This week we’re going to pause our walk through of some of the smaller and more neglected books of the Bible, and take the opportunity to have something of an in-family conversation.
I’d like to address the topic of unity, with a specific eye on the American church. Specifically churches like ours: conservative, bible churches. Churches that would consider themselves “evangelical” .
A brief word on the word “evangelical”
That word, “evangelical”, used to mean something like gospel-focused churches. Churches filled with believers that were passionate about preaching the good news about Jesus Christ: that God sent him to rescue our rebellious race from the penalty of their sin.
But in recent decades, that word, “evangelical” has become more closely associated with an American political ideology.
Between 2009 and 2013 there was a dramatic shift in the American religious landscape. From 50% of Americans being practicing Christians (monthly+ church attendance, report that faith is an important part of their daily life.) in 2009, to just 25% in 2019. (With 45% calling themselves “non-practicing” Christians which is an oxymoron). And Among the 70% of Americans that considered themselves Christian at all, 25% of identified as “Evangelical.”
But more alarmingly, recent studies by Harvard and the University of Chicago show that just 52% of people who self-identify as Evangelical qualify as a practicing Christian With a full 27% saying they attend only once a year or less. And these numbers are continuing in a negative trajectory.
In other words, today, just because someone calls themselves “evangelical” does not necessarily mean they are a Christian. And without submitting themselves to discipleship, membership, and discipline of a church, and being exposed to the word regularly, who are these “evangelicals” being discipled by? Because they will be discipled by someone.
A pastoral observation
My point in bringing this up is by way of a pastoral observation.
As long as I can remember there has been political debate in our country: what policies should be enacted, and what the wisest strategies are for running our nation. My reading tells me this is a normal part of human society throughout history. But I will say that I have not seen our society in such a fevered disagreement over so many issues, as I have these past two or three years.
This past year, I am seeing division in the church broadly, and our church specifically, of a sort that I’ve not encountered in 22 years of being a Christian, and a lifetime of being a “church kid.” Fighting over various political stances. Dogmatically demanding adherence to certain political platforms or allegiance to certain candidates. It seems like almost every social issue has been given a political spin!
More concerning to me yet, is that I’m seeing many Christians falling for it, and engaging the world with an energy and a passion, and a do-or-die, apocalyptic-level fervor, in the arena of politics in a way that is hurting our Christian witness. When the outside world thinks of the Christian church, they aren’t reminded of Jesus’s message of righteousness and forgiveness of sin, the primary thing they think of is our political opinions.
But what is most concerning to me, is that I see us in the church not even knowing how to discuss and debate these matters internally, in a way that is seeking to build up and unify, rather, the debates are more like a test: do you hold the party line? If not, you’re out.
I am betting that many of you are noticing this same thing, are bothered by it, and wonder what we can do about it. Because, Christians who are walking with Christ, full of the Spirit, have an impulse to be unified with one another.
The importance of unity
The night before Jesus was crucified, he gathered his disciples in an upper room, and he prayed to The Father that the church would stand as a unified group:
John 17:20-23 ESV
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me”
The apostle Paul picks up this theme of unity in Philippians:
Philippians 2:1–4 (ESV)
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
He goes on and says they ought to be like Jesus, giving up their preferences, rights, and privileges for one another to the same extent Christ did, even allowing himself to be crucified on the cross for their sake.
Philippians 2:14–16 (ESV)
“14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life…”
Christ prayed for our unity, Paul exhorted us toward it, the Holy Spirit drives us toward it.
I would like to show four lenses through which we can view inevitable difficult conversations, and political disagreements while maintaining unity.
