September 18, 2016.
Ramifications of the reformation.
It is an understatement to say that there is a lot of division in the church today. Though it seems that people have been divisive from the beginning (see I Corinthians 1-3), today the amount of separation in the entirety of Christendom is both disheartening and damaging to the gospel of Christ in the world. I believe the reformation actually paved the way for the type of division we see in the church today. Whereas I do think the reformation served a good purpose, as there was great corruption and unbiblical teaching being propagated in the Catholic church, I also believe that it did terrible things in terms of our unity. Division as we see it today didn’t start at the onset of the reformation (only three or four groups emerged during this time period), the stage was set for “I can interpret the bible in any way that I want, and if you don’t agree with me, then we are going to split.” And since then we have, and we continue to do so, even to the point where the things that we split over have no doctrinal grounding whatsoever.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to search for truth. I think it is important that we make our faith our own and come to our convictions about the word of God through our our prayer and studying, hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Mt. 5:6), as opposed to just taking what anyone says about the bible as truth. Preachers, teachers, commentaries, scholars- these are all valuable resources and sources of wisdom, but in the end each of us will stand before our God to give an account of our own lives and practices (Rom. 14:1-12), not those of even our most well respected leaders. It is important to ask for the guidance of the Spirit and make the effort to seek God and his word for ourselves. It is important to seek truth.
Yet in our journey for truth (and sometimes for less pure motives), we seem to have lost the quest for unity. We have missed the clear teaching of singleness of the body of Christ, inserting our need to be ‘right’ (and for others to agree that we are ‘right’) as priority over unity. I do not believe that this ought to be the case for Christians. After all, it is our Lord who said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand (Mt. 12:24-26).” If this was true even for the kingdom of Satan, to whom Jesus was referring to, how much more in the kingdom of heaven?
You might be thinking, “the kingdom of God can’t fall- it’s God’s kingdom.” And you are right. Nothing will prevail against the kingdom of God (Dan. 2:44, Mt. 16:18, I Pet. 1:11). The kingdom overall will stand- but it cannot stand forever in the midst of division. This actually implies that God might have to do something we would very much like Him not to do for the sake of unity- bring in persecution and oppression. This is my plea that we seek unity now, before we must endure persecution because of the hardness of our hearts.
How do we seek unity and also seek truth at the same time? I will admit that that is a very hard question, one that I probably cannot give a comprehensive answer to in this post. However, I do want to offer some thoughts about how we can work towards this unity. One thing I do know- it is the will of God for us to be united (Jn. 17).
The question comes down to, “where do I draw the line when I disagree with someone?” Should we split over any little disagreement? Are there big enough disagreements to sacrifice unity? How should we even handle disagreements? Let’s start from what we know. There are disagreements. Period. It is highly, highly unlikely you are in complete agreement about the word of God with any other person, even your closest friend. Our God is unfathomable, and therefore we cannot know His thoughts completely and exhaustively, which leads to different interpretations on what He has said. If you don’t believe me, just start asking questions to people. Ask them what they believe about the Holy Spirit, about heaven, about Israel, about the end times, about stories in the Old Testament, about the book of Romans, about marriage and divorce, about personal sins, etc. Therefore, I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that we have to be in complete agreement on everything.
So what do we have to agree about? I’ve been seeing this answer on more and more church websites, and I actually think they’re on to something: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, it all things charity.” I don’t mention this to endorse any certain person or position, only to say that if followed with scripture, then I think a good case for this idea can be made.
Then, what are the essential things? This is where the scripture comes in. We know that there are non-essential things (Rom. 14), but is there ever a place where the New Testament argues for essential things? I don’t know if this is the only place to go to, but I think a solid foundation and starting point at least is what Paul says to the Ephesians in the fourth chapter of his letter to the church in Ephesus:
“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.”
These seven “ones” stand out to me firmly. Paul is speaking to a church that is having a lot of issues being in unity (it was a church of Jews and Gentiles that didn’t always get alone), and here he calls them to the unity of the Spirit, urging them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. We should not miss what he says before he lists the “ones” however, as these qualities are essential to unity: humility, gentleness, patience, love and eagerness. We needed strive for unity if we haven’t mastered these qualities within our own hearts, and in our bonds with one another first.
I speak from personal experience when I say that establishing these types of relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ makes unity in the midst of disagreement much easier. It doesn’t fix all problems, sure, but it goes a long, long way.
When push comes to shove, however, I do think this list is a core that we all should agree on if we are going to maintain unity.
1. One body: That is, the body of Christ, the church (Eph. 3:6, I Cor. 12:12-14, Col. 1:18, 24, Rom. 12:5). I think Paul begins with this point because of what he was addressing in the letter: division. We have to believe in the unity of the body if we are going to show a united force in the world. This goes back to the first point about the reformation. For all the corrupt things and teachings that the Catholic church was getting into, they did have one thing that they did well: oneness. Catholic even means “universal.” We have to get back to this concept. It’s not as hard as you might think- the church in China is booming, and I believe its because they have this kind of unity. How? They live under a government that is oppressive to Christianity- they have no choice but to stick together. Christianity thrives in this condition, as history can attest. I only pray that we come to our senses here before God has to bring in this type of oppression and persecution to help us out.
I also must say something here about the restoration movement. I am in a fellowship that came out of the restoration movement in the United States. The movement was founded on a beautiful premise: “Let’s just be Christians.” The founders called for everyone to come out of their traditions that had separated them for many years and just be christians together. There was a focus on restoring biblical teachings and not wearing the traditions of men. A motto of the restoration movement was, “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” Today I don’t think we really believe this motto any more, unfortunately. At least not in practice. We might say, “We are Christians only,” and then just stop there. But what was key to our moment, and key to restoring unity in the body, is to stop denying others “Christian” status just because they do things differently than us. That is what our movement was against- sectarianism, denominationalism. I think if we are honest, we have taken a rather ironic turn in the past decades, establishing the “us” vs. “them” mentality that we were against in the beginning.
