Theological Triage (pt. 2): Unity in the Gospel, Separation in the Church

t4gOn Monday, I considered the idea of theological triage—the process of holding different Christian beliefs at different levels of importance—and how the first level differentiates “mere Christianity” from errant cults and false religions. Today I will continue to consider theological triage as it relates to second-level Christian beliefs, those doctrines on which gospel-believing churches agree to disagree.

Recognizing and Affirming Historical and Doctrinal Differences Increases Unity

Within orthodox Christianity, second level doctrines separate genuine believers. Points of division at this level include baptism (What does it signify and who is the proper candidate?), the Lord’s Supper (What do the elements represent?), and the use of spiritual gifts (Do tongues continue today?)—to name a few prominent ones. How such doctrines are espoused and questions are answered causes the need for different assemblies of worship. Historically, it has often been disagreement on one of these issues that have separated (or created) different churches (or denominations).

For Baptists, our pedigree originates about 400 years ago, when a growing number of Protestants began to realize from Scripture that baptism by immersion was the proper mode for professing believers. Stepping away from state churches, local Baptist congregation were free and responsible to God for their actions, and on their biblical conviction they recovered the practice of believer’s baptism. Because of its historical roots, Baptist churches share much with other evangelical denominations (e.g., all the matters agreed upon in the first level), but there are enough distinctives that make it impossible for Baptists to congregate with paedobaptists.

At first, this kind of separation may seem discouraging, even an assault to Jesus’ prayer in John 17, because of how it seems to fracture the universal church of Jesus Christ. However, from another angle, divergent denominations provide boundaries that allow for cross-denominational unity. This provides a way for churches to disagree about lesser doctrines which they practice in their own assemblies, but unite over larger doctrines that they can celebrate in public with other Christians. Functionally, individuals from different churches can partner together in local evangelism, corporate worship and edification (as in TGC and T4G conferences), and theological education (like what is being started in Indianapolis right now). Because these gospel-centered, inter-denominational events focus on first-level agreement and the proclamation of the gospel (and do not administer the ordinances), they have a way of stirring up evangelical passion even if all the participants go home to different churches.

Such broader evangelical unity does not deny the differences that stand between us. It does not say that all churches are right in their practices. I, for one, believe my beloved Presbyterian brothers are mistaken about baptism and therefore are disordered in their practice of infant baptism. But in return, they feel the same way about me and how I understand the biblical covenants, which relates to the ‘baptism’ of infants. Still, for the differences that cause us to worship in different buildings on Sunday morning, there is great potential for separated believers to be increasingly unified by rejoicing in and praying for the growth of other evangelical churches. While we are separated in body, we can be unified in a spirit of love for Christ and his gospel.

In fact, true partnership between churches is aided by each church strongly affirming what they do and do not believe. With so many “Christians” floating from one church (of one faith and practice) to another church (with different doctrines), it reveals the theological anemia that has gripped modern churches. While it is right to call for Christian unity in the church, true unity must be gained and maintained by increasing confessional awareness, not dumbing down doctrine. Without clarifying our beliefs, the result is only light and fluffy fellowship—which is no fellowship at all.

The Second-Level Principle: Unity in the Gospel, Separation in the Church

For the sake of Christ’s kingdom, we ought to rejoice that the gospel is proclaimed and believed in churches “not like ours.” Though we disagree on how the function of the church may be carried out, we can in principle be unified in the gospel, even if we are separated in the church. Of course, ecclesiology is related to soteriology, and there is much reason for discussing which mode of baptism best dramatizes the gospel and how exactly Jesus is present in the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, there should be a measure of charity between “gospel-believing” churches that commits us to pray, esteem, and desire the best for one another, even as we maintain our ecclesial convictions with regard to how church should be done.

To the world, this cross-denomination unity in the gospel speaks volumes. It shows that our unity is not centered in our local tradition; it is centered in Jesus Christ himself. And in the life of the Christian, ability to unify in he gospel demonstrates a mark of maturity. Just the opposite, when Christians elevate personal traditions over gospel unity (e.g., church exclusivity at the expense of Christian unity), they reveal their spiritual immaturity, which esteems the views of one man instead of the gospel itself (as in the divisions in Corinth, see 1 Corinthians 1 and 3).

Benefitting Locally from the Universal Church

At the same time, refusal to enjoy union in the gospel cuts believers off from a wealth of support from the universal church. For instance, Tim Keller is one of the most penetrating interpreters of Scripture today. His work in New York City is pioneering urban ministry all over the globe. His books and sermons powerfully expose the idols we cling to in our modern world. And it would be foolish to write off someone like Keller simply because he is not from my denomination.

The point is this: mature Christians should (be able to) benefit from other orthodox, evangelical Christians, even if they are not like them. (We should also be able to benefit from the common grace wisdom of non-believers too, but that’s the topic for another day). We should never compromise our doctrinal  distinctives, but we can and should learn from others who are not like us, but who in fact have much to offer us in theology, ministry, and devotion. Failure to benefit from the gifts of God’s universal church actually has a way of impoverishing our local congregation. In fact, love of separation and inability to unify in the gospel with others unlike ourselves may be a damning evidence that we ourselves don’t fully grasp the central doctrines of the faith.

Part of being a follower of Jesus is learning that it is not up to your brand of Christianity to save the world. As Patrick Johnstone once wrote, the church is bigger than you think! While we contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, there is room in the kingdom for Bible-believing, Christ-loving, Gospel-proclaiming Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, and Charismatics. In this way, we promote the gospel above ourselves, and we show the world a kind unity that can only come from the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

9 thoughts on “Theological Triage (pt. 2): Unity in the Gospel, Separation in the Church

  1. I am enjoying your articles. The principles you affirm in pursuit of unity are laudable and I long to see such attitudes in the rest of the Body of Christ. I am curious: Obviously you are Protestant and opposed to many Catholic theological positions — but do you accept Catholic Christians as “genuine believers”? And if not, how are your differences with Catholic Christians any more insurmountable than the ones you are willing to minimize in your Protestant brethren in the name of Christian unity?

