Hanging our hats, like Jesus

Christians are a diverse lot. Even self-confessed ‘Reformed’ Christians are a diverse lot. There’s lots of doctrines, practices and issues we’ll hang our hat on when we’re forced to. Others will hang their hat whether they’re forced to or not. (I’m more in the latter category.) Even here at Hills, we’re a diverse bunch. Complementarian and Egalitarian, Premillenial and Amillenial, Baptistic and “not really fussed”, teetotaler and drinker, Calvinist and Arminian, bourbon and scotch, Cats and Hawks, and so on. But I digress.

R. C. Sproul Jr. (UPDATED: thank you Nathan!) has written a great little piece on unity and truth, and the tension between them. There have been a few recent squabbles in Reformed circles in the US (one of which was related to James’s post about John MacArthur). Nothing too major, but enough to prompt Sproul to reflect on the ongoing battle between two great Christian principles.

Truth. It’s biblical. Romans 1:18, Proverbs 12:17, 3 John 1:8.

Unity. It is also biblical. Psalm 133:1, Ephesians 4:13, 1 Corinthians 1:10.

Both truth and unity matter. Unfortunately, one will always get in the way of the other. The cause of this imbalance is human sin. We can’t get it right. So what can we do? Sproul asks:

We need to not only learn to distinguish between primary and secondary doctrines/practices, we need to learn to value them accurately.  Can we both agree that being wrong on baptism is not a damnable heresy, and also affirm that it is an issue that matters? Can I seek to correct my Baptist brothers in a way that speaks to them as brothers who are wrong on an important issue? And can I in turn hear with grace my Baptist brothers as they lovingly seek to correct my error on the issue? Can I be concerned that my charismatic brother is leaving open the door for false prophecy and at the same time understand that he is concerned that I am boxing in the Holy Spirit?

Secondary issues are important. They do matter. Our stance at HBC on Believer Baptism matters. How the Reformed Presbyterian Church conduct their Lord’s Day worship matters. What our brothers and sisters believe at Grace Community Bible Church about the ‘Last Things’ matters. These issues only matter to a certain extent, though. (Unfortunately we can’t even unite on what extent that might be.)

I think it would be wise, though, to heed the words of Sproul:

 I know that whatever the Bible teaches, that is what’s right and true. And I know the Bible teaches that I am often wrong. It is not Rodney King that asks if we can all get along. It is Jesus asking, in His high priestly prayer (John 17).  He is the Truth, and He calls us to unity. That comes in reflecting His character. He, even when He corrects us, is for us. He, even when we are wrong, loves us perfectly. He is lowly in spirit and will not break a bruised reed.

Christians of all sorts of denominations and doctrinal positions should gather around one thing – our Lord Jesus Christ. We will spend eternity worshiping the “Lamb who was slain” (see Revelation 5:11-12). We won’t be worshiping our doctrinal stances, or our ability to discern biblical truth. We’ll be worshiping Jesus. As Sproul says, He is the Truth. In John 17 Jesus prays that his church would be united. I think we should all be comfortable disagreeing, so long as we reflect Christ’s character in doing so. I also think that we should, no matter what disagreements we maintain with our brothers, give clarity and primacy to the biblical gospel.

Truth is vitally important. So is unity. We must look to Jesus for both.

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8 responses to “Hanging our hats, like Jesus

  1. Simon, I think the understanding of unity in the church can be a bit misunderstood at times. From my experience unity can be taught and strived for at the expense of core biblical truths. ie unity is more important then upholding clear biblical teachings. If we allow this to happen then we will end up with a church that is confused about what are the foundational teachings of the Bible and as a result people will not worship and revere the God of the bible but rather one that meets their own perceived paradigm. Even worse this could compromise one’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian, let alone mature in their faith.

