Division in the Body of Christ

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Last week Gene Veith asked about whether unity comes in institutional membership or in sharing common belief. The Southern Baptist Convention just left the Baptist World Alliance due to the presence of groups within the Alliance with attitudes they consider sub-Christian.

I have really mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I can understand the desire to distance yourself from dangerous doctrine (or lack thereof) and, perhaps more importantly, gross moral laxity within the church. Yet persistent divisiveness in the church is the third member of the trinity of biblical reasons for excommunication, and it's not any less important than the doctrinal or moral issues. Any possibility of division, of separating ties between genuine believers, needs to be wary of that. There are genuine believers in the group they left. There can be unity without shared organizational membership, which is the point of Veith's rhetorical question. Yet do we want to say that this action doesn't send any bad messages? I'm not saying there isn't a good message sent, but there also seems to be a bad one, and that's to those who are genuine believers in Jesus Christ who are part of that group. To them it will mean that the Southern Baptists consider them apostate. I think this is one real danger of denominational splits or church splits.

I don't know the American Baptists enough to know what the Southern Baptists have against them. So what I'm saying here isn't necessarily going to apply to the particular situation at hand, but it might. I just think we should always approach a potential division within the body of Christ with extreme caution. Some would argue that if the division is between a group that does represent the body of Christ and one that doesn't, then it's the best kind of division to have. That may be so, but most church splits and denominational differences aren't over such issues (and in fact are over issues where I've seen differing viewpoints manifested within a spiritually healthy congregation as long as the congregation insists that what's absolutely clear biblically, i.e. the gospel, is central, and other issues are peripheral). I think anyone who has caused a division between those who baptize their children and later confirm them and those who dedicate them and later baptize them, has sinned grievously. The same goes for doctrinal differences such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism or different eschatological views.

I think there is a biblically correct view on all these issues. Still, those with incorrect views can avoid gross doctrinal error while maintaining those views. Jollyblogger posted about this not too long ago. If everyone tempers their thinking with a desire to hold to biblical teaching and therefore not seeking consistency with their system but with scripture, people with differing views will be able to have not just good sharing of fellowship but will be able to work together in service of the gospel. Given that everyone is likely to have some error in doctrine, it's only fair to seek genuine Christian sharing of lives, ministry, and worship with those who disagree with us.

I've seen this happen through being part of it. I've served Christ with a friend who believes genuine Christians can lose their salvation. I believe scripture teaches otherwise. He believes that the warnings to persevere are warnings to genuine Christians so that they will not lose their salvation. I see those warnings as applying to those who believe themselves saved to persevere so that it will turn out that they were saved. These may be nonbelievers misled into thinking they're believers, some of whom will end up believing, others of whom will fall away. They may be genuine believers who will end up persevering but needed to the call to persevere. In the end, both of us believe roughly the same thing in terms of practical pastoral wisdom. We will encourage people to persevere in the faith they seem to have come to. We will tell them that God loves them and longs for them to grow in their commitment toward him. There are minor differences in our descriptions of this, but it doesn't prevent fellowship, service together, worship together, scriptural study together, or anything else that should go on in a congregation, never mind a denomination. I could say similar things for most other issues.

I should say that a congregation needs to have a position on some issues, e.g. whether women should be doing any of the ongoing teaching of the elders in the church, how the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and miraculous healings will be dealt with in public gatherings, and how the teaching of the word will be done (topically, in organized methodical working through the Bible, exposition but not in an organized, methodical way, or some combination of the above). Paul and Barnabas disagreed about a practical matter (whether John Mark, who deserted Paul when the missionary journey got tough, should go on the next one) and agreed to go their separate ways, but they didn't consider it to be a division except in the carrying out of that task, which they both did and maximized their efforts by sending two teams. Paul in his greetings for a later epistle shows that he still considered John Mark among those he has fellowship with.

I'm talking about positions a congregation will take, which they can rethink as they go, but it isn't the sort of thing a member will have to hold to be part of that congregation. It's not a ground for fellowship or for denominational division but a philosophy of ministry within a local congregation or even within a smaller group (e.g. a cell group). The congregation (or cell group) has to have the view for the sake of good order. Those under the eldership should respect their leaders and respect their decisions, though respectfully discussing the reasons for or against those decisions may often be worthwhile. Depending on how far those views depart from scripture, and what other departures from scripture they may lead to, it may simply be sinful to leave a congregation because you disagree with their decisions on these matters. When looking for a congregation in a new area, these factors may affect where you settle, but that doesn't mean they should lead to someone's leaving.

