“Stay connected to the global church if you want to hold on to orthodoxy . . . and if you want to hold on to your sanity.”

That’s the counsel I gave a gathering of Evangelical Free Church pastors and church leaders in the Midwest recently. The question had been raised: How do we deal with the divisions in the church? And the follow-up: How do we focus on the essentials of the faith when so many debates make political agreement essential?

You may have seen the statistics. A majority in the United States today would be more upset to see a son or daughter marry someone from another political party than from another religion. That survey displays not only the decline of religious affiliation as a mark of significance for Americans, but also the rise of politics as a quasi-religious identity.

Recent surveys show some Muslims self-identify as “evangelical,” most likely because they embrace the political meaning of that label.

Consider also the toxic stew of social media, the rampant slandering and tribalistic spin online. Then add a dash of end-times urgency to every election cycle and season.

The conditions are set for people to leave the church because they disagree with brothers and sisters on political priorities, or vaccines, or masks, or the best way to fight racial injustice, etc. One pastor lamented his struggle to maintain friendships with pastors who agree on the essentials of the faith but seem driven now to part ways over lesser issues. “Everything is essential now,” he told me.

The Global Church

Which brings me back to the global church. One of the best ways to maintain sound doctrine and gain perspective on some of our society’s most heated debates is to stay in close contact with Christians in other parts of the world. Cultural quirks and theological distinctions will help you discern what’s essential and where Christians can “agree to disagree.”

Here are two examples from the several years I spent as a student doing mission work in Romania.

The Rapture

First, I was shocked to discover that hardly anyone there had heard of “the rapture.” The dispensational premillennial view of eschatology, which became something of the default position in the latter part of the 20th century among conservative evangelicals, was virtually unheard of in many parts of the world (although I know a handful of Romanians now that espouse that view).

As a teenager, I had assumed the dispensational perspective on eschatology—in its broad contours, if not all the details you’d read about in Left Behind—was the Christian position. It was orthodoxy. Anything else was serious error, or at least suspect. Fellowship with faithful Christians outside of the U.S. revealed that what I thought was a non-negotiable aspect of theological fidelity was not an essential of the Christian faith.

One’s eschatology is important, of course (I wrote an entire book called Eschatological Discipleship!), but the specifics of how Christ’s return will play out is something Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians have long disagreed about and will continue to. My encounter with the global church helped me put end-times debates into perspective.

Capital Punishment

Another example was a matter of ethical wisdom: capital punishment. As a teenager, I assumed the Christian position was to support capital punishment, and that only radically aberrant Christians would stand against it. But I met many Christians in Europe who affirmed the principle biblically but not the practice politically. They were leery of government officials having such authority when it can be so easily abused and unjustly applied (coming out of a Communist dictatorship surely had something to do with this). I discovered they grounded their resistance in the same doctrine (the imago Dei) I believed to be the biblical support for the practice (Gen. 9:6).

To be clear, in these cases, someone is right and someone is wrong. I’m not saying that all the end-times views are equal, and I’m not downplaying the significance of capital punishment. I’m putting these debates in perspective. Faithful Christians disagree on these points, and we can have robust debate without it affecting our fellowship or unity in Christ.

Christianity Is Big

I could multiply the examples. Get to know Christians in other parts of the world and you’ll be surprised to see some taking more conservative positions than you do, to the point they may appear legalistic to American eyes, and then you’ll find Christians whose political affiliations seem “leftist” when you try to squeeze them into America’s two-party system. Why is this the case? Because Christianity is bigger than the political frameworks of any one country.

The response is not to throw your hands up and say, “We’ll never know what’s really true.” It’s not to become apolitical. I’m a National Review–type political conservative in most areas, but I don’t raise my political calculus to the level of “orthodoxy” when it comes to the Christian faith.

Instead, I recognize that many people who submit to the authority of God’s Word have disagreements over the wisest ways to interpret and apply it in different cultural contexts. I may think universal health care is a bad idea for the United States from the standpoint of wisdom and prudence, but I realize many brothers and sisters around the world come to the opposite conclusion when they seek to apply their Christian convictions in the public square.

A Bigger Perspective

The global church puts many squabbles in perspective. Too many of us have been discipled by political pundits to the point we confuse the non-negotiable, unchanging, and foundational truths of Christianity with any number of other matters. We begin to think that even the slightest deviation from a partisan political perspective is a surefire sign that someone can’t be trusted in any area of doctrine or practice. Everything is a slippery slope to apostasy. If you’re patriotic, you must be a Christian nationalist. If you believe in systemic injustice, you must be a woke social justice warrior. This is ridiculous, and the global church exposes such silliness. What’s more, churches in other parts of the world, when in contact with us, are better able to see their own blind spots and areas of capitulation to cultural expectations.

Everyone loves that phrase: “in the essentials, unity; in the nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” But that only works if you know the difference between essentials and nonessentials. That’s why I tell people to stay connected to the church around the world. Nothing puts our squabbles in perspective and aids our discernment of what is most important than reading the Bible alongside our worldwide family of faith.

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