Unity: The weird cousin no one talks about of doctrines
People are people. That might be redundant or obvious but it is also simply true. Because we are people, even after we are born-again, we still tend to act in some of the same ways that those who are not born-again do and often we don’t even notice it or see anything amiss. As Christians one of the places where we see this most often is in how we deal with differences in the church. Let’s face it, there are going to be differences. There were in the first century and there has been ever since. Sometimes those differences lead to splits, sometimes to persecution and all too often murder and martyrdom. Because we are people we tend to prefer comfort to discomfort, familiar to unfamiliar, easy to hard. Sorry to say, Jesus never promised us an easy path would come along with the life of a disciple. Differences happen and we have to deal with them.
The question becomes how to address the issues that we disagree on. This really isn’t all that complicated. There are really only two ways to deal with differences in doctrine in the church, surely with some variation but ultimately they boil down to one or the other.
The first way is the most common by far. You simply erect barriers around your church gathering, drawing boundaries to exclude others until they conform or leave. Most commonly we see this in statements of faith to clearly distinguish “this” group from “that” group along with systems of formal church membership. Unity is reduced to being unified in practice only with those who already conform to you or who will agree to conform to you. It is precisely this sort of “solution” that has led to the church being splintered into thousands of sects, denominations and local churches that not only do not cooperate with one another, they typically compete with one another, squabbling over minor points of practice and doctrine while whole neighborhoods of unbelievers go through their lives without a whiff of the Gospel.
The other way to deal with differences is to welcome one another into full fellowship and community in spite of, or perhaps because of, our differences and then in a community hermeneutic work through the Scriptures understanding that we will never come to a 100% consensus on every issue and we shouldn’t even be trying to. When the only qualifier for fellowship is being born-again, we start to experience the richness of community in Christ. Our unity in Christ cannot be secondary to our agreement on every doctrine. Certainly Scripture gives boundaries for fellowship and when someone crosses that boundary through open sin or outright heresy we need to divide but honestly very little that divides the church comes anywhere close to that level. I understand that this might be uncomfortable for us. It is of course far easier to simply surround ourselves with those we are in agreement with. I can say with certainty that Jesus places a higher value on unity than our personal comfort and I can also say that surrounding yourself only with those who agree with you, those who look and talk and think like you do, is the equivalent of theological in-breeding. I have seen this first hand in several different settings.
For example, there are three very similar groups in our area that meet separately from one another. All three are highly conservative Anabaptist groups that are in agreement on 99% of the questions, big and small, that might come up in the church. That is not hyperbole; I am dead serious about the level of agreement. I know this because we are outside of the boundaries in the same basic way in all three groups! If you were to meet and talk with a representative couple from each group I am pretty sure you would be unable to figure out which of the three groups each couple belonged to. Those are only three, I am certain there are many more just like them in the immediate vicinity. Many of these brothers and sisters, great Christians and warm loving people, have very minimal experience with the broader church outside of their circles. Because of that there are issues that tend to be considered settled in their circles generations ago that have not really been thought out well in contemporary settings. We rarely grow when we are not stretched and challenged, something increasingly unlikely to happen the more you wall yourself off from others. A Southern Baptist that only ever interacts with other Southern Baptists might be a great Southern Baptist but is likely missing some of the real richness of the church that only comes when you walk outside of your comfort zone.
Jesus is not a polygamist. He has one bride and one only. He doesn’t have five brides in this town and seven brides in that town. If we love Him we must as His bride come together in unity as the one body of Christ that Jesus died to redeem. That is really the only way to honor His sacrifice in redeeming His church.