Christian unity is a hot topic. There have been a number of inter-church “Unity” services and other cooperative events which often include both Catholics and Protestants. These trends and events raise the issue, What is the basis for Christian unity? Should we feel comfortable to join together in the cause of Christ? Some of you may have wondered why I do not endorse or participate in “ecumenical” activities. Here are a few thoughts that I hope will clarify and enlighten:
Biblical truth on essential doctrines, not “Christian love,” must be the basis for unity. I often hear, “Jesus said that the world will know we are Christians by our love and unity, not by our doctrine.” The implication is that doctrine is both divisive and secondary to love.
But a careful reading of John 17 will show that Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (17:17). To sanctify means to set apart or make separate. We are to be set apart from the world because we hold to God’s truth.
Satan, the master at deceit, has many servants who claim to be Christian, but who deny fundamental biblical truth and thus are not truly Christian
2 Corinthians 11:13-15 (NIV)
13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
1 John 2:18-27 (NIV)
18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.
22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son.
23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
24 See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.
25 And this is what he promised us–even eternal life.
26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.
27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.
Jesus warned of false prophets who are wolves in sheep’s clothing
Matthew 7:15 (NIV)
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
One of the main duties of shepherds (pastors) is to guard the flock, which involves warding off the wolves (Acts 20:28 (NIV) 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.).
They also must exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict
Titus 1:9 (NIV)
9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it…plus many references to “sound doctrine” in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus).
If a person or church knowingly denies or distorts the essential Christian doctrines about the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the way of salvation, or the inspiration and authority of the Bible, we are not one with that person or church, in spite of their claim of being Christian
Galatians 1:6-9 (NIV)
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
We are warned not to do anything to endorse such false doctrine.
2 John 1:8-11 (NIV)
8 Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.
9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.
11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work. Rather, we must refute it.
While we must never compromise sound doctrine, we must hold to truth with wisdom and love. It’s not always easy to distinguish essential doctrines from those that are important, but not absolutely essential for defining orthodox Christianity, so we must be discerning. Also, we may draw lines for personal friendship differently than we would for church unity or cooperation.
It is not our place to judge the salvation of a person who differs with us doctrinally (unless he or she clearly denies the faith). Some may be truly saved and yet greatly deceived on some important doctrinal or practical issues. We can be cordial toward the person, and yet register our strong disagreement with him on the particular issue.
We must show grace toward those who are young in faith, who may be confused on certain doctrinal issues
Acts 18:24-28 (NIV)
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.
25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.
26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.
28 For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
We must be patient, kind, and gracious toward those who differ with us on non-essentials. Perfect knowledge is not the requirement for fellowship, since none attain it this side of heaven. We must always be on guard against the spiritual pride that causes us to delight in proving that we are right and others are wrong. We can demolish a brother with our correct doctrine and thus sin by speaking truth without love. But we must never sacrifice essential truth on the altar of love. They cannot be separated.
My desire is that we work with all who truly know Christ to speak the truth in love, so that we all grow up in all aspects into Him (Eph. 4:15). But to join our church in cooperation with other churches which profess to know Christ but deny core biblical truths is to violate the biblical teaching on maintaining sound doctrine and holding to God’s truth.