the weblog of Alan Knox

Convictions without Separation

Posted by on Aug 13, 2009 in blog links, unity | 22 comments

I greatly enjoyed reading and appreciated several blog posts written recently by Eric from “A Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here are those posts:

In his posts, Eric considers the popular notion of three order of doctrines. The first “order” would be those doctrines that separate Christians from all others religions and beliefs. The third “order” would be those doctrines about which Christians disagree but do not (or should not) separate believers from one another.

The difficulty comes in what is usually referred to as “second order doctrines.” Christians disagree about these doctrines, and usually allow their disagreements to become reasons for separation. Eric discusses baptism as one of this so-called “second order” doctrines.

In Eric’s questions and study, he found the same thing that I’ve found: their are no second order doctrines in Scripture. There is a never a time in Scripture where one group of believers is told to separate from another group of believers because they hold to different understandings about the things of God.

Instead, we find just the opposite. Repeatedly we find the authors of Scripture instructing believers to come together, to reconcile, to consider others as more important. Yes, they are told, hold to your convictions (about sacrificed meat, or meeting days, etc.) but do not allow your convictions to become stumbling blocks for other brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, yield to (submit to) others.

This is not a popular notion today. Today, many within the church choose to be right (and to prove their “rightness”) over and against yielding to others. We argue over nuances of doctrine that have been argued about for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. We allow these differences to separate us.

When Paul was dealing with people who refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he started by admitting that idols were nothing. The idols were not gods, but were pieces of wood or stone. There was absolutely nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to these idols.

However, Paul recognized that some people in the church considered it wrong to eat meat that had been sacrificed to those idols. Because of their convictions, and because of his desire not to cause offense with his brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul said that he would not eat meat around these people. In fact, he said that if it caused problems for his fellow believers, he would never eat meat again.

Note, according to Paul, these people were wrong. They were wrong theologically. They misunderstood God and gods. They misunderstood the nature of idols. They misunderstood what it means to worship God. In spite of their being wrong, Paul changed his own practices to accommodate them and their wrong beliefs because he cared more about his brothers and sisters in Christ.

We need this attitude. We need to recognize that it is possible to hold convictions (about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the nature of salvation, etc.) without separating from other brothers and sisters in Christ because of those convictions.

In other words, we do not deal with people and interact with them and fellowship with them based on their opinions or statements about various doctrines. Instead, we deal with, interact with, and fellowship with people based on their identity in Christ! If they are children of God then they are our brothers and sisters, regardless of how wrong they (or we) might be.

Yes, there are times when we should separate from others who call themselves believers. But, in those cases, we do not separate from one another but continue to call ourselves brothers and sisters. Instead, when we separate from another believer for various biblical reasons, we are to treat that person as if that person is NOT a brother or sister in Christ.

Our disunity is cause for alarm. Eric stresses the urgency and the importance in his posts. Jesus prayed that we would be one even as he and the Father are one. Why did Jesus pray for our unity? Because the world knows that Jesus came from God because of our unity. As it is, the world does not know. In fact, in many cases, the world is convinced that Jesus was just a good man and did not come from God – if he existed at all.

We must face the fact that our disunity (our failure to hold to our convictions without separating from one another) is one of the reasons that the world refuses to believe that Jesus is from God. We are working against our purpose by our disunity and separation.


22 Comments

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  1. 8-13-2009

    Hi Alan
    i’ve read through Eric’s posts and obviously cannot disagree with the theological argument about maintaining unity. I guess where I have problems is how this is accomplished in reality. Accommodating various different theological stances within a congregation should be possible. Where I see a problem is when it comes to what is officially taught by the church leaders during teaching sessions within the church. Take baptism for instance. Accommodating ‘baptists’ and ‘paedo-baptists’ within a congregation is possible. Allowing the practice of both infant baptism and believer’s baptism within one congregation is also conceivable. But how do you handle teaching on the subject? By ensuring any expositor adequately teaches both positions? By ensuring any emphasis on one position one week is balanced by another speaker giving the alternative view the following week? Or by making sure the whole subject of baptism is never ever mentioned so as not to alienate anyone?
    My personal experience relates to handling different understandings of the end times. In order not to separate over ‘non-essential’ doctrine, pre-, post and a-millenial positions were righly accommodated within the one church. BUT, so as not to cause potential controversy or division, the whole subject was never taught about. The result has been a whole generation of new Christians with no real understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding the end times.
    so, my question is – not separating over secondary issues is fine, but what do we teach?

  2. 8-13-2009

    I agree with Eric and think unity in Christ should be of primary import in everything. God’s grace toward us is infinite and amazing. Why we can’t show the same to our brothers is likewise amazing and fails to reflect His glory.

  3. 8-13-2009

    Alan,

    Thank you for the above discussion and mention of my series of posts. This issue of division within the body has been burdening me for some time. Like you have stated, there just isn’t any warrant scripturally for separation over issues such as baptism. I long for much more unity within the church. I wonder what the world thinks about all our denominations and church splits. It is not a good witness to those outside the church.

