Some recent events in the “world of Christianity” have provoked some thoughts in my mind. I will get to those thoughts in a moment, but first allow me to give some background.
Growing up I always felt that there was way too much division in the church. Now by “division” I mean both in local churches and the universal Church. I grew up with a very interesting “religious” background. Growing up I was shifted through vatrious denominations as I had parents who were really trying to figure things out for themselves. Experiencing so many “flavors” of Christianity (besides making me very discerning) made me very anti-denominationalistic. Further, my senior year of high school the church I was attended, a church my family was heavily involved in, had a split, a breakup, or whatever else you’d like to call it. This was a devastating time for me but also a time that God used for extreme spiritual growth in my life. I was very upset at the adults of that church for acting so unbiblical and immature (especially since the split wasn’t even over some doctrinal issue). But this frustration sparked in me a desire to search the scriptures to discover for myself what the church was really all about and what the church should look like biblically. I’ll stop there, because this is not intended to be a biography in anyway; but those two factors, my encounters with various denominations and beliefs growing up as well as the church split, had an extreme effect on my view of unity.
Consequently, during my late teens I highly praised unity. This is not to say I no longer praise unity. What I mean by this is that I viewed anything disunifying in the universal Church to be logically and necessarily unbiblical. I wanted to see the church unified ts all costs. I was fed up with disunity. But slowly, this favored bias towards unity broke down as it came in contact with scriptural theology. Sadly though, many Christians hold to similar beliefs as I once did. They believe the Church should be unified at all costs (key words) and theology, something that tends to divide, therefore, should be discarded.
The Nature of True Unity
Now unity is important, and the Bible speaks much on unity and how churches are be unified. But there is one extremely important factor that throws a wrench into this hyper-emphasis view of unity–the nature of unity. That is, true church unity only occurs when there is something to unite over. In short, Christians cannot have unity if there is nothing to unify over. We cannot have unity in Christ when there is no uniting factor between us. I can only have unity in the Gospel with someone who actually believes the Gospel and has experienced its saving effects. Therefore, accurate theology is far more important than laxity for the sake of unity. Theology has priority over unity because theology logically precedes unity (unity is based in theology).
Degrees of Unity/Separation
In a sense, I always have unity with any Christian, that is, any truly saved believer no matter what his theology because we have unity in our shared salvation. However, there is this concept I like to call “degrees of unity,” or conversely, “degrees of separation” (although I’m sure I’m not the first to have used these terms). For instance, I have complete fellowship (that commonality, unity, participation) with a fellow Christian who shares my theology (not only holding to the true Gospel but also more minor details of theology), philosophy of ministry, and practical living. These individuals are typically other members in your local church or members of like-churches. There is no reservations whatsoever in associating with and serving alongside these fellow believers.
From here, my degree of partnership with other believers (those who still hold to the true Gospel) slowly minimizes based on the commonality we share in theology, philosophy of ministry, and practical living. Depending on these individuals’ theology, philosophy of ministry, and practical living I may still have quite a bit of participation with them in ministry and associate much with them and support them. On the other hand, my association and participation with others within this category may be very minimal due to our differences. But no matter what the case, some degree of unity is maintained, for we at least have unity in the Gospel.
Finally, there are those with whom I have no fellowship, no partnership, and no association. These are the false teachers (those who directly teach against explicit biblical doctrine), those who hold to heretical doctrine, deniers of the Gospel (we have no unity in the Gospel with those who do not even claim to believe it), and individuals who have been disciplined by the church. In short, these are individuals who claim to be Christian but are exemplifying the traits of a true believer (sound doctrine and sound practice). What I see in today’s Christianity is something very frightening: we accept heretics. We compromise what truly is essential. We want to be gracious towards them, refer to them as fellow believers, and seek to understand their views thinking we must simply be misunderstanding their teaching. The Bible condemns their practice and so should we.
In short, I have made theology the higher priority and superior to unity. This is because one cannot have unity with someone with whom there is no uniting factor. Unity not built on truth is arbitrary. Arbitrary unity is superficial and pointless. We must reconstruct in our minds that division is not always bad. Division is only bad when it results in sin or is done for sinful reasons. Some division, we must remember, is for the sake of truth. That is division we should cherish.
Then What Ought to Be the Basis of Unity?
There is a common thought that Christians ought to make the Gospel and solely the Gospel their uniting factor and that separation should only be done when one attacks the Gospel. In short, this view claims that everything else besides the Gospel is a “non-essential” and may therefore be compromise for the sake of unity. At first this seems fantastic because this means all true believers can be unified even if they disagree on many things. However, this theory falls apart once one realizes that many the doctrines that have just been compromised for the sake of unity are the doctrines which compose the Gospel, what was suppose to be the unifying factor. Now the gospel is compromised and unity is lost. Furthermore, this ideology has another bad side-effect–not only are the acclaimed “non-essential” doctrines compromised, but the Gospel itself begins to be compromised.
Unity is only successfully accomplished through purity of doctrine.
* Originally posted on former blog, I’m Calling Us Out.