Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unity Without Relativism: Is It Possible?

We know from the bible that God wants a united church. For example, Jesus says in John 17:20-21, "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me."

When we search scripture, the only place we are told to divide is over the gospel itself. In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul writes,"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed."

In light of the above verses, it seems that Christians should not divide over issues that are secondary to the gospel. These might include the authority of scripture, the truth of scripture, baptism, the Lord's Supper, women's role in ministry (especially the pastorate), God's sovereignty vs. man's free will, spiritual gifts (especially speaking in tongues), etc.

However, if we say that the above issues are not worth standing up for, then it also seems that we are, in essence, saying that they really don't matter and that whatever someone believes about these is fine. How do we avoid how relativistic this seems?

So, is it possible to be united as a church without falling into relativism on everything but the gospel itself?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I am increasingly disturbed by the ridiculous number of denominations we have in Protestantism. I long for unity within the church. However, I also long for the church to be as biblical as possible in all areas, not just unity.

I'm going to share my thoughts on this in a few days (I doubt that it will be anything earth-shattering), but I would like to get your ideas first. Can the church be united without falling into relativism? If your answer is "yes," please tell how and be specific. If your answer is "no," please tell what hope we have for obeying Christ's commands for his church to be one.

Thanks.

21 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Is it possible to be united without falling into relativism? Yes. How? By find our unity in Christ - not in our understanding of Christ, or in our description of Christ, or even our doctrines about Christ, but in the living, breathing, real person of Christ. Since Christ is a living, breathing, real person, he is not relative. He is absolute.

-Alan

Eric said...

Thanks Alan. As I was writing this post, I was hoping you would leave a comment. I know this is "right up your alley," and I respect your opinion a great deal.

Alan Knox said...

Oh... so you're baiting me? :)

Yes, I'm very interested in this topic, and I'm looking forward to reading your further thoughts in this area.

-Alan

David Rogers said...

Eric,

I believe we will always need to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3).

At the same time, we will always need to b on guard, so that we "no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph. 4:14).

These two things can often seem to be in tension. But I believe a careful study of God's Word, a strong commitment to be obedient no matter the cost, and a dependence on the Holy Spirit can help us to be faithful in both.

How? There are a lot of things that could be said about this, that would take up pages and pages. I'll look forward to reading your views, and dialoguing further with you on this in the upcoming posts.

Leah said...

Hi Eric. I thought over your question and I think the answer is yes, the church can be united without falling into relativism. I think the "how" is how we practically live out unity. If I focus on loving and serving my brothers and sisters in day-to-day, practical ways, then I can be united with them. I can differ with them in opinion over doctrine, but if I am humble before them, I can never use our differences as an excuse to divide myself from them. I think this approach will take humility and the intentional giving of my time to bring unity - two things that most of us find ourselves short on.

Goblin said...

Obviously I, like most of us, love the sound of what Alan has written here and willgive a hearty 'Amen' to it.
BUT, what does this look like in practice? How does it work on the practical day to day level of how we are going to agree to do church and live out the gospel?
So do we all agree our unity is in Christ - and then go off into our secondary level agreement groups as before? Or do we agree our unity is in Christ - and then say 'anything goes' with regard to any other issue?
HELP!

Eric said...

David,

I'm glad you brought up the fact that we can both be united and be faithful to scripture. We often make the mistake of viewing these two as opposites when they should go together.

Eric said...

Leah,

I agree with you that humility of attitude is extremely important when seeking unity. We really can get past many of our differences when we look to put others before ourselves.

Eric said...

Goblin,

I understand your feelings completely. I certainly don't have all the answers.

I'm still trying to figure out how those seeking unity can also be faithful to their biblical convictions when many of these are almost impossible to overcome. For example, how can Christ-loving Presbyterians/Lutherans/Methodists/etc. and Baptists have church together when their understandings of baptism are so different? I'm still working on it.

Joe Blackmon said...

Eric

Ok, this is something of a challenge for me. I would concur that we have to be willing to accept the fact that some people have different interpretations about Scripture that we do and we can’t let minor differences become an issue where it becomes divisive. For me, it becomes an issue of not violating my conscience as it relates to my understanding of God’s Word. In other words, there are some things that I can say I have no problem agreeing to disagree about. For instance, I happen to be a cesassionist (ok, I totally misspelled that word) but I would not make a big deal about it with someone who disagreed with me. However, I would not permit my family to be in a church, for instance, where women were members of the pastorate because of my convictions based on my study of the Word. I’m not sure how I came to the decision as to where I would draw the line. However, I appreciate your post for giving me some food for thought in the area. Thanks.

Eric said...

Joe,

Thanks for your comment. I think I'm currently dealing with/struggling with some of the same issues you are.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

Like I said on my blog, I'm really looking forward to how you continue this train of thought.

I realize that it is difficult to put steps and procedures to what it means to be "united in Christ", but perhaps steps and procedures are not required. We also have life "in Christ", and we have righteouness "in Christ", but we don't have to have steps or procedures to describe how we "get" those. Perhaps unity is similar.

