One of the basic ideas of today’s philosophy of ecumenical evangelism is that love is more important than doctrine. Often I hear the cry for the body of believers in Jesus Christ to join forces in love, to agree to disagree over doctrinal differences for the sake of unity and the advancement of the kingdom. Anyone not willing to agree over doctrinal differences is accused of being judgmental and unloving, of causing division. Is this really biblical? Does doctrine really divide and love unify? Can there be true unity without a shared view of the truth? I believe the answer to this last question is no.
True Unity – Union in Christ thru faith in the Truth
True unity is a major theme in the NT. Diversity is celebrated in things such as gifts and ministries [1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11], personalities, positions and cultures [Acts 1:8, 16:1, 14-15, 29-33] but never in core beliefs or doctrine.
All true believers are united in Christ by a spiritual union with Him as a result of the work of the Spirit in our hearts through faith in the Truth of the Gospel. The Scriptures command us – NOT to create unity (which is there and real already) – but to preserve this unity through acts of love in the context of local churches. (Jn 17:17,22-23; Rom 12:4-5; Eph 4:3-6,13-15; Col 3:13-16)
Love is defined in terms of obedience to the Truth/Word. (Jn 14:15,21,23-24; 1 Jn 2:3-6)
Because Christian unity comes through faith – it involves a unity in Truth and a commitment to preserve this unity by upholding the Truth(Jn 8:31-32).
True Division - Preservation of unity by rejection of error in doctrine or deed
Just as adherence to the same truths unifies Christians, we see that divergence from those truths necessarily causes division. We are warned to test everything in order that our unity be preserved (Rom 16:17-18; Ti 1:9-11; 1 Jn 4:1). Where people deny their faith by heresy or immorality, the Scripture insists that we separate from them(1 Cor 5), NOT because we are causing division – but in order to preserve the spiritual unity we have that they now deny.
Seen in this light it is error or the preaching of false doctrine that divides.
Romans 16:17-18 I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.
A stern warning over preaching another gospel – Paul eternally condemns such twice. I believe this warning also applies to those ‘yoked’ with ones preaching another gospel ….
No Other Gospel
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
10Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
The myth of Anglican unity without truth
Monday, 17 Mar 2008
Unless Anglicans can agree on their foundational beliefs, unity will not be achievable, argues Tim Patrick.
At a time when the worldwide Anglican Church is developing significant internal cracks, the solution offered from several quarters is the recommitment to unity. It’s argued that unity is essential to the Church and necessary for it to flourish again – perhaps even crucial to its very survival. All this is fine as far as it goes, but it fails to engage with the deeper and more primary question of where our unity is to be found. Historically, Anglicans have found their unity in commonly held beliefs. But as our beliefs grow ever more diverse, the question is, Can there be true unity without a shared view of the truth? For the following reasons, I think ultimately the answer is no.
Firstly, while it’s true that ‘unity in diversity’ is a major theme in the New Testament, to understand this idea properly, we must look at the types of diversity within the church that are presented in the NT and also how the NT understands unity to be achieved. Diversity is celebrated in things such as gifts and ministries [1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11], personalities, positions and cultures [Acts 1:8, 16:1, 14-15, 29-33] but never in core beliefs or doctrine. In fact, in the Bible we find that shared belief about the nature of God and his unique work in and through Christ and the Holy Spirit is the kingpin that binds otherwise diverse peoples together [Col 3:11]. And just as adherence to the same truths unifies Christians, we see that divergence from those truths necessarily causes division. Paul, for example, openly rebuked Peter for acting inconsistently with the truth of the gospel [Gal 2:11-14] and he also repeatedly wrote about the need to be strict in doctrine [eg. Eph 4:14; 1 Tim 1:3; Titus 1:9, etc.]. Without shared truth, the church’s foundations crumble.
Secondly, if we aren’t unified in truth, it’s not at all clear what we are unified in. Some will want to say ‘Anglicanism’ and formerly this would have been helpful as Anglicans once shared the faith outlined in the 39 Articles. However, nowadays there are even Church leaders who are not committed to these. Here in Melbourne, we have clergy who deny that Christ is the unique incarnation of God [Art II], deny that a personal and lively faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation [Art XVIII] and deny the supreme authority of the Scriptures in all matters of belief [Art VI]. Of course, some may argue that Anglicanism should be defined less by its doctrine than its traditions. But this position is unsustainable given that the Articles themselves prescribe against such an understanding of our Church [Art XXXIV]. With no commonly held doctrine and no necessary tradition we have no clear ground for unity.
Finally, it is also a practical reality that full unity as a Church cannot exist without agreement on truth. A personal story. Around the last election synod, I met several times with another Melbourne clergyman who sits at the other end of the Anglican spectrum to myself and we discussed our priorities and hopes. Now, some will suggest that this sort of coming together is key to achieving unity, but while it may be valuable, the more we talked, the clearer it was that our differences were more than cultural or stylistic – they were serious divergences over matters of first importance: how we read the Bible, our understanding of repentance, etc. On some vital doctrines, we were poles apart. Please note, this did not mean that we were rude to each other, fought or anything like that – our meetings were always courteous, quite open and honest and even friendly – but for all this, they brought us no closer to being unified as Anglicans. I doubt that either of us would ever invite the other to preach. Though we were civil, our very different beliefs mean we share no deep or practical unity.
So where does all of this leave us? It seems that if we really want unity, the way ahead is to neither ignore nor just acknowledge our different beliefs, but instead to establish a common mind [Phil 1:27, 2:2]. I think it would be quite reasonable to expect that all Anglican leaders affirm their commitment to the theological foundations of Anglicanism as captured in the 39 Articles. And if any leader can’t affirm these, they should have the integrity to ask if their personal views are the cause of division as they have departed from the very basics of Anglicanism. I know that to some, all this may sound too rigid, but the reality is that unless we start by agreeing on the foundational truths, all talk of unity will simply be empty rhetoric and wishful thinking.
The Revd Tim Patrick is Assistant Curate at St Jude’s, Carlton.