With a total of 48 places of worship, Centerville holds the record for the greatest number of churches per capita in the nation. Originally, in 1899, only one congregation existed, simply known as “Centerville Community Church”.
However, 1911 a dispute arose over whether or not the offering should be taken before or after the sermon. Thus occurred the first split, with the dissenting congregation forming “Centerville Reformed Community Church”.
In 1915 another controversy divided the members of Centerville Reformed Community Church, this time over the issue of placing flowers in the sanctuary. Some approved while others objected. As a result CRCC split and Trinity Reformed Church of Centerville was organized with 25 members.
Several more splits took place over various issues between the years 1915 and 1929. In 1931 another clash erupted among the members of Seventh Reformed Covenantal Church of Centerville over an issue that no one can seem to remember, nor do any records indicate. Suffice it to say, that approximately half the congregation walked away, and 9 people formed Third Westminster Trinity Covenant Reformed Church of Centerville.
Since then several more divisions have occurred, the most recent being this past weekend, when a disagreement arose amongst the members of Second Street First Ninth Westminster Covenant Reformed Church over the observance of the Lord’s Day. The issue in question was whether or not it was acceptable to check one’s email on the Sabbath. Those who objected have now formed “The Totally Reformed Covenantal Westminsterian Sabbatarian Regulative Credo-Communionist Amillennial Presuppositional Church of Centerville”.
“I think we’ve finally got it right now,” said Paul Davis, teaching elder at TRCWSRCCAPCC. “We now have a church with 100% doctrinal purity.”
The story of course is fictional. Yet it is not far from the truth. We Christians can be a fractious lot. In this country there are well over two hundred separate denominations of Christian churches, and that does not include the more than 35,000 non-denominational congregations scattered across the land. Studies indicate that there are as many as 19,000 major, scarring church conflicts in the U.S. each year—an average of 50 per day. Until recently we Episcopalians could look down our noses at other denominations, as there had not been a split of any consequence among us since 1873. Today that is no longer the case, as the recent disaffiliation of entire parishes and dioceses and legal costs in excess of $20 million will testify.
Sad to say, even since its earliest days there have been conflicts in the church. Pentecost was still a recent memory when complaints began to arise that the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in favor of the Aramaic-speaking widows. In later years a major dispute erupted between Peter and Paul over the question of circumcision. Paul described himself as opposing Peter to his face and calling him to account in the presence of the whole church. In fact, when you read through the letters of the New Testament, whether from Paul or Peter or John, nearly all of them deal in one way or another with issues that were causing controversy in the church.
It is almost surprising that we have to get all the way to the fourteenth chapter of Romans before we come face to face with an issue that was threatening to divide the church there. The controversy centered on a couple of things. The first of them had to do with food. It is difficult to pin down the precise nature of the dispute. I tend to agree with those who think that it was related to the observance of kosher food laws. The Roman church was made up of a wonderful diversity of Jewish and non-Jewish believers. No doubt there would have been those among the Jewish believers who desired to continue to follow the Old Testament food regulations. Because it was difficult to guarantee that meat was truly kosher, it is quite possible that some would have decided to abstain from eating it altogether.
The second issue had to do with the observance of particular days. Paul was likely referring to the Sabbath and to the annual Jewish festivals—important to believers of Jewish heritage no doubt, but of little or no interest to many of the Gentiles.
It should have been possible for these two groups to live and worship and serve Christ together side by side. Yet that was becoming increasingly awkward. Tensions were mounting. Those who had no interest in the food laws or Sabbath observance had begun to look down on those who did as weak in the faith. And those who did observe them wrote off the others as half-hearted Christians, slack in their obedience to the Scriptures.
The problem with the Roman church was not that there were differences, but that those differences were leading to a critical spirit, judgmentalism, and division—and to make matters worse, the differences had nothing to do with concerns that were central to the Christian faith. In our translation Paul describes them as “opinions”. The New International Version renders the word “disputable matters”. It has to do with personal views that are not necessarily based on fact, matters that are generally open to debate.
