Friday, May 9, 2008

Unity Without Relativism - Some Suggestions

The bible is clear that God desires unity for His church.

As Christians, we have unity in Jesus Christ.

When we discuss subjects such as unity, disagreement, and doctrine, a large dose of humility is a key.

Scriptural authority and truth are of great importance. We should always test our beliefs and practice by comparing them to scripture.

How do we deal with this? How can we have unity without falling prey to relativism? I certainly do not have a step-by-step process (nor do I think one exists), but I do have some suggestions. Some of these may have come from your comments.

-We need to move beyond thinking that theological differences automatically mean that we should separate. In my denomination (SBC), we have a tendency to argue over just about anything and everything. This should not be the case.

-We should pray earnestly for the unity of the body.

-When we disagree on an issue, we should pray that God will keep us united as we discuss it.

-We must accept the fact that we can be incorrect. I'm not suggesting relativism, but rather humility.

-Keeping Galatians 1:8-9 in mind, we should look at whether or not the subject of disagreement in any way harms the gospel message (not the truth of the gospel, but our proclamation of it).

-As believers, we ought to search the scriptures together, with humble and truth-seeking attitudes, desiring to discern exactly what the bible teaches about what is disagreed upon.

-If we cannot agree, we are left in a difficult spot. For most of us, this seems to be the crux of the issue. What do we do in these situations?

I have a suggestion. I realize my answer may not please very many of you, but here it is anyway: when we come to a place where we cannot agree due to biblical convictions and conscience, I propose that we remain united in spirit, but not gather on a regular basis for worship and mutual edification. In other words, we remain united with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we only gather with those who are like-minded on certain core issues. What are those issues? Beyond the gospel, I think there are probably not very many of them. This is where scripture and conscience will have to decide.

In my case there are a few issues that would keep me from gathering with other believers for regular worship services if we were in disagreement. Those issues (stated in the positive) are the truth of scripture, the authority of scripture, believer's baptism, male elder/pastors, one man-one woman marriages, and spiritual gifts being used for the edification of the body. There may be a few more, but I can't think of them at the moment.

I consider myself to be united with all other Christians as I go about my life. I'm excited to meet and talk with anyone who is a follower of Jesus Christ. We share a special bond that I do not have with non-believers. However, this does not mean that I will automatically join with this person in a local church. I would first want to find out what he believes about the above issues.

Let's take an example - baptism. In general, Christians either believe that it is biblical and good for infants to be baptized, or it is unbiblical for infants to be baptized. I do not see how these two positions can be reconciled within the local church. No one has ever explained it to me. Are those who find no biblical support for infant baptism (like me) supposed to support parents who baptize their infants? Is this good in order to keep unity?

R. C. Sproul is one of my modern-day heroes. He is one of my two favorite writers (John Piper is the other). He is a strong Christian man. I hope I grown in Christ to be like Sproul someday. However, if you know anything about him, you know that Sproul is a big proponent of infant baptism. How could we have church together? I'm still waiting for someone to explain this to me.

I heartily support the unity of the body of Christ. However, holding to our biblical convictions is also important. Humbly accepting the fact that we are fallible creatures, we ought to strive for unity with all other Christians. However, this should not be unity at all costs. God's commands for us to be united do not suggest complete unity (uniformity) no matter what.

This is certainly a difficult issue to work through. Let's remain united in spirit with all Christians. However, let's also let scripture and conscience lead us in deciding which doctrines are worth standing up for.

As always, please let me know what you think. Thanks.

17 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I appreciate the thought that went into this post. As you know, I agree with you on the "few issues that would keep [you] from gathering with other believers". I think your explanations are well reasoned. However, I think what you explain is exactly what we see today, and would lead to the same divisions that we see today.

Why? Because the "issues" are things that are important to you. What if I choose a different set of issues? What if I decide that I can' gather with other believers who disagree with me on taking the Lord's Supper as a meal, mutual participation when the church gathers, and non-salaried pastors? I would argue that my list of issues are just as scriptural as "the truth of scripture, the authority of scripture, believer's baptism, male elder/pastors, one man-one woman marriage, and spiritual gifts being used for the edification of the body."

However, if we allow Scripture to be authoritative, we don't see Scripture telling us to "keep from gathering with other believers" based on any of these issues. Do we allow Scripture to be authoritative or not? Why not let Scripture tell us the "issues" over which to separate?

