conflict-resolutionThe best time to prevent conflict on short-term mission trips is before you go!

Let’s admit that it is very difficult to put a team together.  Jesus picked twelve and they argued with each other over who would be the greatest!  Paul put a team together, but John Mark bailed out on him and not only did his unappreciated actions cause problems on that trip, but on the next trip with Uncle Barnabas as well.

Short-term missions who have no serious form of either selection or approval are irresponsible.  Too often a public announcement is made, volunteers come forward, a couple of meetings later everyone heads to the airport and gets on the plane.

If you will go back and read my last post, you will find that all of the most serious problems that occur on short-term missions have a strong chance of surfacing BEFORE the mission ever begins.  People who are always late are also tardy to meetings—it won’t be different on the mission trip.  People who don’t volunteer for any of the preliminary tasks, people who are happy to let others raise their money for them, people who are flirty and/or seem to be along because they are interested in one of the others who is going, and people who don’t seem to be on the same page with everyone else. You can identify ALL of these kinds of people ahead of time.  All you have to do is

  •          Require training
  •          Require fund raising
  •          Ask the hard questions before you get on the plane

If you meet together often enough and pay attention to the interactions of potential team members, you learn a lot about them—unless the coordinator is too busy trying to just present information.  Do something with your team. Plan a picnic or a volleyball game or something that requires the group to interact, to depend on each other and you will see a lot.

People who cannot raise their funds may be people that those who know them best don’t think it is a good idea for them to go.  LST asks all of its participants to fund raise, even when they can write a check and pay their own way because it is truly a test of humility as well as a test of faith.  Asking people to do something that they don’t really want to do is a good filtering process for eventual team members.

If there are any red flags, it must be someone’s responsibility to approach the person in question and talk to them—lovingly, but honestly.

John, it doesn’t seem to us like you really have your heart in this mission. Is there anything we need to talk about because, otherwise, you may want to wait for the next opportunity—when you can really put your whole heart into it.

Angi and David, I noticed you guys are kinda a couple—is this going to be a distraction on our mission trip?    Can I tell you about some things that just would really do a lot of damage on the trip?

I know these conversations are not easy, but let me assure you—no, let me persuade you—that they are 100 times easier before the trip than in the middle of the trip after your mission and the testimony of your team have been damaged.

Not every hint of potential conflict surfaces before mission trips. Often just the pressure of a foreign culture creates new tensions that were unpredictable.  When that happens, however, the steps for resolving conflict are pretty straightforward—and they are highly effective.  You will recognize them from your own conflict resolution practices:

  •          Address any conflict—or emerging conflict—immediately. Don’t let the sun go down on it.  By confronting it immediately, you prevent damage and the people involved are likely still redeemable.  If you allow it to grow big, then the resulting damage is larger and people’s defensiveness proportionately greater!
  •          Use pre-established priorities that the whole group has heard and internalized in their training to resolve issues.  At LST, we say:  the work comes first, the team comes second, and YOU come last.  And that is the matrix we use for solving any conflict, whether organizational, personal, or in the group.
  •          Speak the truth in love. If people know that you love them, you can be much more direct and much more truthful with them in hard times.
  •          If the testimony of the mission project is at stake, act swiftly and decisively to restore the holiness of the project—whatever that takes. In our 34 years, I think we have put only three or four people on airplanes home early, but in each case it was because of severe moral failures (sexual misconduct) or serious breach of trust.  In each case they were back in the States within 24 hours of our discovery of the situation.

One of the first memory verses I ever learned was, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt.5:9)  This was my sweet Mom’s attempt to teach me how to get along with my brothers and sisters.  It took me a long time to learn that being a peacemaker was an active task, not a passive one.  Neither avoiding conflict nor pretending like it doesn’t exist is being a peacemaker.

Christians on mission—whether it is long-term, short-term, or just LIFE, all of us will be happier if we are peacemakers—active, decisive, but mostly loving peacemakers!

(I’m out of the country for two weeks with a very erratic internet connection.  Excuse my absence until I return.  You can follow my trip on Facebook, if you wish.)

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The Way SignSherrylee and I have been involved in short-term missions for 45+ years, starting with the Campaign Northeast teams that we were on in college, continuing through the Lubbock Christian and Harding teams we received as missionaries in Germany, and then through the thousands of teams that we have sent through Let’s Start Talking since the first two in 1980/81.