  4. 8-13-2009

    Goblin,

    I do not think teaching would be a big issue is a few things happened:

    1) More than one person was allowed to teach.

    2) The people teaching knew the other people (including what they believed about a certain topic) and was more concerned with their brothers and sisters than with proving themselves right.

    3) The people teaching dealt honestly with the issue at hand by including passages of Scripture that could work against their position.

    4) Others were allowed to ask questions and discuss whatever was being taught.

    Bryan,

    I think our unity is representative of trinitarian unity. So, I agree completely that our unity should be a primary concern for the church.

    Eric,

    Thank you for a great series of posts! I wonder what the world would think if they saw more and more churches putting aside their theological differences and embracing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ (no strings attached)?

    -Alan

  5. 8-13-2009

    Alan,

    As you know I am currently working this out in real time! I hold to some pretty strong convictions and the group I am meeting with holds some other views.

    Let me ask though, define “serperate”. What does this look like? Does this mean I should continue to meet with the group in a weekly gathering, or can I seperate from them in that dynamic while not sperating from them relationally or we saying not to even serperate like that. How does all this work out? For example Presbyterians and Baptists, should they now form one meeting or because of their convictions can their meetings remain seperate. The next would be issues such as a full paticaptory and pulpit, should I meet with this group or is it okay to not meet with them but still have relationship, I am really trying to understand the meeting part. Because in Corinthians there seems to be only one meeting in the entire city or at least one huge meeting.

  6. 8-13-2009

    Alan-

    Another excellent post.

    This is an issue that I am hopefully starting to make progress on in my own life and practice.

    To the answer to the question “what do we teach”? I would humbly add the following: Although teaching is a critical part of the meeting of the saints around Christ, those who teach in the public meeting should have the goal of teaching about life change in order to exhort and encourage others. This is done from both the Word of God and what he has done in our own lives as we share what Christ is doing in and among us as the church.

    I do not think the purpose of the public meeting is to dictate to our brothers and sisters exactly what doctrinal positions they must of should adhere to. Very little of my doctrinal positions have been arrived at by listening to sermons of other men, but rather from the hours that I spend each day, week and month in the reading of meditation upon and study of God’s Word. I do not think I am unique in this.

    Newer believers should be taught how to become maturing self feeders from God’s Word in dependence upon the indwelling presence and teaching ministry of the Spirit of Christ.

    I meet with my fellow brothers and sisters primarily for fellowship to encourage others and be encouraged by others to persevere and grow in God’s grace.

    Lionel-

    Hi Brother, much love to you and yours!

  7. 8-13-2009

    Alan,

    I too appreciated Eric’s series.

    The issue of how we handle the problem, I think, revolves around the priorities of the teaching and the congregation.

    Is our preaching/teaching Christ centered? Is our congregational ambitions and desires totally about being disciples of Christ?

    That might sound terribly naive and simplistic and the ramblings of an old timer, never-the-less, I think the answer is wrapped up in the answer to those questions.

  8. 8-13-2009

    Lionel,

    The particulars of living in unity with other believers – especially those with whom we disagree theologically – is difficult business. In fact, I would say it is impossible business on our own. Perhaps, we have done all that we can do on our own – and thus we find ourselves in the predicament of disunity that we are in. Now, it may possibly be time to humble ourselves, submit to the interest of others, love them in spite of our differences, and trust God to work in our lives and their lives. Not very glamorous work… just the work of love.

    Hutch,

    Yes, teaching must include more than our words – teaching must include our lives as well. This means, of course, that we must be willing to share our lives with people who disagree with us and with whom we disagree.

    Aussie John,

    Naive… simplistic… Jesus-like. The kind of ramblings that I like.

    -Alan

  9. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    Eric’s series changed my view of what unity should really look like in the church. Working out the particulars with those that disagree with us theologically is indeed difficult. But I think if we are sincerely committed to the task, through the grace of God it will happen.

    -jeff

  10. 8-14-2009

    In my current church, we believe in believer baptism. One of our strongest members is a mid-Acts Dispensationalist who thinks water baptism is not for Christians today.

    What I love about this situation is that we have been able to model unity as a church while differing on this issue.

    I often share with our congregation about where my friend and I disagree and use it as an example of how Unity comes from the Holy Spirit, not theological conformity.

    My friend has taught on Sundays and is a trusted part of who we are.

    To me, it is a great reflection of God’s power.

    Maybe I will post on this sometime soon.

  11. 8-14-2009

    Joe,

    So pretty much he submits to the overall church’s doctrine of believers baptism?

  12. 8-14-2009

    Jeff,

    Yes, working out the particulars of unity is extremely difficult. I think one of the thing that makes it difficult is that unity requires humility and forsaking the self for the good of the group.