    • Thanks for reading, Joseph and good question.

      I think it is entirely possible to be a born again (thinking John 3:3-8 here) believer *and* be in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). However, I believe such a believer is a born-again believer despite the stated theological position(s) of the RCC.

      I understand the official Catholic Church position to be teaching an aberrant gospel. While the Catholic Church speaks of grace, faith, justification, etc. They don’t mean the same thing as Protestants. Therefore, I can be unified in the gospel with my Presbyterian brothers because I believe they (on the same side of the Protestant Reformation as I) get the gospel right, but that Catholic teaching (again, I am not talking about individuals whom the Lord may graciously call to himself) does not get the gospel right.

      All that to say, I do believe there is a colossal divide between Protestants and Catholics, more so than between Protestants of different denominations. Does that make sense?

      Joseph, is your background or current church membership in the Catholic Church?


      • Thanks for the kind response, David. Yes, I am a faithful Catholic. I was raised in the Assemblies of God and spent most of my life there, then drifted rather aimlessly for a number of years, during which time I attended Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. I discovered the Catholic Church without ever looking for it, but looking back I see many ways in which the Lord was leading me home there along, a journey I chronicle in my blog. I entered the Church three years ago and have never been closer in my walk with the Lord.

        Having been on both paths and deeply studied both sides of the divide, and continuing to have feet in either, with my family and heritage and most of my closest friends still Protestant, I would dispute that it is “colossal” at all; from my perspective, it’s little more than a crack, and a manmade one at that. Christ is not divided: all we who call on His name, believe in His Gospel, trust in His grace, and share His love are brothers and sisters in Him. Our very worst attempts at division and faction cannot efface the love and grace and saving work of Christ — deplorable though our disunity may be.

        Your position is a common one among many Protestants, but one that saddens me and with which I disagree. I wonder if I can probe a little further: What is it you consider “aberrant”? It’s true that Catholics and Protestants have disagreements about various aspects of grace and faith and justification, but I’ve found the disagreements to be more in perspective and premise and terminology — a tendency to talk past each other — than in anything fundamental or irreconcilable: both Cathholics and Protestants affirm that salvation is entirely a gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ. After all, both share a common Christian history and tradition for the first 1,500 years of the faith. Protestant theology did not spring entirely out of nowhere in the sixteenth century — if it had, that would be a problem! And the Protestant Reformation was not a total break with that tradition, but a disagreement in only several theological points, none of which impacted the essential nature of the Gospel as God’s saving grace. For Protestants to reject the whole of the Catholic tradition, the source and origin of their own teachings, as “aberrant” and “getting the gospel wrong,” presents all kinds of historical problems: If the Catholic tradition “got the gospel wrong,” at what point in history, and in what teaching, did it go off the rails? If from the very beginning, does that not call into question the very foundation of the “faith delivered once to the saints”? If at some other point, does that not deny the salvation and good fruits of all the worthy saints after that point, who held and taught the very teachings that “got the gospel wrong”? If Protestants posit that God allowed His Church to become so corrupt as to “get the gospel wrong” for some indefinite length of time, what does that say about God or the gospel? If the Catholic tradition had “gotten it so wrong” that the only remedy was a break with tradition and new beginning, how can Protestants presume either that the Catholic tradition preserved, and they retained, everything they need, or that what they retained is not as corrupt as what they accuse the rest of the Catholic tradition of being?

        You affirm Presbyterians, despite their acceptance of infant baptism. But their acceptance is based in the very same theological tradition and arguments on which Catholics accept it. You are willing to have charity for churches who have a different view Jesus’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, but this, from a Catholic perspective, is one of the central points of disagreement. So again: if you’re willing to minimize such differences with Protestant brethren to affirm Christian unity, why are you unwilling to consider what it is that actually divides you from Catholics?

        His Grace and peace be with you.

      • Joseph,

        No worries about the tone. I would be most concerned if you were not passionate about what you believed ;-)

        That being said, perhaps we could talk more by email. That would probably be a better platform. In that format, I’d be happy to explain why I think there is a large and significant difference between historic Catholicism and Protestantism, even as we share many confessions and heroes of the faith from the first 1500 years of the church.

        You can find my email address on my about page if you are interested in dialoguing more. I’d be happy to discuss.

        In Christ,

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share your messages on internet, David,. It’s great that they can be read by a bigger worldwide congregation.

    To Joseph, as an ex-Roman Catholic myself who became a Christian in an evangelical church in the UK more than 30 years ago and now live in a nominal RC country, I would like to say this: What David says “While the Catholic Church speaks of grace, faith, justification, etc. They don’t mean the same thing as Protestants.” is crucial. I have met/heard a couple of fervent born-again Catholics who came from a Protestant background and I feel that they go on understanding the doctrines of grace, faith and justification in the way they have been taught in Protestant churches, thus not grasping the “aberrance of the gospel taught by the RC church”.

    I also think that there is sometimes a divide between what we believe and understand with our minds and what we really believe in our hearts. Thus, I am always surprised how many Protestant Christians don’t really believe in salvation by grace in practice and actually fear death because they don’t feel “ready”. Conversely, Catholics may in their hearts truly trust God’s grace, though their doctrine is one of works.

    On a different topic, evangelical Anglicans churches (and some small independent churches) in the UK now tend to recognise both infant and believers’ baptism within the same church. (It seems a good thing for seeing believers’ baptism being practises may well be the best way to convince paedobaptists! ;)


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