Lens 1: Mission
Notice two things in the passages we just read: the importance of Christians being “one”, the intimacy of the fellowship, but also that this “oneness” is not an end in itself. Unity has a purpose. One of my favorite theologians puts it this way:
“Jesus prayed that believers would be united, and yet the unity of believers is not His ultimate concern. He prayed for such unity for the sake of the world, so that the world would realize that the Father sent the Son. In addition, when believers are united, the world will comprehend that the Father loves believers just as He loves His one and only Son.” Tom Schreiner
I want to start the conversation here: Church, we have a mission. A critical mission. A mission of do-or-die apocalyptic-level importance. There are a few ways you could state the mission, but I’ll say it this way: our mission is to Glorify God by making disciples of Jesus. (i.e., helping people know and follow Jesus.)
“Make disciples from every nation, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Jesus, Matthew 28:19-20
Unity is mission critical!
Self-sacrificial unity for the sake of shining like lights in the world as we deny ourselves hold fast to the word of life. Jesus says that the world will know that we are sent by God when we are united in this way!
LENS 2: NUANCE
Philippians 2 speaks of “holding fast to the word of life.” – Holding on to sound doctrine. Last week, Brad taught on Jude, and verse 6 urges us to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” – because false teaching and false teachers creep into the church cause division, disrupting our unity and therefore disrupting our witness.
So we are to contend for the faith! But how can we contend for sound doctrine, while still pursuing unity?
There is an also an important way to go about this pursuit of doctrinal unity: it needs to be done with conviction yes, but also nuance.
“Softness and hardness are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.” – Martin Luther
Conviction is important, and in order to hold onto conviction and preserve unity there are twin errors that need to be avoided: Hardness, and softness.
- Sectarianism: which holds beliefs and convictions about doctrines in a way that causes unnecessary division in the body of Christ. Holds strong convictions about many details of theological positions, with an inability to to distinguish between different kinds of doctrine, levels of importance.
- Minimalism: Says that non-essential doctrines (which are very few and far between) do not matter, and avoids them. “Stop dividing over doctrine, just love Jesus.” – but at some point you have to define who Jesus is.
While sectarians are prone to sacrifice unity on the alter of doctrinal purity, minimalists are prone to sacrifice sound doctrine for the pursuit of unity at all costs. Both of these are bad solutions.
We can find nuance we need by realizing that doctrine exists on a four-tiered spectrum:
- First order doctrines: are doctrines that are essential to the gospel. If you do not hold these positions, you are not a Christian. (Examples: right understanding of the Trinity, The Virgin Birth, Justification by Grace alone through Faith alone, in Christ alone.). We should die on the hills of first order doctrines, and hold them with courage and conviction.
- Second order doctrines: are doctrines that are urgent for the health and practice of the church. These doctrines are the rightful cause of denominations. Examples: mode of baptism (infant/believers), the nature of spiritual gifts, women’s roles in ministry (complementarian/egalitarian). These doctrines require conviction with wisdom and balance.
- Third order doctrines: are doctrines that are important to Christian theology, have an impact on second order doctrines, but are not urgent enough to justify separation or division among Christians. Examples: millennium theology (post, pre, a-mill), the age of the earth. These doctrines require prudence and restraint
- Fourth order doctrines: are doctrines that are unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration. Some importance to practicals, and often fun intellectual exercises. Examples: instrumentation in worship. Finer points of angelology, precise dating of the books of scripture. These doctrines don’t require much of us.
Trouble with this chart is that it is possible to debate which doctrines belong where. A sectarian would put many more things in first and second order doctrines, where a minimalist would have a hard time knowing what, if anything, to put in first and second order doctrines.
A given doctrine can even be a second order doctrine and be more-or-less essential than another one of the same rank.
Some doctrines are very difficult to place! Any often times, the relative importance of a given doctrine is itself a debate!
This is why humility and patience is required. But this exercise of understanding that these four tiers exist can be a useful starting point. “How important is this disagreement we’re having?”
But what about wisdom issues?
But it seems that the most divisive conversations recently have been about issues that don’t seem to be theological at all. (Though yes, in once sense, our theology informs every area of life.) But there are matters that we deal with on a daily basis that simply have nothing explicit written about them in the scriptures.
Most situational ethics and political positions deal with things that are not explicitly written about in scripture: strategies for following through on the teaching are often in short supply.
