Love, Unity, and Doctrinal Precision
It is currently in vogue within American evangelicalism to play against each other the complementary realities of Christian love and unity, on the one hand; and on the other hand, the necessity for a strenuous biblical precision in formulating and contending for those points of doctrine which are secondary in importance â€“ that is, those doctrines which, to believe one way or the other, would not per se corrupt the essential purity of the gospel. A concrete example of such secondary matters would be one's beliefs in the debate between cessationism or continuationism of the so-called "sign gifts"; or else one's understanding of the nature of the millennial reign of Christ, or one's position on the mode of baptism.
Of those who (perhaps subconsciously) believe that these two realities are not entirely complementary, but to some degree mutually exclusive of one another, two basic camps tend to emerge: there are those who will accept into fellowship any professing believer, and thereupon studiously avoid any discussion that would call into question the doctrinal discrepancies between themselves â€“ as if to reject one's doctrinal understanding of a matter were tantamount to denying that person the love and unity which ought to bind Christians together. On the other side, there are those who will not merely bring under scriptural scrutiny the erring doctrinal beliefs of another genuine believer in Christ and his gospel; but will, at the discovery of the most minute difference, essentially cut off all contact with that brother, implying in the transaction either that he is not a true Christian (and therefore, that for one to be a true Christian he must have an identical understanding of every point of doctrine, however minor); or that he is not a good enough Christian to be worthy of the unity and fellowship that by all scriptural accounts ought to characterize the church. Although these two descriptions characterize believers at the extreme ends of a very wide spectrum, I would contend that both varieties, as well all those Christians who are somewhere in the middle, are affected by the unspoken (not to mention thoroughly unbiblical) presupposition that these two basic approaches to Christian fellowship â€“ love trumping doctrine or doctrine trumping love â€“ are necessary antitheses; in other words, that, given the ongoing fallenness of Christians yet in the flesh, there must be a point at which one must make the choice between doctrinal purity or loving fellowship; and that a relative weight must therefore be assigned to each of the virtues in question. These metaphysical presuppositions lead, accordingly, to a grappling with practical questions along these lines: "How many doctrinal dissimilarities should I be willing to gloss over before I make a big deal of something?" "At what point should I refuse to cooperate/fellowship/associate with another Christian who believes differently than I?" "To what extent should I carry out my severance of fellowship?" "If I cannot join together with him to worship in church, may we still enjoy a cup of coffee together at the local diner?" My contention is that this sort of reasoning is informed by underlying errors in one's understanding of the true nature of love, of fellowship, and of purity. What we need is not more wisdom in determining the precise spot of "balance" on the continuum, the spot which would at once do justice to the importance of both love and doctrine. What we need is to call into question the metaphysical undergirdings of the continuum itself. Let us not be content to do the best we can within the paradigm we have been given; on the contrary, let us be careful that our paradigm reflects as closely as possible the paradigm of New Testament Christianity. That in itself is the larger portion of the battle.
In order to move from the realm of general abstractions to the more tangible realm of concrete examples, let's call into question a specific strand of feedback on this web page. "How," say some, "can everyone speak so certainly of the need for all Christians to be in fellowship with one another, and yet be so quick to attack any doctrinal understanding different from their own? How can it be loving to speak so negatively, for example, of Dispensationalism? Are they suggesting that Dispensationalists are not true believers?" This line of questioning is positing something very definite with respect to what love is. Love, in this way of thinking, is essentially affirmation, a recognition of the validity of the one loved to hold his own opinions. Love, in other words, is predicated on the lovableness of its object. But if this is the case, how could it have been possible, when we were sinners and unlovely, for Christ to express his love to us? This sort of love is not the kind of love that Christ has given to us. It is not Christian love. Now, what does this reasoning say about unity? Essentially, that unity is superficial politeness, the ability to get along with one another by avoiding topics which would bring to light the differences between us. The problem with this, once again, is that it is not a scriptural conception of Christian unity. Unity is founded, not upon superficiality and avoidance, but true commonality and partnership in precisely the same realities. Christians are united because, when they were sinners alike, they were given God's free gift of justification, and are now essentially righteous in Christ. Their fundamental reality, through the gospel, is that they are by nature children of light; and the commonality that inheres in being in the light is an inexhaustibly deep source of unity. Any practical denial of unity among Christians is a falsification of the essential commonality that they share. With regard to our discussion, this means that to assume that the rejection of a Christian brother's doctrine is a breach of fellowship is essentially the same thing as to assume that, for one to believe wrongly on any secondary matter is tantamount to his being removed from essential righteousness in Christ. Let me be more clear on this last point: to be in error on the mode of baptism does not exclude me from being counted righteous in Christ; being counted righteous in Christ is what likens me to other Christians â€“ it is the source of my unity with them; therefore, being in error on the mode of baptism does not negate my unity with other believers who are correct on that point. Calling doctrine into question does not constitute a denial of essential unity; quite the opposite, it is the means by which we are enabled to reflect more accurately, in practical out-fleshing, the incontrovertible fact of our essential unity. We would do well to observe how Paul so often moves from essential reality to practical exhortation: e.g., "[Because] you are light in the Lord, walk as children of light" (Ephesians 5:8). So let us be content to reason, "Because we are in fact united, let us labor to think in unity on this particular point."
