“Let me be united with all who fear You,
with those who know Your laws.“
Psalm 119:79 NLT
“Let me be united with all who fear you” sounds like a noble goal. Nothing to disagree with there, I think. I would think we Christians all “fear” God, in the fullest meaning of the word. And we all know His laws because we read the same book, the Bible. So it’s not hard to pray the prayer, “Let me be united“. But then a niggling thought pops up in my mind. What about Christians in other denominations who perhaps interpret Bible verses differently to me? Or what about those brothers and sisters who discount parts of the Bible because they don’t think they are applicable 2000 years or so after they were written? What about the denominations that involve a liturgy I find strange and archaic? Or what about that dear sister who told me she doesn’t read the Old Testament because there is too much violence and bloodshed? Am I united with them? Hmmm…
There can be a problem because, although we all start from the same position in reading the same Bible, legalism, liturgies and licence all start to erode our very roots. The problems can even start with dissension over which version of the Bible we should use. I know someone who will only use the original King James Version of the Bible, writing off all other versions as heresies. And then how the Scriptures are interpreted pushes us further apart. Many different denominations have emerged based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations, disagreements and differences. As an example, in 1843 the Church of Scotland split into two denominations after years of wrangling, to become the original Church and the Free Church. Apparently, one third of the ministers in the Church of Scotland started a new denomination because of a row over what was perceived at the time as state interference in the Church. But it didn’t end there – the Free Church split in two in 1900, into the United Free Church and the original Free Church. The reasons for such historical events are fading into the mists of time, but it would be inappropriate to offer judgement over what went wrong. Having been part of a church split some years ago, I know such events can be unavoidable when legalism and liturgies become more important than a relationship with our gracious and loving God. As we allow worldliness and secular principles to creep into our churches, diluting and destroying the pure Word of God, we inevitably end up with problems.
There is another key word that is often lacking in inter-denominational rivalry and dissent. And that is “grace”. How do I view people in other churches? With a judgemental attitude, or with God’s eyes of grace-filled love? Do we think our liturgy is better than theirs? Do we think we are right and they are wrong? I have for a number of years had a niggling thought that God is less concerned about which denomination I attend than about my heart attitude in worshipping Him “in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). The reality is that I need to look kindly, lovingly and graciously at other Christians, whatever their denomination. A dear Christian couple recently told me about the abusive attitudes they had experienced from evangelical Christians over their Roman Catholic roots. Unfortunately these attitudes are all too common and can be seen working out in sectarian disturbances between Protestants and Catholics.
But whatever our denominations, God loves all His children; one day we all will stand before Him to give an account of our lives. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:10 (AMP), “For we [believers will be called to account and] must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be repaid for what has been done in the body, whether good or bad [that is, each will be held responsible for his actions, purposes, goals, motives–the use or misuse of his time, opportunities and abilities].” Another Hmmm…. I think.
So in a sense, the Psalmist in this verse, Psalm 119:79, has opened a “can of worms”. Church unity is often talked about and joint services are sometimes held between denominations, but this is not what the Psalmist was talking about. Christians are bound together by a fundamental belief that God sent His Son Jesus to this world, born of a virgin, living a life as a human being but without sinning, to bridge that gap between God and man, and ultimately to die for the forgiveness of our sins. Paul wrote about unity in several of his Epistles. Here’s one verse from 1 Corinthians 1:10 (AMP), “But I urge you, believers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in full agreement in what you say, and that there be no divisions or factions among you, but that you be perfectly united in your way of thinking and in your judgment [about matters of the faith]”. Though he was writing to one particular church, I believe the principle applies across all churches.
So how does our 21st Century pilgrim cope with and respond to other Christians in the cause of unity? With grace and love. Just as God does. We might not want to hang our coats on their liturgical pegs, but we love them anyway. There is no other way.