Uniformity or Unity

Sometimes I wonder what kind of unity uniformity people are looking for in Christendom? Our Lord desires us to be unified (Ephesians 4:1-16). Has His desire been twisted in our approach and mindset so that we really define unity as uniformity? Let’s be honest, there are different circles in this world of Christians with different preferences, approaches, and theological convictions. There is the Charismatic, Baptist, Bible, Presbyterian, and Lutheran circle, to just name a tiny iota. Worship music and liturgy preferences define another group of circles. Now with these differences and the call to unity, how do we navigate these waters?

There is obviously a discussion between these circles. Two sides continuously try to persuade the other side their view of the gifts accurately reflects God’s will. Theological discussion is fair. Being humble before the Lord demands I question and be willing to conform to His image. This means I may have to change my mind about something I thought was true.

The Internet

However, there seems to be something else at work, extremely noticeable through the internet. The call for unity seems to morphed into uniformity — uniformity, the view that we are all the same, say it the same way, do it the same way, share the same celebrity pastors, and our way is the only way. If this is true, then we have a shifting from a humble goal to prideful tribalism.

It’s okay to have a theological stance. But when we demand others explain the doctrine precisely the same way, we have shifted into uniformity. It’s okay to ask people in an organization to follow a doctrinal statement. But when we begin to emphasize, exploit, focus on, and critique his nuances outside of the doctrinal statement, then uniformity has crept in. When we look at other’s worship service and demand only hymns, uniformity is marching on. When the pastor’s dress code is highlighted, yup, uniformity.

Celebrity Pastors

I wonder if some of this relates to celebrity pastors? We see [insert ANY celebrity pastor here] do it one way and begin to think, “This is how a godly pastor does it.” Of course, this fails to recognize that no two pastors are alike in gifting and personality. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s wrong for people in a circle to have common characteristics either. I am a TMS grad, on the one hand, I am like those I graduated with. I was trained and discipled by the same great men. Our thinking was shaped through our professors. I’ve heard visitors compliment our church because they got what they expected from a ‘Master’s Man.’ I know what they mean, that is okay.

Yet I’ve also seen people leave friend’s (and maybe mine) church because he wasn’t [insert celebrity pastor here]. But God didn’t called the no-name man to pastor your church in Iowa? He called your pastor to you. It’s okay for your pastor to be himself and not exactly like [insert the same celebrity pastor here or famous dead guy either]. As one celebrity pastor said at a conference, “Do not compare your pastor to the men on this stage. We’ve preached these sermons ten times and refined them all year. Your pastor doesn’t have that luxury.”

Pride

The call for uniformity is really a pride thing. There is no other way around it. When we ask people to be 100% like minded in “our” doctrine, do it our way, say it our way, live it our way, and carte blanche have the same favorite celebrity pastors, then we have said, “We’ve arrived and you need to be like me.” In fact, usually within the circle, criticizing outsiders is acceptable. But internal criticism is not. In fact, internal criticism is usually grounds for excommunication, not humble evaluation.

I certainly remember criticizing books for the way they said it, recognizing the valid point, but upset by his language. I did the same thing because someone liked an author in a different theological circle too. I repent. I was asking for uniformity. In fact, when I am at the point of nitpicking the way he said it, even though the concept is biblical and an excellent observation, then I need to recognize the pride siren going off and repent.

If Tim Keller is off limits to my church because his eschatology is different, I need to examine my heart. Should a church be criticized for having a guest speaker with a different eschatology? If this is the kind of attitude we want to have, then we can no longer exalt the Reformers. Their differing views on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church state relationship would make them off limits to us. How dare they think different and have some different theological conclusions!!! (Trueman has some good thoughts on the Reformers and us here).

It goes beyond theology too. Each church has a set of practices. We do home Bible studies. As a church without a building, this allows us to fellowship, open God’s Word, pray, and worship. We find this beneficial. But it would be wrong of us to say, every church needs to do it our way. We need to remember God gifts every church differently, with different circumstances and problems. It behooves us to trust elders to shepherd their own flock in a way that works for their local context.

Uniformity distorts unity into an us centered gross tribe, “I am Negan.” We need to redefine our interns position, remove them from the evangelical police department, and have them focus on serving, loving, and unifying the local church.

What about truth?

Now, I can see a possible critique levied to me, “But we’re to stand for truth.” Or, “Are you saying truth doesn’t matter?” Answer, yes we should stand for truth, advocate it, and pursue it because it does matter. Let us be gracious and not cut ties with someone because he doesn’t fit 85% into our mold. We need to have theological conversations and challenge each other to be more like Christ.

