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On Truth and Unity, Part Two

Mar 16, 2009

The unity of Christ’s followers is a strong emphasis in the Word of God. It is something which every believer is commanded to strive for. If the Scriptures are strong on the importance of unity, they are equally strong on the importance of correct teaching and sound doctrine. Throughout Scripture we are encouraged to hold to that which is true, and reject that which is false.

The importance of truth and doctrine

Without clear teaching, Christianity loses its distinctive nature. There are core biblical beliefs which determine what is orthodox and what is heterodox. We are told to discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error (1 John 4:6). We are instructed to maintain the faith in the face of doctrinal error and apostasy. Numerous passages can be cited, and I have written on the importance of doctrine previously.

So instead of simply repeating myself, allow me to take a slightly different approach to this topic. The other day I did a study on the concept of deception in the Bible. I was most intrigued to see just how often the Bible warns against deceit, deception and those who would deceive.

Let me here just focus on three such passages. They make it clear that doctrine is vitally important and that there are powers at work seeking to deceive believers as to biblical truth. Individuals and malevolent spiritual forces are both actively working to lead the church into deception and false beliefs.

The first passage is in the book of Acts 13, verses 4-12. It concerns a false prophet by the name of Bar-Jesus, “an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus”. When Paul and Barnabas were asked to share their faith with the proconsul, the false prophet, also called Elymas, sought to turn him away from the faith.

Consider how Paul responds to Elymas: “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun’.”

His strong reply is remarkable for several reasons. First, it certainly goes against the ‘girly-man’ Christianity (to paraphrase Arnie Schwarzenegger), which is afraid to confront anyone, and certainly does not want to be seen as intolerant or offensive. Paul clearly had no such fears.

He called a spade a spade, and used the strongest of language in the face of such anti-gospel activities. And he nailed the real source here: this was Satanic interference. Not only was this man a sorcerer and false prophet, but he was an active agent of the Devil in this case.

Because of this, the false prophet is “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery”. Today we want to have interfaith dialogue with such people. Back then, they rebuked the devil. No wonder that the church was so strong back then, and it is so weak and pitiable today.

Not only does Paul give him a ferocious rebuke, he even enacts a judgment miracle. And this is not the only such act of divine judgment we read about in the book of Acts. Here the false prophet is only temporarily blinded. In two other cases, those opposing the work of God are struck dead (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1-11; and King Herod, Acts 12:19-25).

This was power Christianity, which took seriously false prophets and false teaching. It stands in marked contrast to so much of today’s church which would rather abandon most key doctrines than appear to be intolerant or unloving.

Another passage dealing with doctrine and deception is 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.”

Here the Romans are ordered to watch out and keep on their guard. There is a core set of beliefs which they have received from Paul which they are not to abandon or water down. False teachers are out to deceive God’s people, and they must stand firm.

Once again, a basic set of teachings is part of the apostolic faith, and it is not to be lost because of those who would deceive the believers.

Finally, in Ephesians 4:14 Paul warns, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Here again we read of deception and schemers who would cause believers to be blown off course in terms of biblical truth.

As Leon Morris reminds us, the verb used to describe this deceit is a stronger form of the same verb used by Paul to describe how Eve was deceived by the serpent in 1 Cor. 11:3. Once again, behind the false teachings of men are demonic and Satanic workings.

As James Edwards comments about this passage, “where truth was at issue, the proposition of that truth was but half the battle; the other half was its opposition to error and falsehood. The Christian community cannot afford to be naive about evil; evil must be named and opposed if it is to be defeated.”

Conclusion

The Bible insists that we hold these twin truths together: unity is of fundamental importance, and so too is correct theology. Both must be maintained and affirmed, even if the two may on occasion clash. There certainly are times when clear biblical teaching is at risk, and a breaking of fellowship may be the only recourse to avoid heading into heresy and deception. As Peter O’Brien remarks, Paul (in Eph. 4) is “not speaking of a unity at any price in which the fundamental truths of the gospel are jettisoned”.

