Perfect harmony among God’s people is not to be expected before we get to heaven. There, where all infirmity and all ignorance is over and gone forever, the Lord’s people will “see eye-to-eye” on everything. There all mysteries will be explained to all the saints, and all the controverted points of doctrine and duty will be made plain. There our present imbalances, obsessions, prejudices, and other imperfections will be behind us. Truth will shine bright upon every redeemed mind, and every saint will embrace every other with consummated affection and delight. Not the least shadow of division will cloud the unity of the church in her state of coming glory. “Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13). But we shall be “one” John 17:21) as the three ever-blessed persons of the glorious Godhead are “one” in harmony, truth and love.
Threats to Unity
That such harmony does not exist yet among God’s people is no surprise. There are various factors at work which make it difficult for them to see “eye-to-eye” now as they will in their future state.
For one thing, “we know in part, and we prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:9). Our understanding of God’s will is very far from perfect here below. This is true not only among those whose doctrine of Scripture is defective. It is true, at least in measure, even among those who sincerely believe the Bible to be the only rule to direct us in “how to glorify and enjoy God.” Try as we may to understand them, there are texts of Scripture whose true sense and meaning eludes us. Study as we may, there are aspects of doctrine and practice which God’s people cannot yet agree on fully.
A second reason for this partial disunity among those who truly love God arises from the differences of temperament among them. It is not an easy thing to say precisely what lies behind the difference in men’s temperaments. But, whether the difference be the fruit of nature or nurture, one of gifts or of graces, whether it be entirely the result ofsin or entirely of God’s providence, this difference between men, even the best of men, is often very great and leads to their adopting different views of the truth and of their duty in relation to it. For this reason the best of Christians, who in other respects are one in their love for God and truth, may sometimes diverge sharply from one another till they even take up public positions against one another.
Degrees of Sanctification
Yet another explanation for our differences as God’s people in this life arises from the different degrees of sanctification among us. In all probability, among those who are sound in their grasp of Christian doctrine, this factor is the strongest, especially in our “domestic” disputes. Our failures to mortify self-love, our fallen affections, our natural jealousies, our enjoyment of position and reputation, our lack of meekness, and a thousand similar flaws of sanctification lead us to make more of our differences than we should.
How hard it can be to “esteem others better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3)! How hard it can be to overcome our prejudices, to alter our own opinionated ways of doing the work of God, to believe that others may have more light on a truth than we have and therefore more right to be listened to than ourselves!
A healthy recognition of the that sin has ruined us all more than we realize would go a long way towards softening disputes between brethren! It is the proof of Christian greatness when a man can admit that he was formerly in the wrong, as Augustine did when he wrote his Retractions.
The Importance of Truth
Let it be stated emphatically that the worst course of action possible among Christians would be to sink all our differences under a misguided belief that unity is the most important thing of all. Unity without truth is a unity under the headship of Satan, not of Christ. Whatever the supposed evils of division among believers, they are a thousand times more to be desired than indifference to doctrine. Truth is sacred. It is more precious than life. Its claims are greater than all other claims.
A man must die, if necessary, in defense of the truth. But it would hardly be his duty to die for unity. To lose unity among Christians in this life is inconvenient and may, in some circumstances, be sinful. But to lose truth is to lose God, heaven and the gospel itself. If truth is lost, all that matters is lost. If unity is lost, it is lost only for a time. It will be restored to God’s people eventually, either here or hereafter.
The division which exists in Christendom between those who hold to central truths and those who do not must always be a most welcome division. It may suit the poetic tastes of some romantic churchmen to preach about the “wounds in the body of Christ’s church caused by lack of outward unity.” But it is mere superstitious cant if all that is meant by it is that evangelicals will not join a doctrinally corrupt ecumenism. Churches, however old and venerable, if they do not hold to the basic doctrines of the Word of God, are not true churches at all but only “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 3:9). It is every true Christian’s duty to refuse church fellowship to those who deny the cardinal truths of Scripture, or else affirm as central truths things which Scripture does not so affirm.
Denials of Truth or Practice
The truth of the gospel may be destroyed in either of two ways. It is destroyed when churches deny central truths such as the atonement of Christ or the doctrine of justification by faith. Alternatively, the gospel is destroyed when a church affirms central doctrines in theory but at the same time denies in its practice the things implied by those central doctrines. For instance, a church might have a true doctrine of justification in its denominational creed, but might tolerate the practice of saying masses and allowing auricular confession among its clergy. The toleration of the latter destroys the force of the former.
Lack of Discipline
Or again, a church might profess an orthodox creed, but destroy itself by refusing to exercise righteous discipline among its members. This practical evil is destructive of the theoretical soundness of the church. Given time, the creed too will be altered. Truth always has powerful implications. It is rightly intolerant of all that threatens it, whether in theory or in practice.
What has just been stated here illustrates that not all divisions among Christians are vicious. They are virtuous, and indeed essential, if the division exists to preserve the truth of the gospel. Not for nothing does the New Testament warn us: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). Not without good reason does the Apostle Paul state: “Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). For a sound church to contemplate having any official fellowship or association with an unsound church is treason to Jesus Christ and to the souls of God’s people in the congregation.
