When Unity Hurts the Church

One night, a matter of a few hours, was all that separated Christ from the brutality of the Cross. The pain of His closest friends abandoning Him, the horror of the Father’s wrath towards sin. What did Jesus do to prepare Himself, to steel His courage for Good Friday? How did He emotionally and psychologically calm Himself enough to push through such intense anxiety?

He prayed for us.

Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17 is one of the most fascinating chapters in the Bible. Jesus’ flesh is about to pulverized through flogging, beating, and crucifixion. His soul is about to be abandoned and forsaken for the sins of the world, but His focus is on His Church. Remarkable.

Towards the end of His prayer, Christ prays for the unity of the Church, that they would even be as unified as the Father and Son are unified (John 17:21). This is a profound request. It also mirrors Christ’s call that we would be identified as His disciples when people see our love for one another (John 13:35). According to Christ, the Church’s unity and love for one another is not a secondary matter – it is the very testimony of the genuineness of our faith.

The Church has rocked and reeled over the past two millennia with splits, schisms, and breaks that have left it looking like anything but unified. There have been tragic, stupid wars with thousands of lives lost over theological differences, power struggles, and national politics. The Church’s tumultuous road left it weary of its divisions at the dawn of the 20th century, and in the last hundred years we have seen more attempts at reconciling the various sects of Christianity, especially between Catholics and Protestants, than ever before. You could even say it has become in vogue to be inclusive and unified as a church these days. This month there will be an event called “Together 2016” held in Washington D.C. where hundreds of thousands of young people will fill up the National Mall. The event’s website states, “Together 2016 is the day our generation will meet on the National Mall to come together around Jesus in unified prayer, worship, and a call for catalytic change. We’re coming together with as many people as possible who believe Jesus changes everything.” The event is featuring speakers (some of whom I really admire) and musicians from all different kinds of denominational backgrounds; allegedly Pope Francis himself is going to be joining via video, “That His Holiness would choose to speak into this historic day is a testament to the urgency and the need for followers of Jesus to unite in prayer for our nation and our world.” It would appear that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is finally taking steps towards being fulfilled…

But is it?

Is linking arms with anyone else who believes “Jesus changes everything” the kind of unity that Jesus was describing in John 17?

In 1 Timothy we are repeatedly reminded that there is a body of “sound doctrine” that we are to adhere to (1 Tim. 1:10; 4:6; 6:3) and that if we depart from it we will make a shipwreck of our faith. Paul even goes so far to call out false teachers by name, “Hymenaeus and Alexander,” (1 Tim. 1:20). In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he again calls out false teachers by name, “Hymenaeus and Philetus,” and then goes on to describe their teaching like the rotting infection of “gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:17). We are then encouraged to “have nothing to do” with “foolish, ignorant” teaching, but rather should correct our opponents (2 Tim. 2:23-24).

Sheesh, that all sounds fairly divisive, Paul

The false teachers that Paul is confronting here weren’t denying the majority of Biblical doctrine, but were simply teaching that the resurrection already happened (2:18). Or that certain food was off-limits and marriage was forbidden (1 Tim. 4:1-3). The false teachers in Galatians that Paul curses (Gal. 1:6-8) were not contradicting everything that Paul taught, but were just teaching that you must also be circumcised (Gal. 5:1-12). Come on, Paul – aren’t these things small or secondary enough that we can just agree to disagree and keep the peace?

Well, no. Paul expertly lays out that each of these seemingly small deviations from the truth are actually the off-shoots of wholesale rejections of the gospel. For example, circumcision in Galatians. Paul elsewhere states that in the New Covenant circumcision no longer really matters (1 Cor. 7:19), and even has Timothy be circumcised solely to contextualize him for ministry to the Jews (Acts 16:3). So wouldn’t it have been no big deal to let the Judaizers in Galatia teach that one needed to be circumcised to be a Christian? Wouldn’t it be worth it to maintain the unity of the Church? Paul vehemently says “No” in his letter to the Galatian church, explaining that the Judaizers are teaching that one must be circumcised to be saved. Paul claims if anything is added on as a requirement for salvation other than faith in Christ, than we have rejected all of Christ and are denying sound doctrine.

So what happens when someone says they believe “Jesus changes everything”, but they deny the sound doctrine we are entrusted with? A mormon believes Jesus changes everything. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus changes everything. Many of the false teachers Paul was confronting believed Jesus changes everything. But all of them deny any kind of orthodox understanding of the gospel. I’m not trying to wholesale fling mud at this event in D.C. – I hope and pray that there is some serious good done for the Kingdom in it. The event merely illustrates, through their advertising and the writings of their leader, Nick Hall, this kind of “lowest common denominator” concept of Christian unity. I am shocked that a group mostly consisting of Evangelicals would invite the Pope (even addressing him as “His Holiness”) to speak at an event, when the Roman Catholic church, and the very papal office itself, teaches fundamentally different things than the gospel.

What if the unity that Christ was praying for in John 17 meant that there we weren’t unified with everyone who claims to follow Christ? On that dark night when Christ prayed for our unity, He asks that we might first be “sanctified in truth” (John 17:17-19). Whatever our unity as Christians must look like, it cannot be a unity that comes at the expense of the truth Christ asked for. What if the most unifying thing we can do for the Church is to draw clearly defined boundary lines around what constitutes being a member of the Church? What if the most unifying thing we can do is look at someone and say, “No, you’re actually wrong.”