I also understand the difficulty in maintaining unity with those who have different convictions about Scripture. Of course, even as Joe said, we're willing to remain united with people who differ according to some convictions, but we're not willing to remain united with people who differ according to other convictions.

My question: How do we decide which convictions to hold firmly to even to the point of disunity, and which convictions to hold with more humility allowing others to believe differently while maintaining unity? I'm not asking which convictions / beliefs those are; I'm asking, "How do we decide what they are?" What becomes our source or authority for making that decision? Should we decide based on our own "convictions"?

-Alan

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Because my earthly siblings and I vigorously disagree on some issues, even to the point of not speaking to one another, our disagreement CAN NEVER sever our blood relationship with one another.

Because my spiritual siblings and I vigorously disagree on some issues, even to the point of not speaking to one another, our disagreement CAN NEVER sever the spiritual relationship which Christ has purchased with His blood.

I suspect that far too many of us are seeking UNANIMITY rather than recognizing that we already have UNITY. In doing so we fail to do that for which every believer is called.

We would do well to heed God's wisdom to the Ephesians through Paul,"THEREFORE I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift.

As well, far too many of us have an individualistic view of salvation; individualistic as regards individuals, local churches, or denominations.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. BY THIS all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

The question isn't about relativism. It's about objectivism:The existence of truths independent of what we think or perceive,"For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ".

Unlike the Ephesians whom Paul said were "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone", the ONLY foundation for His congregation recognized in Scripture,we are trying to add materials that are very flimsy indeed.

Eric said...

Alan,

You pose an excellent question that I think many of us are dealing with. We all sense a need for unity. We also sense a need for biblical fidelity. Can they both occur at the same time? I sure hope so.

One interesting situation would be a group of believers who want to be united, but who cannot agree on whether or not scripture is authoritative. How would we handle that? If some do not agree with scriptural truth, then we arrive at relativism.

I'm enjoying this discussion, and I hope it spurs us all more towards humility and unity.

Eric said...

John,

Thank you for commenting.

That passage from Eph. 4 is very convicting. The emphasis on unity cannot be avoided.

I also appreciate your mentioning that we can be united without having uniformity in all things.

Even if we do not have all the answers on this subject, I'm still glad we are discussing it. I wish more people desired unity, especially those in my own battle-weary denomination (SBC).

Bethany W. said...

Eric,
I am struggling with the idea that the authority of Scripture and the truth of Scripture are secondary issues. I think we can all agree to disagree on minor issues so long as we all agree that the Bible is the only auhtority to our lives and doctrine.
Bethany

Bethany W. said...

To Alan (and Eric)-
You said unity can be found in Jesus? But, How can we know who Jesus Christ is except through Scripture? If we cannot agree that Scripture is the only authority then our image of Jesus could be quite varied.

Eric said...

Bethany,

I'm suggesting that the authority of scripture is a secondary issue to some Christians, not all. I will say that I think a person can be a Christian while at the same time not believing that the entire bible is true and/or authoritative. I would certainly feel bad for that person and would wonder how they pick and choose which parts of scripture to believe, but I still think they can be saved.

I agree with you that scripture must be our authority. If not, then we do fall into relativism. We must agree on a source of authority to look to in order to see how we can be united in spite of having some differences.

The bible must be the only place we look.

Alan Knox said...

Bethany,

You asked, "How can we know who Jesus Christ is except through Scripture?" First, I do believe that Scripture is authoritative, and I believe that Scripture reveals Jesus Christ to us. However, Scripture is not the only way that God communicates to us, nor is Scripture the only way that Jesus is revealed to us. Scripture itself tells us of many, many ways that God communicates and reveals himself to his people. God will not contradict himself, so when he reveals himself - whether through Scripture or some other means - it will not contradict what he has already revealed, i.e. through Scripture.

Eric,

I agree that we must begin with Scripture because Scripture is authoritative. Do we then begin with Scripture in determining which "doctrines" are worthy of separation? Do we allow Scripture to be authoritative in this instance as well? Could there be instances where WE decide that we cannot live in unity because of disagreements about a certain doctrine, and yet Scripture maintains differently? Which becomes our authority? I think our actions will reveal what is truly our authority in those situations.

-Alan

Bethany W. said...

Alan,
Thank you for your reply to me. I will give more thought to what you said.
Bethany

davidtjordan said...

I'm studying the book of Jude and basically, he is warning the Church that some had crept into the church with false doctrine. Jude's exhortation is that we "....contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."

He goes on to describe the apostates that had infiltrated the early church, so the real Christ followers could recognize their subtle, but dangerous alteration of the Gospel.

Can we have unity in the Church? I'd argue that we CAN, provided we base all our doctrine strictly around the TRUE Gospel- that was ONCE AND FOR ALL given to the saints. Where is this found? Scripture; the whole of scripture in its intended context as given originally to the church from God through the apostles.

Aside from this, I'd say that some who claim to be 'in the church' are really just wolves in sheep's clothing. Unity cannot and will not be achieved with apostates. Scripture forbids it.

David
davidtjordan.wordpress.com