I think this is one of the biggest problems with the "love Jesus but leave the church" mindset. Not only is that a selfish attitude, seeking to put your own preferences for how Christian fellowship and worship should be done over your obligation to serve the church, but it causes divisions where they shouldn't be. Mac Swift had a post this past week challenging this sort of reason, saying that dividing with a truly apostate group is not undue division, but the list of groups Mac calls apostate includes anyone in Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven movement. I have no quibble with those who think Warren has shallow exegesis, some principles that need to be countered with other biblical principles, and other principles that he treats as biblical but are really his preference. That's a common enough problem, but it's not a sign of apostacy. There are three signs of apostasy, as I said above: gross doctrinal error (i.e. denial of the gospel), gorss moral error, and persistent and unrepentant divisiveness. I John spends a lot of time on all three. Those who call Rick Warren and those influenced by him apostate are in serious danger of apostasy themselves according to the third criterion. If it's persistent and unrepentant when the biblical method of confronting has occurred, then the person should be treated as apostate, so that those who want to divide the church will end up being divided from the church themselves. The goals is to show them the seriousness of their offense so that they might repent and be brought back in, just as Paul commanded with the gross moral error within the Corinthian church.

Mac's objection is that I'm wrong to say something of him that isn't true of him. He says these churches are genuinely apostate, so it's not undue divisiveness to treat them as such. (For his view really to make any sense, every church within his reach must be apostate, and he lives in New York City! We'll stick just with the smaller subset of those that he's exlicitly talked about, though.) My problem with his objection is that it involves a false claim that I won't grant. He thinks it's unfair to portray him as hating the church of Jesus Christ, because the churches he hates aren't genuine manifestations of the church of Jesus Christ. Yet they are! I won't grant his assumption, so I have to take the conclusion of his view to be that the churches he hates are genuine churches, and so he does in fact hate the church of Jesus Christ. He wouldn't describe it that way, and if fairness requires describing things only as he would, then I'm not being fair. Yet I think there are times not to grant the premises of your opponent, and this is one. It's clear that I am doing so. It's clear that I'm acknowledging that he doesn't see the groups he's hating as manifestations of the body of Christ. So when I say that it's hating the church, it's clear that it's hating what I believe is, biblically speaking, the church. That's not unfair. It's simply what I believe he is in fact doing.

This is all to say that I worry whenever I hear about a division. Some remain in groups that are 95% apostate, usually because of a rejection of the basic gospel teachings. I won't do that myself, but I can appreciate their efforts to reach those in that kind of setting. To divide with a group that largely believes the gospel is very serious (no group can be expected to have every member believe the gospel, and even if large numbers don't it may just be a sign that they have an effective outreach and are willing to allow people to explore Christianity within their midst rather than excluse them on the basis that they're not yet Christians). I agree with Veith that true unity is spiritual, and the church is fundamentally an entity in heaven with Christ, and every member of the church is spiritually speaking in heaven with Christ gathered around the throne of God while spatiotemporally occupied with the business of the church in this fallen world, representing God to the nations who have rejected him. Still, organizational ties would ideally reflect the unity we all have in Jesus Christ. I'm not ruling out reasons to stop indicating organizational unity, but I think most such reasons should be a lot more serious than most of the ones that have actually happened. I hope that's not the case with this one.

5 Comments

And exactly what percentage of divine revelation is it OK to contradict?

Unity means agreement in doctrine and all its articles. Has from the time of the Apostles. This "basic gospel teachings" business is a relatively new and sentimental American notion, which begs precisely the question of how much of the Gospel is basic, and how much is optional.

Which is, I think, where Dr. Veith is also coming from.

Indeed, this is a difficult question. I don't believe "unity" is absolute doctrinal adherence to certain tenets, because there was plenty of disagreement in the patristic church. Only people who's doctrine fell completely outside scriptural teaching were put outside the Church (Pelagius, for example). All the rest were considered part of the "Church", despite their disagreements. In the argument over free will and predestination, only Pelagius was anathema. The semi-pelagianism of John Cassian didn't exclude him from the Church Catholic, as I believe it should not have (even though I'm an Augustianian on the matter).

