In writing this blog series, I have also learned some lessons, not all of them pleasing. We, the current generation of leaders pay lip service to Christian Unity, but are so deeply embedded in our own biases and traditions that we either do nothing about it or even resist it in the practical working of our Faith. Some even openly oppose it and some define Christian Unity as something limited within denominations and even with local churches. Let me assure you, the Bible does not so limit Christian Unity and makes no distinction between the local Church and the Church Catholic or Universal.
The Greek word that is translated "church" in English Bibles is ekklesia, which is made up of the two words "ek", which means "out of", and "kaleo", which means "to call". "Ekklesia" therefore means "called out" or, when used with the definite article "the", "the called out ones". This concept carries with it the idea of being "elect" or "chosen", and it should be properly translated as either "called out" or "the called out ones" or simply "the elect". In other words, all who have been "out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9 NKJV) are part of the same "Ekklesia" -- the same "Church"! We also find that Scripture recognizes local and geographic congregations of the elect as in "the elect" or "the saints" in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, ... and so on. In other words, God through His Scripture acknowledges bodies of believers within the local church and along with it, their distinctives. These distinctives may include their social-cultural contexts, their particular customs, their culture, and so on. For instance the Church in Jerusalem which is probably made up primarily of believers from a Jewish background as opposed to the Church in Rome which is probably composed largely by gentiles, or the Church in Ephesus which is a port city a opposed to the church in Collossae which is land locked. These distinctives result in churches with different challenges which are clearly distinguishable in a careful study of the New Testament. Nevertheless, distinctiveness aside, Scripture and hence, God, clearly sees all as the same Church! This is something we will have to bear in mind in the following parts of this series.
What then united the early churches in the Bible? It was THE FAITH given once for all (Jude 1:3) and the Seven Bonds of Christian Unity which are discussed in the first 3 parts of this series that explored the essentials of the Christian Faith that serve to unite all believers regardless of denomination. I based this exploration on the 7 Bonds of Christian Unity fond in Ephesians 4:1-6, One Body, One Spirit (Part1), One Hope, One Lord, One Faith (Part 2), One Baptism, and One God and Father of All (Part 3). In good conscience, I firmly believe that what I have presented here represents the core beliefs of all believers and hence denominations.
I have also been accused of promoting my particular "brand" of Christianity. With God as my witness and Scripture as my proof, THERE IS NO SUCH THING as a brand of Christianity. At the risk of being sanctioned for breaking the Global Policies of ChristianBlog, I will say these unequivocally:
- Any "denomination" or church that declares a God other than the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David, the same God of the Apostles is NOT Christian! What I am exhorting us to is NOT ecumenicism in the sense that all gods are the same God as some have falsely bought into in deference to political correctness and a distorted sense of tolerance. Rather, for lack of a better term, it is an ORTHODOX ECUMENICISM based on the central and irreducible Truths of Scripture, the Essentials of the Faith that bind us!
- Any "denomination" or church that does not believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, fully God and fully man is NOT Christian! These would include those that deny the deity of Christ alongside His humanity. I am sorry, call it denominational bashing all you want but you cannot call yourself a Christian if you do not believe in Christ!
- Any "denomination" or church that does not hold to Salvation by Faith and Faith alone based upon the completed work of Christ in His death and resurrection upon the cross is NOT Christian! The empty tomb stands eternal as the testimony of the Church. It is by faith that we are saved ... by the free acceptance of the forgiveness of sins given by Grace. Christ and Christ alone is our propitiation not "works", not "righteousness", nor "holiness", nor "purity"! There is no righteousness, no holiness, no purity outside of Christ! He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIGHT, there is no other way, no other truth, no other light ... no liturgy, no rite or ritual, and no other confession. This statement does not mean that we should not strive for righteousness, holiness, and purity. Rather, it simply means that righteousness through any human effort in compliance to the Law (as in the Old Testament Law) or any other law, holiness by any human yardstick, and purity by any act of self denial or act of sacrifice alone will not earn us salvation.
- Any "denomination" or church that does not accept the Bible, the Word of God, as the only and final authoritative Word of God, either adding to or taking away from It is NOT Christian! God did not send another word to us by any other man or woman, spirit or beast. This means ALL of the Bible, not just part of it or the parts we find agreeable or acceptable alone! This is not to say that men and women of God have not expounded the Word of God in writings that are not edifying to the soul, nor does it mean that there are not other works that are not worthy of our attention. It means that any writing outside of the Bible is in no way canonical! In other words, there is no other Scripture!
Yet any plea for unity must recognize diversity and differences. In the second part of the quote attributed to St. Augustine, "in dubiis libertas" (in non-essentials liberty), the original Latin uses the word dubiis from which the English word "dubious" is derived. Here, it is important that we clarify a few things:
- The word "dubiis" is defined by Latin scholars as doubtful, uncertain, or having more than one definition, interpretation, or explanation. In the context of the quote, it does not denote rightness or wrongness of divergence just that there are more than one, neither favoring nor disparaging one or the other. As such the English translation of the quote, in an attempt to capture the true meaning of the quote chose to use "non-essential" rather than its literal equivalents "doubtful" or "uncertain". This recognizes that proponents of different views do not see their view as either doubtful or uncertain.