At the same time, believers are far too prone to cause division and discord over minor doctrines and beliefs which should not be a cause of conflict. There are all sorts of secondary issues of belief which are just that: secondary. Sure, there may be some uncertainty as to what is of primary importance, and what is of secondary importance, but for the most part these are not all that hard to distinguish.

Core primary doctrines which should not be abandoned or compromised would be much of what we find in the great creedal affirmations, such as the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. These contain some non-negotiable truths which we dare not tamper with.

But many other doctrines are of lesser importance. One’s view of eschatology would seem to be one such example. Whether we are amillennialists, postmillennialists, or premillennialists really need not be a test of orthodoxy. Other things such as the form of church government or teachings on baptism also may not be first-order doctrines.

Certainly much more mundane things like the sort of music used in worship, the seating arrangements or the colour of the carpets in a church building should never be a matter of church splits. Unfortunately, all these sorts of things have in fact led to churches fighting and splitting.

Sadly, we often major in minors, and minor in majors. Augustine tried to get the right take on all this when he famously said, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, diversity, in all things charity”. True, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is and is not an essential doctrine, but we are given plenty of clues in the New Testament.

Having a humble attitude will help us go a long way in this area. None of us have all the truth. We are all fallen and finite, and we all see through a glass darkly, as Paul says. While we are to stand very strongly indeed for core biblical doctrines, we can do that while still having a humble and teachable spirit.

So by all means let us press ahead with proclaiming fearlessly biblical truth. But let us also press ahead in the attempts to maintain the unity which God has blessed us with. It will not be easy, and it is a lifelong calling. But it is part of the Christian walk, and we must get on with these twin tasks. May God grant us mercy to be faithful to both of these crucial tasks.

Part One of this article is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-one/

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7 Responses to On Truth and Unity, Part Two

  • I have mentioned this before Bill, but with regard to discerning between major and minor issues, I am not sure that it is so simple to say that the sort of music used in worship, the seating arrangements or the colour of the carpets in a church building should never be a matter of church splits. After all for Eve to eat an apple, or for Uzzah to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled, or Christ to turn stones into bread, do not sound on the face of it first order issues.

    Isn’t it more to do with Eve’s and Uzzah’s actions challenging the three, underlying philosophical pre- suppositions of the Bible and which Satan was trying to pervert?

    During his temptation in the wilderness, for Christ to claim to rule all the kingdoms of the world, at that moment, would have challenged the nature of his existence and that of Satan. For him to have thrown himself off the temple roof and expected His Father to lift him up would have literally been turning morality upside down. And for him to have turned stones into bread would have been to turn truth into whatever form he wanted it to take. Bread, the word of God, truth, is not manufactured from stones or anything else, but from God alone.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks David

    Your point is taken: small things can really be big things when obedience to God is at stake. Obedience in small things, or to particulars, is necessary before we can be trusted to be obedient in bigger things. Obeying God in the little matters is vital. So obeying a particular command from God is always a first order issue.

    But that is a bit different from what are core beliefs, or tests of orthodoxy. What belief, or lack of it, puts oneself outside of historic Christianity? So in that sense the colour of a carpet is not a test of biblical orthodoxy, although it may be a matter of following the promptings of the Lord’s leanings. In that sense, the right hand of fellowship should not be withheld from someone over non-core items, such as church furniture.

    God may tell an individual to do a certain particular thing, and obedience is vital, but that command may not be a universal command for all of us, or a test of orthodoxy. There is no general command to us today about steadying the ark, so it is not a test of Christian orthodoxy, although the principle behind it remains: we are to obey what God commands, and in this case, we are to take the holiness of God seriously. Uzzah (in 2 Sam. 6) disobeyed the clear instructions of God as listed in Numbers 4:5-6. God’s work must be performed in God’s way.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill this is a much needed and timely analysis. I am greatfull for your efforts in this matter.
    Stan Fishley

  • Bill,
    Your two-part article sums up well much of the debate in recent weeks and has helped highlight an important tension between these two critical Christian concepts of unity and doctrine. I have always believed that the tension between them is found in 1Peter 3:15, i.e. always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you, but do so in gentleness and fear (Greek ‘phobos’).

