Issue: 3rd quarter 2015

Unity and the Role of Doctrine

Written by Dan Gallagher

The two thousand years of recorded Christian history have, for the most part, been rife with factious infighting, bickering, and turf wars between the various followers of Christ. Contrary to God’s desire for unity in His family, the present-day division and denominational mentality of “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” is pervasive. Most of the disagreements nowadays seem, at least on the surface, to be somewhat civil; but there remain some deep-set conflicts, resulting in constant tension between many groups who follow Christ. Thankfully, the fighting today occurs more in the arena of words, rather than the physical altercations and bloodshed of the past.

Can’t we just forget about our differences?

For the majority of my Christian life, I have held beliefs that are at odds with many of the teachings of the mainstream Church. At times, I’ve wanted to throw my hands up and yell, “Let’s not worry about our differences! Can’t we all just get along?” Feeling like we are at odds with others in the Body is difficult, and it seems that our common love for Christ should compel us to just love one another.

This is certainly the reaction of some who hate the doctrinal conflicts; but, as nice and appealing as unity may be, compromising on what we really believe is still not the solution. After all, denying our beliefs and acting as if they don’t really matter doesn’t resolve anything, and that isn’t unity; it is denial, which amounts to living in a state of falsehood. Although the differences may appear to be resolved, the truth is that we’ve only temporarily made them disappear. Most conflict that goes underground tends to poison the soil, and eventually resurfaces later.

Attacks on the Body of Christ are never the right way to go

What is the right way to handle our differences? If denial is at one end of the spectrum, then open attacks and fighting are at the other. Sadly, there have been many times when the option to attack has been the preferred method of resolving conflict. Christian history is filled with numerous periods during which the greatest enemies of some of the followers of Christ were the Church authorities themselves. We are grateful that these dark times appear to be in our past. Physical attacks, and even verbal antagonism, should never be the way we seek to resolve our differences. We must remember that since we are part of One Body (Eph. 4:4), an attack on other members in the Body is like an attack on Christ himself.

We must be clear on when and how to draw the line

Be assured, disputes, especially doctrinal disagreements, will not be ending anytime soon (at least, not until Christ returns and sets us all straight). In the meantime, knowing how to chart a safe course through the hazards and choppy waters of strife and division is essential. We make no pretense; we believe complete unity is not possible, nevertheless, we are commanded to pursue it to the best of our ability.

Doctrinal differences are the primary source of fighting in the Body of Christ

On the surface, it may appear that people within the Body are arguing about particular practices; but what we practice is based on doctrinal underpinnings, which is why we believe doctrinal differences are the greatest source of division between Christians. Some have attempted to resolve these problems by downplaying the importance of doctrine; but doing so can have serious ramifications. Some of the issues at stake have to do with the very nature of salvation, such as whether it is a matter of works, or achieved by faith. And consider that, even if manifesting the holy spirit is not a salvation issue, it certainly affects the quality and effectiveness of a person’s spiritual life. While it is true that not all doctrinal disagreements are significant, a number of them are—and they cannot be ignored. This means that every follower of Christ needs to be clear on his or her responsibility, and the manner in which to navigate doctrinal differences—we need to know when and how to draw the line.

Division is one of the Devil’s principle tactics

When it comes to doctrinal disputes, one of the most important things we can do is to step back and keep in mind the big picture. In the case of unity, in the big picture, one of the principle tactics of the Enemy is division. Knowing his fate was sealed the minute Christ opened his eyes in the grave, the Adversary now tries to stall his inevitable destruction by decreasing the effectiveness of the Body of Christ.

The Devil, like every great military commander who is up against a superior foe, knows one of the most effective battle strategies is to divide the opponent and pick off the smaller units. Whenever doctrinal differences arise, we must first and foremost never lose sight of the fact that the Enemy seeks to divide the Body of Christ in order to decrease our effectiveness against him. Disagreements are bound to occur, but we must always endeavor to stop those sparks of strife from growing into a raging forest fire. Conflict is whipped up into an inferno whenever we allow ourselves to engage in words or actions of contempt, bitterness, unforgiveness, and pride. Even if we never reconcile our viewpoints on the Scriptures, by being mindful of the Enemy’s motives and moves, we can guard our words and actions so that we diminish the potency of his attacks.

The mistake of setting doctrine aside to resolve the conflict

Another serious mistake people commonly make when dealing with doctrinal problems is to set the importance of doctrine aside. Unlike denial, which occurs when we refuse to recognize that a difference exists, setting aside the importance of doctrine doesn’t ignore the problem…it seeks to eliminate it by eliminating what is perceived to be the source of the problem. This is much like cutting off one’s head in order to relieve a headache, instead of searching for the source of the pain. Decreasing the importance of doctrine is akin to saying, “We are believers—but what we believe isn’t important.” Clearly, that is a nonsensical strategy; nevertheless, it is the path that many choose to walk.