Honestly, very few of these teams have had truly serious conflict/problems. On the other hand, almost all of them have had the lesser, but sometimes quite disruptive smaller problems that can diminish the effectiveness of your short-term mission.

For instance: one team member would excuse himself from the missionary’s table at family dinner and go across the street to a kiosk to buy snack food because he didn’t like what the host was serving; or, a couple of college students decided not to be a couple during their project and polarized their team in respective corners; or one student decided his missionary was not working hard enough; or, the worker who volunteered to manage the team’s money and was so intent on being frugal that the team had to eat peanut butter and crackers three times a day; or, one student was jealous of another who had more money to spend—everything sounds really petty when it is isolated into a list like this. The fact of the matter is that ALL of these created big problems for a small group of people—and, to some degree, diminished their testimony!

You can group the most typical conflicts into a few big areas.  If I warn you about these, perhaps it will help you know where you need to focus your preparations. We talk about them as the 5 L’s

Number #1  -  Love

Of course, I’m talking not talking about spiritual love/brotherly love, but about romantic love.  It really doesn’t make any difference which way you go with it because at best love is a huge distraction and at worse a mission trip catastrophe.  And don’t think that this problem is confined to youth group mission trips.  Adult teams can be brought down by Love as well.

Look at all the issues surrounding romantic love that can create problems on your short-term mission team:

  •          Two people fall in love with the same team member
  •          Two people in love break up
  •          Team member falls in love with a local Christian who is not attracted to him/her.
  •          Team member falls in love with a local Christian who is attracted
  •          Two local Christians fall in love with a team member……
  •          Team members falls in love with local Christian who is already loved by another local Christian…..secretly or openly.
  •          Team member falls in love with local non-Christian
  •          Local non-Christian falls in love with team member

Remember that all of these scenarios are played out in a very short time frame, so all the emotions, whether good or bad, are intensified by “not enough time” if the feelings are wonderful, and “too much time” if people are living with jealousy, heartbreak, envy, and anger.

Most good short-term mission trips simply make “love” against the rules—and you know what I mean.  In spite of the rule, it is still one of the most common areas of conflict on any short-term mission trip.


I really think sensing time differently was one of God’s ways of cursing and dividing humankind at the Tower of Babel. If you have even three people on your team, inevitably one of them has a different sense of time than the other two.

What do we do with either the one who is always late for team devotional, for team meals, for their appointments with local people? OR, what do we do with the person who gets so tense that they explode because the team is ten minutes late for a church service that never starts on time anyway?

The answer is that you convince both types that the problem is not the “one,” who is using a different clock; that person is not going to change during your mission trip! Period. You yourself must change your own response to that person.  Remember that patience and longsuffering are gifts of the Spirit also.  In fact, they are the real gifts. Timeliness is not even mentioned in that list, is it?


“I didn’t come here to wash dishes; I came to share the Gospel!”  Yes, we heard these words come out of a worker’s mouth when the missionary wife asked him to help after supper.  You know the person: he’s sitting on the couch while everyone is cleaning the apartment. She’s reading her book while everyone else is setting up for the party.  They need a nap just when the team was going grocery shopping. . . . .Why are they on this short-term mission?



This is a little trickier because it can involve doctrinal or moral issues that surface during a mission trip.  Here’s a relatively common  scenario:  during the course of an off-the-record, after work conversation, a person finds out that another team member (or the local preacher)  holds a very “___________” (supply your own label) view on baptism, or women’s roles, or worship, or grace, or same-sex issues, or  _________________ (insert your own hot button here).  With this information now in the open, some people find themselves wondering about fellowship issues, whether this person ought to be teaching people, about the church or ministry that would send such a person, or if they should mark this person to the rest of the team!! This is a black-and-white person who only associates with people on their approved list.  Mission work of every kind tends to put you in contact with lots of people not on your approved list.  Treat them ALL with respect and love.


Did you know that some people use short-term mission trips to accomplish their own agenda?  They want to travel, they want to meet friends who live abroad, they want to renew a romantic relationship with someone on the team, they want to do research for their next book, or they want to get away from a troubled marriage or a bad relationship.

