Religion divides people.
Let me say up front that I am using the word religion in two senses. First, as meaning what you personally believe about spiritual things and how you live that out, practically, in the world around you. Second, I mean organized religion, and yes, this includes our evangelical churches and associations. Third, I am using the word religion in the way I think the Bible would have us use it, referring to the first two definitions.
Religion divides people. It’s true. So we should stop making excuses for it. There are six ways, or categories of religion that divide people. Then there is a simple truth about that division. False religion divides
By false religion I mean any spiritual system of religious belief that is contrary to a historical understanding of Christianity as preached by Jesus and the apostles. This includes systems like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism, Mormonism, secular humanism, etc. These systems, like all religion, establish a set of criteria whereby people are judged as being of truth as they understand it, or not. In some cases, like fundamentalist Islam, this division leads to hatred, violence, and even murder. In systems like Buddhism and Hinduism the suffering are left to fend for themselves under notions of karma instead of being proactively sought out and cared for as in biblically expressed Christianity.
True religion divides
By true religion I refer to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. There is no way to get around this. True religion divides people just as false religion does. If it didn’t, then I wouldn’t have been able to write the previous paragraph.
Jesus himself said that true religion would divide people. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:34-37).
Now, I don’t think that Jesus was referring to a literal sword or literal enemies in the sense of someone who feels like killing someone. I think he was illustrating a point that the division among people who believe in him and those who refuse to believe in him will be so strong as to feel like enemies sometimes. True religion divides. There’s just no getting around this with clever arguments and word plays. I’ll discuss why this is in a moment.
Religion as politics divides
We see this from the political left all the time. People like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others use so called spiritual words to unify people around their message while at the same time using these same words to demonize everyone who doesn’t subscribe to their vitriol. Hey! Look! I’m doing the same thing right now—just in reverse! Religion used politically always divides people.
Religion as a basis of culture divides
We see this in the Bible. When God lead Israel out of Egyptian captivity he prescribed a set of laws and cultural practices that were designed to establish Israel as a unique nation and set them apart from other peoples. Even religious descriptions which were intended to define Israeli practices ended up becoming derogatory terms used against other peoples: the circumcised and uncircumcised, Jew and gentile, and so on. Don’t we do the same thing today?
Here’s one example: Christian vs nonChristian. Come on, you know its true. Here’s another one: believer vs unbeliever. Haven’t you said, or heard someone say something like, “Well, he’s not a Christian, so…” Yes, admit it, you’ve said it. So have I. We use our status as believers in Jesus to set us apart as if we are better. “Well, he’s not a believer, so…”
Religion as a walk of personal faith divides
Actually, this is similar to what I just mentioned above. We know that as Christians God wants to set us apart in holiness and righteousness. Because of this calling we refuse to take part in the sins of others or approve of certain behaviors and that results in us separating ourselves from certain people. Our personal expressions of faith often set us apart from others. We can’t get around that. Even the apostle Paul reflected on this when he said, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).
Now that we’ve factually established that religion divides people, let’s deal with another truth about this division that may shock you.
Who says such divisions are a bad thing?
Not me. Not by a long shot. If I know someone who is cheating on his wife, do you think I’m going to be chum chum with him without trying to get him to repent or expose him depending upon how serious it is? Why should you be unified with such a person?
Should we look past the radical Muslim’s proclivity toward murdering the infidel and embrace him without conditions? Certainly not. It’s one thing to love your enemy. We must do that. But we must also insist on repentance and a turning away from murder and violence.
There are all kinds of legitimate reasons to divide from people, religious reasons, political reasons, cultural reasons, and so on. Some of those reasons are noble and right. Others, not so much. But being divided from someone isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes it is necessary and even required. Sadly, we cannot live in a world of unity that has no regard for differences. Even Heaven and Hell illustrate this. These are the ultimate division. Those who reject Christ remain forever divided and away from him while those who love him get to enjoy him forever. That’s the ultimate division.
The fact is, religion divides because truth divides
Truth divides people between factual and nonfactual information. Religion is all about truth. Religion is essentially an argument about reality. What is real? What is unreal? For instance, let’s take the case of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible reports this as an historical event in real time, in real history. If true, then this requires something of us. But if false, we can disregard what Jesus teaches. This is where the rubber meets the road. Is Jesus’ resurrection real or not? By believing in Jesus I unify with others who believe the same. But those who refuse to believe unify against those who do. Division ensues.
To clarify, division, in the sense that I’ve explained it, does not give us an excuse for hatred, treating people badly, exclusion, or a way out of loving someone whether friend or enemy, sinner or saint. You can be divided but still love. I can think of a whole list of people whom I love dearly, but I’m as divided from them as the day is long. Division can be a convenient excuse for rejecting someone, but not a valid one. The apostle Paul commanded us to remain holy, but not to disassociate ourselves from nonbelievers. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters” (I Corinthians 5:9-10). Are you divided from swindlers? I hope so. But you must still love them and be associated with them. Otherwise, how can you serve them and bring them the hope and forgiveness that is found in Christ?
Yes, it’s true, religion divides people. It’s supposed to divide people. But as long as there is love, that’s not always a bad thing.