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  • « Images of the Savior (15 – His Healing of a Paralytic) | Main | Question about Forgiveness/Arminianism »

    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 – 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 – 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 – love trumping doctrine or doctrine trumping love – 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 – 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 – 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 Spirit… 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 – 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.

    Posted by Nathan on April 6, 2007 06:42 AM

    Comments

    Hi, Question for you. We have a pastor who says he is reformed. He teaches it in his sermons without telling his congregation that is what he is doing. He said we need to leave our theology out at the door before we come in and that Calvinists and Arminians should be able to attend the same church and hear the same basics of the gospel and be just fine. What is your view on this? He is a Southern Baptist who usually uses Spurgeons messages, but throws in some D.A.Carson and Wesley alot. He is (if this means anything) a historic premill. And he loves John MacArthurs teachings. We would just like some input here since you have quite a variety of pastors there at this blog site. He teaches no creeds, confessions, or catechisms.......says they are in his sermons and all you need is the Bible. Please, we need your input on this.

    Thank you,
    Paul and Luann

    Paul and Luann,

    I'm not really sure about "leaving your theology at the door" before you go to church. I don't think it's possible for one thing, and even if it were, how would that help you grow? If you go to church ready to change your theology when confronted with the scriptural need to do so, that would be a more profitable course of action to take. But maybe that's what your pastor is trying to get across -- just the need to be like the Bereans, and search the scriptures without any pre-conceived notions which you would be willing to twist scriptures around rather than deny.

    As far as his distaste for creeds, confessions, or catechisms, I would suggest that the idea to be creed-free is really impossible. Everyone who is learning systemizes those truths naturally. And there is perhaps no better way to ensure that one part of our belief is not in conflict with another, and also, to learn humbly from Spirit-led Christians before us, than to pay close attentions to creeds and confessions. Not as if they were the bible, and always willing to tweak them as the scriptures would demand -- but without that sort of structure it is really quite difficult for most people to be thoroughly clear on what they do believe. Everything comes at them in random order and floats around in their minds helter-skelter, so that if something they learn one week is in blatant contradiction with something they thought they knew previously, it is only random chance if they should catch the contradiction and think through the problem. A creed gives a set of nails to hang the various scriptural truths on, so they might be compared, and not just thrown in a great heap on the closet floor.

    But anyway, if he is (at least by private confession) reformed, historic pre-mill, etc. then I'm sure he'll have a lot of truth in his sermons, and you'll be able to grow week by week as you attend his church. I certainly appreciate his desire to minister to believers across a wide spectrum.

    Blessings from the cross,
    Nathan

    Where does the issue of the ordination of homosexuals fit into this discussion. It is tearing many churches apart today. The PC(USA), of which I am a minister, released its Peace, Unity, and Purity report, which has been criticized for trumping Peace and Purity for the sake of Unity. As you suggested in your article, many will argue that Unity and Purity of doctrine cannot stand together. Now we are seeing the more evangelical churches breaking away. I suppose my ultimate question is, is there a point in which the secondary issues become primary, and the unity of the church (denomination) must be set aside for the sake of the purity of doctrine.
    Grace and peace,

    Ethan,

    Sorry it took so long to respond -- I haven't had internet access the past couple of days.

    I think the example of Paul's instructions in I Corinthians 5 is a
    fitting passage to apply to the issue of homosexuals in the church:
    homosexual practices are clearly condemned sexual sins, according to
    the bible, and anyone living openly in such a lifestyle should be
    "delivered over to Satan," with the humble prayer that this judgment
    would serve to bring him to repentance, so that his spirit would
    finally be saved. Blatant disobedience to the clear commands of
    scripture is not a minor thing, and should not be treated as a minor
    thing. I guess my article is primarily intended for persons who have
    legitimate differences of opinion on various doctrines, but are
    humbly willing to submit to the authority of God, as they learn the
    scriptures more accurately. Unfortunately, many professing Christians
    are defiant of God's clear commands, and the Church should deal with
    fear and humility, but with certainty according to God's Word, in
    disciplining such persons, always with the hope of repentance and
    restoration.