Almost everyone has mixed motivations, but Losers are those who are manipulating the short-term mission opportunity exclusively for their own personal agenda.  You will recognize them quickly because they are just barely interested in the main activities of the trip, usually choosing activities that meet their own personal goals instead.


If you know the main areas of concern, you can watch for hints in your recruiting, speak to them in your training, and address them quickly during your project.  That’s our next post!

American Georgetown University men's basketball team and China's Bayi men's basketball team fight during a friendly game at Beijing Olympic Basketball ArenaA friend of ours just returned from a short-term mission trip  where she worked under very primitive conditions. All I am going to mention is there were rats as big as cats—that says it all, doesn’t it!

They had a good trip, they accomplished all they went to do, but in reporting privately to her family about the trip, she said, “They prepared us well, trained us well in every area—except for getting along with each other!”

Several years ago, we had three women from the same congregation who had been friends for decades go on an LST project to a Baltic country.  These three women, all mature Christians, shared their faith daily with former Communists, but by the time they returned home, they weren’t talking to each other anymore.

 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Whether you are going for one week or one month or one year, every short-term mission group– young or old, large or small (number of workers, not size!), experienced or inexperienced—needs preparation and equipping for loving one another under what often can be very challenging circumstances.

Why do short-term missions sometimes bring out the worst in us?

  • People who have figured out how to navigate successfully their normal circumstances are suddenly confronted with unfamiliar, foreign situations that challenge their competence.  This makes good people tense!
  • People who are used to being in control are not in control. This makes them critical of those in control, who aren’t doing things properly!
  • We are not usually forced to be around others 24/7 to whom we are not married. (And some married people are not used to being with each other 24/7). In such circumstances, no warts or quirks or distinctive differences can be hidden, so a much higher level of tolerance toward otherness is required.
  • Jetlag, long hours, little exercise, “bad” food, lousy beds, no hot water—the first four days it’s just camping out!  The longer the mission trip goes, the crankier these external irritants can make us.
  • A short-term mission is a high-stakes mission!  The higher the stakes, the less tolerance there is for error! Or perceived error!

Let me illustrate with a personal story that makes me laugh—now!

Sherrylee and I had not been married but four months when we moved to Germany as members of a mission team. We were deeply in love (and still are!), but within 48 hours of arriving, we had this huge fight because we needed to catch a street car, and we didn’t know how to buy tickets.  She, being the totally confident one that thinks she can charm her way out of any awkward situation, wanted to just get on the street car and talk to somebody and figure it out on the .way.

I, on the other hand, who does not ever want to get in trouble and has to know ahead of time what the “rules” are, was not about to get on the streetcar before we had figured out what the ticketing procedures were.  Of course, that was extraordinarily difficult when we couldn’t read the signs and we couldn’t speak the language, and the tram conductors only stopped for a few seconds (or so it seemed). But Sherrylee would just have to wait until I figured it out.

Oh, no!  She started getting on the streetcar—as if she thought I would just defy everything in me and get on with her and trust her to make it all work!!  What was she thinking—but I couldn’t stop her, so I got on too—illegally! And I was just panicked. It was Adam and Eve all over again.  And I was furious about it.

In retrospect, it was such a little incident with no significance—and we are still married 43 years later, but it is just these kinds of small, insignificant tests of patience and tolerance that too often undo the much-less-committed-to-one-another relationships in short-term mission groups.

If you don’t prepare for conflict, then you are not a well-prepared mission group.

Watch for the next post on how to prepare for conflict on short-term missions.

God has always encouraged collaboration!

MustardSeed_1Just think about the plurality of the Creator himself: “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26), or his opinion of the first male of creation: It’s not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

Noah was the only righteous person, but his whole family gets to build the ark; Abram is called, but for what?  To be “a great nation” Gen. 12:2), which required Sarah and Isaac and a whole history of descendents. Jacob is renamed Israel but needed twelve sons to become the Israel that left Egypt as God’s people. And God sent His only Son who immediately gathered twelve close disciples and told them to go into all the world.  The twelve, empowered by the Holy Spirit, immediately became three thousand who turned the world upside down.

All of human history is God’s collaborative working to bring the nations to the Tree of Life (Revelation 22:2).

In contrast, one of the most frightening and condemning verses in all of Holy Scripture is the description of Israel during the time of the judges: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

What keeps God’s churches from being more collaborative?

