“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psa. 133:1).
Traditionally, the mainstream Churches of Christ have viewed unity in such a way that is unattainable. The prevailing idea in most of the conservative Churches of Christ is simple: You agree with everything in which they believe is a matter of doctrine and then they can have unity with you. This idea of unity is not only unbiblical, but impossible. It is delusional to believe that everyone whom you fellowship agrees with you on every issue.
The Bible never teaches that unity is achieved on the basis of 100 % agreement on every issue. However, many have found a way to skirt around that by saying that we only have to be united on issues that are considered “doctrinal” issues. However, this doesn’t fix the problem but only shifts the problem since everyone has different ideas and beliefs as to what constitutes a “doctrinal” issue.
This method of trying to achieve unity has no objective way to gauge every issue. If there is, where is it and what is it? Furthermore, why can’t even two Christians agree on how to gauge the difference between a “matter of opinion” and a “doctrinal matter?”
This standard of trying to achieve unity cannot be applied consistently. How can we claim we have all of the answers when we don’t even have all of the questions? With the current way many in the Churches of Christ view “doctrine,” this list is endless. This standard of trying to achieve unity is not a cure for division, it is a prescription for it. This approach has led to confusion, hatred, division, apathy and dishonesty. A very short list of topics that I have seen cause division in the Churches of Christ include the following:
Hand clapping, mechanical instruments, elder reaffirmation, praying to Jesus, women waiting on the Lord’s Supper, tobacco, alcohol, kitchens in church buildings, fundraisers, multiple containers for the Lord’s Supper, praise teams, issues relating to the Holy Spirit, issues relating to marriage and divorce, children’s church, tattoos, holidays, prom, versions of the Bible, head coverings, theistic evolution, skits and dramas, gambling, views pertaining to hell, views pertaining to eschatology, qualification of elders, etc.
I am sure you could add to this list as this is only a very short list of issues many have deemed “doctrinal” issues.
The Bible outlines, in a relational sense, what it means to be a Christian. Unfortunately, many have turned Christianity into a cold, legalistic list of “dos and don’ts.” These individuals have attempted to make themselves out to be God Himself, condemning those who don’t see everything just like they do. When pushed to give an exhaustive list of “doctrinal issues,” they can’t provide one. Instead, they will respond with shallow statements such as “The New Testament” is our standard of doctrinal issues or “everything the Bible says is a doctrinal issue.” Yet, they are not willing to provide the actual list.
How fair is it to claim that there is a universal list while either not knowing what it is or refusing to provide it? I changed my position on unity for this very reason. I couldn’t teach some universal unity doctrines list that I didn’t even know myself. Furthermore, everyone has their own universal unity doctrines list. If everyone’s list is different, how can we claim it is universal? The only thing that would be universal about everyone’s lists is that they are universally different.
When one claims that unity is dependent upon 100% cognitive doctrinal agreement, then that person is obligated to address the following points/questions: (1) They must first prove where this method of unity is taught in Scripture. (2) They must define how to gauge between a matter of “opinion” and a matter of “doctrine/fellowship.” (3) They must provide the full and specific detailed list of “universal doctrines” in which they believe all must agree. (4) They must honestly ask themselves why not even two Christians can agree on an exhaustive list.
THE DISCONNECT & CONFUSION
There are as many divisions as there are congregations in the conservative Churches of Christ. Yet, all claim they are the ones following the “pattern” of the New Testament. The brethren who use only “one cup” for the Lord’s Supper believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who don’t have kitchens in their church buildings believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who don’t have praise teams believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who condemn elder reaffirmation believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who believe that the Holy Spirit doesn’t work apart from the Word believe they have the right pattern.
The brethren who condemn proms believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who condemn mechanical instruments in worship believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who condemn small groups on Sunday nights believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who condemn hand clapping in worship believe they have the right pattern.
The brethren who teach that fornication is the only reason to divorce your spouse believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who teach that fornication and abandonment are the only reasons to divorce your spouse believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who don’t celebrate holidays at all believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who celebrate holidays (non-religiously) believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who celebrate holidays (religiously) believe they have the right pattern.
The brethren who condemn church choirs believe they have the pattern. The brethren who allow church choirs as long as it is not in “Sunday morning worship” believe they have the pattern. The brethren who listen to gospel music with mechanical instruments on Monday mornings but condemn it on Sunday night believe they have the pattern. The brethren who have children’s church on Sunday morning believe they have the right pattern. The brethren who have children’s church on Sunday night but condemn it on Sunday morning believe they have the right pattern.