We need to pursue truth so we can worship our savior better. It’s appropriate to try and influence others to have a biblical view of the Spirit, eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Yes, we need to do this. Is it okay to have a favorite [insert celebrity pastor / author]? Sure. In fact, I ask all our men, interested in leadership to read, Knowing God by JI Packer and Praying with Paul by DA Carson. I don’t agree with everything those men advocate, but those books are gold and should be read by everyone. The good in those books is great. We’d be foolish to not read them.

Can another “circle” really teach me?

I have some friends who are historical confessional. I am not. I have no problem with them trying to influence me to be so. In fact, three men encourage me to listen to history and  consider seriously creeds. To be a lone wolf theologically is pride. I am thankful for their encouragement to seriously examine why I would take a different view than historically advocated. God has worked throughout the ages in His men. Their voice has weight (but not authority).

I’m thankful for the Trinity debates 1700 years ago. Those voices help shape my understanding of Scripture and the Lord. But when we go against 1800 years of biblical teaching, if we’re going to do so, let us have solid biblical arguments open for critique and scrutiny. A future hope for Israel was around before amillennialism. But amillennialism has dominated the published world longer. I can understand why men advocate it due to its historic influence and domination, yet we premils have good reasons for rejecting it and advocating something else. I recognize both camps are believers and I can learn from them. There is only one truth, yet this is not a truth to divide over.

Unity

In fact, I see unity on three levels: unbelievers, believers, and the local church. Who can I be united with? I use three tiers to evaluate the level of unity I need to have.

Tier three

Believers cannot have true fellowship with unbelievers. The Spirit dwells in the believer, not an unbeliever. But we are both God’s creation. Union is not sharing a love for Star Wars with 5 billion different people. Star Wars is not and will never be a unifying doctrine. God does not unify us around our preferences. He unifies us around Him. Those who advocate a false Gospel or Trinity? There is no unity. They are a demonic cult, in need of evangelism. We cannot be united to Mormons, JW’s, the Word of Faith movement, or any other organization that gets the gospel, Trinity, and / or sanctification wrong.

Tier Two

Outside of the local church, there is a unity with other believers because we both have the Spirit dwelling in us. I recognize them and know there is a unity with them because we both have the gospel, Trinity, and desire to live holy. If these are right, I know we are both believers and understand there to be a unity. What is our role to other believers outside of our local church? My role is to support and encourage your faithfulness to where God has you. This is the role of any Christian author or speaker. He or she needs to realize at best, they are a support to the local church. Parkingspace23 is not your pastor (unless of course you attend one of our churches). I love these men because they seek to support your relationship to Christ in your local church context!

We do not have to be perfectly united. I recognize the Lord calls my friend into his or her local church and needs to be unified with them. He does not have to be united to me. They have duties, responsibilities, gifts, and purposes to honor the Lord in his local church context. I would never want our unity to replace what should exist in your local church. Because we are not a part of the same local church, I would want my relationship with this person to encourage faithfulness to the the Lord by serving his family, work, and local church.

I pray I encourage my friend in Boston to remain faithful to his calling in his local context. Even if we disagree on eschatology, and though I know I’m right on this one ;), I can leave the jots and tittles alone because it’s better for him spiritually to be united with his local church than “that guy” who gives his leaders grief over minor issues. (There is an important side note here. John Chester will write more about unity abroad here. And please take the time to read Nicole’s polemic on those we disagree with here).

tier one

Doctrinal unity should be strongest at the local church level. Zach Putthoff has more on this tier here. Personally, I would have a hard time with elders of different eschatological views. I would struggle if we all had different hermeneutics. It seems hard to maintain unity. Maybe I’m wrong here, and I might be, and maybe I’ll change my mind in the future as I learn and grow. But a local church unified around our Lord doing His work seems to communicate the need for closer doctrinal unity. Again, not uniformity. I certainly don’t think every doctrinal issue is black and white and respect different views on the more grey areas. This works well for our church. I’m not even saying you have to agree with my tier one. Your church may have a wonderful, godly, and wise criteria that differs. This is okay. To have criteria means a church considered it and came to a conclusion about it.

Evangelicals need to take a vacation from being offended and shocked because others don’t think like my circle does. I pray Twitter would be less of a rallying the troops and more of an outlet to share articles discussing biblical truth. I know I won’t change the internet. Someone will always have to be right there. In fact, I know I’ve been that guy too. But I do pray we can learn to be peacemakers who can stand for truth yet respect one another despite our differences.

 

  • Dr. Dennis Swanson

    Excellent article. Striving for uniformity (if you have these books, that’s all you need; these are the preacher you need to be like; these conferences are where you need to go) is both a narrowing and ultimately deadening approach to both ministry and life. Ultimately uniformity is like veneer; a thin coat of wood that looks nice on the outside, but it’s not solid all the way through and it’s only meant for show, not everyday use.

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