  • An over-zealous understanding of congregational autonomy! I just addressed that topic specifically, so I’ll not repeat myself. Here’s the link to the previous posting “Is Your Church Too Autonomous?”
  • Fear of slipping into a hierarchy?  If we could ever really understand that “all authority” has been given to Jesus as head of the church, then we could see that God assumed that His Church on earth could function quite satisfactorily without usurping the authority of Christ or competing with Jesus for the throne.  The fear of hierarchy is legitimate to the extent that we men seem to consistently grab power and authority, but the fear of sin should not cause us to bury our talent and fail to multiply what God has given us.
  • We American Christians live in a time and culture that has exalted individualism and a Christian libertarianism. Notice the individualism in the most common words of every evangelical preacher: “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior!”  Notice the tendency towards independent churches, which I wrote about in “Are We Satisfied With Denominationalism?”

Does this not seem like a tendency towards everyone doing what is right in their own eyes?


So what would a different spirit of fellowship, cooperation, and collaboration look like?

OK, this is what I have been writing about for the last month. That’s why I keep referring back to other posts. Those earlier posts were the groundwork for this final brief set of conclusions and suggestions.  Go back and read the post “Movement Networks—A Challenge For Churches.”

  • If we could think as a fellowship, we might start addressing the bigger questions about going into the whole world—instead of each small gathering just addressing what a single congregation can do.
  • If we could cooperate in true unity, then Christians could become known for the love we have for each other and for others, instead of being known to be factious and exclusive.
  • If we could collaborate as brothers and sisters of the same family, we might be able to use ALL of the spiritual gifts that God has given to His people collectively.
  • If we could work together with mutual respect instead of the need to control, we could begin to address what God has prepared in advance for us to do.
  • If we could truly pray that God will forgive us—as we forgive others—then we would not break nor avoid fellowship with other Christians just because we do not agree. We would understand that God has forgiven us for what He knows are our failings and He has continued to walk with us; can we not only forgive others their failings, but love them and walk with them as well?

Movements do not start large; they start with a tiny mustard seed. But Jesus said that mustard seeds grow into the largest garden plant with huge branches for all the birds of the air (Mark 4:30-32).

  • If you will find another Christian to do something bigger than you could do by yourself, then you are too a mustard seed.
  • If you will lead your congregation to collaborate with one other congregation to do something bigger than you can do by yourself, then the mustard seed has grown!
  • If you will call churches together and challenge them to love each other enough to work together with a vision for the world, then birds will start looking for the branches!!

What can you do?   No, that’s the wrong question!!

What can we do? 

dont tread on meHow can you be too autonomous?  Isn’t being autonomous just like being pregnant—either you are or you aren’t!

No, I don’t think so.  I think there are degrees of autonomy and that we have defined it in a completely untenable way, a way that diminishes our ability to enjoy community, to fellowship, to partner in the gospel, perhaps even to extend grace to the whole Body of Christ.

Restoration Movement churches, all branches, practice congregational autonomy, meaning that each congregation is self-governing.  Restoration churches are not the only autonomous churches.  Baptist churches are also autonomous, as are some Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, and many in the independent church movement from the evangelical world.

While the more biblically conservative of these groups would base their doctrine of congregational autonomy on Scripture texts, these arguments are based primarily on the silence of the New Testament about church organization and on assumptions that instructions given to one set of church leaders like those in Acts 20:28 to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” were restricted to one congregation—even though these instructions were given to elders of the church for the city of Ephesus.

To make this apostolic directive work in our modern practice, we have to assume a single, autonomous “congregation” of the church in Ephesus where Paul spent two years preaching and teaching, and where it was said he had converted “large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia” (Acts 19:26). I think it is difficult to imagine one autonomous congregation for all of Ephesus, a city with perhaps as many as 200,000 people, as well as the whole province of Asia, at least as we practice congregational autonomy in 2014.

Honestly, those among us who argue for one “church” with the potential for many gatherings in a single city seem to me to have more biblical examples to which to appeal. Do we really think that each “house church” of the first century (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) was organized autonomously?