Perhaps gathering with people who believe differently will be difficult - especially when those disagreements occur over issues that are very important to us. But, is unity really unity when its only realized with those who agree with us? I think Jesus said in Matthew 5 that love isn't really love when it is only demonstrated toward those who love us back. Perhaps, as difficult as it would be, true unity is demonstrated specifically in cases of disagreement over issues that are very important to us. Perhaps, that is when we no only demonstrate unity, but we also demonstrate love, peace, humility, gentleness, and it is when we show that we are thinking of others as more important than ourselves.

Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Yes, unless we allow the Spirit to do something that we know that we can't do on our own. Of course, if we continue to separate from one another, we don't even allow the Spirit to do it.

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

Thanks for responding. I was hoping that you would.

If the pattern that I suggest here is followed, there will certainly be divisions along some of the denominational lines we see today. However, I don't think there will be as many divisions within denominations. As we know, most church splits/divisions occur because of power struggles, not because of theological issues.

I also realize that my list of issues may seem somewhat subjective. This is where I am relying on scripture and the Holy Spirit to guide. When I read the command for unity, I don't necessarily see a command to gather together with those who seem to be in blatant violation of scripture. Am I united with them as brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes. Will I gather regularly with them to study the scriptures and practice the ordinances? No.

I truly want unity. However, I don't see how Christians can be united when some of these issues cannot be agreed upon. Take issues such as baptism or the authority of scripture. How can people who disagree on these issues gather on a regular basis? The answer I often read to this question is that we need to be humble and stay united. That sounds good theoretically, but how does it actually play out in the gathering of the body?

What about an issue like women in the pastorate? If I am part of a body that decides that a woman will do the preaching, I am to remain there and listen to her preach even if she is violating scripture?

What happens if a church decides to allow homosexuals to be practicing members? Should I remain there despite this?

I'm not trying to split hairs or bring up issues that do not matter. These are all real-world issues in our churches today. Are we to remain united no matter what the theological differences? When I ask that question, I'm not referring to the gospel because I know we agree on that one.

In other words, do you think there is any dividing line other than the gospel? If not, how do these differences play out in the church?

Steve Sensenig said...

It's always refreshing to see other brothers and sisters thinking through these concerns, and I definitely appreciate your heart in these posts. (And thanks to Alan for letting us know about them.)

I think, however, that your solution of "unity in spirit, but not in fellowship" is a step in the wrong direction. And as Alan said, that's pretty much what is already going on in the body of Christ today. It strikes me as trying to have it both ways. Unity really means nothing if we can't actually walk together, in my opinion.

Your example of infant baptism is, ironically, the one that I think is one of the easiest to reconcile. If both sides are approaching the subject with humility and grace, I see no reason why one could not fellowship with the other.

The humility and grace would mean that the one believing in infant baptism would not pressure the other to baptize his infant. And likewise, the one not believing in it would not belittle the faith of the other for practicing it.

It would seem to me that throughout the course of time together, perhaps one might be persuaded to the others point of view, but not because one is demanding it or pushing the issue.

That's a lengthy comment, but one I hope is not out of line. I think you're to be commended for wanting to think through this issue, and seeking to follow scripture in this regard. But separating over matters of practice or "secondary matters" is not found in scripture.

Eric said...

Steve,

Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your input to this discussion.

Let me say again that I think unity is very important. My hope is to push for unity more than it is to create dividing lines. I hope that desire came across in this post.

I see what you are saying about the baptism issue. Although I differ in opinion with you on this, I very much appreciate your spelling out for me how people of differing beliefs on baptism could gather together.

The trouble I have with this is that it seems to suggest that outside of the gospel, all beliefs are valid. I realize that baptism is a difficult issue, with many great minds on both sides of the issue. But what about an obvious sin issue such as homosexuality? Many churches today that would claim the truth of the gospel are also saying homosexuality is O.K. Do we continue to join in these situations? If each member decides what he believes, it appears that we end up with the "gospel + relativism."

If you have time to respond, please let me know how a body of believers would deal with a sin issue such as this one. This is not a challenge as much as it is an honest question. I'd just want to know how it would work out. Thanks.

David Rogers said...

Eric,

I hate not having a shorter reply to you here, but my best suggestion, if you are really interested in pursuing this is to read the 3 articles by John Woodhouse that I link to on this post on my blog. He speaks very specifically and insightfully into the very questions you are bringing up here.