However, not all the divisions and differences which arise among the people of God are so simple to deal with as the obvious difference between truth and error. Sadly, there are painful divisions between excellent men who hold substantially, if not indeed precisely, to the same creeds and confessions. The question must be faced: How are Christians to deal with these more sensitive differences?
Believing as we must do that differences among sound Christians are regrettable and that steps should be taken to repair torn relationships, we would suggest that the follOwing are useful practical measures to that end:
1. It should be a rule among God’s people to be ready to recognize excellence wherever we find it and to be prepared to learn from one another even when in some secondary matters, we may have to differ from one another. To state this is to imply that men may be better than their creed. Those whose views on some matters we may disagree with may nonetheless have much to teach us on some other Christian virtue.
2. It would be a help if brethren who hold to the truths of orthodoxy with some rather strong distinctives of their own would refrain from stating those distinctives too often or too loudly.
Beyond a certain point of common biblical agreement there are views of doctrine which good men may choose to hold or not, according as they are persuaded. The temptation is that some men feel conscience bound to crusade for their shades of opinion. Overlooking the ninetyeight per cent of agreement held in common with good men almost everywhere we can develop a mentality of striving always over that small fraction of truth which is peculiar to our own group. Whatever the point of doctrine at issue, this has been a source of needless division and dissension all through history.
3. It would be a healthy exercise for ministers and elders who are in “dogmatic” denominations to attend conferences where they can regularly meet faithful men who are not of their own group. There are several advantages to this. In small denominations especially, good people are apt to fall into bad habits of thought and speech. It is a snare to suppose that “our group is the best in the world” or that “our way of doing it is the right way and all others need to learn from us.” Such attitudes may not always be put into words but they often secretly exist in good men’s minds. To go to conferences where other excellent men meet and debate areas of truth can be humbling for us. In the context of a wider fellowship we are to examine our own cherished opinions and compelled to recognize that God gives outstanding gifts to men in circles other than our own. Truth does not begin and end with anyone church or denomination, however good.
4. It is wise in our estimation of doctrines, ministers and churches to leave room for surprises. The strange truth is that those with whom we are in vigorous agreement today may be those with whom we shall strenuously disagree tomorrow. In the life of all churches it frequently happens that men alter their position and change their ground.
Today’s apostle for the “signs and wonders” movement may prove to be tomorrow’s staunchest preacher of “orthodoxy,” and today’s pulpit hero may be tomorrow’s traitor to Christ’s cause. Those who come new to the doctrines of grace may be those who in the end will have loved and promoted them best; and those who were brought up in orthodox manses and in orthodox families may end up, like Esau, despising their spiritual birthright. If we know these things we shall not make too much of “our party” or of “our circle” but be ready to value sincere love of truth even if presently tinged with some immaturity and ignorance.
5. If we are to manage our differences as Christians we need to guard against becoming wise in our own eyes. The devil is never more an angel of light than when he urges us to be ever stronger and more adamant in our own ideas. To hold to the truth is excellent. But there is such a thing as straining a doctrine beyond its biblical proportions till, unwittingly, we have distorted a gospel truth to the point where it is scarcely recognizable. We may stress piety till it becomes pietism; or preparation till it becomes preparationism; or liberty till it becomes license; or law till it becomes legalism; or faith till it is no better than the faith of devils Games 2:19). In doctrine, as in matters of practical duty, it is possible to forget that “overdoing leads to undoing.”
6. If we are to avoid needless division let us make most of those great central truths which are acknowledged and loved by all the people of God. When we meet in a fellowship—meeting a brother in Christ who happens to differ from us in some particular, do we need to challenge him on his opinion or should we speak about matters on which we both agree? Some believers evidently feel that their duty is to overlook all that is held in common with the brother and to attempt at once to “put him right.” It is not easy to lay down absolute rules, of course, but experience suggests that much of the time which men are apt to spend in controversy over lesser matters would be better spent on the great central themes.
Our deepest need is to grow in the knowledge and love of Christ Himself. This being so, why should we not, in our times of fellowship, direct our discussions towards such questions as these: How can we seek a richer experience of Christ’s love? By what means can we best show our love to Christ?
How can we better bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ? How can we best prepare to give a good account to Christ when we stand before Him? What means have we found most helpful in rousing our feelings of gratitude to Christ?
There is much good to be gained by our differences as Christians. Every one in the fellowship of God’s people has something valuable to offer. Each one has some “measure of the gift of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7). The many-sided wisdom of God is made clear to us in the way the people of God are all so different in the measure of their gifts, graces and knowledge.
It is a thousand pities when these differences become the occasion of alienating brethren from one another. This can happen all too easily when we ride roughshod over one another in discussion, debate and conversation. It can happen, too, when doubtful opinions are reckoned as dogmas and minor matters contended for as if the very life of the gospel depended on them.
In such an atmosphere is it surprising if divisions have sometimes flourished? If animosities between brethren have sprung up like a thorn hedge? If denominational walls a yard thick have been built to keep equally good men apart when they really belong together? The problem is an age-old one which goes back to the church’s earliest days. No better solution two thousand years on in time can be found than they found all those years ago! “In things essential, unity; in things not essential, liberty; in all things, charity.”
This article is reprinted from the Banner of Truth magazine, April 2000.
Rev. Maurice Roberts is the editor of the Banner of Truth magazine, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.