Speaking of “house churches,” one of my favorite litmus tests to apply when I’m trying to figure out if something is really truth or tradition is to ask whether it works for missionaries in different cultures.  For instance, take the situation with the current flourish of New Testament Christianity in China, a place where Christians gather mostly in groups of 30 or less in small apartments throughout their cities.  Are each of these small gatherings a “congregation” or what? Does each house need elders and deacons to be a true church?  If you are having trouble answering that question at all, then wouldn’t you agree that their situation is more similar to the first century church than our current American organizational structure?

Another phenomenon that is going to challenge the belief that autonomous congregations is the only biblical model is the rapid expansion of multi-site churches here in the United States. 

Leadership Network recently reported more than 8,000 multi-site churches in the United States. A multi-site church has either planted new outpost congregations or has agreed to assume the oversight of a struggling or failing congregation but leaves them in their own building. In every case, the leadership of the original congregation continues to operate as the leaders of all of the new campuses (a newer word than congregation but it means the same thing!). If you are inclined to fear slippery slopes, you have already imagined one set of church leaders over a “diocese” of city churches or regional churches or who knows where that could lead…..if you are inclined to slippery slopes.

To these people I would ask, what makes one group of people part of another group of people?  Is it proximity? Is it what building they meet in?  (That can’t be right because many of our autonomous congregations have other autonomous congregations meeting in their building—often just because they are of another language!) Do groups vote on it? What about that group of college students that meets out in the campus ministry building instead of with the regular congregation? What about that new church plant that won’t have mature leaders for five years? Are they autonomous?

Autonomy is getting harder and harder to really define, isn’t it!

You may not have this impression from what I’ve said so far, but I personally really think that congregational autonomy is really a wonderful form of church polity, but perhaps we have fallen into the same trap that the Jews fell into in trying to define working on the Sabbath. How many steps could one take? Can you get your sheep out of the ditch? Can you pick ears of corn on the Sabbath? Can you eat the holy bread in the tabernacle like David did?

Jesus answered this question for the Jews in Mark 2:27:   Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

What do you think this response means in light of dealing with issues of church autonomy?  Jesus did not demean or diminish the command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but He did not let the Jews define it in particular. He is the Lord of the Sabbath—and of autonomy.


handsBoth Jesus and Stephen were attacked by religious leaders for threatening to destroy the temple just as some are attacked for trying to destroy the church! Both Jesus and Stephen defended themselves with the same argument, an argument that can help us sort through some of the difficult questions surrounding our attitudes toward church.

Jesus declared that the temple was made with human hands, and this would be destroyed.  But, in three days, he would build another temple not made with hands.

Similarly, Stephen argued to the point of death that  “. . . the Most High does not live in houses made by human handsHe quoted then the prophet Isaiah speaking the word of the Lord:

 Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
  Has not my hand made all these things? (66:1)

Both Jesus and Stephen make a big distinction between those things made with human hands and the things God makes with his own hands.  The Jews were already familiar with the context for these phrases—which was why they tore their clothes and gnashed their teeth!  Look at these OT passages and you will see easily what the Jews had for centuries described as made with human hands:

            Deuteronomy 4:28There you will serve gods made by human hands, gods of wood and stone, gods that cannot see or hear, eat or smell.”

        2 King 19:18:  They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands.”

            Psalm 115:4:  “But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.”

Idols—false gods–were made by human hands, so when both Jesus and Stephen used these very words about the holy temple, the Jewish religious leaders were horrified!

While he was holding the coat of those throwing stones, Saul probably didn’t understand why Stephen would use those blasphemous words, but later as Paul, he would make the same argument in Athens.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.. . .

The church of Christ, the one Jesus declared He would build,  is not made with human handsThe prophet Daniel was among the first to know this. Look at his interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar:

 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. (Chapter 2)

The kingdom not made with human hands is big and powerful and eternal and everywhere!  The Jews thought the temple represented this eternal kingdom, but they were very wrong.  That temple would be broken down stone by stone as Jesus said.

In contrast, the temple Jesus promised to build was “his body” (John 2:21).  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17  

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

And this is the only temple where God dwells, one not made with human hands; rather, in “you together” (translating a plural pronoun). And “you together” are his body, the church, his temple that he is building with his own hands—and this is where God is present!

Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:21).


We can judge better what is from God by looking at who made it.  If people are the creators, originators, or founders, then we should be clear that whatever it is, it is not the equivalent of that which is made by the hand of God.