I will never forget a very valuable and visceral lesson I learned a few years ago about the importance of doctrine. While I was meeting with a friend, he launched into a monologue about how he was abandoning his core doctrinal beliefs in favor of relationships with others in the Body of Christ. I could empathize with his frustrations, because over the decades I, too, have desired stronger relationships with others. After I had been listening to him for a while, he turned to me and said, “You look pale, what’s going on?” It was true, the blood had drained from my face; what my friend didn’t know was that, less than twenty four hours before, someone had randomly prophesied to me: “Never put relationships above your doctrine.” Now, sitting in front of me, my friend was saying the exact opposite: “I am no longer going to put my doctrine in front of my relationships with others in the Body of Christ!” The lesson for me was clear, the answer for resolving doctrinal conflict is never to set aside our doctrine.

The importance of doctrine

Anyone who takes the path that doctrine—your body of beliefs—is not important, is ignoring the very words of Scripture, as well as the witness of the prophets and Christ himself. Jesus specifically told his followers that if they adhered to his teachings (his doctrine), that then, and only then, would they be his disciples. Through his teachings and the example of his life, they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free (John 8:31).

Throughout the Old Testament, men and women, prophets and kings, were commanded by God to heed His words—His doctrine. From the very initial birth of the Body of Christ, the apostles spent time instructing and emphasizing the importance of right doctrine. Speaking of the initial converts after the Day of Pentecost, God’s Word says;

Acts 2:42
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [doctrine] and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Additionally, if doctrine is something that we can easily set aside in favor of relationships and “unity,” then why would God tell us to do our very best to be “workmen of His Word (doctrine)” by properly handling it?

2 Timothy 2:15 (REV)
Make a diligent effort to present yourself approved before God, a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

The apostle Paul, when writing to Timothy, his young protégé, told him to pay close attention, continue in, and hold onto, the doctrine:

1 Timothy 4:16
Watch [as in pay close attention to] your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.

2 Timothy 1:13
What you heard from me, keep [hold on to] as the pattern of sound teaching [doctrine] with faith and love in Christ Jesus.

Clearly, setting aside the teachings Paul had entrusted to Timothy was not an option, even for the sake of unity. In fact, Paul instructed Timothy to not put up with the false teachings, myths, and things that promoted speculations and controversy.

1 Timothy 1:3-4
3) As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer
4) or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work— which is by faith.

1 Timothy 4:7
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.

The importance of sound, correct doctrine is unmistakable, and anyone who sets it aside in favor of “unity” errs greatly.

Doctrine is like the safety of a fence

Instead of seeing one’s doctrine as a problem, we need to see that it is a good thing. We all need to be humble to the possibility that some of our beliefs are wrong, and be willing to change when proven as such. I like to think of doctrine as a bird in the hand. Grip it too firmly, and you will kill it by squeezing the life out of it. Like the dead bird, we, too, tend to become cold, hard, stiff—legalistic—if we cling too tightly to our doctrine. On the other hand, if we hold it too loosely, it will fly away at the first opportunity. Too loose, and we become the ship “tossed about with every new wind” (Eph. 4:14). Instead, the way to hold doctrine is tightly enough so that it lives and is safe—so that no one can steal it from us—but unconstrained such that we can let go of what is proven wrong, and grab the new insight that comes our way. When our attitudes are right, our doctrine will serve to protect and guide us on the path to greater understanding and knowledge of God.

I once heard about a school playground that was next to a very busy street. In order to make sure that the children were safe, the teachers made all the students play in a very small area next to the school building. Kids being kids, though, panic ensued for the teachers almost daily as the children would run after a loose ball that broke free and rolled toward the street, or when the kids playing tag would run a little too wildly, stopping just short of the traffic. Eventually, someone decided that, for the safety of the kids, it was necessary to install a fence around the grounds. Then, although conditioned to play next to the buildings, within a few days of the fence going up, the children began to slowly roam across the school grounds as they played, some even running right up to the edge of the yard next to the new fence. Our doctrine, like the fence, can provide us with a sense of freedom and safety, and it will protect and guide us.

Scripturally illiterate

Part of what has led to doctrinal disputes is the scriptural illiteracy present in far too many Christians. The average Christian attends church and relies on the pulpit for his spiritual knowledge. Sadly, many churches in the past few decades have moved away from the basics of Bible study in favor of more “contemporarily relevant” teachings—as if to say that the Word of God isn’t relevant today. It has been noted by some that, for the standard churchgoer, once they attend church for three years, they’ve pretty much been exposed to the “Faith”—three Christmas services, three Easters, etc., and they have the story of Jesus down.

The end result is that many people really don’t know their Bible. Most don’t read it, at least not on a regular basis. They have heard some of the more popular stories, but they really don’t know the details. Many don’t even know why it is considered to be the very “Word of God,” how it was obtained, what it is useful for, and how to properly read and apply it. It is for this reason I can safely assert that most are scripturally illiterate; given that, it is no wonder we have such major disputes about Scriptural meaning.

The answer is to be a Berean

In our desire for unity, instead of setting the Word of God aside—or even neglecting it entirely, as many do— we need to follow the example of the Berean saints. When Paul first preached the Gospel to them, they didn’t accept or reject it based on what he said about it; instead, they examined the Scriptures “daily” to see if what Paul told them was, in fact, true. God’s testimony of them is that, for having that type of heart and effort, He considered them to be very noble.

