Saturday, May 7, 2011

Doctrine Matters. So Does Unity.

We have all seen many Christians divide over doctrinal matters.  This is the primary reason for most of today's denominations.

Because of dissatisfaction with the disunity in the church, other Christians have downplayed the importance of doctrine altogether.  What we have is a false "either-or" situation; some Christians believe we must separate in order to preserve doctrine, while others emphasize unity to the point of ignoring doctrinal importance.

We must reject both of these extremes.  Doctrine is important.  So is unity.  In fact, the unity of the church is an important doctrine.  All  we have to do is read passages such as John 17 and I Corinthians 1 to see this.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we must embrace robust, biblical doctrine. We must also admit that there are certain beliefs that characterize all Christians. These are what some refer to as "primary doctrines." Interestingly, Christians rarely divide over these. Rather, these separate us from unbelievers. These include the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. They can be best summed up in the statement, "Jesus is Lord!"

The doctrines that divide Christians are frequent.y referred to as "secondary doctrines."  I've heard many Christians justify division based on these.  In fact, if you read through doctrinal statements, these are the ones that define either churches or denominations.  These include baptism, the Lord's Supper, spiritual gifts, church polity, predestination/free will, etc.

Here's a simple question: why can't we Christians know what we believe, know why we believe it, disagree with other Christians on some of those issues, and still remain united?  I cannot understand why disagreement has to almost automatically lead to division for so many. Let's take an example: Baptists and Presbyterians. They both love the Lord and cherish the gospel message. However, they differ on baptism. What you believe determines which "camp" you are a part of, and you cannot be a part of both.

There is no good reason for this situation. We should be able to disagree and remain united. All the reasons I've heard in defense of disunity in the church are pragmatic ones. I've never heard a sound biblical defense of separation or division.

In order to remain united but disagree on certain issues, we must display a certain amount of humility.  We must also act like adults. Frankly, if we demand that others agree with us and divide if they don't, then we are acting a lot like selfish little kids. This is hardly what Christ wants from his church. Also, as we are having doctrinal conversations, let's remember that we are talking with our brothers and sisters; we're not writing systematic theologies.

Let's know what we believe and why we believe it. Let's also strive for unity in the church. The two can and should co-exist. We don't sacrifice doctrine when we remain united with those who disagree with us. Instead, we are showing solid doctrine - that of unity.

22 comments:

John said...

Not at all to incite an argument, but simply because I cannot think of a clear cut answer, I wanted to ask you how you would handle a family of paedobaptists committing to come to you home fellowship? Does everyone just "sneak off" to go and do what they believe to be right and biblical. Or does everyone participate in the baptism together...? Just curious to hear your wisdom on the matter.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

Excuse me if I'm repeating the same thing I've said here before on similar posts. I can't remember for sure what all I've said.

In any case, first of all, I agree with a major part of the sentiment behind what you write here. So, don't hear this as an attack of your main point.

But I think a big part of the question at hand hinges on our definition of division. Here are a few questions for thought:

1. Is it possible for a local congregation to have women pastors/bishops/elders and, at the same time, not have women pastors/bishops/elders?

2. Is it possible for a local congregation to hold to only baptizing believers by immersion and, at the same time, baptize infants, or sprinkle?

3. Is it division for Christians who do not believe in women pastors/bishops/elders to meet together with those who agree with them, and Christians who do believe in women pastors/bishops/elders to meet together with those who agree with them?

4. Same question as 3, applied to the baptism question.

5. Is it division for congregations who believe alike on these particular issues to cooperate with each other for certain ministry projects?

6. Are women pastors vs. no women pastors, or believers baptism vs. other models of baptism really gospel essentials?

Jeffrey said...

Well said Eric.

Eric said...

John,

That's a great question. I don't think there is an easy answer to it. I firmly hold to believer's baptism. Frankly, I think infant baptism is silly. However, if a family wanted to fellowship with us and wanted to "baptize" their infant, I would not count it as a reason to not fellowship with them.

