“We just preach Jesus. We avoid anything that causes division in churches”.
Have you heard this purpose-statement? Do you live your life by it? This predominant ideology within churches today is the reactionary response of a generation who has seen church after church split over seemingly trivial issues. The number of denominations is nauseating, and our animosity towards one another even worse.
Does your church have a denominational affiliation? Are you a Baptist? Presbyterian? Nazarene? Non-denominational? My parents grew up in a strict, legalistic Baptist church. I am sure you have heard the stereotype: Baptists are Bible thumpers, they will shun anyone who has any sin, they are boring and they are mean. Somehow, without ever really hearing that stereotype verbalized, I formed that opinion in my young, six year old mind. We went to a non-denominational church, after all. We weren’t tied down to what those big groups had to say, we had a mind of our own and we could write out our own statement of beliefs. We just loved Jesus.
But when I was in the fourth grade, my family moved halfway across the country and my world was rattled when we joined a Baptist church! What?! I thought they were the bad guys! I thought non-denominationalism was the passive-aggressive response to people trying to tell us what to believe! Wait…I mean…I thought non-denominationalism was the way to be sure that you would not fall into the mess of division over doctrine!
The Church’s unfortunate adaptation to our culture is to decide that we will write our own doctrine, and we will avoid hot topics. Everyone, after all, has the Holy Spirit indwelling them, we can all read the Bible, and we might get different things out of the same passage, so as long as we agree about Jesus, that is all that matters.
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.
– 1 John 1.1-4
John, the apostle of love, writes plainly: We are teaching you everything that we know so that we may have fellowship. And John does not make the argument that they have fellowship just with the apostles by having like-belief, he makes the audacious claim:
“…and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
John, the most tender of all the apostles, simply says: listen to what we have to say because we want you to believe it, because we know God and if you want to have fellowship with us and with God, you have to believe it too. That is a bold statement.
Remember Paul? The apostle? The one who was killing Christians, but was stopped by Jesus on the road knocked off his donkey and blinded by a light, called to repentance and to win the non-Jewish world to salvation? That very same Paul, when he set off to be a missionary in Spain, wrote a missionary support letter. Have you ever read a missionary support letter? They are typically emotion driven. They explain the need in the target country. Usually there are some statistics about the population, the percentage of Christians, the missionary’s calling and desire to go serve…but Paul’s missionary support letter is the book of Romans: our keystone book in the New Testament when it comes to doctrine. Give it a try, the next time you want to raise support for a short term mission trip, write out a letter with your exhaustive system of beliefs on the major doctrines, and see if people support you.
That sounds like nonsense, does it not?
Yes. Because we are afraid of doctrine. We are afraid to disagree with someone. We are afraid to be bold about what the Bible has to say. We want to smooth talk people into following Jesus, not allow the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin and right understanding of God. But our Biblical example is to let our fellowship be built and established by right belief, by unity of understanding God and the Scriptures, by Truth.
Where, then, do we draw the line? Paul wrote ad nauseam, almost, on the various doctrines of salvation, and tied in the history of Israel and the Church to explain himself in depth. John wrote with the intention that his readers might believe and be saved. I suggest to you an outline by Al Mohler. He writes that all doctrines to fall into three categories or levels. He calls it a “theological triage”.
“First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.
Second-order issues would include the meaning and mode of baptism. Baptists and Presbyterians, for example, fervently disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. The practice of infant baptism is inconceivable to the Baptist mind, while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant. Standing together on the first-order doctrines, Baptists and Presbyterians eagerly recognize each other as believing Christians, but recognize that disagreement on issues of this importance will prevent fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.
Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most of the debates over eschatology, for example, in this category. Christians who affirm the bodily, historical, and victorious return of the Lord Jesus Christ may differ over timetable and sequence without rupturing the fellowship of the church. Christians may find themselves in disagreement over any number of issues related to the interpretation of difficult texts or the understanding of matters of common disagreement. Nevertheless, standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.”
There are some issues that are tertiary: do you believe in the literal, thousand year reign of Christ at the end of the age? Or do you think it is metaphorical and we are somehow in that season now? Do you believe the rapture will happen before the tribulation? Or after? These things are going to be debated and unclear until the end comes. We can know and love Jesus and one another, having differing opinions. Some issues are secondary and require division, like an understanding of baptism, as Mohler points out. And there are the primary issues over which we would consider one not a believer if denied, for instance the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And the Bible states clearly that there must be divisions. The purpose of these divisions? To show who is right.
For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.
– 1 Cor 11.19
A baptist believes baptism to be the obedient step and public testimony of one who believes in and trusts Jesus for salvation. A presbyterian believes baptism to be the mark of bringing one into the covenant family, the same way circumcision did for the Hebrew people before Christ – and thus baptize their infants. A member of the Christian Church denomination believes that baptism is the actual transformation where someone is made a Christian. It is the final step in the process of coming to faith, and required for salvation. Scripture does not and cannot teach all three things. That is why factions must exist, and we must be like the Berean believers, seeking out the Scripture with all diligence to understand which is right and Biblical.
It is good and right to be a follower of Jesus. Do you choose to say you follow Jesus rather than flaunt your denomination? That can be a healthy attribute, as long as you do not throw the baby of doctrine and theology out with the bath water of denominational labeling. Our intention and purpose should always be like that of John, Paul and Jesus: belief, fellowship and support. Strong and like doctrine draws us together and unites us deeply. And the reality is that even if we shy away from big, theological terms, every time we talk about Jesus we are saying something doctrinal. Every time we quote and reference Scripture, we are making a theological assumption.
So let’s not be obnoxious proponents of our chosen denomination (or lack thereof), but let us study and proclaim boldly what Scripture says, and on that solid foundation build fellowship with one another, but more importantly, with God. This is how we know God: to understand, love and cherish who He reveals Himself to be in His Word and to praise Him and enjoy Him because of it. You cannot know God if you do not know His word.