    The latter part of this statement is the key to how we achieve both goals. Our approach to either non-Christian or Christians who hold differing views, should be gentle (as intimated by John McMahon’s comment in part 1). Equally, when we start teaching what people should believe, or looking to interpret what God has told us in the Bible, we should do so with ‘fear’ (cf. Eph 5:21 “Submit to one another in the fear of Christ”). I believe that too many people have lost this ‘fear’ or ‘reverence’ aspect for Scripture.

    In your article, you talk of major and minor issues as if there is a clear distinction. As with David Skinner’s comments above, I feel that this is where the basic problem lies. Too many in Christian circles have fallen for the line: “Did God REALLY say?” and equally have lost our reverence for what God has said and so are quite happy to ‘lend God a hand’ to steady a falling ark. Until we return to a more universal approach within Christian circles and accept that God has the ability to write what He means – and did so – we will continue to fall for the very first temptation and ‘reinterpret’ Scripture to make it mean what we want.

    The early church, under the guidance of God, produced the ‘canon’ of Scripture – the canon being the measuring stick against which all beliefs are to be measured. In recent weeks, the ACL and the Evangelical Alliance, whom the ACL have used to support some of their more contentious positions, have been named in various comments. In a democracy, both groups have a right to be heard, but surely the issue from a Christian perspective – especially an evangelical one if we still have any definition of that term – is to determine whether their policies line up with that measuring stick. In effect, are their policies biblical (without the need to ‘reinterpret’ Scripture) or are they motivated by some other agenda?

    Regardless of the intent of these groups, together with other like-minded groups and individuals, we are now seeing the fruit of their work. The policies being pursued both here in Australia and in the US (let alone the UK!) clearly show the impact when Christians become divided and allow politicians to be voted in who have no biblical ‘fear.’ Unity surely cannot ever be at this price!

    Our criticisms of these groups and individuals needs to be done in gentleness, but the groups and individuals themselves need to return to a ‘fear’ of God and what He has written and not feel the necessity to stretch out and give Him a hand to reinterpret what He has said.

    Roger Birch

  • Hi Bill,

    In Toowoomba a local Lutheran pastor put together “40 Days of Unity”, a course which can be found at http://www.geocities.com/mayeredgar/40daysofunity.htm . Many local churches completed it. Perhaps it could be a way forward to the combination of unity & truth.

    Geoffrey Bullock

  • Hi Bill, thanks for your engaging and challenging articles.
    I’ve just finished listening to Benny Hinn addressing this issue in regards to ‘interfaith’ dialogue which you touched on. He was very strong and said about inviting those of ‘other faiths’ to hear ‘their side of the story’ was in effect, engaging garbage and that light and dark don’t mix. He’s so right.
    He was teaching from Leviticus 19:19 ” Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee”. He was addressing the issue of how God hates mixture.

    There is a strong trend fostered by Muslims in particular to engage in ‘interfaith dialogue’ as this is always to their advantage largely for the following reason: One of the great dangers with Islam in particular is it allows Muslims to practice Taqiya – or Holy Deception. This teaching permits them to lie to ‘infidels’ if it protects or promotes the cause of Islam. Many, even well informed Christians are unaware of this teaching and engage in such events often out of a concern to not want to be ‘racist’ or ‘intolerant’ as you mentioned. Very often such name calling takes on the nature of verbal barbed wire, that’s designed to stop their opponents in their tracks, and prevent them from looking any further into matters which need critical investigation and exposure if necessary.

    Bill as a matter of interest, are you and others you know, aware of this teaching of Taqiya ? According to Dr Daniel Sheyestey, this practice alone has been largely successful in deceiving many peoples and nations and subverting whole populations to Islam. Daniel is an ex militant Muslim, soundly converted to Christ, who now heads up a ministry called Exodus from Darkness, and travels the world to share the Gospel and the hope that is only found in Christ. Hope this helps to counter this aspect of deception that seems intent on ensnaring Christians in particular.

    The following link may be of interest to those who would like to know more about Daniel’s ministry http://www.exodusfromdarkness.org.au

    Michelle Shave

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