How would it actually work? I'm not sure. I would counsel them against it. If they were determined to do it, I would probably watch as they sprinkled water on their baby. I would rejoice in their desire to honor the Lord, but I would feel badly about what I believe is a poor doctrine of baptism. Afterwards, we would simply move on trying to live together for Christ.

That may not be a satisfying answer. However, since I can't find any biblical warrant for division within the church, this is the best I can do with that particular situation.

Eric said...

David,

Great questions as always. No easy answers either.

As I read scripture, I cannot find any reason for Christians not to fellowship with one another. John 17 sounds fairly absolute to me. I'm looking at this issue from that perspective.

Also, as I write I'm generally thinking about this from a simple church framework. Some of these issues are simpler to deal with that way.

In light of what I've said so far, I have to believe that it is in fact division for Christians to refuse to meet together over issues such as baptism, women pastors, etc.

That being the case, how do local church families work it out? That's the tough part. We start to run into important but also pragmatic issues.

On the women pastors issue, my hope is that the Christians in a body who are in favor of it would out of love and humility not force the issue on those who are against it. This rarely happens, but it is possible.

As for baptism, I could see both forms occurring in one local body. If the parents actually perform the baptism, I don't see it being a big issue. For example, if some parents in our local body wanted to baptize their infant, I would simply see it as a little sprinkle - nothing more.

If unity is absolute, then there are no easy answers. This forces Christians to have to work through them together. This can be either wonderful or messy (probably both).

A question I can't answer is this one: If some practices of separation aren't actually division, but some are, where does the bible draw the line?

I hope that at least clarifies my position. Thanks for asking.

Eric said...

Thanks Jeff.

Arthur Sido said...

Eric,

I think those are exactly the right answers. If one of my children desires to be baptized, I would baptize them myself. If someone else would desire to baptize an infant, which I agree is silly, I would not throw myself over the infant to protect her from having water sprinkled on her. Nor would I reject fellowship with them on that basis. The same is true with the role of women. Women sometimes "teach" in the assembly we have been going to but my wife chooses not to assume that role. Again, there is no warrant for me to divide from these brothers and sisters over this issue, or over issues of eschatology or politics or anything other than the Gospel or unrepentant sin. When the basis of fellowship is our common salvation in Christ instead of the dividing distinctives of a given local church, we find little excuse to be divided from one another.

Jason_73 said...

I've see a lot of people come and go from our church in the last few years and I would say one of the larger factors in "splitting up" is shallow relationships that usually use the cover of doctrine as the reason when it is not.

The other strong factor probably on par with the former is dividing over the style of worship. I would guess though that many see then linked and I could buy that.

Maybe it's just me, but I rarely get to communicate with people on the robust part of doctrine, when the first two examples I mentioned have already begun to scuttle the relationship.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

A few more questions to consider:

1. If all the believers in a given locality do not all meet together in the same place on a regular basis, does that, in and of itself, constitute division?

2. What if, in a given locality, one group of believers announces that it is the legitimate representation of the church in that locality, and invites the rest of the believers to meet with them, and, at the same time another group of believers does the same thing? If I choose to meet with one of the groups, and not the other, am I, as a result, dividing myself from the Body of Christ in my locality? What if the two groups meet at the same time? Would a better option be to start a third group? Of not meet together with anyone?

3. What if you and the believers that regularly meet with you have been getting along fine, practicing believers baptism, and only male elders, but someone else wants to meet with you, and begins to insist that, in the name of unity, you open up your standard group practice to include infant baptism and women pastors? What do you do? Who is causing division, in this case, if anyone?

My take on this is that you should practice "modified open communion," as I explain it here: http://sbcimpact.org/2010/04/19/discerning-the-body-a-biblical-defense-of-modified-open-communion/

But, as far as the on-going norms of practice are concerned, the congregation, under the direction of the elders, is going to have to decide to do some things one way or another, and that will necessarily exclude other ways of doing things.

In a house church, this could even apply to things like whether you're going to eat before your discussion of a particular Bible passage, or afterward. You can't accommodate everyone. In any group, there has to be some set norms. And, unless someone is conscripting us to do otherwise, all of us are naturally going to go to groups that are more in line with our particular preference or understanding of what the best norms are.