The Age of Tolerance

A few weeks ago, I received an anonymous letter from someone who was upset at a passing critique I made of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation and the church in a sermon. They said they were shocked I would make such a “divisive” comment and would never be returning to our church again (you can read the comment I made here, found in the first paragraph). 

In our current cultural moment, looking at someone and saying, “What you believe is wrong,” seems like the unpardonable sin – certainly to the secular world, but more and more that same sentiment is creeping into the church. But Scripture repeatedly describes one of the main characteristics of a mature Christian as being able to discern and rebuke false teaching (Eph. 4:12-16; Titus 1:13).

How are we to do that if we believe that the apex of godliness is doctrinal ambiguity for the sake of unity?

How are we to do that if we think that the fruit of the Spirit is nothing but terminal niceness?

How are we to do that if we think that telling someone they are unequivocally wrong is itself always wrong?

I’ve seen this play out frequently with the constant shoulder-shrugging sentiment of the millennial generation (of which I am a part of). You ask them what they think about something and you get a, “…but I could be wrong, that’s just my perspective,” *shoulder shrug*. It almost seems like we are allergic to certainty, afraid to say we definitely know something.

False-teachers don’t get far by being blatantly and obviously heretical (Hail Satan!) – they get far and do great damage to the Church by being true-ish, by sounding true (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Paul warns of false-teachers who “contradict sound doctrine” by using “smooth talk and flattering words to deceive the hearts of the naive,” and instructs that we simply are to “avoid them [the false teachers]” (Rom. 16:17-18). When we hear “smooth talk” that immediately makes us think of some oily car salesman trying to con us out of money, but that isn’t what the connotation actually means in Paul’s original language. It means a positive, likable, attractive way of speaking – so, naturally, if you oppose them you look harsh, uncouth and mean. But Paul says that doesn’t matter, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf. Some ideas are really dangerous and destructive and need to be confronted and rejected. If a serpent is winding its way towards your baby’s bassinet, grab a boot and crush its head – don’t hesitate over how that might make you look insensitive to the reptilian community. 

Disagreeing Like A Christian

Some might blanch at that last sentence, crush its head…? What are you insinuating Marc? Should we do violence to those we disagree with? Certainly not – nothing that I have advocated thus far has had the slightest thing to do with generating animosity, indifference or fomenting violence towards those I disagree with. You see, a Christian does not attack persons but ideas. We do not wrestle with flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). When I say that we must “crush the head” of the serpent, I simply mean you attack the idea. Paul teaches us to demolish any lofty opinions and arguments that set themselves up against Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) – not people. The inquisitions, crusades, and wars that the Church waged are a blight on its past and a tragedy for the sake of the gospel. We are not to take up the sword, but are instead to love and serve those we disagree with, no matter what (Rom. 12:19-21). 

This all means that there is a distinctly Christian way to disagree with someone. We are to correct our opponents with humility and gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25), to always be most aware of our own sin before we pass judgment on others (Matt. 7:1-5), and to love all people regardless of whether or not they believe what we believe (Matt. 5:43-48). So there is no arrogance, or condescending tone, or hollow niceness only offered so that you might convert in the Christian being faithful to Scripture’s teaching.

But being humble, gentle, and aware of our own flaws doesn’t negate our responsibility to still call false teaching what it is. So a Christian should be able to sit down with non-Christians, and (especially) people claiming to be Christians but who have wandered from “sound doctrine” and tell them we think they are wrong and show them Scripture to prove it – but do so in such a way that still conveys the love, gentleness, and heart of Christ. We aren’t there to win arguments, we are there to win people to Christ and see them delivered from the bondage of their false beliefs (2 Tim. 2:26). In fact, it is the definition of “unloving” to share fellowship with someone who believes something false about Christ and not seek to help them remedy their wrong belief. It isn’t loving to let someone go to Hell because you didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

What Real Unity Will Do

My thesis is this: The more deeply you press into doctrinal precision about what Scripture clearly teaches, the deeper your unity and fellowship will be within your church, and the more robust and attractive your evangelism will be outside of the church.The unique nature of orthodox Christian doctrine is that it centers on the glory of God being displayed in His grace, grace shown to screw-ups like you and me. If that is the core essence of your doctrinal convictions, then the deeper you press in to clearly defined explanations of that doctrine, then the more loving, gentle, patient, and *truly* tolerant you will become with people who disagree with you.

Teach your church to have charity on things that can be disagreed over, but on matters of salvation, sin, repentance, the authority of the Word, the nature of God – be dogmatic. Have high doctrinal standards and teaching before you admit people into membership. If the unity of your church depends on watering down your doctrine to the lowest possible common denominator, then you will be a victim to only teach whatever culture is currently approving of, you’ll avoid certain parts of the Bible, your people will feel confused about their faith and their evangelism will be even more confusing, their unity with one another will be shallow, and they will be unprepared for trials of life that the Scripture you are neglecting to teach them was meant to prepare them for.




One thought on “When Unity Hurts the Church

  1. Boy, you pick some of the most controversial topics. Some within the modern church would call you a dangerous man with dangerous ideas. I think that’s what was being said about Jesus back in the day. Pretty good company to be a part of.

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