It was a post from my friend and fellow evangelist, Bobby McCreery, that got me thinking. He wrote, “I’m no expert, but it seems one reason revival tarries is the fact that there is so much division in the body of Christ. So many brothers biting and devouring each other over secondary and tertiary issues like baptism and eschatology grieves my heart. I am not saying these issues are not important. I am saying my prayer is that our love for Christ would cause us to love one another in spite of our differences.” I could not help but echo the sentiment of my friend. So often in the Christian community we are ready to go to the mats over issues that, while important, are secondary to the essential doctrines of the faith.
These essential issues – such as: the nature of God; the deity of Christ; the Trinity; salvation by grace alone, through faith, in Christ alone; the sufficiency of scripture (and that scripture is inerrant); justification; and imputation – are what all Christians should be willing to go to the grave over. They are so essential to the very nature of our faith, that to remove any one of them would do irreparable damage to Christianity. These are doctrines that we must be absolutely unified on. Yet today, the doctrines which, while important, do not cause the cause of Christ to crumble have been elevated to first order status. Christians are going to war over doctrines which have been debate by good and godly men for centuries. What is worse, where some of the learned men of the past have been willing to call each other brethren despite their differences, today, Christians are declaring each other false believers, false teachers, or even worse, heretics. And all the while, we ignore the words of our Savior, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:35 ESV).
This is not to say that every discussion or disagreement over doctrinal issues is a failure to show love to each other. In fact, it is very important that we as Christians be willing to wrangle over tough doctrinal teachings so that we may come to a full and mature understanding of our faith. But in so doing, we are not to despise one another for differing beliefs. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul teaches more mature believers in the faith that while we are free to eat meat sacrificed to idols (because it is only meat and the idol has no power at all) those who are weak, or lacking maturity in doctrine, may see this as sin. Paul calls on the more mature Christians to be willing to abstain from eating meat around them in order to keep from adversely affecting the weaker brethren’s conscience.
Inherent in this teaching we see a couple of principles. First, that of the opposing views, one is right, one is wrong. Those who are right have a greater and more mature understanding of the teachings. Second, those Christians who are more mature are taught to not lord over the weaker brethren due to their advanced wisdom. They are in fact, called to work with the less mature brethren at their own level. Incumbent in this is that the mature brethren will instruct, in love, the weaker. In other words, we are told it is less important to prove our being right in this matter than it is to love our weaker brethren and to build them up in the faith.
Now, I would agree that this matter of meat sacrificed to idols is not a debate of eschatology, soteriology or baptism. However, the principle, I believe remains. When we discuss our viewpoints of doctrine, it must always be with the mindset that we are talking with fellow believers. One of us is going to be wrong in our beliefs, but unless this is a core matter, one can still be a Christian if they are indeed wrong. Thus, the debate is not about finding a tare among the wheat, but the education and edification of our brethren. If we approach the matter purely from the standpoint that anyone who does not understand the wisdom in this view of doctrine must change their mind or else, then we have wrongly declared hosts of brethren anathema, even though they have agreement on the core essentials.
Often times, disagreements on secondary issues can turn into nasty, knock down, drag out arguments. The unfortunate result is that some Christians end up becoming unwilling to affirm other Christians as brethren when they refuse to see their “wisdom” in an area of doctrine. However, in Romans 14, Paul admonishes Christians who debate over the eating of certain foods or days on which one should worship. Remember, in this passage, Paul is talking specifically about Christians. So when he asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (v. 4a) he is pointing out that those who are in disagreement on this secondary matter should not be calling into question the salvation of the other. He goes on to say, “It is before his own master that he stands or falls,” (v. 4b). Paul is saying that only God can make that final determination when it comes to a brother’s wrong understanding of a secondary doctrine. That means it is not up to us to declare them anathema!
In this same passage, when writing of the debate over days of worship, Paul writes “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” (v. 5b). Did we just read that correctly? Did Paul just say that two Christians could have two separate viewpoints on a matter of secondary doctrine? Yes! Paul just taught us that we can disagree and still be brethren. Why? Because “the one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God,” (v. 6). In other words, even though we may disagree with brothers and sisters in areas of secondary doctrinal matters, we all worship the Lord and submit to our beliefs in honor of Him. It is in fact possible to rightly worship God with differing views on non-essential matters.
Paul repeatedly teaches for unity among Christians who have differing view points. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul calls out those who evidently decided that some apostles and teachers were better than others. Believers had aligned themselves under Paul, Peter and Apollos. Some were rejecting the other three and saying, “I follow Christ,” (v. 12). Paul admonishes this manner of division saying “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v. 13). Like matters of secondary doctrinal matters, we can even get into arguments over who preaches better, or which preacher has the right doctrine (because after all, that’s the doctrine I believe!). Paul calls the brethren into unity under Christ, even though there were differences between the teachers they sat under.
