Uniformity vs Unity in the Universal Church

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Barring illness or travel you will find me in the same place the first Wednesday of every month at noon; a corner table in a local Mexican restaurant having lunch with a group of local pastors (and one semi-retired missions worker), having fellowship and talking through some of the difficult issues of ministry. We meet together because we are like minded. We share core beliefs about the authority of scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, gospel urgency and the sovereignty of God in salvation. We have tremendous unity.

But the group is not uniform. There is a pastor of a “capital R” Reformed church (you can tell who he is by the Banner of Truth shirt and beard he sports), there is a GARB pastor (The General Association of Regular Baptists tend to focus more on eschatology than I would, and a little closer to Fundamentalism than I am), a couple of TMS grads (who have some differences too), and of course the semi-retired missions worker who is decidedly non-concerned about non-essential issues (and he might define that a little more broadly than I would). We are not the same, but we recognize that we are on the same team; in fact, we have talked about how the difference between our churches would likely melt away if there was actual persecution of the church. We have unity but we are not uniform.

And that is OK. We are called to Christ not to conformity. One of my professors in seminary once used an illustration where he wrote “GOSPEL” on a piece of paper, and held it aloft. He then said, I believe correctly, that no one has perfect theology, in the sense that no one’s theology fully and rightly reflects the mind of God. Then he crumpled the paper and held the ball aloft so that the “GOSPEL” could not be read, and said that if someone’s theology so obscures the gospel that it is effectively absent from that theology, then there can be no unity. Then he unballed the paper, held it aloft, and though it was creased, “GOSPEL” could clearly be read. And he said if someone’s theology is such that the biblical gospel is front and center, even if it does not look exactly as we would articulate it that is someone you should have unity with.

And I have another vivid classroom memory from seminary, in one of the advanced pastoral ministry classes, another professor asked the question “What must someone believe in order for you to have unity?” And a hand immediately shot up, and when given the opportunity to answer, the owner of the hand articulated a detailed theological position. The professor then asked the class for a show of hands of those who were settled on the proposed theology. And roughly 1/4 of the hands in the class went up. Then the professor, one of the most respected on campus, said this, “Gentlemen, many of you will go to a small town where the only other evangelical (pastor) may be an Anglican or a Methodist. Unify around the gospel.”

Both of these lessons had a profound impression on me. While truth is supremely important, and I fully recognize that when two people disagree about a point of theology at least one is wrong, we must unify around the gospel. (And I submit that I believe that if you disagree with me on the sign gifts, mode of baptism, age of the earth, eschatology, or any other point of theology you are wrong. I hold the positions I do, because I believe them to be biblically correct.) I am not arguing for a “mere Christianity” position rather I am arguing for gospel unity, not a demand for uniformity.

Too often in conservative evangelical circles a healthy zeal for truth morphs into a poisonous demand for uniformity.  In the past month I have witnessed Wayne Grudem, Albert Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur and John Piper (among others) attacked for their views on secondary issues, some even branding (some of) them heretics. And it ought not be like this. (Here is a great article on a possible origin of the phenomenon.)

Jesus said “Every Kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand Matt 12:25).” And while the context was not the church, and while I recognize that Jesus also said He would build His church and that even the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt 16:18), I think it is more than fair to extract the principle that it is ridiculous for a kingdom to turn against itself and expect to prosper, and apply it to the church. I think it is also important to understand that Christ saw the world in binary terms, there are believers and there are unbelievers. He is the one who first said “if you are not with me you are against me (Matt 12:30). If anyone is with Christ as Christ followers we should have unity with them.

But often what has come to be called tribalism has supplanted gospel unity as the controlling motive in church leaders. Tribalism often manifests itself in maintaining a mental list of “safe” teachers or theological allies and viewing everyone not on that list as dangerous. In advanced cases of the disease orthodox Christians are berated as heretics for secondary differences, fellow believers are viewed as and treated as enemies of the gospel and learning is eschewed for an eco-chamber mindset. When leaders succumb to tribalism, those who follow those leaders do too.  (Be honest, have you ever asked if someone is in “our camp? That is tribalism.)  But make no mistake, when gospel unity is displaced by hot-headed calls for conformity, the Church suffers and the reputation of Christ suffers.

And often this kind of hot-headedness isn’t even about theological conclusions, it is about things that in the grand scheme of things are unimportant; things like music, dress, homeschooling vs. public schools etc. In other words, about non-gospel issues. This is neither productive nor biblical.

Now I am not saying that errors shouldn’t be addressed, they should (I myself have been involved as a conference speaker and as a guest on podcasts discussing the errors of the family integrated church movement), but it should be done graciously. It should be in the spirit of “come on get it right brother” or “brother, don’t be fooled by these plausible arguments, be a Berean.” It should never be shouting “heretic” at a brother in Christ (especially if he is not present). And hear me clearly, I am not saying that unbelievers should be treated as Christians or that non-Christian theologies need be treated as Christian.

Paul wrote in Romans 12:18 that as much as it depends on you live at peace with all, and when you have the most important thing in common, faith in Christ, you have a broad platform on which to build toward peace.  But when we demand uniformity instead of pursuing gospel unity we not only are failing to pursue peace, we are actively attacking it.  To be blunt, there is no reason at all to not have gospel unity with brothers and sisters in Christ.

But when we value unity above uniformity we greatly benefit. Credo-baptists like me can learn about the holiness of God from a paedobaptist like R.C. Sproul, the throngs of cessationists at Shepherds’ conference can be blessed by continuationist Bob Kauflin leading music and confirmed premillenialists can learn about the constitution of man from confirmed amillenialists like Anthony Hoekema. But when we insist on uniformity we miss out on much, and we miss out on some of the ways in which God is blessing his people.

The thing about that motley lunch crew I meet with monthly is that I often gain insights I might miss if I stick to my own circle, valuing uniformity above unity. The men have different experiences, read different authors and go to different conferences, and as a result of our unity we can strengthen one another to the work of the ministry, drawing from our own perspectives.

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.