Ever since the Reformation, Protestant churches have been split into numerous denominations. Much of this splintering comes from good intentions (alas, some does not). Some people are striving to be as biblical as possible, and when they have differences with others they often separate.
While the desire to be as biblical as possible is a good one, I believe that there has been far too much disunity within the Christian church as a whole ever since the 1500's. We all know, based upon His prayer in John 17, that Jesus wants His church to be united. So what do we do?
I don't think the answer is as complicated as we make it out to be. Quite simply, let's follow all of the commands of scripture regarding belief and practice within the church. After that, we have freedom to choose how we want to do things. However, the wise thing to do is to model ourselves after what we see in scripture.
Let's take an example: corporate worship. When the church gathers, the bible makes it clear that the triune God should be the object of our adoration. Also, we must focus on the edification of the body. Along with this, the sacraments/ordinances should be performed. Those things are clear. After this, we have freedom in a great many areas. How we go about the above things is often left up to us. One big issue in many churches today is what type of songs to sing. Well, we have freedom in this, so why must there be all the fighting? Let the local church decide what it wants to do. On another issue, the model we see in the bible is the house church. Must we, then, meet in houses today? No, we do not have to. However, if we do meet in houses, it may do away with many of the organizational difficulties that often cause strife within churches.
Here's another example: church leadership. We are instructed in I Timothy and Titus about what the character of a pastor/elder/overseer should be. We must follow these teachings. Also, it seems that the duties of the pastor/elder/overseer include leading, feeding, and protecting. Some issues are not so clear. For example, we have no mandate about how many pastor/elder/overseers any one church should have. The scriptural model seems to be that a church will have more than one pastor/elder/overseer. However, since there is no command to have a plurality, it seems that if a church only has one pastor/elder/overseer, this is O.K. As for the issue of how the leaders are chosen, denominations appear to be free to either leave this choice to the local body or have the leaders appointed by someone else (such as a bishop in the UMC). To follow the biblical model, we would have to allow the local body to choose its own pastor/elder/overseer(s), but this is not commanded.
So, in order to increase unity, let's follow these steps:
1) Follow the commands of scripture in all things.
2) Remember that we have freedom in those ares in which we are not commanded. We should also keep in mind that others (other local bodies) have this same freedom.
3) Following the scriptural model is always a wise decision.
Too many times, we fail at #1, and move on to #'s 2 and 3. We must follow the commands of scripture or our churches will have all sorts of problems and much disunity. For example, in John 13:34-35, Jesus says, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (NKJV). Within the body of Christ, if we would love one another (notice Jesus' repetition of this command to make His point), we would face far fewer difficulties.
The issue of the sacraments/ordinances is often a sticky one, and has led, sadly, to much disunity. Baptism and the Lord's Supper should be times that unite the body of Christ. So what do we do?
As for baptism, the Greek word "baptidzo" means "to immerse." Therefore, when we are commanded to be baptized, this implies that immersion under water will occur. Also, several times in the N.T. (see Acts 2:38), the command of repentance comes before or goes along with baptism. This indicates that baptism should come after salvation. Infant baptism must, therefore, be ruled out as a biblical action. That said, as long as a believer is being baptized by immersion, that is all that matters. Location of baptism, for example, does not matter (church building, pond, lake, pool, or river).
Regarding the Lord's Supper, in I Corinthians 11:24, we are told that Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of me" (NKJV). This is a clear command. Also, we know that Jesus is alive in heaven as our Mediator. Since we know these things, it is clear that transubstantiation (the Roman Catholic idea that the elements actually turn into Jesus' literal body and blood) is not biblical. As long as we treat the Lord's Supper in a biblical manner, then we can unite around it. Matters such as location, frequency, and specific type of elements are areas where we have freedom.
Let us strive for unity in the body of Christ (both within local churches and between local churches). This must not be a back-burner issue, for it is very important to our Lord. So what do we do? Again, we must be certain to follow all of the commands in scripture. While doing that, we must remember that we have freedom in other areas. We should, however, try to follow the biblical model, for it is a wise decision.
May we unite in a manner that pleases Christ.