“We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity may one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love”
I’ve been part of a few theological discussions in my time. Some of these have been very worthwhile exercises helping me to figure out my beliefs. Other times they were lessons in pride – mine and others’ as we struggled to be right for the sake of being right.
I am now weary of such discussion particularly between people who don’t have personal relationships with one another. The internet is great a fostering such conversations. While I don’t want to dismiss the possible value in these discussions for everyone, I’ve often found them to be discouraging and disheartening.
Theology is important. It is practical and it is affecting – at least it should be. I do not want to downplay its importance nor do I want to parrot the cry “doctrine divides” although that is true in a practical sense. Division is not all bad, of course. We are called to be separate from the world. We are called to forsake false teaching. But at what point do we call something false teaching?
In the Christian life you encounter a series of seemingly paradoxical truths. We are saved by grace, not by works, but works demonstrate true saving faith. We believe God doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes yet He wants us to be involved in His work on the Earth. We are given righteousness when we are saved but the work of making us perfect is not complete until heaven. God is three persons and yet one God. Things like that are not easy to reconcile in our imperfect minds. Anyone who says it is easy – I’m really not sure that they’re taking the Bible or their brethren seriously.
Some strive after the best understanding of the Word they can have; others only see what they want to see in the pages of Scripture or ignore it altogether. It’s about the heart of the reader ultimately. Those of us who approach the Bible with right attitudes frequently come up with differing conclusions about all kinds of matters.
I recently observed a theological debate online. The topic is not important to this discussion. Suffice it to say that it was not a salvation issue. One party in the discussion considered the opposing party’s view contrary to the Bible while the other party considered both views as being “within the pale of orthodoxy.” Further, the first person on insisted that Christians ought to be in 100% agreement over theological issues based on 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
I had never heard such a thing before. The context of this verse was the quarreling in the Corinthian church. Paul informs us that different factions were claiming to follow different authorities: Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ. It strikes me that seeing this verse as meaning that all Christians should be in 100% agreement on all matters of theology is a stretch though I could be very wrong.
This person went on to say that while he didn’t question the other person’s salvation and would still pray for them, he would not fellowship with them in any other way due to their difference in interpretation. This struck me a really kind of harsh. Again, both parties agreed this was not a salvation issue; so breaking fellowship over such a thing struck me as extreme and unnecessary. That’s what really bothered me.
Whenever people fervently and seriously study the Word of God, they’re going to come to different conclusions about difficult truths. But our God is a God of absolutes. There is one right theology just as there is only one way to the Father. We can’t all be right with our various contradictory views and interpretations. Perhaps none of us have got it quite right (I suspect this might be true for a lot more than we’d like to think). I certainly don’t think anyone has got it all right. When we get to Heaven we’re all going to find out that at least part of our individual and collective pictures of God were wrong.
I’ve had a fair number of discussions with friends where we lamented the segmented Christian church. Why are there so many denominations? Why must we break fellowship so frequently? Why don’t people see things our way? Why can’t we all get along?
In a recent interview with newly-retired John Piper, the former pastor pointed out that the church’s effectiveness has never been dependent on its unity. The church is effective when it seeks and obeys God earnestly.
He’s right. As much as we may loathe our divisions and disagreements, God has chosen imperfect vessels to bring about His perfect will.
Nevertheless the Bible does call us to some sort of unity. Paul wrote this in Ephesians 4:1 – 6:
“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.”
I am convinced of two things. One is that we should not neglect seeking a good understanding of the Scriptures nor should we compromise our theology for the sake of pleasing others. Second, we should not insist that our understanding could be without fault and we should never let a disagreement cause us to be unloving toward one another. We cannot neglect the “bond of peace” for the sake of being right.
How does “be united in the same mind” and “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another” balance out? How do we fiercely contend for a pure understanding of scripture and yet love and accept our brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions? Where is the line between disagreement and heresy? These are not easy nor simple questions and I don’t pretend to be able to answer or even address any of them.
As for myself I need to pray. I need to pray that God grants me understanding. I need to pray for those with whom I disagree that they would come a right understanding or that if they are right and I am wrong, I would realize it. I should try my best with the realization that I may come up with wrong conclusions. And this realization should keep me from arrogance and unloving attitudes.
One glorious day we will all realize what we’ve gotten wrong; we will feel and know theology for real because we will finally be face to face with the person it’s all about. The unity of the Spirit will no longer be obscured by our ignorance, or pride. That, at least, is a comforting thought.