In the meantime, I wanted to throw out the idea that it may be practical and appropriate to meet with other believers who disagree with us on certain points on certain occasions and certain settings, while it is impractical and inappropriate to meet with them on other occasions and settings. Therefore, I don't see the real bottom-line issue being one of "meeting together" or not "meeting together."

Eric said...

David,

Thank you for the link. I plan to take a good look at those articles.

Thanks also for your second paragraph. I'll have to give that more thought.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I appreciate the way that you are responding to the comments here. You are certainly putting alot of thought into this topic, and I think that's great! I know that I still have much thinking and doing when it comes to unity.

I understand your concern about gathering with people who are "violating Scripture". Might I suggest that you gather with people who "violate Scripture" every time that you gather with people? Even when you gather with people who "agree" with you? The issue is not whether or not someone is sinning - they are and you are and everyone is. The question is: How are you dealing with the sins of other believers and how are you allowing other believers to deal with your sins?

Could it be that separating from other believers - refusing to gather with them - is actually keeping the Spirit from using you to mature them, and keeping the Spirit from using them to mature you? Remember, if we separate from someone because we disagree with them, we are assuming from the start that we are right, they are wrong, and there's nothing anyone - including the Spirit - can do about that.

One other point... and this is one that convicts me all the time: Scripture does not tell us to separate from someone because they sin (although unrepentant sin is different), nor because they disagree with us, nor because they do not practice baptism the way we understand it. However, Scripture does tell believers to separate from those who are being divisive. Could our actions of separating from others because of disagreements be an example of divisiveness?

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I agree with you that we are all sinners, and that when we gather we are all sinners in need of God's grace. However, when someone holds to unbiblical positions that negatively impact practice within the church, then there is a significant problem. Whenever possible, these issues should be worked out. I just can't hold to a unity no matter what position. The reason for this is that it seems to suggest a "gospel + relativism" position.

I realize I can be incorrect, but I also think scripture is clear enough on many issues beyond the gospel. When we continue to gather with those who support unbiblical positions, it seems to me that we are supporting those positions by our mere presence.

You asked, "Could our actions of separating from others because of disagreements be an example of divisiveness?" That is a good question. I suppose it would depend a lot on attitude. If anything is done in arrogance, then it can certainly be divisive. However, if we approach the situation in humility then I don't think that is the case.

I guess this is an areas where we will just have to "agree to disagree." I very much appreciate your wanting unity within the body of Christ. We need more people issuing a clarion call for unity.

Steve Sensenig said...

I, too, appreciate your responses, Eric. And I'm sorry I did not get a chance to respond sooner to your thoughtful question. Two graduation ceremonies today (one to play at, one to attend and enjoy) and family time have kept me away from the computer most of the day since commenting earlier.

First of all, I think that there seems to be some confusion between matters of practice/doctrine (i.e., baptism) and matters of sin (i.e., homosexuality). So, it appears that your question is mixing categories a bit.

Doctrinal issues require humility and grace when fellowshipping with others who differ from us. There is room for "conscience" to be allowed and for differences to be "tolerated" (I can't think of a different word at the moment, but please don't read all the cultural baggage into that word).

When dealing with areas of sin, however, there is a requirement for...well, actually, that requires humility and grace, too! ;) But there is definitely a need to address sin (e.g., 1 Cor 5, Gal 6, etc.) whereas the issues of practice might not need to be addressed so much as brought up in dialogue. Know what I mean?

Now, if you take the position that holding incorrect doctrine is sin, then there's not much I can say that will be at all tolerable to you in this topic. :)

Anyway, I think you should definitely give a lot of weight to Alan's advice here. He has spoken wisely and (in my opinion) correct biblically.

You wrote: I realize I can be incorrect, but I also think scripture is clear enough on many issues beyond the gospel. When we continue to gather with those who support unbiblical positions, it seems to me that we are supporting those positions by our mere presence.

Since you had mentioned several issues in this post and comments, I assume that you are referring to those issues.

But the humility part says, "I think scripture is really clear on this, but my counterparts also think THEIR position is clear biblically." It is natural for us to think that our positions are clear biblically -- else we probably wouldn't hold to them! ;)

By all means, believe that the Bible is clear on credobaptism, but also allow there to be dialogue between you and your paedobaptist brothers. One of you may end up switching sides.

