3 threats to Christian unity and how to deal with them
My brother and I have had many heated discussions over the past few years. I have training as a pastor-theologian. He is trained as an epidemiologist. The COVID-19 pandemic, shelter-in-place orders, mask mandates, vaccinations, religious exemptions, and gathering as a church body caught our attention. We are blood relatives as well as brothers in Christ, but we have different perspectives and accents.
These conversations have given me perspective on the biggest cracks and fractures, sieving and sorting, and debates and divisions among evangelicals. We live in an increasingly divided time. Some shoot left and some right. What caused our division? And can a unified evangelical faith survive these threats?
3 threats to faith
In his book Engage with the Holy Spirit, Graham A. Cole identifies three threats to the gospel: subtraction, addition, and emphasis. These threats could be the reasons for the cracks in our evangelical movement today.
We live in an increasingly divided time. Some shoot left and some right. What caused our division?
Cole first points to subtraction. This is the response of liberal theologians who are tempted to deny the Bible’s clear teaching on issues ranging from human sexuality to the inerrancy of Scripture. Doctrines like these are matters of state confession, issues we must affirm if we are to stand on the truth and centrality of the gospel. When a church or faith group questions its own confession of faith and denies biblical truths, it is no surprise that division occurs – when the faithful withdraw or churches choose to join other denominations. or even to separate to create new ones. It is a necessary division. We must separate ourselves from those who subtract key doctrines to make the gospel message more palatable.
Divisions are necessary with health and church practice issues. A committed Baptist and a denominational Presbyterian, for example, should not be on the same church staff. Their differences over baptism and church policy would only cause conflict and confusion in the congregation. But can they serve the homeless together in their community? What if both are invited to speak at the same conference?
Some neo-fundamentalist leaders will say that any association or fellowship with a different Christian, church, network or faith group requires not only affirmation of the gospel but also full agreement on all the implications of the gospel. They make specific applications of the gospel in litmus tests, not only for ordination in a particular church or denominational community, but also in determining who is a “true,” “righteous,” or “serious” Christian.
The addition places questions of Christian wisdom and freedom into either-or categories, making whether or not to wear a mask, for example, a way to signal a theological or political affiliation. Such an approach denies groups of people who see things differently and becomes a form of “cancellation culture” in the church. It must be rejected.
Finally, too much or too little emphasis on gospel involvement can undermine the gospel. This is the challenge for most who join a group like The Gospel Coalition. Sometimes a cultural moment compels church leaders to emphasize a particular message. We might wonder, for example, how we should think about autonomy and authority given what churches have experienced at the hands of governments during the pandemic. It is important that we have the right accent at the right time without making this answer definitive or absolute. We study scripture, history, and current challenges to address new concerns in compelling, biblical ways.
But the focus of a moment is not necessarily the focus we should have forever. Paul and James, for example, basically agreed on justification by faith, but they may seem to disagree because they addressed different churches with different issues. Understanding how their backgrounds affected their accents helps us not miss the point. Perhaps we should have a similar approach with our fellow believers.
Division by disproportion
Often when a new accent is required, we react to a problem on one side of a pendulum. We can give a strong push in the opposite direction because a strong response is required. But we must be careful not to make this polemical theological response our constant posture. Like JC Ryle once wrote,
You can spoil the gospel by disproportion. It suffices to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the primary things, and the harm is done. Once you change the proportion of the truth parts, the truth soon becomes downright error! Do this, directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be evangelical.
How to avoid placing undue emphasis on secondary issues? You have to start by understanding what are the primary and secondary questions, understanding the difference between the gospel and its implications. The gospel is the foundation of our faith. The fruit it bears is its implications. These implications are the result of the gospel in life, but they are not the gospel itself.
I was excited about the new TGC Good Faith Debates. Here is the purpose of the series: “When we keep the gospel at the center, we can disagree on less important but still important matters in good faith. In Good Faith Debates, we hope to model this, showing that it is possible for two Christians united around the gospel to engage in charitable conversation even in the midst of substantive disagreement.
When we place too much or too little emphasis on a particular gospel implication, we can undermine the gospel.
I encourage pastors, elders, and other church leaders to watch these videos together and learn. Not only will this help them understand the issues being dealt with more broadly, but the debates will also model healthy disagreement among Christians – disagreement that keeps the gospel preeminent and the implications in their place.
I would also encourage you to engage less in social media arguments and more in face-to-face conversations like the ones I had with my brother. With his training in epidemiology, his current vocation as a professor and his ministry as an elder in his local church, he brings me a perspective that I could not see otherwise. I hope to give him the same gift. Together we are a whetstone (Prov. 27:17). We help each other remember that the gospel is the foundation that unites us even in the midst of our differences.