Initially we must identify the areas which cause division in the Church. The first area, is the one I do not intend to deal with here because it relates mainly to individual character. This is the matter of personalities. This very common cause of division occurs where Christians alike in every way with regards to theology, have genuine differences in the way they "do" things. It often leads to a parting of the ways (Acts 15:36-41). It has to be noted that often THE LORD continues in fellowship with each party, and therefore all involved should desire to keep their hearts open to one another - the Holy Spirit may have plans for the future (2 Tim. 4:11?).
Besides the above, causes of division seem to fall into two main categories, though even then there are usually areas of overlap. These two areas are doctrine and experience, and it is these I want us to look at a little more closely. In recent decades experience has become a major reason for division amongst evangelical Christians. This has mainly been focussed on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, though we need to remember that being filled with Him is far more than "charismatic" meetings. However, this issue has been clouded by each group seeking to support their experience (or lack of it) from the Scriptures. Concerning teachings, there has always been, and probably always will be, a need to separate from those who persistently teach false doctrine. However, and especially amongst evangelicals, there has been a tendency to confuse FAITH and DOCTRINE. The result has been a far higher level of separation between brothers and sisters in Christ than THE LORD ever desired. The last recorded prayer of Jesus for His disciples prior to His crucifixion, was that we may have the same unity with each other as He has with His Father. I believe that our Heavenly Father still wants to answer that prayer and that is why we too should desire and work for unity with our brethren. This is not an easy task, and often another part of that same prayer is forgotten as we try to be nice to each other. "Sanctify them in the truth. Your word is truth." (John 17:17).
When Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus, he spoke of two types of unity. He first instructed the believers there to "diligently preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). Later he made it clear that there was another unity that the Church still had to find. Writing about the gifts of ministries given by Christ to His Church, he says that they are given for the benefit of the entire Body of Christ "Until we all attain to the unity of the faith, etc." (4:13). The unity of being the family of our Creator is the unity we are called to maintain, whilst Christ works towards the time when the Church is mature and we attain unity in our understanding of Him and therefore our teachings (doctrines). These are the two elements I believe to be vital to unity amongst believers today with our vast diversity of experience and doctrines.
We need to recognise those who are truly accepted by THE LORD. Faith is not doctrine, but obedience to THE LORD. It is through faith that we are saved, and not by correct teaching (Eph. 2:8; James 1:22-25 & 2:14-26; Heb. 3:12-19 and Matt. 7:21-23). In Romans 8 Paul, whilst contrasting life lived according to the Holy Spirit with that lived in the flesh, states that it is those who have the Spirit of Christ and are being led by Him (the Spirit), who are the sons of God (8:9 & 14). This is clearly not a doctrinal in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit but an experiential one. Jesus quite clearly taught that we should look for good fruit in the lives of those who claimed to be prophets. Paul later defined this fruit as that of the Holy Spirit, and its qualities are well known (Gal. 5:22-25). Being aware that the flesh cannot imitate this fruit in its fullness, it is this that we should primarily look for in the lives of those who say they are believers in Christ Jesus. The fruit of the Holy Spirit's presence and not maturity in doctrine is the hallmark found on the true Christian.
The mistake of making doctrine the test of authenticity is not a new one. Over the years there have also been those who have counselled against it. In the early days of the Plymouth Brethren, J.N.Darby was one who made conformity to the doctrines he held, into the "test of faith". In 1836 A.N.Groves wrote to Darby warning him of the dangers of his attitude, "the position which occupying this seat of judgement will place you in will be this: the most narrow-minded and bigoted will rule... making light and not life the measure of communion." Darby did not heed this prophetic warning and from his influence grew up those who are known today as the Exclusive Brethren. My own convictions lie with those of Groves who continued in his letter, "As any system is in its provision narrower or wider than the truth, I either stop short, or go beyond its provisions, but I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils, than separate from their good." [Quoted from "George Muller: Delighted in God", by Roger Steer, Pub. Hodder and Stoughton, P.145/6.] Our human natures find it far easier to box and label others than to take the time to get to know them and see if the fruit in their lives is of the Spirit or not. I would encourage you not to judge any person according to the flesh, but by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 5:16).
Some may say to the above, "So you believe that doctrine is unimportant?" Like Paul's response to his own questions I too would answer, "No! May it never be." A good understanding of spiritual truth is vital if the whole church is to reach maturity (Eph. 4 again). However what I am saying is that that is the objective of faith, not its beginning. No man or woman has ever waited to enter the Kingdom of God until they have acquired a perfect understanding and practice of all doctrine. All believers were born into the Kingdom as immature babies, and as Paul describes we have to grow up into the maturity of Christ. No baby has ever been abandoned because it did not understand every scientific law at birth. And even though our lives are governed by these laws, most of us remain basically ignorant of a large proportion. Similarly THE LORD does not expect spiritual truths to be comprehended by new converts, but at His pace He seeks to teach us His ways. We are all called to be disciples of Jesus - a disciple is one who is learning, one who is on "the way". This is how we need to see others, and how we need to see ourselves. Our differences should not be allowed to separate us, but the true believer will wish to discuss them at the appropriate time - by that I mean before the crisis arises.
