Reasons to Believe

The Problem of Christian Disunity Part 3

In the first two installments of this series I pointed out that while disunity among Christians is a problem that hurts the overall Christian witness, many people (especially skeptics) fail to appreciate the tremendous unity that historic believers share in common. The Christian faith encapsulates a set of beliefs, a collection of values, and encompasses a broad world-and-life view. In these three critical areas that define the essence of historic Christianity, the faith holds a vigorous unity.

I also conveyed that though denominationalism presents clear challenges to unity, it also emits positive features that contribute to the health of the various Christian theological traditions. (See here and here.)

In this article I will address the role that sin and hypocrisy play in creating disunity, specifically in terms of how the church is viewed by nonbelievers.

Sometimes the lack of unity in the body of Christ links to sinful behavior among believers. As with all families, Christians simply struggle at times to “get along” with each other. However, people outside the church view these family conflicts negatively. But this strong reaction may be based upon a deep misunderstanding about the nature of Christianity itself.

Nonbelievers are put off by the sins and perceived hypocritical behavior of Christians. Those outside the church sometimes view believers who toil to meet the moral ideals set forth in Scripture as phonies and hypocrites. Yet while hypocrisy is always regrettable and never to be condoned within a Christian context, I think the nonbelievers’ offense at hypocrisy is frequently rooted in a flawed perception of the nature of sin.

More than Merely Bad Deeds or Bad Habits

Non-Christians often view sin as merely a bad deed or habit. Consequently, the Christian faith is perceived as, essentially, a set of moral rules to follow in order to be acceptable to God. So when the non-believer sees a believer failing to live up to the moral rules, he concludes that the believer is inauthentic. However, this seriously underestimates the severity of the nature of sin.

A Debilitating Moral and Spiritual Condition

According to the Bible, the problem of sin runs much deeper than bad actions or bad patterns of behavior. Scripture describes sin as a debilitating force that permeates the very core of every human being (Psalm 51:5, 58:3; Proverbs 20:9). In fact, humans are not sinners simply because they happen to sin. Rather the problem is much more fundamental. Human beings sin because they are sinners by nature.

Historic Christianity teaches that human beings suffer from original sin, having inherited a sin nature from their progenitor, Adam (Romans 5:12, 18-19). This inherited sin nature resides at the heart (inner being) of mankind (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19), and thus affects the entire person—mind, will, affections, and body (Ephesians 2:3, 4:17-19). The result is that all people personally sin and are therefore morally accountable to God (Romans 3:23).

Forgiven Sinners, But Not Yet Perfect

Upon regeneration (spiritual rebirth, John 3:3), the Holy Spirit implants a new, righteous nature in the justified-by-faith sinner. However, a person’s original nature remains even after conversion; that’s why Christians still sin (1 John 1:8-10). Conversion is the beginning, not the end, of a long process of transformation called sanctification (being set apart to do God’s will).

Biblically speaking, moral and ethical perfection is not instantaneous, nor even attainable, in this life (1 Kings 8:46; 1 John 1:8). So a certain level of immaturity and imperfection, including some hypocrisy (though always regrettable), can be expected of believers (James 3:2).

Christians spend a lifetime striving to gain freedom not from sin’s penalty (which Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection) but from its power over them. The ultimate transformation, which is glorification into the expressed image of Christ, awaits the Christian only in the eternal age to come.

The upshot is that historic Christianity teaches that human beings, because of their rebellion against God, are broken people. Through redemption this brokenness is being mended slowly. Nevertheless, the collective community of believers (the church) sometimes shows evidence of the deep scars of sin.

Upon honest inspection the unbeliever will discover the common ground of human moral corruption. Hypocrisy is evidence of man’s total depravity. The nonbeliever faces God’s future judgment without a Savior (Hebrews 9:27-28). But the life of the believer and the church as a whole is marked by a constant need to confess one’s sins and rely upon the grace of God in Christ to help overcome the power of sin.

For more on the problem of human sin and its resolution in and through the person of Jesus Christ, see my two books Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Subjects: General Apologetics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.