Act 17:11 (NIV)
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

The record of the Berean saints reveals two essential qualities: first, that they possessed the right mental attitude, one of openness to Paul and his teachings; and second, that they had the skillset necessary to “examine the Scriptures.” It would go a long way toward resolving doctrinal differences if all the followers of Christ imitated their example.

When and how do we draw the line with others on doctrinal differences?

There is a little doubt that if many Christians became more diligent in their studies of the Bible, it would help to resolve much of the division we see today. But admittedly, even if everyone did that, we would still inevitably face many differing opinions about what the Bible actually says. Given this reality, it is crucial that we understand what to do when our doctrines are at odds with others’.

We must always bear in mind that it is our spiritual obligation, as members of the same One Body, to do our best to keep the unity of the spirit—even when we disagree with one another.

Ephesians 4:3 (NIV)
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

It is noteworthy that the phrase “make every effort” in Ephesians 4 is translated from the exact same word in the Greek text as what appears in 2 Timothy—in the passage that instructs us to “make every effort” to be “workmen” of the Word, “properly handling the Word of truth.” In the same way that we are to be like the Bereans, and be workmen of God’s Word, so, too, we must always do everything possible to promote unity.

The practical way to accomplish that is to guard our mouths and actions so that we are not behaving in an antagonistic or hurtful way toward those who disagree with us. As hard as it may be, especially when others make personal attacks on us for believing differently, our obligation is to not respond in the same way. Instead, it is much better to walk away and leave them alone.

Romans 16:17 (NIV)

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions    and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have    learned. Keep away from them.

We must be able to work with others who believe differently

Many have used Paul’s words to “keep away from them” to justify having nothing to do with Christians who believe differently. This has led many to adopt an isolationist and sectarian/denominational attitude, which has caused much division in the Body. Paul could not have been advocating that we would sever all ties to those who hold a different view of certain aspects of the Scriptures. That would promote division in the Body, and it would be completely contrary to the Ephesians 4:4 command to “maintain the unity of the spirit.”

Instead, it seems Paul was advising Timothy not to have anything to do with troublemakers, and in particular, those who use their doctrine divisively. He cautions to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way.” It is not simply a matter of separating from others because they teach or believe something different; the key to discerning whether or not we should withdraw from others is this: are they causing division and hindering us from the truth?

As a Biblical Unitarian[1], I have some beliefs that are clearly different from the Trinitarian mainstream. If I applied Paul’s words literally toward all who disagree with me on biblical points, I would have to withdraw, or even cut myself off completely, from the rest of the Body of Christ. This cannot be what Paul, or Christ, intended. Differences of opinion are bound to occur, but how we act in relation to those

Recently, I found myself very frustrated by the doctrinal errors I perceived in much of Christianity, and by how much I saw Christ moving in their churches in spite of it. As I prayed and sought understanding, I felt the message from the Lord: “If I am able to work with them, why can’t you?” I learned to agree with others in the areas of agreement, and, where we disagree, to do so without being disagreeable. If others want to cast stones and cause problems, then let that be on them; we must choose not to respond to them in the same manner.

What benefit is there in separating ourselves from men and women in the Body of Christ whom the Lord is working powerfully through in order to bring a special and necessary gifting to the rest of us? I don’t agree with Joyce Meyer, James Dobson, and many, many others, on the nature of Christ, the state of the dead, water baptism, and the manifestation of the holy spirit—but that does not mean that I should have nothing to do with them. We can and should be able gain insights from others, because it is the same Lord we serve who is energizing all of our gifts and ministries, even in spite of error. I am not advocating that we put up with anyone, or any heretical position, that is absolutely contrary to the ways of Christ; but more often than not, these are not the issues that hinder us.

I am very willing to discuss doctrinal differences with anyone, but if they are closed minded, then there is not point discussing it. Paul’s instruction was to correct, rebuke, and encourage, and we are always to do so with “great patience and careful instruction,” never with contempt for others. In areas where they are closed minded, we are to keep away from them; and we are to learn to work with others in areas where we agree.

Clearly, there are many practical and doctrinal reasons why there is disunity in the Body of Christ. But one of the principle reasons for the conflict are doctrinal differences, and as we draw nearer to the end times, there will be an even greater increase in false teachings (2 Tim. 4:2-4). It is imperative we learn to be full of both grace and truth for those times when we run into doctrinal disputes, because, as time goes on, people will not put up with sound doctrine; instead, they will turn even more toward myths and falsehoods. Our job is to keep our heads and discharge the duties of our personal gifts and callings, all while we endeavor, to the best of our ability, to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.


[1] A Biblical Unitarian is one who believes in One God, the Creator and the Father, eternally existent; One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; One Spirit, the holy spirit. We believe that the three are separate and distinct from each other, but unified in their purpose and action. Unlike Trinitarians, we do not believe God is the Father, Son, and holy spirit.

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Dan Gallagher

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