One of the last things that Jesus did in His earthly ministry before He went to the cross was to pray to His Father that all of His followers “be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.” Yet one of the biggest problems His first leaders had to address just a decade or two later was disagreement and disunity on issues of Christian doctrine. Listen to Paul plead with his Corinthian converts: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” And this remains one of the greatest challenge the Church faces in the 21st century. For today there are tens of thousands of unique Christian “denominations.” Nearly all agree on the central doctrines of the Christian faith as defined in the Apostles Creed; yet the focus too often is on the differences defined by traditions, rites and issues of the authority of apostolic succession, eschatology, and papal primacy.
I was born into the largest of Christian denominations and I was taught to fear and avoid “those people” and places of worship of other denominations. It brings to mind an instance in the life of Jesus when He straightened out the misguided thinking of a woman he met at a well in Samaria. In the ancient world, there was no greater a mutually contemptuous hostility between people groups than that held by the Jews and the Samaritans. It was partially politically based and partially religious. And Jesus’ response to the woman’s attempt to debate the issue of where best to worship God was the following: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain (Mount Gerizim), nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
I remember the first time I saw the musical South Pacific. I immediately went out and bought the album. Then a few years after it was remade for TV, I bought the DVD. I watch it periodically. I’ve always liked the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I also never wanted to forget the destructive nature of fear for people one chooses not to understand or have a relationship with, a central theme portrayed so dramatically. In the film, love ultimately overcomes that fear for those who survive the ignorance and hatred of the people around them who try to drag them down to their level. One of the most provocative songs of the musical could have been taken directly out of the Bible. “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid – of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
It took me thirty-seven years to find out how to worship God in spirit and in truth. And when I did, I found I had become one of “those people,” to be feared and avoided by many of my former closest friends and relatives. While the Church around the world faces the fires and persecution of the prince of darkness, intent on its total destruction, I have a difficult time understanding why Christians themselves stand in circles with flamethrowers aimed at each other, helping the enemy. Evangelist and author Ray Comfort recently reminded many of his readers, “Every moment that you and I spend arguing about theological interpretation is time we have lost forever that could have been spent in prayer for the unsaved or in seeking to save that which is lost.” The Apostle Paul said it this way: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Is it possible that two opposing truths can walk together? All that is missing is some information for them to harmonize. “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” The day will come when we will understand all things, and it is then that we will be glad that we didn’t cause division in the Church, and “sow discord among brethren,” which is something God hates.
Consider for example the Calvinist, the Arminian and the Catholic positions on the state of the human soul, election and grace. The Calvinist belief is in the soul’s total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The Arminian position is at odds with each, contending that apart from grace man cannot save himself or do anything truly good, conditional election, unlimited atonement, resistible grace, and the possibility of apostasy. Then the Catholic position partially agrees and partially disagrees with the Calvinists and partially agrees and partially disagrees with the Arminians. Believers on all sides point to a multitude of verses to back their theology. Just don’t let your choice cut you off from others in the Body of Christ who may believe differently.
Great men and women of God admit they don’t have all the answers, and put God’s priorities ahead of their personal and denominational prejudices. The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon proclaimed divine sovereignty, yet he also preached man’s responsibility, although he admitted that he didn’t understand how they fit together. He exhorted sinners: “Believe in Jesus, and though you are now in slippery places your feet shall soon be set upon a rock of safety.” And he preached that it is the sinner’s responsibility to trust in the Savior: “Trust Christ with your soul and He will save it. I know you will not do this unless the Holy Spirit constrains you, but this does not remove your responsibility.”
I recently heard a message given by another great man, one of the staunchest advocates of the Calvinist position on predestination, John Piper. Yet this particular message talked about the importance of defining terms and establishing assumptions – something that often eliminates 90% of our theological disagreements. Though my position is not Calvinist, I happen to agree with all eight of his assumptions. See what you think about them.
1. The Bible is the infallible Word of God, verbally inspired by God, without error in its original manuscripts.
2. Being faithful to Holy Scripture is more important than being faithful to either Calvinism or Arminianism.
3. Right thinking about what the Bible teaches about God and man and salvation really matters. Bad teaching dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but will eventually wither and turn into something different than a Christian church.
4. The work of the Holy Spirit and the pursuing of His work in prayer is essential for grasping the truth of Scripture.
5. Thinking is essential for grasping Biblical truths.
6. God ordains that there be teachers in the church to help the Body grasp and apply the truth of Scripture.
7. Like all fallen, finite humans, we “see in a mirror dimly.” We don’t know everything there is to know and we don’t know anything perfectly. Nor do we claim to see what we know more clearly than anyone else may see it. But we have a spirit of faith – so we know many things truly and confidently, because of God’s revelation and His Holy Spirit. This is knowledge for which we each should be willing to die.
8. Nevertheless, there remain things that God has not chosen to reveal to us. So we must be content with mystery.
I’m positive that most leaders of those thousands of distinct Christian denominations would contend that their traditions and rites and doctrinal positions are based on a love of the truth. Yet I suggest that if its fruit is disunity and fear and avoidance of other Christian brothers and sisters, they are more likely rooted in sinful pride. Be careful!