Purity vs. Unity

From Faith Pulpit, Fall 2014. Used by permission, all rights reserved. (Continued from Lessons from the Reformation.)

The same conflict we saw in the Reformation can be seen in contemporary Christianity in North America and the rest of the world. Pastors in Baptist circles today (or heads of institutions or agencies) have choices to make when trying to expand and extend the influence of their church in the community or the constituency of their organizations. Aiming for unity (lowest common denominator of beliefs and/or holy living) will most often result in larger numbers of people, but it does not produce the fruit one might desire.

Martin Bucer typifies this struggle from the Reformation. He not only tried to achieve unity (reaching as many people as possible), but he also retained a passion for the purity of his church members. As he discovered, he could not have both. In trying to reach greater numbers, he had to dilute his message. Under Bucer’s leadership (and the other Reformers), churches were little different from the world. Church membership was granted at birth, and requirements to keep it were not enforced. Holy living was not essential.

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"Phonity. noun: superficial unity for which fundamental differences are ignored."

“As long as Reformed—which I assume to be cessationist*—and Charismatic Christians continue to pretend the differences between them are minor and sweep them under the couch, their unity is fake, false, phony, fraudulent, and fraught with failure.” Phonity

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When We Don't Agree

Read Part 1.

The insistence that all things are essential (for the purpose of God’s glory) should not be mistaken for an insistence that the believer is responsible for the agreement or disagreement of others. When Paul mandates in 1 Corinthians 1:10 that believers should agree (or literally, speak the same thing) and that there be no divisions (schisms) among them, he is not suggesting that believers should try to control the thinking of others, but that believers should conform their thinking to the wisdom of God (1 Cor 2:5). In so doing, believers will become more likeminded and will better reflect the unity that is already theirs in Christ (Eph 4:1-3).

Where there is disagreement among believers, it seems there is one basic cause: fleshliness (1 Cor 1:11, 3:1-4). In James 4:1, James echoes Paul’s observation: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” There it is in a nutshell. Where we have conflict, it is because I, or you, or both of us are walking in the flesh rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in us (see Gal 5:16-26).

But where there are disagreements among believers due to fleshliness, the prescriptions are worth noting. The “fleshly” believer is called to conform his thinking to God’s wisdom (1 Cor 2:11-13, 16) and to bear his own burden (not causing burden to others, e.g., Gal 6:5), but it is not the “spiritual” believer’s responsibility to enforce that. Rather, the “spiritual” believer is to bear patiently with the burdens of the weak, and to maintain humility (Gal 6:1-3). Both parties are cautioned not to go beyond what is written (1 Cor 4:6). In matters beyond what is written believers have freedom (even freedom to differ in opinions). So while all things are essential to the glory of God, there are areas in which He has not revealed details, and we do well to avoid dogmatism in these areas.

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