The differences may be real, and Paul acknowledges that. They may be based on deeply entrenched convictions. Nevertheless, he says, even though that may be the case, we must not allow secondary matters to blind us to the basic truth that God has welcomed us all—and that therefore we are under a divine obligation to welcome one another. Paul will make the same point again in the next chapter. “Welcome one another,” he writes, “just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The issues may have changed in the intervening twenty centuries, but we still face parallel situations in the church today. In his book Reinventing Evangelism Don Posterski makes the very helpful distinction between what he calls “treasures”, “baggage” and “garbage”. In the first category he places such things as worshipful liturgy, evangelistic fervor, social service, biblical preaching, a commitment to global mission, the practice of prayer, and holiness in lifestyle. The baggage he defines as aspects of church life that relate more to the external form than to the essence of spiritual life: things like raising your hands in worship or crossing yourself, traditional hymns or contemporary praise, dressing up on Sunday or coming as you are. The third category, garbage, is stuff that somehow gets incorporated into church life but actually detracts from our fulfilling Christ’s mission and that we would be much better off without—things like religious jargon, personal kingdom-building, begging for money, self-righteousness and exclusivism. We continually stand in need of the wisdom to be able to distinguish among the three, and then to treasure the treasures, be soft on the baggage, and toss out the garbage.
What Don Posterski writes in his book is not that far from a helpful little catch phrase that began to have currency in the church about four hundred years ago: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”. The challenge for the church in every era—not least in our own—is to distinguish what are the essentials and the non-essentials. It seems to me that this has been the problem facing the Episcopal Church and much of western Protestantism for the past fifty years. Whether it is questions such as the deity of Christ or his virgin birth and resurrection, or the hot-button issues of today surrounding human sexuality, we are facing increasing division and acrimony. How do we deal with them?
About a month ago Charlie Clauss wrote a very helpful little on-line article entitled “Radically Centered”. He used the idea of mathematical concept of sets and applied it to the church. Here is some of what he wrote:
A church community can be a fuzzy, bounded, or centered set. A bounded set is a set with clearly defined criteria to membership in the set. One is either “in” or “out”. A centered set eschews the language of in and out and concentrates instead on a person’s relationships with a defined center. Orientation to, and distance from, the center are what matter. A fuzzy set is just that: it has neither boundaries nor center. It is just a collection of people.
Charlie goes on to commend the church as a centered set and this is something that makes eminent sense to me. We are not in the business of determining who is or is not a Christian. C.S. Lewis wrote about the futility of this option sixty years ago in Mere Christianity:
There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand… And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass.
The challenge that Jesus lays before us is to be a centered set: to lift him up in such a way that people are drawn to him as their Savior and Lord. It seems to me that this is our governing philosophy at Messiah and we have articulated it in our vision statement: “Bringing people together from many nations and every generation to worship Jesus Christ and take his healing into the world.”
All of this brings us back to what Paul writes in verses 7 to 9 of our reading this morning:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
There is a place for baggage in the church: those traditions and practices that have become important to us, perhaps because they evoke precious childhood memories, perhaps because they have helped us to avoid sin and remain true to Jesus. Yet we cannot allow them to cloud our vision, to become our primary focus. The key thing is to be sure that we are serving him.
It is Jesus, not traditions, who through his death and resurrection has brought us to life. It is Jesus, not opinions, who will greet us at the end of our journey and welcome us as his bride to the wedding supper of the Lamb. It is Jesus who must stand as unrivaled Lord over all things in our churches as well as in our personal lives.
I conclude with words from theologian C.E.B. Cranfield, who writes,
[This passage from Paul] is a reminder to each member that, whether his faith leads him to adopt the practices of the strong or the practice of the weak, it can, and must be allowed to, set him free for an obedience which (according to his own particular way of faith) is firm, decisive, resolute, courageous, joyful.
May that be the experience of each of us today.
 See pages 102-105.
 Page 173
 Romans, A Shorter Commentary, 343