- Non-Essentials is used strictly within Biblical context. This means that divergent definition, interpretation, or explanation occur within the confines of Scripture, not outside of it.
- "Libertas" in the Latin means the state or condition of a freeman, a being free, freedom, liberty, freedom from restraint or obligation, free will.
Are there differences between believers? Are there different interpretations of Scripture? Are there different understandings? Of course there are! Scripture declares, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." -- Deuteronomy 29:29. Paul tells us, "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." -- 1 Cor 13:12. We often forget that the Bible tells us all that we need to know, NOT all that there is to know. As I have mentioned in the first three parts of this series, Christian in good faith and conscience have differed in many things. Some, like the Calvinist hold to the Doctrine of Predestination, others, like the Arminians hold to the Doctrine of Free Will. In my blog series "The Tale of Two Doctrines vs. Scripture" I explored both and showed that Scripture does indeed teach both. Christians also hold to different views of the Creation account some adhere to a literal interpretation while others a symbolic interpretation. Christians have also differed on how end-times prophesy are to be interpreted: some holding to Pre-Tribulation, others to Mid-Tribulation, and yet others to Post-Tribulation views of Millennial Theology. There are also those who hold to an Amillennial Theology. Yet another area of contention deals with the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly as it relates to Spiritual Gifts. There are also different views of Baptism, the Sacraments, church governance and a host of other differences. Personally, I have my own beliefs and stances on each of these, but that is not the issue at hand. Proponents of each and every one of these differing views cite Scripture as the basis of their beliefs. Sometimes, even the same Scripture, interpreted differently. The purpose of this series is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of any of these positions. Rather, it asks ONE question and one question alone: "ARE THEY CENTRAL TO THE FAITH?"
In other words, do any of these alter, for one moment or iota, the essential beliefs of Christianity? Does predestination or free will alter our salvation by faith given by grace? Does it fundamentally alter the Greatest Commandment or the Commission? Does a literal vs symbolic interpretation of Creation? Does any view of the end times? Does any view or practice of Baptism, the Sacrament, or church governance? Do any of these differences change the fact that we must love God with all our hearts, minds, spirit, and strength? Does it mean that we should love our neighbor less? Do any alter the fact that we are called to serve the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and lonely?
The answer to all the above questions is NO. Granted, all of them have implications. I am not diminishing any. Some alter our confidence, others change our sense of urgency, yet others effect our view of the present, the future, and eternity and all these are important indeed. The question is whether they are important enough to risk discord and disunity in the Body? I think not.
This is where "Liberty" comes in. In modern parlance it is "agreeing to disagree". I urge us to place emphasis on the essentials of THE FAITH that unite us and not let differences get in the way of unity. By all means discus and expound upon them and let iron sharpen iron, but do not let such discussions degenerate to the unwholesome. Choose to defend the essentials of the FAITH. If anything demands our fervent defense it is those things that unite us. My brothers and sisters in Christ, "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12), our battle is against the prince of this world, NOT each other.
Why are there so many denominations? The simple answer is that each have different views of the things that I have discussed so far. The harder question is why God has allowed this "division" in His Church. Hardliners for each differing view will say that it is because of the wickedness and disobedience of the others, the more charitable and kindly will say that it is because of ignorance. Yet, if these are so, and since we have hardliners in all camps, then ultimately all of us are wicked and disobedient and all of us are ignorant. The most humorous part of all this is that the previous statement is closer to the truth than any of us (myself included) would like to admit. In spite of these, none of us can escape the fact that God has allowed for the division of His Church and has also blessed each with their great men and women of God, their evangelistic and missionary efforts, and their revivals. Who indeed can know the mind of God? Who can know His ways?
I began this series by telling you how I have found Christian brothers and sister who love Christ in every denomination, brothers and sisters who are all Christ followers. In my ministry, I have visited with and spoken at many different churches from many denominations. I have worshiped in many settings with many different liturgies and many worship styles, and I have heard the same Christ proclaimed, the same salvation offered, the same hope professed. I have felt the Lord's presence in them all. Are there things that we do not agree upon? Yes, but they are not central to my faith in Christ. As for me, I have chosen liberty and unity. Not absolute liberty nor unity at all costs, but liberty and unity with a firmly held adherence to the essentials!
Today, I see God's Church as an army with different branches, divisions, battalions, platoons and units. I believe that God in His infinite wisdom has permitted this so that all His diverse creations can each find a home in which to grow and serve. Like our human armies, each branch has its own peculiarities, temperament, and ways of doing things. I served in the military myself and know how different the air force, army, and navy are from each other. Even within the army, infantry, engineers, commandos, artillery, and armor all differ. They think differently, have different personalities, wear different uniforms and insignia. Sometimes these differences become sources of friction and rivalry between them. Yet in the end they answer to the same commander-in-chief and the fight the same enemy and for the same causes. In the end they are ONE army. So, I believe it should be with the Church.
In Essentials Unity (Part 5 - In All Things Charity) ... to be continued ...