We must believe in the one body.
2. One Spirit: That is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9-11). There have been many divisions in Christendom over the Spirit. This is a subject that is undoubtedly complicated. Yet, I think somehow we have even complicated more than it needs to be over the years. That being said, note here that Paul doesn’t insist that we all have to agree about every aspect about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, only that we believe in one Spirit. I find this comforting, yet convicting. Comforting because we do have may disagreements about the Spirit, but convicting because sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the theology of the Spirit that we don’t truly believe and trust in Him.
Fortunately, though there have been historical heresies involving the Spirit, I think Christians are pretty much in unison in believing in the Spirit today (at least in word). In the circles I run in and my experience, at least.
3. One hope: That is the hope of our Savior, by which hope we are saved (Rom. 8:24-25, 15:8-13). As Christians, we are unified in our forward looking towards the day of our salvation, when we will all be together with the Lord. This shared conviction can in and of itself do a lot for the spirit of unity amongst believers, especially in times of suffering.
4. One Lord: That is Jesus (Rom. 10:9). This is a big one (pun intended). One of the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and something that has been constantly challenged throughout time and cultures, is that we have one Lord, Jesus, through whom comes our salvation (John 14:6). This is at the core of Christianity, and something that we must stand united on. When we do, we increase our bond of faith, focusing on what we do agree at at the core instead of our differences on the periphery. This point can not be compromised.
5. One faith: That is, our believing loyalty in Jesus (II Cor. 13:5-6). Faith is much more than mental assent (James 2:14-26). Faith is a conscious surrender and obedience to Jesus, letting Him in charge of our lives instead of ourselves or anyone else. Note here that we cannot take this word “faith” and abuse it to make it mean anything we have interpreted to be a “matter of faith.” That would put us back in the position of dividing over any little thing that we do not fully agree with someone about. No, I think the faith here is about the heart of the believer. The faith here is a surrender to Jesus, not to our theological leaders or mindsets. This faith means that one is a follower of Christ, who has surrendered in obedience to Christ. This does mean that the follower of Christ will deny himself in the things that are clearly condemned in the word, and participate in the things that we are called to do and exhibit in the word. Our faith is in the words of Christ, not in the words of man.
We have one faith, and that is believing loyalty in Christ.
6. One baptism: That is, the baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:1-11). This seems to be a point of contention amongst some in the church today, although I don’t really know why. We probably have over complicated this teaching as well with arguments over the meaning, mode and effects of baptism. There are those who believe in multiple baptisms (e.g. the “second” baptism of the Holy Spirit). Whereas these ideas are founded on biblical passages, I think they are misapplied and obviously raise some questions about what Paul says here about “one” baptism. Paul is referring here to water baptism at the point of faith and surrender to Christ, in my view, as it is the only baptism that all believers experienced in the scriptures (see Acts 2:37-41). Baptism is about surrender, an appeal to God (I Pet. 3:21), a conscious decision to follow Christ and a public announcement of where you are placing your faith and loyalty. Paul here places the belief in baptism, one baptism, as vital to the unity of the body, as it is through baptized that we are translated into Christ (Rom. 6:3, Gal. 3:27). Perhaps we don’t have to be agreed in every nuance in the theology of baptism, but I do think it is important to stand in unity about the teaching of baptism itself and the importance thereof as an act of faith, an appeal toward God- not an act of our own to in any way gain our own salvation, but one through which He cleanses us according to His own mercy (Acts 22:16, I pet. 3:21, Titus 3:5).
7. One God: That is, God the Father (Deut. 6:4, Mark 12:29, I Corinthians 8:6). Notice what Paul has done in this list- he started with the Spirit, then moved to Jesus and then finishes with the Father. In the seven “ones,” Paul uplifts the trinity as being “one” but all three. Again, this has always been a hard concept to understand, but one that is seen as vital to the faith. Several historical heresies have had to do with the doctrine of the trinity. Again, it is important to note that Paul doesn’t say we have to understand everything about it or agree about every little aspect of it, just that we believe in one Spirit, one Lord, and one God. All three, all one. Where this teaching finds its practical persecution from the world today, however, is in the teaching that there are many ways to heaven. There are many faiths, or one god is as good as another. This is against the core of Christianity, as explained earlier. In biblical teaching, God has always been one, who is over all, through all and in all. We must believe in one God.
Those are the seven “ones” that Paul gives. Does that mean everything else is non-essential? I don’t know to be honest. I would suggest maybe, as this seems to be the core of Christianity, but not in the sense that we can just believe whatever we want. Our heart has to be in the right place, always seeking to find the truth, never trying solely to justify our own actions or positions.
Many, if not most, of the things that we disagree and divide about today, however, do not fall into the categories listed above. Some do, especially when a clear (explicit) command is violated in the name of grace (see one faith). But most have to do with the way we worship or our personal opinions (see Romans 14). I think starting with and focusing on the core beliefs that Paul gives to the Ephesians is a very good place to start to seek unity. And I believe each and every one of us should be seeking unity. Perhaps I will write a more extensive post on non-essential things later on. For now, lets focus on how we can mend the division that we have inflicted on the body of Christ, of which we should be gravely ashamed.
I fully believe that it is the will of God that we are all unified in Christ, and therefore I do not believe that it is impossible. Hard? Yes. Impossible by our own will? Yes. But through humility and the power of the Spirit, I think we can attain this unity. And I will do anything I can for reconciliation.
Will you do the same?
Suggested Reading: Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 14, I Corinthians 1, 3, 12.
We are one.