In this second installment of our series on the characteristics of practical unity in the Church, we’ll dive into the first two points (If you missed the intro, you can find it here).
1. It must be centered on the Good News of Jesus
The Church’s invisible unity exists in its union with Jesus, the head of the body, so too in order to practically work towards visible unity, Christians must be committed to the centrality of the good news (gospel) of what God has done to rescue us and bring us into relationship with himself. The gospel brings us into a united family and it is also key in helping us maintain that family unity.
One major theme that can be traced consistently through the entire book of Romans is the need for unity in Christ among Gentile and Jewish Christians. So it is significant that Paul uses the gospel of grace to humble them and bring them to a recognition of the reality that they all had sinned and were equally unrighteous, and that both their salvation as well as their empowerment with spiritual gifts were themselves gracious gifts from God, and therefore not a ground for boasting of spiritual superiority. He clearly uses the gospel of grace as the foundation for his call for them to be unified as one Church. The Apostle’s conclusion in chapter 15:7 is explicit “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” If you don’t believe me, read Romans through with this lens, you’ll be blown away.
Asking the Right Question
Sometimes Church unity conversations get stuck when the following question is brought up: “How do we determine which churches we partner with and which ones we don’t?” A concern that may arise among many churches is, “We feel comfortable partnering with such and such a church but we don’t feel comfortable partnering with some of the churches that they partner with.” This certainly can get complicated as some evangelicals have fewer reservations about working together with groups such as Roman Catholics and mainline liberal denominations while others view these groups as heretical. What’s the solution? I believe a more helpful way to navigate these issues is to ask a different question, not “Who can we partner with?” but “What are we partnering around?” or in other words, “what is the basis of our partnership?”
If evangelicals make it extremely clear that their unity (partnership) with one another is centered on the biblical Jesus (fully God, fully human, the only mediator between God and humanity) and on making him known in word (evangelism) and in deed (service), then churches that disagree with evangelism or the biblical Jesus will most likely keep away on their own.
2. It must not be theologically dismissive but lovingly and winsomely engaged in the promotion and pursuit of truth amidst a culture of moral and spiritual relativity
Proponents of visible Church unity sometimes see doctrine as an obstacle or as a necessary evil that must be swept under the rug and ignored for real unity to exist. It is true that there is a theological myopia in some circles that brings unnecessary division to the church. Art Azurdia, professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, adeptly describes this problem as “a hyper-focused preoccupation with a particular theological/confessional position that ever seeks to buttress itself (including the endless search for theological conclusions that transcend biblical revelation and historic Christian orthodoxy), thus misdirecting energies away from the church’s primary mission.” Don’t feel bad, if like me you have to read that through a couple more times. His point is well taken, we need to be careful not to get distracted by pointless and abstract arguments that go beyond what is clearly stated in Scripture. However, it could also be said that the opposite is often true among evangelicals; sometimes we have been so influenced by the moral relativity of our secular culture that we begin to view truth as a combatant to unity. This is, after all, one of the favorite narratives of pop-culture, and it jives well with the moralistic therapeutic deism of the post-enlightened West. Summarized in statements like, I can’t believe in a God who would do __________.” and “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are kind to other people, or as long as it helps you personally and doesn’t offend other people.”
As the Church, we must be careful not to slip into the pattern of this world in our pursuit of unity. While we need to be careful not to divide over theological myopia, on the one hand, we must recognize the urgency of upholding the essentials of the Christian faith on the other. We must keep these core beliefs central and train our people on the foundation they provide because what we truly believe will inevitably work its way into our practice.
We need to be careful not to treat even our more detailed theological distinctives with indifference. Some of these secondary doctrines have indeed caused division in the past, but the solution is not to dismiss them. When we do that, we encourage our people to view the Scriptures with the same relativistic mindset as the culture. Doing this can lead many to apply this vague hermeneutical approach to passages with which they disagree or with which the culture disagrees and simply conclude that the text is unclear and that what matters most is that we love each other. Here again, we depict truth and unity as being at odds. Yes, we must love each other, but part of what it means to love each is to point each other to the truth.
We must avoid dividing over secondary doctrines, but to not divide over secondary doctrines is not the same as saying that secondary doctrines don’t matter.
Charismatic Christians don’t believe that one has to speak in tongues to be saved, but that doesn’t mean that they will cease to teach about the importance of it according to their convictions. Baptists don’t think that a person has to agree with their doctrine of eternal security to be saved, but that doesn’t mean that they will stop teaching according to that conviction. So what’s the solution? How can we keep the main things the main things and pursue unity among the body, while not adopting a low view of the study of Scripture and of the Scripture itself (i.e. “The Bible isn’t very clear in a lot of places so we shouldn’t waste our time trying to figure it out”)?
Here are a few examples of what I believe are God-honoring ways to teach doctrine without causing unbiblical division:
- Make sure that you as well as those you teach understand which doctrines are primary and which ones are not (i.e. the visible return of Jesus Christ to the earth is a primary doctrine, while specific views on the millennium and the timing of the rapture are secondary.)
- Familiarize yourself with the alternative views held by other evangelicals (Zondervan’s Counterpoints series provides a great avenue for this, you’ll soon realize, if you hadn’t already, that there are godly and intelligent scholars who have presented biblical arguments for differing viewpoints on secondary issues within evangelical Christianity).
- Avoid caricatures! If you fail to understand what your brother or sister in Christ really believes about a particular doctrine and criticize them based on an impression or misinformed report, you have failed to love your brother and/or sister. Statements such as “Pentecostals believe that you have to speak in tongues to be saved” or “Since Baptists teach eternal security they believe it’s fine to just keep living a life of sin!” or “Arminians don’t believe in the sovereignty of God” or “Calvinists don’t believe in evangelism.” demonstrate a failure to lovingly listen to one another. Sure there are some fringe groups of Pentecostals and Baptists, as well as aberrant individuals who identify with these groups who may hold to something similar to these caricatures, but they are the exception, not the rule.
- Ask God for humility. Recognize that we all operate with presuppositions and that while we can have great certainty about the gospel, none of us has a corner on truth when it comes to secondary (and tertiary) doctrines.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at why Church unity must be more than an occasional event, such as a combined worship service or outreach festival, and how we can work towards a more sustainable model of unity. Until then…
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
– Romans 15:5-7 (ESV)