In order to substantiate the foregoing, let me adduce a few truths from the scriptures, first, with regard to the nature of Christian love; and second, with regard to the nature of Christian unity.
Love is the willingness to give oneself for the good of the beloved.
Christ taught this truth in brief when he told us, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Love is ultimately the willingness to do whatever it takes to bring good to its object. Christ displayed the perfection of love when he gave his life for our good. In order to follow his example, we ought to be willing to give ourselves for the good of our brothers. This leads us to the question, "In what does the good of my brother ultimately consist?"
The good of man is ultimately the true knowledge of God.
When Christ spoke more specifically of the nature of the good that he was giving his life to accomplish in those whom the Father gave him, it was invariably wrapped up in the knowledge of God. "This is life eternal," he proclaims in his high priestly prayer, before delivering himself up in our behalf, "that [those you have given me] might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." And a little later, "Father, I will that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which you have given me" (John 17:24).
True knowledge of God comes from a right understanding of the bible.
Hence, Christ's prayer included the following request and accompanying observation: "Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth."
Therefore, love is the willingness to give oneself so that the beloved one may understand the bible more accurately.
Christian love, that is, the sort of love Christ perfectly displayed and which he commands us to emulate, demands that we be willing to give of ourselves so that our brothers are aided in coming to a deeper and more accurate knowledge of God. This in turn demands that we be willing to labor for doctrinal precision by submitting our reasoning to the pages of scripture, the only place where we may confidently learn the deep things of God. Doctrinal precision, far from being the counter-balancing reality to Christian love, and therefore mutually exclusive of it, is in fact the great means through which Christian love expresses itself. We may know a man loves the heathen tribes if he is willing to give up his life in order to go to them with the good news of Jesus. And we may know that a man loves his Christian brothers if he is willing to give of his life to confront doctrinal error and use the light of scriptures to point them to a deeper knowledge of the God whom to know is itself eternal life.
This brief survey should make clear that the need for Christian love is no reason for minimizing doctrinal precision. The same may be said of Christian unity, when its scriptural nature is perceived. Let's mention a few truths we may learn from some pertinent texts.
Unity is shared commonality in an essential reality.
The apostle John assures us, in his first epistle, that "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin" (I John 1:7). In other words, if we are true believers, whose sins have genuinely been cleansed by Christ's blood (as may be perceived by how we walk), then by virtue of that fact alone we have fellowship with one another. It is not said that, because we have been cleansed we ought to have fellowship with one another; but rather, if we display that we have truly been cleansed, we do have fellowship with one another. (It is possible that this "one another" actually intends the fellowship between us and God; but even if so, the basic point is not thereby invalidated â€“ the third verse of the same chapter demands that the reality of our fellowship with the Father necessitate fellowship among ourselves, as well.) In other words, our fellowship consists in the reality that we have all been cleansed by the blood of Christ. This is what unites us. It would take a reversal of this reality in the life of one believer or another to separate them. If both are in Christ, they are not divided from one another.