Let me give you an example from my own life: I was raised in a pre-trib dispensational upbringing. I studied at two schools known for their rabid attachment to dispensationalism and the pre-trib rapture. I was convinced that the Bible was "clear" on this topic and that the case was closed. I considered post-tribbers to be heretics. Possibly not even saved, ya know?

...Until I was challenged to defend the position myself. And by golly, I couldn't do it. The passages that I knew were the cornerstone of the pre-trib view ended up not saying what I had been taught they said.

Now, if I had only hung around pre-tribbers and not fellowshipped with anyone outside that camp, I would never have been challenged to rethink my position. But the challenge that I received from fellow believers caused me to dive into the scripture in a way I had never done before. And my life is SO much richer for it! Not because I altered my position, but because I started exercising humility in the positions I held. I had come to the conclusion that I was wrong after 30 years of believing one particular way.

This has happened in many areas of my faith and practice. Is that because I'm a spineless wimp "tossed about by every wind of doctrine"? I think not. It was because I didn't qualify the "I could be wrong" with "but the scripture is really clear on this." That's not really being open to the possibility that you could be wrong.

Sometimes we realize through interaction with brothers and sisters of different viewpoints that what we thought were really clear teachings in scripture were mostly just propped up by our other doctrines. And sometimes when you remove one piece of that puzzle, there's a lot of shifting that takes place.

Bottom line? I can't make you fellowship with me (and based on this post, you probably would not want to!). But I don't have to shut you out if you change your mind. Alan has spoken wisely, however, about the issue of divisiveness. Weigh his words carefully, and ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom.

Great discussion, and thank you for your tone in it. Blessings, brother!

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I appreciate your concern. I certainly don't hold to a "gospel + relativism" position, nor would I suggest that anyone should hold onto unity "no matter what". I do not think those positions would be scriptural.

My concern - and this is just a concern, because I'm still thinking all of this through as well - is that the position that you've stated, which is the position that I've lived by all my life - is not scriptural either.

I do believe that there are reasons to separate, but I believe we should take those reasons from Scripture - that is, allow Scripture to be authoritative in this aspect of our lives as well. This is certainly not a "relativistic" position, since it is based in Scripture.

I think that there were many, many problems and disagreements among the churches mentioned in the New Testament. Yet, even in the face of these many important disagreements, separation was rarely the answer. Today, separation seems to be the default answer when people disagree on important matters. I'm simply suggesting that we follow Scripture in this as well.

-Alan

Rhea said...

Eric:

I agree whole-heartedly that humility is the key here for dealing

Eric said...

Steve and Alan,

Thanks for writing back. Let me say again that I am glad that there are Christians who are so concerned for the unity of the body. We need many more.

I also appreciate your attitudes of humility when discussing this issue. I (unfortunately) read much in the blogosphere that is both arrogant and purposely divisive.

I think we three all agree that unity is to be desired. No doubt there.

We also agree that the gospel is a dividing line.

The key difference between us seems to be whether there are other points of division after the gospel. Based on what I've written, you see that I believe there are.

I have no desire for disunity; however, I just don't see church being viable if we don't stand up for critical issues.

Alan, you've mentioned being faithful to the scriptural command for unity. I don't think this is an all or nothing issue. I can be united with Christian friends who disagree with me on issues such as baptism. I share a bond with them that cannot be broken and I rejoice with them in Christ. However, I will not celebrate an infant being baptized with them. I will not listen to a woman preach. I will not be a part of a worship service where speaking in tongues occurs without interpretation.

Humility is important. Along with that, I think we can know for certain scriptural truth besides just the basics of the gospel.

In summary, I'm not looking for division. In fact, I deeply desire unity. However, I still believe there are points where we as Christians should take a stand for what we believe.

Thanks again for your input in this matter. You've given me a lot to ponder. In fact, this is the main thing I've been thinking about for the last few days.

Eric

Eric said...

Rhea,

Your comment seems to have been cut off in mid-stream. However, I'm glad to see that we agree on the importance of humility.

Aussie John said...

Eric,

My dear brother! I repeat what I once wrote to you: You are a carbon copy of what I was like as a young, virile Christian wanting to be utterly faithful, and wanting to make sure my wife and developing family were in a truly Biblical environment.

The issues you have raised are identical with those I raised, and debated and argued about.

