The early churches were united as God’s family. Jesus was Lord and the Father was, well, the Father of the family. The one thing to do in that family was to love and obey the Father through the Lordship of Jesus. If you read through the early Church fathers, you cannot miss the focus on the creation of the church through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the love of the saints for one another, and the emphasis on Christians doing their best to be just like Jesus.
When Justin Martyr wanted to explain Christianity to the emperor around the year 155, he wrote about Jesus’ commands, the love of the saints for one another, and the amazing ability of Christians to be joyful when wronged. When the Romans wrote to the Corinthians towards the end of the first century to rebuke them for division, the whole letter was about envy, jealousy, pride, the importance of humility, and the example of the apostles’ humility.
When the churches finally began dividing after 300 years, it was because they had lost their focus on those basics. The first giant divisions were at the 5th-century councils (Ephesus, Chalcedon) over the relation between Jesus’ human and divine natures, things none of us can possibly understand and which are not addressed in Scripture nor the oral tradition from the apostles. Oddly, those wickedly divisive councils are now known as “ecumenical” councils, and the subject of those councils are given the important-sounding name “Christological controversies.” My, how we can dress up the devil’s work in sacred clothing!
Those 5th-century splits were caused by the loss of holiness in the fourth-century churches, which was caused by bringing most of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants into the church. This happened by imperial influence rather than divine. The children of the devil are by nature schismatic. Those who do not have the Holy Spirit cannot maintain the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3; 2 Cor. 6:14-18).
We must not accept the fleshly standard of unity that replaced the spiritual unity of the family of God. We cannot be united by the Bible interpretations of man. I don’t have to argue for that; it is proven to us every day. We must only look around us.
We must return to the only standard that has ever united churches: love of God, love for one another, a life guided by Jesus’s teachings, and mercy for the weak and poor. (Notice that these are also the things we will be judged for on the last day.)
In the video I will tell the story of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, bishop of Rome. Cyprian cared about unity, and Stephen cared about being right. To this day, those who read of their battle think Cyprian cared about a doctrine, like Stephen did. No, Cyprian’s concern was only unity, and to him the problem was not Stephen’s doctrine, but his willingness to divide over that doctrine. For heresy–the willingness to divide the churches over one’s opinion–to arise in the greatest church in the empire* was the beginning of the end in Cyprian’s eyes. In tears he wrote a letter to Spanish churches expressing his despair; surely the Antichrist was at hand.
Maybe it would have been better if the Antichrist had arisen and brought about the end because we have inherited the heretical attitude of Stephen as something normal. We divide over our opinions, not just at the church level, but even at the family and individual level. Sadly, we do not mourn over this dissection of the body of Christ, the very opposite of what Jesus commanded (Jn. 13:34-35) and prayed for (Jn. 17:20-23).
May God forgive us. Even more so, may he deliver us!
*In the second and third centuries, Rome was known as the greatest church in the Empire for very good reasons, which include both Peter and Paul being martyred there. In letters to Cyprian before Stephen was bishop, the elders in Rome spoke of the “great crime” of falling from their greatness. It was not Stephen who destroyed Rome’s greatness, though. He was martyred, and Dionysius of Alexandria played a large role in cleaning up the mess. Rome’s fall from greatness would happen later. The story of the rise and fall of the Roman church is told in my book, Rome’s Audacious Claim, available wherever books are sold.