    Joe (JR),

    Thanks for offering that example! I hope you do decide to post about that soon. We need these examples of unity.

    -Alan

  13. 8-16-2009

    So Alan, what if a paedo-baptist family were to join your church and request that you sprinkle their newborn?

    Do you say yes and thus act contrary to your own convictions about what Scripture teaches? Do you say no leaving them to either feel alienated and not have their child baptized, or find somebody who will, thus initiating their child into a separate (by distance) New Covenant body than the one to which they belong? What is the wise middle position?

  14. 8-16-2009

    Jonathan,

    David asked that same question in my next post. The fact that you’re concerned alienating them and that you are interested in finding a “wise middle position” says alot.

    -Alan

  15. 6-29-2011

    I’m wondering if the root causes for all of this are really deeper than we imagine them to be. Most people, when viewing a situation from the outside, would wonder, “Why can’t you all just get along?” But from the inside the parties to a dispute know all the nuances and issues that have played into that issue from before the beginning. When I look at this from a cultural perspective, I wonder why we are willing to pay lip service to unity, but the reality that is played out in virtually every believers life is one of leaving and disunity … church shopping/hopping is of course the most egregious example of this. If I look at it historically some answers begin to appear. This country was founded by people who left and for one reason or another, could not “get along,” with the community of believers they found themselves in. Culturally, in this country, we have a long history of division and animosity towards those who think differently than we do. The Civil War is one of the more violent and extreme examples of this. We won’t be told what to do or how to think by others, so we leave when the seat gets too hot. I would venture to say that this has become part of our cultural DNA now, and is very clearly played out in our churches. Those who hang on in spite of themselves are really going against almost 400 years of cultural history … what is now embedded into our genetic memory, so to speak. All of which is not to say that we shouldn’t, just that I’m wondering if there is not more to overcome than the individual disputes?

  16. 6-29-2011

    Sonja,

    I agree that culturally Americans are a very divisive people. I think the division among the church started earlier. Perhaps the American divisions began as a mirror of the divisions among the church?

    -Alan

  17. 10-28-2011

    Alan,

    If they could have worked out their differences then we would have something that would have been molotov cocktail in the faith.

    Let me pose another thought:

    Based upon your thoughts here, “In other words, we do not deal with people and interact with them and fellowship with them based on their opinions or statements about various doctrines. Instead, we deal with, interact with, and fellowship with people based on their identity in Christ! If they are children of God then they are our brothers and sisters, regardless of how wrong they (or we) might be.”

    How about those trapped (and I use that term stringently and loosely) in homosexuality?

  18. 10-29-2011

    Great discussion. It is interesting to see in the book of Revelation in the letters to the churches that it is never recommended for the church to split. Even though there are some desperate circumstances some of the churches are going through.

  19. 6-13-2012

    I thought I could use this blog as proof that my church should not have kicked me out, until I got to the part about separating with those who are not brothers and sisters.. I am sure that’s how my church would see me now. That would be their justification :(

  20. 6-14-2012

    Sheree,

    If they considered you an unbeliever or were treating you as one because of repentance, then at least they would be consistent. The primary focus of this post (and my other posts on unity) is on Christians who accept one another as “in Christ” but refuse to accept one another and live with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    -Alan

  21. 6-19-2013

    disunity — our failure to hold to our convictions without separating from one another

    That’s a great understanding/explanation of disunity.

    I have seen many christians that seem to almost desire to push people away… because they don’t want to be tainted by anybody who isn’t just like them. They often will do lip service like oh they are still my brother in Christ…but just had to let them go….but inside, they are screaming heretic and they are scared of being influenced by them. They can’t even be honest about their separations! You are right… if there is a separation, it should be a separation, openly – that they are not brother/sister to you. We don’t know how to be honest about anything. And others can see our fakeness and lack of bold truth with each other.

    Others can see our fear…fear of arguments, fear of wrong thinking, fear of being lead astray, fear of challenging thoughts……isn’t that a huge reason why the world is unconvinced through us? At the root of it… we can’t disagree, because we don’t really know in our own hearts? If we were convinced in our own minds, we would be convinced and wouldn’t *need* to try to convince others to feel convinced ourselves. We would want others to know what we do! yes! and we’d try to help share why we believe what we believe… but our faith wouldn’t be dependent on making others understand like we do. which definitely shows itself differently in the way we give opinions.

    Our pride & our people pleasing and how wrapped up we are in man’s opinion is very evident in the way we separate when we disagree. What exactly are we afraid of?

    I understand why God wants us to be around others…if I was never challenged, I wouldn’t be convinced in my own mind. Each time I am challenged, it does sharpen me. Does this matter or doesn’t it? What does the Word even say about this? What do I really believe about this? Differences are great friction for sharpening.

  22. 6-20-2013

    Randi,

    That’s a great comment on this topic of convictions and unity. Thank you!

    -Alan

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