Have you ever noticed how diverse the natural world is? There is not just one kind of bird or fish or dog or cat but there are myriad kind of all of these. So it is with people also. We may look alike in some way. Most of us have similar features when it comes to the number of eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet that we have. Skin color comes in several basic colors but with a huge array of hues and shades of those colors. We may even speak the same language but we speak it with a distinct accent and tone of voice. Diversity seems to the rule of life and what makes people divide into different groups so as to find others who share their distinctive attributes, qualities, or views.
The Christian Community is divided into many groups also even as we strive to live out Jesus' directive to his disciples "that they may all be one" (John 17:21a) The last time I saw a copy of the Handbook of American Denominations, I believe that there were about 250 different Christian denominations. When you take out the largest church groups such as Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, that still leaves way over 200 different denominations that exist in the USA. There are over 50 different church groups that use the words "Church of God" somewhere in their names. How can we as Christians even hope to live up to Jesus' desire that we "may all be one" when we are such a divided family?
Finding common ground in a family of diverse views and ideas concerning everything under the sun is a huge undertaking. It is difficult sometimes even within our own families of origin. I grew up in a family where my mother was the official religious spokesperson. She was the religious leader of our family because my dad never belonged to a church and did not attend church. I guess I can remember him going to church maybe five times during his entire life and those were for very special occasions. My mother became the one who demanded that her children attend church and be present every time the church doors were open so we were far more active in church than the average church member. When we kids became adults, we all went on different paths when it came to church membership and participation. My older brother continues to attend the church of our upbringing and eventually became a pastor in that denomination. My younger sister decided that if dad could be absent from church then she would too so she dropped out of church and did not attend regularly till the day she died eight years ago. My wife and I found a mainline church that we found comfortable and we joined it and became active and I eventually became a pastor in it. When we would have family gatherings with all of us present, we soon found that we could not talk about religion or politics because we had such diverse views on both subjects. My dad became the referee and when either of those topics came up, he would silence everyone by saying, "How about those Cowboys?" We knew that the conversation was over and sports would instead take its place.
We who share the name Christian as part of our identity have the same problem at times with others in the Christian family. We want to strive to love and embrace one another but there are times when we have to change the subject because the current discussion is bringing division and ill feelings with it. Even within denominations in the Christian family there are deep rifts that need healing because people do not share the same views on social issues that threaten to divide them. The United Methodist Church resulted from the merger of The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South that had divided before the Civil War over the issue of slavery. It took over a century for them to find the grace to merge once more in 1968 when they also included the Evangelical United Brethren in their fellowship. Now, that same church faces great challenges because they cannot agree on a social issue that threatens to divide them into two or more churches once again.
Christians have attempted to find words to live by throughout the ages that would give them strength in their times of trial. It has been said in various ways, but perhaps the motto that seems to help the most in these times of diverse views may be "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." In other words, there are things we need to agree upon as Christians that are fundamental to our faith. Some of these things are theological ideas that the church has hammered out at church councils over the ages, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the meaning of the sacraments, but even there we tend to disagree over those meanings depending upon the group to which you belong. Some things are not that essential to our faith but are things that we have our own ideas about and when those arise...live and let live, seems to be the best rule of life. We do not all have to agree upon everything and we can have the freedom to disagree at times. In all things, though, we need to strive to love one another even when we cannot agree on all we discuss.
God is always with us and I think that God wants us to strive to live as God's Children, loving each other and trying to get along as best we can. We have a common faith but it is expressed in so many ways that we must allow each person within our faith tradition to hold to the views that each person would own. The love that we have will unite us, though, as we strive to think the best of our neighbors even when their views stir up feelings that we do not want to own. God will give us unity if we will seek God and pray for peace in our lives and in our world.