Unity is displayed to the extent that the shared essential reality is understood.
When Paul was dealing with the divisions and factions in the Corinthian church, he asked the rhetorical question, "Is Christ divided?" (I Corinthians 1:13). In doing so, he was assuming that if Christians were truly divided, then Christ himself is divided. But since Christ is not divided, neither can those who are in Christ be divided. In giving the appearance of division, the Corinthian believers were bringing reproach upon Christ by presenting to the world a false reality. They were living as if they were all in Christ and yet divided from each other, so that Christ appeared to be divided from himself. In reality they were not divided at all: Christ had effectually made in himself "one new man" of those who were formerly at enmity (Ephesians 2:15-16). The Corinthian problem was not that they had essentially broken their unity, but that they failed to recognize and display their unity in Christ.
The display of unity demands an increased understanding of doctrinal reality.
It is clear throughout scriptures that our reality should motivate our practice: who we are should be the foundation for what we do. We should not act righteous so that we may become righteous, but we should act righteous because we already have been accounted righteous in Christ. So we should not act like we are united in order to become united, but we should act united because we already are united in the same doctrine. How then do we go about the process of displaying more clearly the reality of our essential doctrinal unity? There is no other way than to come to a fuller recognition of the extent of the unity we have. Because there is "one body, and one Spiritâ€¦ one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Ephesians 4:4-6); therefore, we should be involved in the work of edification of the body of Christ until we all arrive at the "unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God" (Ephesians 4:13). Our struggle for unity in the body of Christ has everything to do with growing in our doctrinal understanding. The more we see the true nature of the doctrine we all have in common, the more our lives will display the essential unity that we have been brought into by the blood of Christ. The display of Christian unity, far from being a cause for glossing over doctrinal discrepancies, should be the motivation for pursuing ever greater doctrinal precision. It is instructive that, in so many of the passages in which we are commanded to pursue unity, such terms as "thinking the same thing," being "likeminded," or "thinking one thing in Christ" are employed (cf. Philippians 1:27; 2:1-2; 4:2, for example). A growth in the practical outworking of essential unity among believers is enabled only by an increase in precise doctrinal knowledge.
It is singularly tragic that love and unity are so often employed as excuses for minimizing the importance of doctrinal precision. Love and unity demand that we be intensely interested in doctrine. Doctrine is the pathway to greater love and unity, and the means by which that love and unity is expressed. If we are one in Christ, and if we love each other as Christ loved us, then let us labor for the edification of the body by giving our lives to learning the great truths about God from the pages of his word, teaching those scriptural truths to other Christians as we have opportunity, and learning from them as the Spirit opens their hearts to see more of Christ in the bible. In this way our love and unity will thrive.
It is also tragic that doctrinal purity is so often employed as an excuse to set before the world a picture of Christ divided. There is nothing doctrinally correct about a divided Christ or a divided Christianity. If we "separate from" or cut off from united fellowship any professing believer, we are sending the message, "This is not a Christian." There may be cause for doing so, if the professing believer by his teachings or actions has indicated that he is not truly a Christian. But to separate from a true Christian because of doctrinal differences is not only not scriptural; it is a denial of true Christian doctrine and a blight on the name of Christ. If we separate from a brother, we are considering him a heathen. There is no room to refuse to worship with him in church, because he has a different opinion on church government, or some such thing, but to continue to chat with him in a friendly manner over coffee, recognizing him as a true Christian â€“ but just not a Christian of my particular camp. If he is doctrinally immature, then his place in the body may not be a position of teaching or some other place of authority. But wherever else his place is not, it is certainly not merely at the coffee table, with only the most basic of doctrinal discussions permitted. And it is not at the church down the street, which happens to see things in a similar light. If there is a Christian (or group of Christians) down the street, we are responsible to be laboring for his growth in Christ, just as he is responsible for us. To refuse to acknowledge that is a doctrinal error just as surely as any wrong opinion he may have on any other secondary issues is a doctrinal error.
As Christians, let us labor in love for the fuller recognition and expression of our essential doctrinal unity. Let us do this because we love each other as Christ loved us; and let us do it because there is a watching world that needs to see a truer picture of Christ.