    As far as the situation which arises when an entire denomination
    becomes tolerant of open sin, I'm not sure what to say. I think there
    is a time when one should remove himself from a denomination that has
    become too corrupt, but with the goal of continuing to fellowship
    with those believers that remain in its ranks who are still humble
    and genuinely following the Lord. I'm not sure what to say about when
    to seek reform, and when to leave and find a better situation.

    At any rate, I would definitely say that it is never appropriate to
    "set aside" pure doctrine for the sake of unity. Unity bought at such
    a price is no unity at all, but only a mirage of unity, which has
    been stripped of all its meaning.

    Blessings,
    Nathan

    Jesus defines sin as lack of love. Name me a sinful act that is loving or a loving act that is sinful. What is unloving about homosexuality?

    What is unloving about homosexuality?

    Same-sex behavior is unloving towards God's clear, transcendent, objective teaching in the Bible that same-sex behavior is sin.

    Greetings Nathan,

    Your article was a true blessing. I have spent a week on blogsites discussing this very issue. Had I known I could find such biblically sound and Christ-centered Christ-honoring instruction in one place, I certainly would have saved myself a great deal of time and spared myself a great deal of frustration. Perhaps we "bloggers" should read more and write less. :-)

    You mentioned not "the same camp. I understand that in terms of "fellowship", but what about "membership" in a local body.

    I have been worshipping at an IFCA affiliated church for almost 2 years. They are "reformed", but pre-trib, pre-mil and dispensational and require that anyone desiring membership must hold those secondary doctrines as truth.

    I cannot in good conscience sign the membership statement and I am therefore unable to be used by God in any teaching ministry at that church. This also has greatly limited the "unity" of fellowship for me and over the past two years that had become more and more clear.

    There are no other churches within my area that embrace the doctrines of grace and are gospel-centered churches. (I have cooresponded with 30 pastors and I can honestly tell you that none of them are truly "reformed" or hold the solas as foundational--sad by true)

    So back to my dilemma: When sound biblical churches add the requirement that one is like-minded in secondary doctrines to church membership, it seems to me that they are creating "designer churches" or "camps" and I am finding that I would not qualify for membership at any of them.

    Perhaps this is the very reason why people start "new churches" and gather around them only those that "fit-in".

    I have no intention of going that route, but I also have no intention of signing a membership agreement that I cannot in good conscience agree with. If I am not a "full member" as they put it, than I cannot use the gifts God has given me to serve the church.

    What does on do in this situation?

    D.L. Kane

    D.L.,

    Your situation is certainly a difficult one, but sadly, I don't think it's uncommon. I'm sure there's no easy answer, or else you would have found it already. My situation is similar: I'm not a member of the church I attend, as I don't fully agree with their statement of faith. But I think I'm a little better off, because they do let me teach, even without being a member. But anyway, here's one idea that I've tried to put into practice, which may be an approach you could try as well:

    I've tried to get to know a few likeminded families as well as possible, and we've started meeting once a week, (unofficially as far as the church goes), for a time of teaching, fellowship, prayer, etc. It's been so helpful to all of us, and has also been a venue where I could exercise my gift of teaching, even without any church membership. Maybe you could find another similar situation with an unofficial small group, and have the opportunity to teach there.

    I think, in the final analysis, that it's just going to be difficult to flesh out this kind of thinking on unity in practical ways, because many people won't have anything to do with it. But as we strive to do whatever we can, and seek God's wisdom day by day, our efforts, even when they seem pitifully small, will not be wasted. God sees and knows; and if he has given us the burden to be pursuing a more intentional unity, he will show us how to do so, in his time -- even if it does finally involve starting a new church, while retaining ties to other believers in the area to as great an extent as is practically possible. Keep laboring, and don't be discouraged! One day you'll stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where you'll be rewarded for your faithfulness, and not for the results that you may or may not see.

    Nathan,

    It's heartbreaking, isn't it. Unfortunately, my church would see a small group (as you described) as "sneaking around" and potentially "dangerous" and for me to even quietly and innocently develop one would be precieved negatively and further alienate me from the rest of the members. The leaderships heart is to protect the flock, and I understand that, but their attitude shows a lack of trust in the power of God and His Word to transform and sanctify which ultimately will result in unity.

    Thank you for your response. Your closing words were very comforting and encouraging. God Bless you.

    In Christ and For His Sake,
    D.L. Kane

    Nathan,
    This issue of unity and love has been heavy on my heart for the past year or so. I am encouraged by your post, I only just now found it. It is so timely to the situation I find myself in now.

    I am involved in church planting in a restricted Asian nation and have been laboring for 10 years among an unreached people group who has had no history of Christian activity. Absolutely zero.

    The project I am a part of has very specific church planting goals, and was founded with a high view of scripture and a high view of the local church as some of it's convictions. Our church planting goals hinge on the Biblical office of eldership (and qualifications thereof which would include views on gender, preaching, etc... what some consider secondary), and seeing local elders raised up as the measure of our church planting success. The founders of this project have all recently returned to the states or resigned for various reasons ranging from burnout to health. Unfortunately the founders worked under a lot of assumptions and never wrote their convictions down in the form of a doctrinal statement or statement of faith that corresponded with the specificity of the project's church planting goal. And now they are gone.

    Now the stateside part of our project doesn't see fit to redefine the doctrinal convictions to a level that matches the specificity of our goals, or at least the the goals of those still on the field and who have been laboring towards for years now. A revised doctrinal statement was proposed by those still on the field (the recent Gospel Coalition statement), as a means of protecting our convictions and what we were recruited to while at the same time serving unity, but it was rejected as being "too tight, rigid, and exclusive". Now we have new people coming to the field who do not share the same convictions (or the need to hold them as they are "non-essential" in their eyes), and paradigm conflicts are happening. There is pressure to downplay key characteristics for the sake of "unity" and recruiting, project development, and strategy are being performed with no thought of these original convictions.

    In my, lets say passionate, efforts to speak and reason with the stateside I fear I have been labeled as one of those "doctrinal conformists who can't work with anyone else". This of coarse is not true. My reasonable contention is that the level of agreement must coincide with the task that one is involved in. For example, planting a church and seeing elders raised up implies a deeper level of agreement than say having a celebration/worship service with a fellow believer once a month or so. It's just like the level of agreement with my wife. It has to be deeper as our commitment level is deeper (i.e. marriage). Does that mean I can't have appropriate fellowship with other women? Of coarse not, but with the direction things are going with my project it would seem that way in theory.

    I feel at a loss as to what to do other than pray. The very unique project I have labored for for over 7 years is in danger of being lost, and totally changed to fit more of a least common denominator approach to theology. I feel abandoned, labeled, and now to some extent marginalized. Do you have any words of advice or exhortation (or rebuke?). As of now, I am holding the coarse and am in recruiting mode to the new arrivals to the field. Still, it is draining as all the energy that could be funneled into a common goal and an ideal future is wasted on trying to recruit people to what we have been about for the past 7 years.

    Thanks for your post. It helps me remember that I am not crazy.

    Grace and peace,
    Dirk

    Nathan,

    I just came across your article. It was so very timely and helpful to me as I am working through what the scripture says about Christian unity. I've been in fellowship at a conservative Lutheran Church in our area for a number of years. Very recently I have been asked to step down from any teaching within the church and also to refrain from taking the Lord's Supper due to a number of my Reformed beliefs that are in conflict with the Lutheran position. The church's position is of full doctrinal unity to participate in the Lord's Supper, yet I have failed to find solid scriptural arguments to exclude fellow believers on secondary matters of doctrine. If you could provide any help for me in this matter, I would greatly appreciate it!

    Blessings in Christ,

    Steve H.

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