When Churches Have Civil Wars

Dead Confederate Sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

Over the past couple of months I’ve been working through a rather thick tome on the American Civil War. I’m a relative noob when it comes to Civil War history and I have found the book (Fateful Lightning by Allen C. Guelzo) incredibly fascinating. While much ink has been spilled on biographies of the major historical figures of the period and numerous volumes written about the great battles of the period, this volume focuses more on what was happening in the background that drove those soldiers to bloody battlefields across America.

If you ask the average American what they know about the Civil War they’ll probably mention Lincoln, slavery, The Emancipation Proclamation, and maybe even some well known figures like Grant, Sherman, Lee, or “Stonewall” Jackson. Slavery was a huge aspect of what turned brother against brother but the cultural divide was deeper than even this horrific aspect of the times.

One of the most striking things about America during the years leading up to the Civil War is how vastly different things looked in the North versus in the South. The northern states had embraced the industrial revolution and manufacturing had exploded. Agriculture was becoming less important as people were able to move into large cities and find employment in factories. The power of the industrial system in the north would eventually play a vital role in the defeat of south because the Confederacy simply could not match the industrial output of the Union.

View of Little Round Top – Gettysburg, PA, July 1863

In the South, agriculture was the main driver of the economy. Specifically, cotton was the big money crop. The southern states also clung to a social structure that more resembled what one might have found in Europe. Wealthy landowners formed a gentry class of well bred, well educated, and well funded people who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the social strata. The southerners viewed this social structure as more sophisticated and genteel than the more fast paced and hard charging culture of the northern states.

To summarize, the United States was a land where one group of people desired the country look a certain way and another group of people desired a country that looked the opposite way. Sparks flew, tinder ignited, and between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans died in the terrible bloodletting that followed. The war was longer, bloodier, and more brutal than anyone had anticipated.

Now, you are probably asking where the church comes into this picture. If you get any group of people together, no matter how homogeneous they might seem, there are bound to be differences that crop up among those in the group. The local church is not immune to this sort of thing. Most of the time a church is able to move along quite nicely with at least a reasonable amount of unity. But often it takes surprisingly little for the unity to be shattered and warring cultures to rise up within the church and turn their ire against one another.

Confederate Fortifications, with Federal Soldiers – Manassas, VA, March 1862

Here’s a relatively minor example from personal experience. A few years back when my family lived in Texas and attended a good size church near the seminary where I graduated, the church leadership decided to make a change to the Sunday morning schedule. The only change was to flip-flop the times of the Sunday morning services. The contemporary service which had been before Sunday School was changed to the time slot after Sunday School and the traditional service was moved to the earlier slot. All things considered, this is pretty small potatoes. However, to hear some people talk you would think the world was coming to an end. Quickly factions arose: those who liked or didn’t mind the change and those who disliked the change. It didn’t take anything more than a shuffling of the Sunday morning schedule to reveal fractures in the unity of the church.

One of the biggest tragedies of civil wars in churches mirrors one of the great tragedies of the American Civil War. Friends are pitted against friends, neighbor against neighbor, and sibling against sibling. Perhaps the saddest thing is how little it takes to divide us. When you hear of churches in the midst of a civil war occasionally you will hear of it occurring over a truly foundational issue of doctrine but all too often these civil wars are fought over the most ridiculous of things.

What are some of the instigators of civil wars that threaten to rip appendages off of the body of Christ? How about the classic “worship wars” where factions pummel each other over musical preference? One can’t fail to mention the divisions that occur over carpet color or other aesthetic issues that come up periodically. Sometimes preaching style can bring about a civil war with expository folks on one side and the topical folks on the other. Occasionally a personality conflict or a simple misunderstanding can fester and eventually explode into a mess of hurt feelings, furrowed brows, and withheld tithe checks.

The 26th U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry on Parade – PA, 1865

Perhaps most tragically is that while all these internal squabbles are occurring, the effectiveness of the church is dramatically diminished. If all the physical, mental, and spiritual resources of the church are tied up in a civil war how can the church focus on its Divine mission (Go, make disciples)? Honestly, it can’t. A church engaged in civil war is an internally focused church and an ineffective church. Not only is the church not actively engaged in the mission it has been given by Jesus himself, but it is tarnishing the reputation of the church in the community at large. Civil wars don’t just hurt the church members but also those who could potentially be church members.

So what is the answer? How do churches avoid and minimize these bloody and crippling civil wars? I think the answer is astonishingly simple. It has nothing to do with a program of church growth. It has nothing to do with everyone using the same Sunday School curricula. It has nothing to do with crafting a sermon series with pithy titles. It has everything to do with being actively engaged in the Kingdom work God has given the church to do.

Chaplain Conducting Mass for the 69th New York State Militia Encamped at Fort Corcoran- Washington, D.C., 1861

In the military, any NCO worth their salt will tell you that one of the worst things for soldiers is a bunch of down time. When soldiers are not actively engaged in some sort of task idle hands will lead to, shall we say, unsavory activities (during the Civil War prostitution boomed as ladies of the night followed groups of soldiers around the countryside to ply their wares on men far removed from the watchful eyes of their wives, betrothed, and girlfriends). I think the same holds true for the church. When church members are not actively engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission we end up with a bunch of people with idle hands. So instead of building God’s Kingdom we build our own kingdoms within the church. We grab onto whatever we can control. We resist change because change might mean a loss of power and control. We pursue agendas that serve to advance our own kingdoms instead of the Kingdom. The result is an ineffective church and a recipe for civil war when someone tries to wrest those kingdoms away.

To put it another way, a church that is busy building the Kingdom will have little time to bicker over the petty things that often divide churches and start civil wars. When a church has a laser-like focus on going and making disciples that penetrates the heart of every member all of the sudden issues like decorating and preaching style fade dramatically in their importance because the church has real unity. Unity of purpose. Unity of mission. Unity around the idea that there is one Kingdom to build and it is not our own.

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