On and on and on the issues go! The problem isn’t that many Christians disagree on the aforementioned issues, the problem is when we condemn those who don’t agree with us on issues such as the above. Until the conservative Churches of Christ change their approach to unity and begin allowing Christianity to be about relationships instead of legal procedures, then further splinters and divisions will continue to occur. I believe that brother Rick Atchley brilliantly demonstrates this problem in a simple, easy to understand fashion (click here to view video).
If you believe in this method of unity, then your belief obligates you to provide the following:
- A complete list of every issue in which you deem to be a doctrinal issue.
- The biblical gauge used in determining your conclusion.
Once you have provided that information, then you are obligated to honestly address the following:
- Do you believe that every single person whom you fellowship has the exact same list of every issue in which you identify as a doctrinal issue?
- Do you believe that every single person agrees with you on every single issue you deem to be a doctrinal issue?
- Could you still fellowship someone if their list of fellowship issues differed from yours in any way?
- If someone happened to disagree with you on just one issue you deemed doctrinal, would you remain consistent with your view of unity by withdrawing/dis-fellowshipping every single person who disagrees?
Here is the absurd conclusion that this belief demands: (1) Everyone must have the exact same universal “essential doctrine’s list.” (2) Everyone must agree and hold to the same beliefs on the list. So we not only must agree on what we think every single “fellowship issue is,” but we must have the exact same belief on every single one of those issues. If somebody has a different list than you in even just one point, or if they have a different view on any of the points, then that person is someone who can’t be fellowshipped.
One must only provide the aforementioned information if they believe in a legalistic, law-trusting method of unity. Once someone realizes that is impossible and that they have been approaching unity in an unbiblical way, the first question that typically arises is: “How should unity be approached?”
We need to quit looking for a checklist. Unity with other believers must be viewed relationally and not legalistically. Every time the Jews wanted to make following Jesus about an issue or a checklist, Jesus corrected them by putting the focus back on a relationship with Him (Mt. 22:34-40). It will be those who never knew Jesus that will be lost (Mt. 7:23). Two of the main analogies found in Scripture describing how our relationship with Jesus should be are that of a husband/wife and father/child (Eph. 5:22-33; Gal. 4:1-7). If we are going to be successful with our spouses and children, we must be relationship oriented, not issue oriented. If we are going to be successful in Christianity, we must put down the checklist and pick up our crosses (Lk. 9:23).
When we reduce Christianity to nothing more than a “list of essentials,” we are taking away the very message that Jesus came to bring, which is to deny self and follow Him fully and completely (Lk. 9:23). If we are not careful, we can find ourselves like the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 wanting a checklist of “dos” and “don’ts.” When you read the context, you will find that the rich young ruler had followed the checklist so to say. However, the one issue that kept him from having fellowship with Jesus was the one issue that was not on the “list” because he had a “heart issue” which was manifested in his trust and love in money.
The fact is that Christians will continue to grow (2 Pet. 3:18). Some Christians will be on milk while others will be on meat (Heb. 5:12-14). A particular issue may cost one person their salvation while not costing someone else their salvation based upon their heart, intent and current situation (2 Chron. 30:16-27).
At the end of the day, I am responsible for my own actions and beliefs, not the actions of others (Phil. 2:12). I will stand before God being judged for what I did (2 Cor. 5:10).
Each congregation is self-governing with Christ as the head (Eph. 1:20-23; 1 Pet. 5:1-3; Acts 14:23; Acts 20:28; etc.). While we should “look out for the interest of others” (Phil. 2:4), we oftentimes forget to “mind our own business” (1 Thess. 4:11). As one who has been guilty of this in the past, I can tell you that far too often we claim “concern” for our brethren when in reality we are only interested in getting involved in the next “controversial” issue when we have no business getting involved. We must be careful that do we not disguise busybodies and gossips as those who are just “contending for the faith” (Jude 3).
As Christians, we must be striving to follow Jesus and not violate our own conscience in so doing (Rom. 14:23). There are many people I disagree with on a number of subjects, but that does not mean I can’t fellowship them or view them as Christians. I may choose not to worship on a regular basis with them, or I may feel that I can serve God better in a different environment. If worshiping or associating with a certain church or congregation makes you feel uncomfortable, then you need to surround yourself with those whom you feel you can serve and worship with the best. Be careful not to judge your brother or sister who is striving to follow Jesus.
Now John answered and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side”‘ (Lk. 9:49-50).
“But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).
“Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (Ja. 4:11).
At the end of the day, we all draw our own lines. But we need to be careful that in doing so, we are still allowing God to be the ultimate judge while we attempt to do the best we can in making decisions. We need to make sure our convictions are clearly taught in Scripture. We need to make sure we do not overly judge and draw lines, but that we show mercy and love as we kindly teach our convictions.
“For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Ja. 2:13).
“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Mt. 7:2).
“But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (Gal. 5:15).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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