“BLESSED BE THE GOD AND FATHER OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, WHICH ACCORDING TO His ABUNDANT MERCY HATH BEGOTTEN US AGAIN UNTO A LIVELY HOPE BY THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST FROM THE DEAD.” 1 PETER i. 3.
… Let us then endeavour to trace some of the causes of this evil [church divisions], that we may the better dwell upon its practical remedies. It is all the more important to look into these closely, because they are wont often to be veiled under pretexts which conceal their true character even from him in whom they are at work. Thus many a man believes himself to be acting from the love of some great truth, when like the Scribes of the Pharisees part, who arose and strove as soon as their party watchwords were appealed to, he strives indeed, because he feels his own party views questioned. And even this is far from being the worst cause of our divisions. Still is it, as it was when St. James asked, “Whence come wars and fightings among you : come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” For how often may the sharpest spiritual contentions be traced up to mere personal feelings, to wounded vanity, or disturbed self-esteem, or offended self-importance? How often do these lead to the harbouring of hard thoughts, and unjust suspicions, which find their vent in sharp words and bitter imputations, and soon grow into settled separation, and become the parents of a long-lived division. Here my brethren, are, alas too frequently, the sad and shameful causes of our manifold divisions. And even where these grosser forms of evil are not at work, how may we trace more subtle spiritual sins indeed at their root! How often, for example, do they spring from unbelief in the great realities of the spiritual kingdom of God s grace in which we are placed! How little dread is there in such minds of rending Christ’s Body, the Church, and grieving the Spirit of the Holy One! How near will they go to actual division, with no sense apparently of their being upon the verge of great sins, and under the influence of dangerous temptations ! And these incentives to strife are closely allied to that which is after all the chief and master cause of this great evil, I mean a want of true personal love to Christ our Lord. For this would breed within us a tender concern for every soul for whom He died. We should shudder as at one who was casting down the wounded, or turning the blind out of the way, if we felt ourselves tempted by these lower instigations to put a stumbling-block in the way of some weak brother, or to offend the least, and meanest, and darkest of those for whom He shed His blood. But our coldness of affection towards Him makes us slow in feeling for them; and so our thoughts of them are negligent or hard, and our words incautious or unfeeling, and repulsive, and of such acts, and such a temper, strife and separation are the border sins and later stages.
Samuel Wilbeforce, “Sermon X: The New Hope”, Sermons preached on various occasions
Samuel Wilbeforce was a 19th century bishop in the Church of England, son of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilbeforce.
I once asked a bishop a question about what exactly was the main theological issue that had led to a denominational split. He said it wasn’t even about theology, it was bad behavior. Wilbeforce here diagnoses the ungodly tactics that lead to church splits. It’s funny to imagine people waiting for their “party watchwords”. I’ve seen that in many online debates in theological forums, perhaps even had a few myself. You have your watchwords, and when the bell is rung, you drool at the red meat about to come your way. Wilbeforce claims that the lofty principles that bring us to a fight may boil down to mere “personal feelings, to wounded vanity, or disturbed self-esteem, or offended self-importance”. We are to be as careful of rending the church as we would Christ’s body. I’ve been through two church splits and they are no fun. Among the worst temptations is to blame the other party for jeopardizing the very existence of the other side.
The idea that drew me to this passage was that our divisions can actually be seen as a stumbling-block. One creates unnecessary obstacles for the weaker and vision-impaired members of our family. We are not even to offend the meanest and darkest of those for whom Christ shed his blood.
PRAYER: Dear Lord, let us be one. Help us set aside our petty differences which we have puffed up into reasons to rend church bodies. Keep us from waiting like trapdoor spiders, waiting for a watchword to pounce and bite those who are erring. Let us realize how these divisions and traps are stumbling-blocks to the weak. Help us to remember that even the meanest member of a church is still one you have died for. AMEN.