It is a startling and counter-intuitive thought that Christ Jesus came into the world to usher in hostility and trouble and controversy. Surely we have enough of that already. Yet He tells us clearly that we are not to think that He came to bring peace on earth, but, no, He came to bring division (Luke 12:51). Within the one family there will be divisions – father against son; mother against daughter; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law (Luke 12:52-53). The household will not always be the refuge of peace and harmony that we all desire.

            What, then, about all those ‘peace’ verses? ‘When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him’ (Prov.16:7). We are not to aim to be cantankerous and hard to get on with: ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (Rom.12:18). Even where a Christian has an unbelieving spouse, God has called us to peace (1 Cor.7:15). In the civil sphere we are to pray for those in authority over us that we might lead a peaceful and quiet life (1 Tim.2:2).

            Yet the proclamation of the true gospel is invariably divisive. At the birth of the Messiah, old Simeon foresaw that this child was appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel (Luke 2:34). As people began to understand something more of His claims, there was a division among the people over Him (John 7:43). He was not just a talking point in the pub; there were those who wanted to arrest Him (John 7:44).

            After Jesus had healed a man born blind (John 9), and claimed to be the good Shepherd who would give His life for the sheep, and then rise again (John 10:11, 17-18), there was a similar response:

There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane: why listen to Him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:19-21; see John 1:10-13)

As some became clearer about the claims of Christ and trusted Him, others too became clearer, in a sense, and were repelled.

The cross is folly to those who are perishing, and the power of God to those who are being saved (1 Cor.1:18); it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, but to Jewish and Greek believers in Christ it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor.1:23-24). In the Gentile world of Athens, the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ led to some mocking, some inquiring, and some believing (Acts 17:32-34). The gospel as a whole is a matter of death to death for those who are perishing, and life to life for those who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.2:15-16). Finally, there is that division between the sheep and the goats which is everlasting (Matt.25:31-46).

            Unbelievers are always ready to give the Church advice. Nikki Gemmel observes that ‘The dogma of religious ultra-conservatives is butting up hard against social media-fuelled modern thinking.’ She adds, none too perceptively: ‘Stubborn old people of the church are destroying their institution; leaving it, in the western world in particular, as a fragile movement of its time – that’s not moving with the times.’ The issue is invariably ‘moving with the times’ – to jettison miracles, including the resurrection of Christ; to go soft on sexual ethics; to play down the judgment; and to avoid the Bible except in bits and pieces. We are meant to be grateful, even though, as Ronnie Knox noted, throwing doctrines out the window has not led to the world coming in through the door.

We are to prize unity and peace, but the Christian message comes to us as a whole. Unity and peace are bound to truth, not left to be picked up at a smorgasbord. Preaching on Galatians, Calvin stated: ‘Peace and friendship amongst men is a wonderful thing … At the same time, however, God’s truth ought to be so precious to us that even if we had to set the whole world on fire in order to promote it, we should be only too willing to do so!’

So be gracious and be firm, and do not fall for the lie that Christ came to unite all humanity in a religion of vague idealism.

With warm regards in Christ,

Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia