Thinking Rightly about Christian Unity

Thinking Rightly about Christian Unity<span class=23 min read" />

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Introduction

Some days ago, I was in a conversation with a very dear friend of mine that led to a discussion about the place of theology in the differences between denominations.

An issue we were discussing made him angry with the division of the Christian body. He was angry that many divisions in the Christian faith come from people interpreting the bible to suit their selfish interests (like the way politicians interpret the constitution for their own selfish interests).

My good friend insisted that Christ is love and that is the most important message of Christianity. He reminded me that there would be no denominations in heaven – where everyone will the bride of Jesus having fulfilled all his wishes.

The Role of Theology

While I agreed with some of the things he said, I felt it necessary to avoid skewing these good points in a way that undervalues the importance of doing theology.

I tried to remind my friend that many of these denominational differences did not come from ‘selfish interests’ (I will not make the case that some did not) but from genuine theological differences. Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church for theological reasons (think the five solas). The Lutheran church is different from the Anglican Church because of theological issues (think ecclesiology and baptism). Baptists are different from Presbyterians for theological reasons (think baptism, covenant theology, and church government). Even within the broader Baptist category, primitive or reformed Baptists differ from traditional or Arminian Baptists because of theological reasons (think God’s sovereignty).

The reformers did not have selfish interests when they separated from the Catholics; neither did the Lutherans, Anglicans, or Presbyterians harbored any selfish interests when they started a new denomination.

Is Theology Important?

I made this point to emphasize that we cannot take away the place of genuine theological differences in accounting for some of the differences in God’s church.

However, if unity is a good thing and theological differences cause ‘divisions,’ is theology necessary or important?

To emphasize the importance of theology, I decided to examine my friend’s statement that ‘Christ is love’ is the most important message of Christianity.

Which Christ are we talking about here? Is it the Christ of the Jehovah witnesses that is not equal to God? Is it the Christ of the Mormons that became God? Is it the Christ of Ebionism that God adopted at his baptism (no pre-existence and no virgin birth)? Is it the Christ of Docetism that did not have an actual physical body but only appeared to have one?

Saying Christ is love in itself is so vague except we come to define the Christ about whom we are talking. We cannot do that except we do …………….you guessed right…..theology.

Consider the second part of the statement – the love of Christ. What does that mean? To some the love of Christ consists only in the fact that he suffered as a martyr to show us what it means to love others (that is, there was no atonement for sins).

Many people insist that all the matters in the Christian faith is that we show love to people. However, what do we mean by love? Some Christians think it is loving that a woman has a right to her body even if that means she can kill the child in her womb. Some believe it is loving to allow homosexual marriage (or mirage, as Doug Wilson will call it.

Is it loving to discipline a church member or anathemize a false teacher?  Is love a free expression of whatever I think is right or is love guided by specific guidelines?

The Christian faith is a theological faith. We cannot narrow it down to anything that excludes theological definitions.

Theology is important because we don’t have a Christian faith without it. To avoid theological categories is to have an open-ended faith that is subject to the whims and caprices of men. You may have ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ that way, but you do not have Christianity.

Take away theology (i.e. take away the effort to understand what God has told us in Scriptures about himself and everything else) and what you have is full-blown idolatry where everyone does “what seems right in his own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 12:8, Judges 17:6, 21:25).

Doing theology will lead us to different conclusions but refraining from it does not solve any problem – it only leads to crass subjectivism and idolatry. Without theology, we will only become idolaters trying to construct God according to our imaginations. In that kind of system, there is no salvation.

Therefore, the attempt to attain unity by devaluing theology (even with the theological differences it brings) is an effort in futility. For it to resemble anything Christian at all, it has to do what it purports to devalue – theology.

Theology is good

Theology is necessary, important, and good. The greatest good in this world is to know God. The most delightful thing in this world is that God did not leave us in darkness but revealed himself to us so that we do not perish in our idolatrous creativity.

If God has revealed himself to us, then seeking to know what he has said to us is the greatest endeavor of humans.

To know God is eternal life (John 17:3).

We should boast not in wisdom, strength, riches, but our knowledge of God. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

God delivers those that know him (Psalms 91:14)

God gave us Christ so that he can remove our blindfold and give us the knowledge of God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Theology is nothing but our pursuit of the knowledge of God. Many of the apathy towards theology results from our false perception that theology is mere head knowledge. This is a misunderstanding. Theology is the foundation of any true or genuine worship of God.

Worship, in and of itself, can be a good or a bad thing. God condemned people who worshipped him in vain. Why was their worship in vain? Because they didn’t pray loud enough or sing the right songs? They worshipped in vain because they had colored their theology with human traditions and commandments. (Mathew 15:9). Our worship of God can be hateful to God if we are worshipping a false God we created in our image. The Athenians were religious people but all their liturgies and religious practices were useless because they did not know the one and only true God – they were worshipping idols (non-existent gods). Jesus unequivocally said that Samaritans worshipped what they did not know (John 4:22)

Theology must be the foundation of genuine worship. We must be sure we are worshipping the true God as he has revealed himself. The depth of our theology (our knowledge of God) will determine the depth of our doxology (our worship of God). Shallow theology never breeds deep worship; it can only breed false excitements and human-centered pleasure that we mistake for deep worship.  

Of course, sound theology in itself does not lead to sound worship (we are still sinners who need to trust God to help us make that transition). However, as Sam Storms said, “The ultimate goal of theology isn’t knowledge, but worship.” It is a mistake to think otherwise. J.I Packer, in his book, Knowing God helps us to make the transition from theology to doxology in these words: “How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.

J.I Packer says it best, “Every time we mention God we become theologians and the only question is whether we are going to be good ones or bad ones.”

If knowing God is the highest pursuit of the human heart, theology must be a central place in our lives because it is the foundation of a knowledge of God.

Have nothing to do With Him: A Forbidden Unity

My purpose in the foregoing is to say that if avoiding theology is the solution to the division in the church, then maybe the ‘division’ is not a bad thing after all. If that sounds strange to you, it is probably because our understanding of Christian unity needs some adjustment.

Many passages in the NT warn us not to unite with certain people. In Romans 16:17, Paul said the church should watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in our ways. However, the way Paul goes on to identify the division and obstacle is so contrary to modern thinking. The person who causes divisions and obstacles is the one who teaches something that is different from what the Romans have learnt. For Paul, false theology, rather than theology (in and of itself) is the cause of divisions. It is when people come to peddle false teachings contrary to the apostolic faith (the faith once for all delivered to the saints) that they become sources of divisions.

Paul did not tell them to ignore the theology of these people or to unite with them as members of the same body of Christ (let’s all be nice and tolerant). Rather, he instructed the church to “keep away from them”. Paul was not thinking about unity with these men. He was so emphatic in his request for the church to keep away from them. There are certain people with whom the church should not unite.

He instructed the Thessalonians in the same fashion- if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. (2 Thess. 3:14) The Thessalonians should not associate with them because they held false doctrines contrary to apostolic instructions.  Paul also placed a curse (let them be eternally condemned) on all those who will preach a gospel (which is not another gospel but a perversion) other than the apostolic gospel. He spoke plainly.

In his epistle, John told the elect lady and her children not to take anyone into their house who teaches a false doctrine about the humanity of Christ. (2 John 7-11). Welcoming such persons will make them a partaker of his wicked work. Paul called peddlers of circumcision dogs and warned the church in Philippi to watch out for them. (Phil. 3:2)

My point here is that the NT never taught us to seek unity by all means or with everyone who mentions God or Christ.  How do we know the people to unite with and those to avoid? Again, it is theology. Some people will hold certain theological positions that makes it right for the church to separate from them.

This is why in the early centuries of the church they attempted to give a clear definition of Christian truths in matters of theology proper and Christology. There needed to be a distinction (‘division’) between the orthodox Christian Church (think a church that holds to orthodox beliefs not the Greek Orthodox Church) and the various forms of heresies (Docetism, Gnosticism, Ebionism, Marcionism, Sabellianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Pelagianism, etc.) – the kind that John and Paul warned us against. The kind of ‘divisions’ that resulted at Nicene, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon when the church condemned the above heresies were good and godly.

Be of one mind: The Biblical Unity

Didn’t Jesus pray for Unity? He sure did. The problem comes when we absolutize Jesus’s prayer for unity.

Jesus prayed that the disciples together with all those who will believe in his name through their message will be united as one (John 17:20-23). The unity Jesus prayed for will reflect the Trinitarian unity of the Father and the Son. (Verse 22).

Paul admonished the Corinthians to “agree with one another so that there be no divisions” (1 Corinthians 1:10). However, he was not telling them to unite with heretics who pander false doctrines. Rather, they were to agree with one another within the Corinthian local church. The division here was not a theological division (as far as we know there are no theological differences between Apollos and Paul since the former was trained by the former’s converts) but what people call a party spirit. Some people identified with Paul who planted the church while some people called themselves Apollos’ servants because he was the one now present in Corinth, and some identified with Peter (the episode between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2 was not a disagreement as to fact but to hypocrisy in acting according to those facts), one of the leaders in Jerusalem). Paul was telling them to unite in Christ since they do not belong to Paul or Apollos but to Christ. This was not a difference between theological positons – Paulinism, Peternism, and Apollosinism; rather, it was an attempt to identify one man as their spiritual father, leader, or mentor.

Paul was telling the church at Corinth to unite in their common union with Christ rather than fight over the ‘man of God’ with which they will identify.

In Ephesians 4:1-7, Paul admonished the church to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. How will this unity happen? It is when they are completely humble, gentle, patient, and bearing with one another in love (verse 2). When we see Paul’s call for unity, we should not assume he is telling them to ignore every theological consideration and embrace everyone who professes Christianity. Here, he is teaching them how to be united as a local church in Corinth. It was a call for ‘moral unity.’ Instead of the endless campaigns to undermine theology in the name of unity, we should be conquering the sins in our individual hearts that make it difficult for us to be united as a local assembly. Think of the jealousies, backbiting, anger, and other evils that divide individual local churches.

When Paul called for unity in the Philippian Church (Philippians 1:27-30), he emphasized that it is a unity in the faith of the gospel (verse 27). They must stand united in the faith of the gospel against all persecutions and oppositions (verse 28). In chapter 2 of the same letter, he also admonished them to pursue the same ‘moral unity’ we saw in Ephesians 4. He instructed them to be one in spirit and purpose, like-minded, with the same love. How does this unity happen? It is when the members of the local church are humble, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

Peter made the same point in 1 Peter 3:8-9. The church will live in harmony with one another if they do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult but with blessing. It is a unity that comes from being sympathetic, loving as brothers, being compassionate, and humble.

The point of the aforementioned is to disabuse our minds from the assumption that anytime we see a command for unity, it means we should all destroy all denominations or theological differences and worship in one church.

God condemns disunity; but the disunity he condemns is the one that results from our sins (selfish ambition, vain conceit, etc.) and our identification with men as spiritual leaders and mentors to the point we lose sight of Christ.  

Paul’s Days and Ours

Does it then mean that the Christian should separate himself (the way Paul and John commands) from everyone who disagrees with him? I do not think so.

In Romans 14, Paul did not tell the weak brothers to separate from the strong believers, or vice versa. Even though there was a difference in their convictions in relation to certain matters (food and days), he wanted them to learn to stay together in peace. He did not use the language we saw in Romans 16:17 et al. Rather, he wants them to be tolerant of one another in regards to these ‘disputable matters.’ These matters pertain to Christian liberty.

We now live 2000 years away from Paul. We no longer have the apostles among us to give us authoritative statements about doctrines. We now have to rely on their letters to shape our theological understanding of certain matters. Peter anticipated the challenges we will face when he said that there are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand. (1 Peter 3:16)

 A very helpful concept in dealing with these issues and tying together all the points above is the theological triage.

Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary devised this concept upon his visit to a hospital’s emergency room. Triage is a practice in hospitals whereby medical personnel make a quick evaluation of relative medical emergency so they can identify patients that need to be rushed to surgery and those that can still wait.

The Theological Triage

Using this concept, Mohler developed a theological triage where he divided matters of Christian doctrines into three levels of theological priority. The first-level theological issues are crucial doctrines like the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scriptures. As Mohler stated, “these first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.

These are not arbitrary delineations. Justification by faith is the apostolic gospel and Paul cursed the person who will teach another gospel. John insisted on the humanity of Christ and warned us not to welcome anyone who teaches heresies on this point. Jesus prayed for the church to be united with a Trinitarian unity. Paul warned us against those who did not receive his writings and Revelation cursed those who will add to the book or remove from it.

I believe strongly that we cannot seek unity with people who deny any of these first order doctrines (including the physical resurrection of Jesus and his second coming). God wants us to distance ourselves from those who will deny these essentials of the Christian faith. Without these doctrines, there is no Christianity. No wonder these were the same points over which the early church councils fought against the heretics.

Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholics (to mention a few) as a body/denomination (there might be individuals inside these churches who believe differently from the church’s doctrines) may be my neighbors to whom I owe a duty of love (Mathew 22:39-41), but they are not my brothers in the faith. The faith they have is not Christian. While I want to love them, work in the same office with them, be a good neighbor to them just like my Muslim friends, I cannot consider them as my brothers in the Christian faith. They might have a religion that is close to Christianity, but it falls short.

I want to repeat two points for emphasis. First, I do not deny that there might be individuals in these bodies that have the true Christian faith in spite of their denominational affiliation. Second, saying someone is not my brother in the Christian faith is not saying they are my enemies. My Muslim friends are not my brothers in the Christian faith but I love and cherish them (including my agnostic and atheistic friends).

Seeking unity with religious organizations like these is contrary to the biblical call for unity and disobedient to the NT call for ‘disunity.’

The second order doctrines include baptism. Mohler identifies second order doctrines as the kind that will prevent fellow believers (people who jointly hold to the first order doctrines) from worshipping in the same church or belonging to the same denomination. In a local church, we either baptize babies or we do not. This is why we have Baptists and Presbyterians. In a local church, we use either an Episcopalian, Congregational, or Presbyterian church government. You can’t have the three. We either ordain women as elders and pastors or we do not.

 These differences come from different interpretations of some important texts in scriptures. While they are important doctrines that we should study and have biblical grounds for our positions, they are second-order doctrines over which brothers can have disagreements. However, we must not seek to blur these lines all in the name of unity. Infact, disunity will arise when, for example, you lump people who are egalitarians and complementarians together in one church contrary to their will.

Therefore, if a Baptist man goes to a town where there are only Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist churches, he is not a man given to disunity and schism if he goes ahead to start First Baptist Church, XXX. He will be a man given to disunity if he goes to the Presbyterian Church and leads a revolution to prevent them from baptizing infants into the covenant. These genuine differences separate denominations. While we should continue to seek dialogue on these matters and hope to convince one another on what we believe to be the correct position, we cannot bury these matters under the carpet.

For example, think of a Baptist and Presbyterian going for mission work together. Let us say the head of a family surrenders to Christ and become a Christian. Six months later, the wife gives birth to a boy. Should we baptize the boy or not? When we start a church, should it be congregational or Presbyterian in its leadership? This is why I believe that most efforts at ecumenism are misguided.

Of course, we should not allow these differences to make us forget our unity in the first order doctrines (among other doctrines we share). We must remember Paul’s admonition that calls us to unite in the faith of the gospel against oppositions and persecutions. There are times we unite (not the kind of unity promoted by ecumenical organizations) to fight against societal ills and injustices (like abortion, homosexuality, cultural Marxism) that oppose God’s commandments, heretics (theological liberalism) and false ideologies (atheism, agnosticism, postmodernism) that oppose God’s church. However, this is not a forced unity or the type of unity that cares nothing for theology and biblical fidelity. We can host and attend biblical teaching conferences where we affirm our mutual faith, sign declarations of faith, sponsor a bill in the legislature, co-author a book, stage a peaceful protest etc. However, we do not need a particular body organizing or guiding these kind of actions.  

In his book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Edward Veith, a Lutheran, said, “Don’t I believe in Christian Unity? Yes, I do, and the need for unity in a church is precisely why I believe in many denominations. Christians should join together in worship with those whose faith and theology they share. The members of a congregation need to be unified. If a church body embraces many different theologies and practices, there will be a lack of unity. It is far better, in my opinion, to have a diversity of churches than to have a diversity of theological positions within a single church, a condition that can only lead to vagueness, inconsistency, and confusion of teaching.”

The third order issues are doctrines over which we can disagree and still attend the same fellowship. A good example here is eschatology. There are premillennial and amillennial Baptists, postmillennial and amillennial Presbyterians. You can find futurists, preterists, idealists, and other variants in the same denomination or local church.  Among futurists, there are those who hold to pre-trib., post-trib., mid-trib. rapture. Eschatology is one matter where most denominations do not have an official view. Therefore, we can fellowship with people in the same local church as long as they believe that Jesus is indeed coming back again even if we disagree on some of the details.

Conclusion

Let me conclude by summarizing my points:

  • Theology matters because without it, we will worship a false God that is no God at all
  • Christians cannot seek unity with people who deny the essentials of the Christian faith.
  • Paul’s concern for unity was primarily about the unity of the local church – the kind of unity that comes from moral transformation of individual members. We should all be consecrating ourselves to God and attaining the spiritual maturity that will foster unity in every local assembly.  
  • While there are first order doctrines that unite all Christians, there are second order doctrines that ‘divide’ us into different denominations. This is not the disunity against which the NT writers wrote. 
  • We should not seek to blur the denominational lines by devaluing theology, proposing a single church, or forcing people to worship together in a way that leads to actual disunity.
  • Christians from different denominations who agree on the first order doctrines can (if they will) unite to defend the faith against heretics and false ideologies, and stand against societal ills and injustices.
  • As lovers of truth, we must keep seeking dialogue – trying to understand others’ viewpoints, examining our beliefs, and following our convictions of the truth wherever it leads us.
  • There are some third level doctrinal differences that can make believers worship together in the same local assembly and partake of the same denomination without rancor.
  • Denominationalism is not evil. It can be misused in an evil way (many use it that way), but it is not inherently evil. Forcing unity by undermining the importance of theology is evil.
  • There will be no denominations in heaven not because truth will no longer matter but because there will be no more difficult passages, God himself will teach us all things and we will all be united in faith.

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