For example: one one hand we have the scriptural commands to care for the widows, orphans, refugees, and generally the vulnerable, and on the other hand we have scriptural commands regarding the ownership and protection of private property. Which of these commands takes precedence? How do they work together? These things require wisdom, and there is often more than one possible solution.
If you find yourself having great certainty about your political position, and other fellow believers having a different position: it is time for humility and self reflection. Don’t think “they must be wrong” or “they must not be believers” but rather ask “perhaps am I missing something?” And seek understanding.
That sort of patience is in short supply today, and the failure to operate this way is the root of much of our division.
In this life, as we navigate in culture, we have to make all kinds of situational judgement calls about how we should act and react in society. We will have to make decisions about how we vote. We have to make decisions about how to educate our kids. We have to make decisions about what companies to support, what candidates to endorse. We can and will have internal debates over the best way to handle strategy when it comes to wisdom issues.
The world only knows one way of dealing with these disagreements, division & tribalism. The church is looking an awful lot like the world today. How can we preserve unity? By taking these thoughts captive and examining them through the lenses of mission, nuance, and:
LENSE 3: Love – A more excellent way.
Love is the answer. Love is how we are to act and react in every situation. Love is the framework in which we are to have every debate. Love is the way we are going to get this right.
1 Corinthians 13:4–8a (ESV)
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
When it comes to wisdom-based judgement calls for churches, John Calvin wrote:
“…he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the strengthening of the church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation. It will be proper, as the interest of the church may require, to change and do away with the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Love is the best judge of what tends to hurt or edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.” – John Calvin
He’s saying: When God has not given a direct command about an issue, because it is not related to salvation, and because the church needs to exist in many different cultures, we as a church are free to use wisdom, and carefully innovate strategies for living out our faith: and that as long as we are letting love guide us, we’re safe.
How do we apply love tactically in our internal debates over wisdom issues? I’ll give a few quick examples.
- Abortion: The scripture is clear that the ending of a human life without just cause is murder. The scripture is not clear on the strategy we as a society ought to employ to combat this evil practice. The scripture is clear that we are required to act out of love and concern for those who are involved in the abortion. They are also clear that we required to act in love toward one another as we debate the best strategies.
- Sexual morality: The scriptures are clear that God creates each individual a male or a female and that this is a physically identifiable thing. There is no difference between biological sex and gender. It is clear that any sexual activity outside of the covenant bond marriage between one man and one woman is sin, and to be avoided. The scripture is less specific and clear on strategies for living in and reaching out to a pluralistic society (a society comprised of individuals with different belief systems). It is clear that we are required to act in love toward those caught in immoral lifestyles. And it is clear that we are to act in love toward one another as we seek the best way to interact with and reach out to a fallen world.
- Care for the widow, orphan, and immigrant: The scriptures are clear that God cares for, and commands us to care for, the vulnerable people present in our communities. It is less clear on specific strategies for best caring for them in a modern world. (The specific commands it does have are to an agrarian society, but though I think we can learn from it.) What is clear is that we are required to act out of love for them. And we are required to act out of love for one another as we debate the best policies for dealing with the vulnerable among us.
This is a complex topic. But let me break it down for us.
Christian, we have a mission. Our mission is compromised when we are divided, and when we are divisive. It is compromised when we act in unloving ways toward our unbelieving neighbors.
But you only need to remember one thing for this whole topic. You simply need to ask yourself, in every argument you ever get in: are my words and conduct glorifying Christ? Am I being like him? Or am I putting up unnecessary roadblocks to the clear communication of the gospel by insistence that my political strategy is the only option?
LENS 4: Humility – Christ is our ultimate example.
Philippians 2:5–11 (ESV)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Do you want to win? Do you want to be on the right side of history? Do you want righteousness to prevail in this land? This is the way forward. A united church full of Christ-like people, on a mission to bring the news about Jesus to a dying world, showing them Christ’s love by the way we treat one another, and the manner in which we approach them.