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.”
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/