern for infighting for a long time.  As one of my professors once told me, “The early church was anything BUT unified.  If a bishop breathed wrong, another bishop would call him a heretic.” There’s plenty of early church writings to demonstrate this, and I’m not even talking about the big ones, like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies or Tertullian’s Apology. Everywhere there are treatises and letters regarding the “heresy” that one bishop preached or was rumored to have preached.  It got ridiculous.  Council after council for about 500 years was called to settles these matters (including the big ones like Gnosticism, Arianism, etc.) and those who didn’t make the cut were cast out as heretical.  The same thing would happen from 1525-1563, when the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent to oppose what they deemed to be the “heresies” of the Protestant Reformation.

So, from a biblical and historical perspective, the church is notorious for infighting and disagreement. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard non-Christians point out our lack of unity and disagreement over what are often petty matters as an argument against our validity, and to some extent, I’m with that.  Peace within the church (see, I linked this to nonviolence.  Ha ha.) is very far away when we quibble over little details, and more and more I think churchgoers are beginning to understand that.  Matters like order of service and song choices are seen as matters of preference as opposed to doctrine (with some exceptions) and even theological matters such as predestination aren’t really seen as anything to get all bothered over.  The church is getting better at understanding that reaching people is more important than proper orthodoxy or right theology.

Still, my question comes here: can we have our cake and eat it too?  Can we seek more to reach people and have conversations while not being weak-willed about our belief?  My concern here is the sacrifice of doctrine to a feel good, build-your-own-Jesus church.  In school we talked about open-hand and closed-fist theology, the things that can be let go of and the things that must be held on to.  Perhaps a convening of church councils is in order again, but how?  Every denomination has its own council, and denominations aren’t always keen on the simplest matter of agreeing to disagree.  We’re separate because we see things so differently, even though we’re looking at the same light.

What do you think?  Can we have our cake and eat it too?  Can we stop fighting so much and actually agree to disagree on things?


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