If we refuse to pray together, or treat people in groups with norms that are different from our norms as if they were not true brothers and sisters in Christ, then I would say we are dividing. But meeting in separate groups, with different norms, is not necessarily dividing.

Eric said...

Arthur,

Thanks for the link on your blog. You make a good point that our salvation is in Christ. This should unite us. All the other stuff, while important, is no excuse to divide. Jesus gave no loopholes in his desires for unity of his church.

Eric said...

Jason,

Your experience is all too common. It usually is, as you say, shallow relationships and pragmatics (such as worship style), that lead to splits. Rarely is it doctrine at all.

How wonderful it is to have solid doctrinal discussions, disagree on some issues, and remain one in Christ.

Alan Knox said...

David,

I think you're asking some very good questions. But, for me, the more important questions have to do with the unity or lack of unity among the believers that we live with, work with, shop with, etc. There are four families living around us (next door neighbors) who are all believers. Yet, we have absolutely no interaction with one another. Why? Because everyone is busy with their "local church." There's a problem with that.

-Alan

Eric said...

David,

A key is all this is how the church is defined. My belief is that the church in a locality is the church in that locality. In other words, here in Savannah I'm part of the church in Savannah.

Ideally, folks would gather in different locations in Savannah because the buildings are not big enough. Tomorrow we will meet in a house that fits about 40 folks. Even that is a bit much.

We certainly have norms each week. For example, we eat the Lord's Supper as a full meal. If others wanted to come who didn't desire to do this, then we would have to talk about it. We would talk, look in the bible, and talk some more. I would hope we could work it out.

That answer may seem mushy and messy. If we are going to work through differing issues, then the unity will be messy.

I see this as superior to divisions based on pragmatic reasons. I just can't get past the fact that scripture gives us no reasons for division. If we are really going to make this happen, then we're going to have to work through some difficult situations.

I'm sure there will be situations where people leave a body because things aren't happening the way they think they should (for whatever reason). This is regrettable. The reality is, however, that it happens.

If there are some divisions that are acceptable within the body, then it seems to me that the bible would have mentioned these.

David Rogers said...

Alan,

Yes, I agree that no or little relationship with our neighbors who are believers (not to mention our neighbors who are not believers) is a problem, and is a symptom of an unbiblical lack of unity.

However, I am trying to think this through from the perspective of Eric's post.

What if, every Sunday (and/or other days of the week) I visited a different regularly scheduled meeting of believers--some of them house churches, like Eric's group, some of them congregations like Messiah Baptist, some of them other types of churches. In a large city like, let's say Savannah, or Raleigh, I could visit a different group every Sunday perhaps for a year or more.

If I were to do this, would I be contributing more to the unity of the Body of Christ in my locality than if I were to regularly attend and participate every Sunday in the same meeting?

In other words, yes, our fellowship with other believers in our locality may not be quite as broad as it ideally should be? But is it worth it to sacrifice depth of relationship on the altar of breadth?

It seems to me the biblical model is that we meet regularly with a group of more or less the same believers, in order that we might get to know each other well, in order that we might be able to do a better job at stimulating each other to love and good works.

Now, if we take this to the extreme of isolating from the rest of the Body of Christ in our community that is taking it to an unbiblical extreme. But we must find a good balance of both depth and breadth in our relationships. And part of this implies being a regular participant (or a "member," if you want to formalize your relationship) of a regular meeting (or local congregation).

Any regularly meeting group has norms of functioning. Some are more explicit and some are more implicit. I believe explicit norms can be often be helpful for facilitating relationships, something along the line of the line in the old Robert Frost poem, "good fences make good neighbors." Yet, there should also be freedom and not coercion. For this reason, each individual is free to go (and regularly participate in) the meeting that best adjusts to their personal convictions and understanding of Scriptural guidelines.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

Do you believe the fact that the Body of Christ in Savannah normally meets weekly in different places (a lot of different homes and "church buildings"), in and of itself, constitutes division?

