Last month a group of Protestant theologians met in California to discuss the Future of Protestantism. While summaries and follow-ups of the event can be found elsewhere, the concern for visible Christian unity raises all sorts of questions about the seriousness of doctrinal, liturgical, and practical disagreements. Such questions usually center around which doctrines we regard as “essential” or “necessary.” However, over the years, I’ve been dissatisfied with that sort of flat analysis, because it doesn’t grapple with the complexity of divisions within the body.
We ought to be able to distinguish between different types of essential doctrines (I’m grateful to Daniel Wallace for first introducing me to these categories). These distinctions focus on the weightiness of the doctrine itself.
- Essential for the life of the church. These doctrines are necessary for salvation; without them, there is no true church.
- Essential for the health of the church. These are necessary for Christian growth; getting these doctrines wrong doesn’t put people outside the kingdom, but it may make them sick and unable to thrive. This category is best regarded as a spectrum—the closer you get to Category 1, the sicker you get.
- Essential for the practice of the church. These doctrines are necessary for functional unity. While you may not regard Christians who differ with you as sick or unhealthy, the practical considerations necessary to get along may prove too burdensome.
- Non-essential doctrines or adiaphora (things indifferent). These doctrines should never divide Christians, meaning that those who differ could be members and even elders at the same church with no division at all.
But once we’ve distinguished between the relative seriousness of the doctrine itself, we’re not done. We now must evaluate the person holding the doctrine, to discern where he stands on it and why. What then are the different stances?
- A person may affirm the doctrine to be true.
- A person may fail to affirm the doctrine because he's never heard of it.
- A person may deny the doctrine out of ignorance or misunderstanding.
- A person may deny the doctrine with a true and accurate knowledge of it.
Failure to affirm is not the same as active denial, and a denial from misunderstanding is not the same as a denial despite a true picture of it. Such considerations ought to affect how we treat the person in question.
But once we’ve determined the weightiness of the doctrine and where the person or church stands on it, we still have work to do. We must make distinctions between
- churches and individuals
- leaders and congregants
- confused sheep and ravenous wolves
We must also evaluate
- the manner with which a person holds a doctrine. Does he make mountains out of molehills? Or molehills out of mountains?
- the way that doctrines hang together. While there is a slippery slope fallacy, sometimes slopes really do get slippery.
- the possibility of doctrinal inconsistency. I regularly encounter believers whose hearts are smarter than their heads.
Moreover, we need some historical awareness, a sense of where the church as a whole has stood on various issues throughout history. We must pay attention to the historical causes of divisions between Christians (for example, the history of racism in the United States has certainly affected doctrinal divisions, and yet the driver of the division wasn’t doctrine). We must develop the ability to read the story we’re in, to identify trajectories, to have an awareness of the present cultural situation for the church, and be mindful of where the winds of doctrine are blowing. Finally, we must recognize our own location and the particular battles God is calling us to fight (or the fences that he’s calling us to mend).
Now this proposal sounds complicated. And that’s the point. True unity demands that we grow up in our thinking about doctrine and truth and fellowship. It demands Christian maturity, the kind that can speak the truth in love so that together we can all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).
(These remarks, along with a fuller exposition of this passage from Ephesians 4, are drawn from this chapel message at Bethlehem College and Seminary.)