Again, I know some are going to say, “but (insert doctrine here) is not what Paul was writing about! So this does not apply to my situation.” The issue at hand though is the principle that Paul was teaching, which goes back to what Christ taught His disciples. There are going to be differing viewpoints among Christians on a variety of secondary doctrinal matters. We can discuss and debate the matters, but only if we are doing so with unity amongst the brethren and love for one another in mind. If we are seeking to prove ourselves right at the expense of others, if we are willing to declare brethren anathema because they do not believe as we do, if we just become downright mean and nasty to one another, then we have failed to obey the command of our Lord and Savior. And to make matters worse, as my friend said in the quote at the beginning of the article, revival tarries. Why? Because, while we are hacking and slashing at each other, the gospel is not preached to the world. And what little of the gospel message that does make it into the hands of unbelievers is now tainted by our lack of love for those within the Christian camp. So, the world marches on, blindly unaware of its headlong plunge into Hell, while we sit arrogantly smug that we proved ourselves right to someone we should have been linking arms with in the proclamation of the gospel.
Christians this must not be so. We must be above the petty bickering, back biting, and name calling. Let us discuss and debate, let us educate and edify. Let us be a blessing to one another, even when we disagree. But more importantly, let us be unified in the core essentials of the faith and let us proclaim, as one voice, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation.
Yes, I agree strongly, but wait….
I once saw a non-Calvinist and a 5 pointer witnessing on the street, and being asked. “Does God hate me?” Both responded at once. “No, God loves the sinner and hates the sin.” “Yes, God is angry with the wicked every day.” Certainly we must love (and not anathemise) each other. But maybe “unity” in evangelism isn’t always so great? What I saw wasn’t real unity.
God’s power unto salvation is in the message of the Gospel, not in working together. Love is Biblically commanded. “Work togetherism” is not. Charity and humility are sorely needed, especially in an Internet age, but should not be merged with unity into “work-togetherism.” “Unity” with doctrinal differences is a forced construct in which we talk about secondary doctrines, something the Scriptures never do..
Maybe instead of linking arms (despite doctrine) with a brother in spreading the Gospel, I should pray, and rejoice in his labour, and he in mine. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe God can and will use us working separately, and just wants from us love and humility. It is unloving to ask my brother to compromise on doctrine or for him to ask me to compromise what I believe. The “we should work together” mindset is human wisdom — but where is it in Scripture?
To reject prideful bickering and name-calling is not necessarily equivalent to work-togetherism. We should reject what you are rejecting here, Chris. Emphatically. But let’s avoid taking it where Scripture doesn’t go.
(Romans 14 is about permitting different practices, not doctrines. Two viewpoints on doctrine in regard to meat are not permitted. Any doctrine that meat is immoral should be rejected – I Timothy 4. But those weak in faith, who know the doctrine but doubt because of weakness, must not eat. One doctrine, two practices, both acceptable to God.)
Jon – where you have seen conflicting presponses on the street, I have also seen brethren preach the same message together (in fact, a brother and I both disagree on sotertiology, but have hit the streets together regularly). It can and has been done often. Now I agree that if the differences are so distinct that we would actually cause confusion to those hearing the message we are not helping the matter. There are times when working separately and supporting each other in prayer would be a better idea. But that goes back to my original point that we are to still acknowledge one another as brethren and stop this attacking of each other, as you noted.
I agree that the sections of scripture I cited are not necessarily on issues of specific doctrine, but that is why I said I was pointing to the principle that can be drawn from it. I know some folks are going to take issue with it, but I believe the argument can still be made. Thanks for kind and thoughtful insight, it is always appreciated.
Chris, I agree it can work wonderfully. I’ve done it, too. When you get asked the wrong question it can break down, and I don’t believe the Lord wants either brother to give tacit approval to a response with which he doesn’t agree. Of course, those questions may just be a distraction from the Gospel message, anyway, and shouldn’t always be answered other than to turn back to the main point.
I suppose I get a “bee in my bonnet” about some things, and one is “Work-togetherism”, which seems a humanistic idea that I don’t see in Scripture. I hope my mentioning it doesn’t detract from your main point, which is excellent. Thanks for your patience.
Your points were well made John. I certainly agree that there are differences that possibly could distract from the gospel. I believe that the principle here either requires to work out those differences in love, or work separately without anathematizing each other. Ultimately we are one body unified in the gospel, but many times we simply don’t act like it. My hope in this article isn’t to say different views on secondary matters aren’t important, but that we can hold those views without declaring the other a heretic, thereby damaging the gospel message.
Those who’s membership in the one Ekklesia built by Jesus are in Him and He in them. They are alive and the gates of hell have no deathly effect upon them such that they need to tarry for their “revival.” No, but those who have receipe’s for relationships built upon religion are ever looking for that first feeling and emotion that has waned. These are they that depend upon a systemic theology rather then a relationship with the Lord of all. He calls them to return to their First Love!
Unity in diversity is a lie. The Word in context, as revealed to the saint by the Holy Spirit is the way He intended. Dependence upon the many anointed ones to lead them is the picture of the blind guides and hirelings. Should you be in fellowship with a true undershepherd who guides by the above model as he serves, being a servant of all, you are indeed blessed. Give thanks, but no compromise. Forget the many sayings of long dead servants, and rather follow the Living Word of God and only Christ whose name is above every name even our Lord Jesus!