Do you believe the fact that each of these different meetings has different characteristics and different norms, in and of itself, constitutes division?

In other words, is there, perhaps, a difference between unity and uniformity?

Eric said...

David,

As for the church in Savannah, you are correct that it meets in various locations throughout the week. I don't see this as division.

My hope is that all the Christians here would feel free to gather with any of the other Christians. I see no biblical reason for any sub-gospel practices to keep this from happening.

However, in order for deep relationships to occur, we are naturally going to gather with some of the same folks on a regular basis. Each of these local bodies will, as you've said, end up with norms of practice.

What I'm suggesting is that none of these norms, as important as they are, should separate us. I'm referring to roadblocks to relationships.

Intent obviously has a lot to do with this. If a local body develops ways of doing things over time because they are trying to be biblical, then that's fine. If they, however, do things that divide them from others, then I see a problem.

In the end, I have to come back to scripture. I simply cannot find any suggestion that anything should act to divide Christians (I Cor. 5 being a sin issue). This is my starting point.

As for norms of practice, if they help Christian brothers and sisters mature in Christ, then these are good things. If they divide, then we need to talk through the issues and see what needs to be done.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

It sounds like here we may be saying exactly the same thing. I totally agree that if our norms put up roadblocks to relationships then they do constitute unbiblical division.

It still sounds to me like sort of a slippery concept to define, though. I am still not sure, from your frame of reference, when division has occurred, or when it has not.

For instance, does the existence of denominations, or networks of local congregations, in and of itself, constitute division?

Personally, I think that, in the overall scheme of things, they may sometimes do more to facilitate relationships than to put roadblocks for relationships.

But they can also go awry and put roadblocks for relationships. In such a case, they are a source of division.

Denominations are not, de facto, a source of division, though.

Alan Knox said...

David,

Again, I understand your questions, and I think they are good ones. If you meet with so many different believers that you never develop deep relationships with any, then that's a problem. However, if we choose to meet primarily with one group of believers (for whatever reasons), we must not also cut ourselves off from other believers who may live, work, etc. with us. I think the church in America has a much bigger problem with this (separate from brothers/sisters right next door), than a problem of going from "church" to "church" in order to promote unity.

-Alan

Eric said...

David,

I agree. I think we are tracking closely with one another. As for denominations, I like the idea of churches teaming up together to perform ministry. For example, I'm still very much in favor of what the IMB is trying to accomplish. The IMB, obviously, depends on local bodies working together.

The problem I have is when a denomination says that a local body cannot be a part of it based on sub-gospel doctrines. This does not happen often because churches tend to want to be part of denominations they agree with. Nevertheless, it remains an issue of division if local bodies will not come together because of issues such as baptism, spiritual gifts, etc.

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Most of my 70 years has been spent as a member of a congregation, the majority of that time as a pastor.

I have come to the conclusion that very few people claiming to be a Christian have even the faintest clue as to what a Bible reveals is a follower of Christ, much less the new birth and growth into maturity.

All other doctrinal matters pale into insignificance before the Biblical doctrine of salvation.

Void of the Holy Spirit, people will always find reason to divide, apart from any other doctrinal matters.

Eric said...

John,

That great salvation we have is, I hope, the reason more and more Christians are striving for unity. I'm actually hopeful about this issue. As Christianity fades from being a cultural norm in the USA, my hope is that the remnant will bind together in Christ. You are right that the Holy Spirit must be at the forefront.

David Rogers said...

Alan,

Yes, I agree.

Eric,

I agree with you as well. The only loose end for me, so to speak, has to do with the legitimacy of a denomination or network of churches drafting a statement of faith (such as the Baptist Faith & Message) as a guideline for cooperation. As I see it, the BF&M does not cut off other true believers and congregations as legitimate members of the Body of Christ, nor from Christian fellowship. It just stipulates some doctrinal guidelines for cooperation in the particular ministry projects in which some congregations with similar doctrinal convictions have voluntarily agreed to cooperate. If signing on obligated me to break fellowship with other true believers, I could not, with a good conscience, do so. But I don't believe it obligates me to do so.