    I appreciate you are talking about the ‘secondary’ doctrines and I agree we need to deal with each other graciously and always humbly be ready to learn and be corrected. There will always be differing understandings in these to some degree. However the core truths that the Christian faith is to be held up on, such as the gospel truths and related teachings that clearly exalt Christ and not man, must not be compromised for the sake of ‘unity’. Rather we need to strive to be unified in those core, foundational truths. Otherwise we run the risk of cultivating a confused community; one that doesn’t even know what the gospel truth is, let alone teach it faithfully.

    I like how you mentioned that even ‘secondary’ truths are important. Any truth the bible teaches is important. Let’s learn and challenge each other about these truths whilst appreciating that all truth is revealed to us by God and not our own superior intellectual ‘enlightenment’. May it always be God who gets the glory as we discuss and learn about what the Bible teaches, not only in what teachings we learn, but in how we learn them and apply them to our lives.

  2. Thanks Simon. Very important subject, and very stimulating comments. Coming from Sydney, where we fight over important doctrines, I think we need to hear more on a focus of unity on the gospel. In Melbourne, where we don’t fight over doctrines virtually at all, I think we need to hear how important truth is. I was challenged about what you said regarding unity.
    My pet hate is when Christians, especially leaders, say that something is either a gospel issue or of no importance. I would think of concentric circles. In the middle are gospel issues. The next circle out might be called “core” issues. The next circle out ‘very important issues’. The next one out ‘somewhat important issues’, etc, all the way out to ‘peripheral issues’. Many issues are core or very important: not gospel issues, but not peripheral ones either.
    Having said that, I get sad when many Christians jump up and down about issues that I think should not divide us, such as views of the end times; views of baptism; views of church polity; views about evolution.
    Final comment! I will work with many Christians I disagree with when it comes to broad mission. But when it comes to week in week out church, I might draw up the lines more tightly for the sake of protecting the sheep.

  3. I think some doctrinal disagreements have more to do with biblical illiteracy than people taking contrary positions. It’s my guess if you asked the average church-goer to explain their understanding of the core Christian doctrines, few would be able to do so.

    Doctrines are not presented as such in the Sriptures, and seldom taught in church. This reality might be a good reason for bringing back some of the old confessions of the church.

    http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/bcof.htm

    At least it would be a place to start in attempting to restore a balanced, biblically-based understanding of the core teachings of Scripture.

    • Don’t tell me you’re moving more towards Anglicanism, Don?!? 🙂

      • Anglicanism? Sorry, Martin – don’t think so. 🙂

        I think the title is “The Baptist Confession of Faith”. As C.H. Spurgeon implies, it is not dogma that fetters, but teaching that edifies in righteousness.

        “This ancient document is the most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us. It is not issued as an authoritative rule or code of faith, whereby you may be fettered, but as a means of edification in righteousness. It is an excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of those Holy Scriptures by which all confessions are to be measured. We hold to the humbling truths of God’s sovereign grace in the salvation of lost sinners. Salvation is through Christ alone and by faith alone.”
        C. H. Spurgeon

  4. Thanks gents.

    Stu, I agree with your concerns – some churches make unity the most important thing, when in reality, they’re unifying around nothing! If we don’t unify around Truth, then it’s a bit pointless really. Nice, but pointless. Don’s point about bringing back the confessions is a really valid one. I know it runs against 21st century-Baptist sensitivities, but there is real richness, truth and wisdom in the confessions, and I think the Church (as in the People of God) would benefit greatly from re-adopting a more confessional stance in doctrine, teaching and practice.

    Martin, thanks for your comments. The concentric circles model is very helpful for deciding what matters. Everything matters, some things more than others. Your final comment is a good one, and reminds me of a Christian periodical, the masthead of which states that “the boundaries of our confessional commitments are smaller than the boundaries of our fellowship.”

  5. Simon, just thought I should point out that the article you linked wasn’t written by R.C. Sproul, but by his son, R.C. Sproul Jr.

    Important distinction…because they’re two different people. 😉

    • Indeed they are. And indeed, it is Junior to whom I have now given the credit. Thank you, Nathan. A fine eye for detail, there . . .

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