Attentiveness: Division and Proclamation
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
In the early months of 1970, my local Presbyterian Church went through a terrible split. About half of the congregation voted to remove the senior pastor. At that same congregational meeting that cold and bleak winter, the other half of the congregation basically said, “Oh yeah? Then we want the associate pastor removed too!” The vote was taken, and, in the end, we could not get a pastor for over two years. No thoughtful pastor would take this position in a church so contentious…it was in decline. I found all of this off-putting, so I faded away from worship during the following months.
However, one couple was concerned about youth like me and my sister. They contacted Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU today) and asked if there was a staff member who could come on Sunday afternoons to their home and lead a Bible study for the youth. I was invited by one of the daughters of this couple. My motives for attending were less than spiritual, but God used even my feeble reasons for attending.
Seven of us attended that first meeting. Buddy Chase made sure we had Bibles, and then he just talked about Jesus for the next five or Sundays. I loved it. At the ripe old age of 16, I had never really read long passages of the Bible, and I had never thought about Jesus’ life as a whole and what it means to really follow Jesus. I was a generic cultural Christian with a Christian faith so bland that it did not draw the attention of the demons.
All that changed when, about the sixth- or seventh-week, Buddy asked us why we weren’t inviting our friends. Like Peter, I was quick to answer, but not as quick to think about my answer. “We have a good thing going here with the seven of us. Why would we invite others who might not mess it up?” Our little Bible study was made up of some of the cool people from high school. I was guilty of being a rather shallow, stuck-up high school athlete at the time.
Buddy gave us a 10- or 15-minute explanation of the Gospel: why Jesus came to earth, what his life, death, and resurrection means for us today, and how his life raises a question for every person: “Will you receive my gift for you and give your life to me?” That is exactly what I needed to hear. That night, before I went to sleep, I prayed the sinner’s prayer and knew my whole life would be changed now. My first verse to memorize that November night was Luke 9:62: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Today our churches, our society, our denominations are divided. Often the reasons for division are complex, but everyone who is leading a division feels their position is righteous and necessary.
I believe we need to pray against all of these divisions, pray against the gossip and self-righteousness that is often behind divisions, pray for truth to be revealed, and at the same time re-commit ourselves to evangelism.
Reading through I Corinthians I am struck that this was Paul’s approach concerning the divisions in Corinth. He spoke directly about the problems (big personalities, lawsuits, sloppy theology and worship, pride about spiritual gifts, immorality in the church, etc.) which sound so familiar to us today if we are paying attention. But then, in the midst of these discussions he recenters his purpose and ours. He speaks about Jesus, the Gospel, and salvation. “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!…I am entrusted with a commission” (I Corinthians 9:16f). “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (9:22). “Just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many so that they may be saved” (10:33).
I suggest that coming out of a pandemic—which has disturbed so many of us spiritually, mentally, physically, and socially—we boldly reaffirm proclamation of the Gospel. We may feel that this is avoiding other urgent issues, but I would argue the other issues which divide us will not be solved with theological integrity if we do not see the connection between our unity in Christ, truth telling, and Gospel proclamation. It is John 17 again, which must guide us today (John 17:14-23).
The world needs to see this type of other-worldly unity built upon humble submission to Jesus Christ, who is the Cosmic Lord.
Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.