Sunday, March 22, 2015

Despising the Clans

I was working on Thursday’s post on denominationalism when I came across a little statement in Jeremiah that may give us some insight as to how the Lord feels about divisions in the church.

Sorry, this one needs a little setting up, as I’m not going to assume all our readers are currently engrossed in simultaneous study of the Old Testament prophets.

A Little Background

The breakup of Israel, which had been a single national entity for almost 1,000 years, was engineered by the Lord as a punishment to King Solomon, who was influenced by his many foreign wives and built places of worship for their gods in Israel. In this he was both a model of “tolerance” and the prototypical nonjudgmental modern.

God, however, was not impressed.

So for the sake of David, Solomon’s father, God left Solomon’s descendants with a tiny portion of the kingdom and handed the rest over to a man named Jeroboam. That’s not my subject today, and you can read about it here if it catches your interest, but my point is this: God, who hates division among his people, actually caused a major division among them because the alternative was to leave idolatry unpunished.

Division, while undesirable, was preferable to the unrestrained corruption of all God’s people, or to a former servant of God destroying his public testimony with no attendant consequences.

The Word of God to Jeremiah

Go down the road in the divided kingdom a little over 300 years to the time of Jeremiah.

Now think for a second about how much things have changed in this world just since you were born. 300 years by some standards seems unfathomably long. A divided kingdom had been the status quo for as far back as any citizen of Judah or the surrounding nations could possibly remember, short of visiting an archive of ancient scrolls and refreshing his memory. There was no Wikipedia back then, after all. Anyone who preached or even contemplated unity with Israel would be the odd man out.

Under those circumstances, we might think any confusion about the national status of God’s people would be understandable. Yet God makes the following complaint:
“… they have despised my people so that they are no longer a nation in their sight.”
When the Lord voices a complaint, wise people pay attention.

God’s concern is that after 300 years, people had taken to describing the divided nations of Israel and Judah as “two clans” and “no longer a nation”.

But while the division of united Israel into the nations of Israel and Judah was a political reality that anyone could readily observe, the purpose of God has always been to eventually reunite them. Jeremiah himself had taught this, likely to the very same critics, from the beginning of his ministry.

So those observers who looked at the temporary state of affairs (even one that had then lasted hundreds of years and would last thousands longer) without considering God’s thoughts about the subject and drawing the appropriate conclusions earned his disapproval.

Denominationalism and Clans

For years, observers have said much the same thing about the church of God as they once said about the nation of Israel. “Look at Christianity! It’s divided into all these different denominations and sects”. 

From our end, sure, denominations are a sign of division, disagreement and occasionally sin on our part (though we’re fairly sure those other guys are just a little bit more sinful, perhaps). From the world’s perspective, denominations may provide an excuse to ignore the message of salvation, though it’s a poor excuse and will not do in the end. But from God’s perspective sin, even among his people, is never unexpected. He is never caught without a plan. He is never without testimony. He never changes his ultimate purpose.

The critics will always say what they please, but I’m not sure it pleases the Lord to have his work viewed their way anymore than it pleased him when people talked about Judah and Israel as “two clans”. He is building a single spiritual building. He is betrothed to a single bride. Appearances are in this case deceiving.

Are we ever, like many observers in Jeremiah’s day, maybe just a little bit guilty of despising the “clans”?

My thought? Maybe we need to assess things as God sees them, in the light of his promises and purposes, not as they may currently appear to us from our limited historical vantage point.

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