Now, don’t knee-jerk and jump to a very false conclusion.  Not everything man-made is evil per se. The temple in Jerusalem was not evil per se. Jesus worshipped there, taught there, healed there, and prayed there. The early Christians did the same.

The problem was that at least these religious leaders had turned the temple into an idol!  They owned it, they were proud of their workmanship, they worshipped the temple and defended it to the point of putting the Son of God to death for reminding them that God’s kingdom was not made with human hands.

Some Christians own their church! Some are totally proud of their workmanship!  They worship their worship. They heroically defend their brand—to the point of putting those to death who would remind them that God’s kingdom is not made with human hands and that God does not dwell in churches made with human hands.

Stephen died for reminding the Jews that even the ground around a burning bush could be as holy as the temple. God could not be contained in Jerusalem. Stephen’s God was bigger than theirs. Theirs was so small, he was contained in a building of brick and stone—just like an idol.

We dare not believe that we can contain God in our buildings or behind our signs or within any traditions or fellowships that we might have created ourselves.

An even greater challenge is to step out of buildings that are made with our human hands and be willing to take off our shoes because God is there, and we are on his holy ground.

A-ChristianLet’s talk a little more about denominationalism.  I know of no Christians who would take issue with Jesus’ prayer for unity: “that they may be one, as I and the Father are one” (John 17:11,22). Nor would they argue with Paul’s unities in Ephesians 4, beginning with “one body” (v.4). So why does denominationalism seem normal and unity abnormal?

The concept of denominationalism grew up in the early years of the Reformation, especially in England, when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. When then the Separatists, the Anabaptists, and others including Calvinist reformed churches and the Presbyterian congregational churches solidified into something other than the Church of England, none of them wanted to claim to be the exclusive Body of Christ, so everyone except the Roman Catholics abandoned the theology of One Body=One Church and moved to One Body=many denominations.

Lest we forget, however, these early denominations were rarely, if ever, in fellowship with each other either. The New World became the haven for persecuted denominations, which often then persecuted other denominations after the formerly persecuted gained the ascendency.

And so we in the US are exactly as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described us in his 1939 essay Protestantism Without Reformation after visiting the US. He said, “It has been granted to the Americans less than any other nation of the earth to realize on earth the visible unity of the church of God.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “The unity of the church of Jesus Christ is to American Christianity less something essential, originally given by God, than something required, something which ought to be.”

A denomination, if seen as just a convenient association of Christian congregations, or just a brand, seems pretty innocuous to most of us.  What truly frighten us today are those radical Christians who claim to be the one true church!

These polar opposite positions prove to me that we have been living in and rationalizing disunity so long that we are now to the point of celebrating the division among us instead of abhorring it.

Many will agree with me and will call with me for true unity–but, let’s be honest: describing what that unity really looks like is a daunting task for us—another indication of how far removed we must be from it!   I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Jesus’ disciples would love one another—not just in words, but in deed and truth. Don’t be tempted to ask at this point “who is a true disciple?” It sounds too much like the “who is my neighbor” question from Luke 10.  Instead, make a list of those things you would do for or with other disciples of Jesus if you love them.
  • Jesus’ disciples would be found in ever-growing gatherings. They would eagerly welcome others of like faith, and they would be telling others of God’s great love, so the Lord would be adding to their numbers daily those being saved. Theirs would be a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.
  • Jesus’ disciples would “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17). I’m quite confident that this verse does not mean love just your family, or your small group, or just your congregation, or just those who read from the same version of the Bible or sing the same songs that you do.  In fact, the same word for brotherhood is used in I Peter 5 to talk about the brothers and sisters in Christ “throughout the world” (v.5).

With these last points, perhaps we have laid the groundwork for talking about less pride in autonomy and greater value for fellowship.

My conclusion then is that denominationalism is a convenient rationalization, but that it is not the unity with which churches of Christ should be satisfied. 

Allow me just a few more insightful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Where the unity of the church is forgotten as a goal . . ., the work of the Holy Ghost, who will fulfill the promise of the unity of the church, is no longer taken seriously, and a separatist Pharisaic claim takes the place of the divine unity of the church.

Next we will get into the questions raised about autonomous churches.  


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