There are those today who seek unity, but whose practice suggests that our different teachings should be ignored. This is similar to Isaiah 4:1 where seven women take hold of one man saying "We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name;". This is the climax of the description of the daughters of Zion "who are proud" in 3:16 onwards. I see bread as symbolising spiritual food - teaching, whilst clothes represent covering - authority systems (hierarchies etc.). The expression of this today is, "We will be friends, but we will keep our own doctrines and church government systems. However, our hope is one day we will all adopt one name." At one extreme this line of thinking is already leading into inter-faith activity. I am, however, more disturbed when evangelical/charismatic Christians do not discuss their differences because they fear it will destroy their unity.
True believers are those who seek to know the truth. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all the truth (John 16:13-14). No believer can be confident that in all things they are fully correct. Even if we could be, love for others would compel us to seek that those who differ from us should be given every opportunity to mature. In such situations our maturity would govern how we related to those who disagree with us (2 Tim. 2:22-26). I am convinced that true believers cannot be content knowing that others with a genuine trust in THE LORD see important issues in a different light, without wanting to know why and to use every opportunity to grow together in knowledge of God's truth. What does worry me is when for whatever reason an individual or group will not listen to other believers, but say "their" way is the right one. If it is, it will stand up to examination and in the process the Holy Spirit will be able to teach those who disagree with Him. Neither do I believe that separation from those who differ from us is the way forward, (unless it has become obvious that they have shut their own ears to THE LORD, or perhaps never listened to him in the first place). But this is the end of a process not the beginning (Matt. 18:15-17 & 2 Tim. 3:1-5).
A practical example from the life of Jesus is found in John 4 when Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman. Religiously she was in error, the Samaritans were a mixture of Jewish occupants and imported settlers who had inter- married. The in-comers had not abandoned their old religions, but mixed them with the doctrines of the local god - THE LORD. The result was wrong teaching and practices and a different religious system. They were in error! Most Jews avoided them. Jesus had a different attitude. For example, he made one of them the hero of a parable and therefore an example to those who "had the truth". On this occasion after asking for help from the woman (a drink), and recognising her spiritual openess, He quickly introduced faith into the conversation. Following a word of knowledge from Jesus, the woman recognising that He is a prophet asks him a doctrinal question. I would speculate that this was not a spur of the moment thought, but an issue that she had pondered for some time. Her question when simplified comes down to a recognition of the different doctrines of the two groups and a query as to which one was correct. How I wish that this attitude was more prevalent today. If more Christians faced up to their differences and asked THE LORD to sort them out, we would be moving towards the maturity of the Church in a far clearer way than we are at present.
It is important that we consider too the response Jesus gave her. Correct doctrine was on His side. Jerusalem was the chosen city, not Samaria. He chose to point this woman to the future plan of God, not to focus her mind on the old way which was in its last days. "The time is coming, and now is, when true worshippers shall worship the Father in SPIRIT and TRUTH;" (:19-24). Jesus told her about the kingdom of God, the place where its citizens have a relationship with the King, through the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. However, He did not say that the truth was therefore irrelevant, but that true worshippers are those who desire both the Spirit and the truth. As we have seen, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to teach us the truth and I believe that the order in which Jesus phrased His answer points to this. We need the Holy Spirit to teach us truth, not to fully know the truth before we receive the Spirit. Here we find the same emphasis in the words of Jesus, as that which I referred to above in Ephesians 4. The life of the Spirit first and then because He is holy, He works in us to lead us into a mature understanding of all truth. We should not expect or desire less.
This then is the understanding that enables me to fellowship with believers whom I differ from in doctrine. If it was not there I would end up most lonely - as some do. I want to encourage all Christians to handle these difficult areas well. By that I mean to preserve the unity of the life of the Spirit, while not denying the need to be maturing into the knowledge of the truth. It is not an easy path, but it is an essential one.
Finally I believe it is right to end with a warning to any who, having read this still seek to hold onto making doctrine the first test of faith. Whilst preparing to write this I believe THE LORD pointed out to me that the following words of Jesus apply not only to our actions, but to our understanding of His truth. "Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matt. 7:1-5).
Often it is not the individual that we condemn as unacceptable but the church they are members of, and yet we all belong to a church or a fellowship that we know is not as THE LORD would have it. All churches and denominations have wrong doctrinal emphases, and the historic denominations also exhibit problems with practice and discipline. I believe what THE LORD would have us know is that He will not be lenient with those who seek to remove doctrinal specks from others, whilst tolerating a log of any type in the life of their own church or denomination. As Jesus said, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."
My prayer is for a deepening unity in the Body of Christ, a unity
which enables us to grow together into the full measure of the stature
This study is aimed at providing a basic treatment of the topic, as a stimulus to personal bible study. Every effort has been made to be accurate, but the reader should test everything (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess 5:21). Please report errors and omissions, and queries unresolved after consulting THE LORD to the writer: Email Randall Hardy
© R Hardy 1994. This paper may only be copied in
its entirety for private non-commercial use. All other usage requires
the written permission of the author.