Although every schism has to some degree centered around doctrine (but also over power, influence, hubris, and a host of less than noble ideals), Protestants seem to have taken it to a new art form. Before Protestantism, there really was only one great Schism, East vs. West, Of course there was Protestantism itself. But, since the Reformation, denominations are breaking away from parent denominations faster than I can change my socks, over much less than those two great schisms.

I think the big Schisms were worth it, although I do think it has been a big loss to the West and to Protestantism to not understand or have been influenced at all by Orthodoxy. Most Protestant schisms today, it seems, are over what are ultimately minor theological points of contention or social issues. I don't think the ordaining of women in the priesthood is of the same qualitative substance as whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or the Father AND the Son, or whether the Church is the vehicle of grace for believers. You can say that its all important, and you would be right, but some matters don't affect one's salvation like others do, and that's what I think should be the judge of whether or not a denomination should break away.

Bob, show me where I ever said it's ok to contradict any of the Bible's teachings. Accepting someone who doesn't have perfect views as a brother or sister doesn't require contradicting any of the Bible's teachings.

The basic gospel teachings are central to the thought of most of the NT writers. Paul talks about it over and over again, sometimes calling it the gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes calling it his own gospel, sometimes calling it the message entrusted to him by the Lord, sometimes calling it the traditions passed on from him to the group he's writing to. It's one of his primary emphases.

It's fallacious reasoning to say that borderline cases of a group or phenomenon undermines the existence of that group or phenomenon. Just because there are mixed race people, for instance, doesn't mean there aren't races. It just means that if there are races then not everyone fits clearly into those groupings.

There are questions about whether open theism, for instance, contradicts the gospel. Is it denying the gospel to believe that Genesis 1-3 describes an overall human fall but does so in terms of applying a parable that didn't quite happen in exactly the ways it tells isn't necessarily denying the gospel? I think someone can believe both of those things without denying the gospel, but the first is harder, simply because it might involve denying something that one has affirmed in affirming the gospel. But we have contradictory beliefs all the time and don't realize it. The fact that we believe not-P doesn't mean we don't also believe P. If we don't see that that's what we're doing, we may believe the gospel but also believe something whose consequences contradict the gospel.

Ultimately, I can't see the presence of belief, how much belief, which propositions are believed, how much trust of the person of Jesus Christ one has, or anything like that as the ground of someone's salvation. The most basic explanation of someone's being in Christ is whether God has brought that person into Christ. Belief follows that. It's just that belief is one of the best evidences of someone's being in Christ, since it's a necessary step in the process of coming to be in Christ. So these issues about borderline cases and degrees of faith are problems only with how we figure out whether someone is a genuine believer.

Neil, I'm at a loss as to why you think whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son or from the Father and the Son is an important theological issue for us at all. It's a minor point that seems entirely picky to me, not to mention speculative, since the Bible isn't all that clear on it, and it strikes me as theologians trying to have an exhaustive systematic theology at the expense of focusing on what scripture says. There are far more important differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism nowadays than the excuse the political bishops of the time used to isolate themselves from Rome.

How men and women are to relate to each other is something both Paul and Peter cared very much about. It's not a gospel issue in its own right, though gospel implications, particularly the meaning of Christ's submission and about the roles within the Trinity in Philippians 2 and I Corinthians 15, in the light of I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 11, will be affected. Most absolute egalitarians don't see those implications, though, so I wouldn't accuse them of denying the gospel.

The issue between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation was a gospel issue. Catholics have now moved back much closer to what Protestants hold, saying that they don't think they were mistaken in condemning the view they'd previously condemned but that they were mistaken in ascribing that view to Luther, who they now say was not heretical. There are still differences, but I think someone can be a good Catholic doctrinally and still hold a view of justification that's acceptable to Protestants. Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on James and Joseph Fitzmyer's on Romans do exactly that.

One thing just occurred to me about this. There are really two contexts for talk of unity in the New Testament. One is recognition of the unity of the body of Christ that already exists spiritually. The other is a moral context, to love and serve each other. Sometimes a writer will bring the two together, as Paul was fond of doing. The first gives reasons for doing the second. The truth of unity gives us reason to act like it. That's the primary emphasis on unity in the New Testament. Guarding doctrine is a central concern but not in the passages with unity terminology.

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