In the old hymn, Christians petition God to “bind us together with cords that cannot be broken”. The song then goes on to ask God to “bind us together with love”. It is a worthwhile question for Christians to ask ourselves what the nature is of the cords that bind us together. This question is especially pertinent for those who share not only general Christian fellowship but are brothers and sisters bound together in a particular denomination or faith tradition within Christianity.
This question is especially pressing because whatever there is holding us together as Christians and as members of particular denominations, there is also much dividing us. As American society has become more pluralistic and the diverse societies of the globe have been brought together into a pluralistic world society, so has American Christianity become more pluralistic and so has World Christianity become an increasingly pluralistic enterprise, to the point where some scholars are now beginning to talk about “World Christianities” instead of “World Christianity”, implying that Nigerian AICs (African Initiated Churches) have so little to do with Swedish Lutherans that they cannot be thought of as the same thing.
Yet as Christians, we have a theological commitment to believe that Nigerian AICs and Swedish Lutherans are part of the same thing. One of the basic tenants of Christianity is the catholicity of the faith. Catholicity in this sense means universality. It means that Christians believe that Christians everywhere are bound together in the body of Christ. Now, I know that some Christians believe that their group has the Truth and all others are heretics and thus outside the body of true believers. Such groups certain pose a challenge to the doctrine of the catholicity of the faith, but they do not negate it.
For those who are members of a particular denomination, there is more than just the doctrine of the catholicity of the faith that necessitates us thinking about what it is that binds us together. We must live, work, fellowship, and worship with our denominational sisters and brothers and find a way to do so despite the differences that divide us.
And those differences are not always insignificant. We may like to think that good Christians would not let race divide us, but Martin Luther King, Jr. famously remarked that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Related to, but distinct from race, is the question of ethnicity. Ethnic churches are very common in America and have many strengths to offer their members and the wider body of Christ. Nevertheless, they do pose the question of how Korean UMCs relate to Hmong, Mexican, Brazilian, African-American, and Anglo UMCs. The question is complicated when there are linguistic as well as ethnic differences.
Economic differences separate Christians from each other to a much larger extent that we are comfortable acknowledging. These economic differences are often related to geographic differences. How do the middle or upper-middle class churches of the newer suburbs relate to the poor churches of the inner cities and the working-class churches of the older suburbs? Geography also plays a differentiating role on a larger scale: How do the churches of the Northeast and those of the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast relate to each other?
Then there is the role of theology, and here is where the question really becomes pressing. What cords bind Christians or members of a denomination together when they are divided in how they view the Scriptures, what they think of homosexuality, whether or not they’re willing to let women be pastors, their views on science, how they understand free will and God’s agency vs. human agency, what they believe to be the divinely-ordained or just best form of church government, and a whole host of other questions? Even divisions that are partly stylistic, like whether to use hymns or contemporary praise music in worship, often take on theological dimensions as well. Since these theological divisions really get at the heart of the matter of religion for most, they are often the divisions that run deepest.
Hence, just as last week, I mentioned that societies as a whole need to ask what common commitments, beliefs, and values hold them together as societies lest they fall apart, so too, do Christians and in particular Christians united in particular denominations need to ask ourselves what holds us together lest we fall apart. At stake is not just a sentiment of “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got along?” but our testimony to a God who is able to bind us together in love.