Who doesn’t want to be unified? Disunity, without even exploring all of what it means, just sounds plain awful. That’s because it can be awful. In the previous post, I defined what Unity is not and previewed what Unity is. If a person is to distill the Scripture’s teachings on church unity, then you might simplify with these irreducible three categories as Larry Osborne has in his book Sticky Teams:
- Doctrinal Unity (agreement on a set of biblical truths)
- Respect and Friendship
- Philosophical Unity (agreement on the church’s practices)
Doctrinal Unity and Disagreement
Depending on how you are wired, this may be your most passionate area of unity, or it may be your least passionate area. Either way, every Christian leader should agree that doctrinal unity is absolutely essential. Some churches will have lengthy statements, some will have a few bullet points. But most Bible-believing evangelical churches will insist that there is truth that cannot be compromised. This is because the Bible itself insists as much.
But the Bible is a big library of the various forms of God’s revelation of Himself. You have history, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, life instruction, and not all of it finds agreement in its interpretation. Each church needs to determine what beliefs are absolutely essential to faith and practice and then define them. But that should still leave a vast sea of non-essentials where we must allow disagreement. Disagreement is not disunity.
…unity that insist on uniformity isn’t unity at all. It’s a cheap counterfeit. Genuine and biblical unity is found in the midst of real and passionate differences that we set aside in the recognition that the differences we have are nowhere as important as the King we serve. Let’s admit it. Our Christian hot buttons constantly change. Our decade’s battleground is another decade’s yawn. …No doubt you and your church have your own hot buttons that flow out of the unique cultural setting, background, and theological pedigree of your ministry. So how can we allow for this kind of diversity without blowing everything up? The key is to determine ahead of time the things we won’t fight about and then make it crystal clear to everyone that these issues are off-limits. (p. 29)
Buddha and Jesus
It is not uncommon to be at Mission and be astounded by what you hear. With an open tent comes wide open beliefs that come from anywhere. I was at a Bible Study recently and heard a regular attendee say, “Buddha and Jesus are basically the same, I’ll see Buddhists in heaven.” Now, you might think this would be upsetting, and ultimately it is. But penultimately, it’s encouraging. If you are reaching the world with your church, you should hear things like this regularly. Why? The culture believes certain things, and if you are bringing the people of the culture into the church, then you will always have Buddha showing up to your Bible Studies. Best, with common beliefs being expressed, other people will feel free to openly share what they believe prompting the people to encourage one another with truth the way Scripture shows us (Eph 4:15-16).
Culture of Discovery vs. Culture of Conformity
With truth, there must be a culture that promotes a freedom to discover, which by definition will include disagreement. For instance at Mission Church, everyone in leadership understands that our mission is to “invite people into Life with Jesus,” and that includes all people with no discrimination, and so we do so with a “non-judgmental attitude.” That means for us that no matter where you some from–religious background, personal mistakes, etc.–you will be accepted and received. In our understanding it is the simplest tangible illustration of “justification by faith alone.” That’s also why we’ve chosen to be inter-denominational instead of affiliating with just one. Though we have no problem with denominations (and could affiliate in the future), for us, it creates doctrinal discovery simple for newcomers. We give everyone a Bible. When a culture of conformity is created, people tend to stop seeking on their own and defer to human experts for everything. Soon, people say, “The pastor says _____” instead of “The Bible says _____.” The leaders start to be glorified in the place of Jesus. A culture of conformity can give the appearance of Doctrinal Unity, but because it leads to human-centeredness, it eventually results in pride and Disunity as it did in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:10-2:5).
In a healthy biblical church, the door is not wide open on all beliefs. We say, “our beliefs come from the Bible only.” We post our church statement of faith on our website, and honestly, it is a bit longer than the average church’s statement. That’s because we believe increased clarity on doctrine equals increased unity. And lack of clarity leads to disunity. However, one could attend Mission indefinitely and not agree with the statement–that is if they could stomach the sermons which trumpet those beliefs. The statement simply states how the membership believes. At Mission, we use the term “Partner” instead of “Member.” We invite people into Doctrinal Unity when we they pursue Partnership at Mission. Partners hold the influential positions, participate in strategic decision-making, and disciple others at Mission–they are doctrinally “on the same page.”
This doesn’t mean that we have partners, leaders, pastors (even me), who have differing opinions, beliefs, and strong convictions about non-essential truths. We all just recognize that there are a variety of interpretations, opinion, and even lack of information on many truths. So we make it crystal clear that certain truths are in a closed hand and worth fighting for, and certain truths are in the open hand and we refuse to fight over.
Open Right Hand vs. Closed Left Hand
In the closed left hand are truths like those concerning the nature of Scripture, the nature of God, the nature of man, and the process of salvation. These are all listed on the church’s statement of faith. These are in the closed left hand because they are worth fighting for… because eternal fates hang in the balance based upon these truths. For example, a popular debate worth having is over salvation through Jesus Christ alone (exclusivity of Christ, John 14:6). This is a hot topic today and a historical doctrine from the Bible that’s worth going to the mats. So Buddha gets squished in the closed left hand. But interestingly, I find that few people ever want to argue over essential truths.
The right hand is the hand of fellowship–we shake and welcome. In the open right hand are truths that, curiously, people tend to love arguing over. Truths like the age of the Earth, when and how Jesus will return, types and legitimate uses of spiritual gifts, the relationship between law and gospel, particulars of husband-wide relations, parenting models, and forms and styles of preaching will arouse passionate argument and even division among believers. We make it clear that we don’t argue over open-handed issues. A leadership team must make clear what it will hold in the closed hand, and then lead the church to not argue over issues in the open hand, but listen, consider, and share with thoughtfulness and charity as to promote a culture of discovery.
Trust the Holy Spirit as Teacher
The Bible teaches that doctrinal truth is understood and believed when the Holy Spirit illuminates the truth to the reader or hearer. Jesus talks about this (Jn 16:13-14) and so does Paul (1 Cor 2:10-13). The Spirit is more powerful than our persuasion, and He works as His pleases according to His will and not ours (Jn 3:8; 1 Cor 12:11). So a culture of discovery, with a dependance on the Spirit in the pages of Scripture, make room for the Spirit to do His work.
In the end, to promote Doctrinal Unity, the pastors or board need to identify the essential doctrines, clarify their meaning in writing, defend these truths in the closed left hand, make clear that everything else is in the open right hand, and protect free thoughtful discussion and exploration in a culture of discovery. In all of this, clear Bible teaching, fervent prayer, and reliance on the Holy Spirit will cause the church to “grow up in every way into Him who is the Head, who is Christ” (Eph 4:15).
This blog comes from reflections on Scripture and excerpts from Larry Osborne’s bookSticky Teams. I’m writing to prospective and current planters, pastor teams, deacons and staff teams, volunteers who lead people, and those in leadership at Mission Church (www.missionchurchsa.org).