On 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