When I attended the conferences of fellow Baptist pastors I found I was amongst a rats-nest of men who resembled identically with what is happening in your SBC at present. That was more than thirty years ago, and nothing has changed, and they are still debating the same issues which you have raised, plus a few more.

Both Alan, David and Steve have given you wise counsel, which, looking back, I wish I had had. Then,I would have most likely disregarded it. I had to discover it the hard way.

I am so glad that it is our Sovereign God who searches the hearts of men, and not I. As far as I can see, there is only one criteria He has to make a man my brother in Christ, with whom I can worship our common Lord.

Eric said...

John,

Thanks for your advice. I'm going to have to continue to give this some thought.

The SBC is a mess - I'll certainly agree with you on that. My big concern there is that it seems that many in leadership positions don't want unity at all.

Cindy said...

Eric (and Alan, Steve, & John), I so appreciate this topic of discussion & the answers that each of you have given! It is refreshing to see brothers discuss a loaded, potentially heated, topic with such grace and humility. Thank you! Also, this topic hits close to home for me also, as I have dealt with & continue to deal with matters of spiritual unity with those who do not see Scripture exactly as I do. I grew up in the United Methodist Church, then when I was 22, I moved to the Assemblies of God--major differences there in worship styles and faith practices!, spent the next 25 yrs in the A/G or similar non-denominational pentecostal congregations, and now have transitioned into a Messianic home fellowship where I/we've been since 2004. My adult children, those who are following the Lord at all that is, are still in good evangelical Christian congregations, but there are now issues where we are not in agreement, such as the practice of Christmas, Easter vs. the Biblical feasts which God commanded His people to observe. We are all trying NOT to let these differences divide us as a family and to maintain "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Even within the Messianic community, there are many divisive issues, much as there are in all the Christian denominations or between denominations. Guess that's because no matter which denomination or bunch of people you fellowship with, we all have our own ideas about what Scripture means re: certain issues and aren't willing to look past our own interpretations. A long time ago, the LORD pointed out to me that there are two sides to every coin; both sides look quite different, yet both are "right", and both still make up ONE coin. I think that's a lot of what is happening when we have disagreements about certain doctrinal or theological issues. As long as we insist that our side of the coin is the only "right" side of the coin, indeed the only side there is to the coin at all, then there can never be unity, but if we will recognize that there can be two "right" sides to the coin and maybe even be willing to look at that other side with a humble and teachable heart, unity could be realized. I am certainly NOT suggesting that issues such as homosexuality in the church, which Eric mentioned, or other sins being accepted as normative Christian practice, where there are definitive Scriptural commands, follow with the coin analogy. But it seems to me that the analogy does fit where we are talking about theological or doctrinal differences, such as baptism, women preachers, speaking in tongues, and reformation theology, as examples. Just like you, I am struggling with these things in certain areas also. I believe that there are things that can and should cause us to separate from certain people who call themselves Christians (thinking here of Paul's command to the Corinthians to separate from amongst them the man who was sexually involved with his mother and in 1 Cor 5:11 and 2 John), bearing in mind the Scripture that says "bad company ruins good morals" and the admonition to "come out from among them, and be ye separate". There IS a place for separation from others who profess to be believers. I think, sadly however, too many use these Scriptures as an excuse to divide from other brethren who disagree with them on theological & doctrinal issues that are not specifically commanded in Scripture as areas of no compromise. Eph 4:1-7 (ESV) "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift." Take care, brothers, and may the grace of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah be with you!
Love in our Messiah,
Cindy in Wisconsin

Eric said...

Cindy,

Thanks for commenting on this blog.

I am also glad that we can discuss an issue like this in humility. It's sad that many Christians become so angry when talking about these things.

These are difficult issues. I think we all sense a deep need to be united as followers of Jesus Christ. We also want to obey scripture as faithfully as we possibly can. That's where the difficulty arises.

I understand what you are saying about the two sides of the coin. I'm not quite in agreement with you on two sides both being right, but I do certainly think God gives His grace and forgiveness to those Christians who are incorrect (whoever they may be). Take the issue of baptism for example. I don't see how those who baptize unbelievers (infants) and those who do not can both be correct. That seems to go against the law of non-contradiction.

However, I will say that we should all be gracious and loving with those we disagree with. We must remember that followers of Jesus are brothers and sisters in Christ. We may have some doctrinal disagreements, but we should remain united in our shared faith in Christ.

Thanks again.

Eric