PT400—Chalcedon Report, no. 385, August 1997, Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
The Party’s Over
An Open Letter for Christian Unity
From Randy Booth
God promises in His word the triumph of His kingdom. Nevertheless, when we look at the many divisions existing among God’s people, a unified effort to advance this cause seems distant at best. Personal disputes, theological differences and organizational rivalries often characterize the disciples of Christ rather than love for one another (John 13:35). Instead of an ecumenical and charitable spirit flowing between believers, it is common to find a party spirit—an “us and them” attitude. I find such discord saddening and discouraging. Well, as for me and my organization, the party is over!1 This declaration is made in the context of my own acknowledgment that I have, at times, been guilty of such attitudes and am hereby publicly repenting of such.
The tendency toward a party spirit is one born out of our sin nature, wherein pride drives us to promote ourselves or our organization at the expense of others. In our defending or promoting what we perceive to be “sound doctrine,”2 it is easy to forget the necessity of having our doctrine “accord [i.e. harmonize] with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3). Paul goes on to warn that when this does not occur we are “proud, knowing nothing…obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions and useless wranglings of men…” (1 Tim. 6:4-5). In our efforts to defend one truth of Scripture we may find ourselves violating the Scriptures at ten other points.
God’s people comprise a single kingdom. Yet too often Christianity looks more like a series of private sandboxes with “no trespassing” signs posted. Our exclusive little club can soon reach the point where virtually no one else can meet the membership requirements. In a list of “thirty things we believe,” the tendency is to place our particular “distinctives” at the front rather than at the end of the list.3 Fellowship with other believers is thereby cut off from the beginning. Again, Paul’s admonition and warning seem appropriate: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!” (Gal. 5:14-15).
Since we are finite sinners, conflicts and disputes are inevitable between individuals and organizations. Personal conflicts should be resolved quickly. If you know that a brother has something against you, it is your obligation to go as quickly as possible to seek reconciliation with him (Matt. 5:23-24). If you have something against a brother, you likewise have an obligation to go as quickly as possible and seek reconciliation (Matt. 18:15). We can never excuse ourselves from these obligations to initiate reconciliation by reasoning that it’s “the other guy’s responsibility” to seek the reconciliation. Neither are these principles confined to one’s own church or denomination. All Christians are under obligation to fulfill these requirements of our Lord. We must all be pursuing “the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19). Failure to resolve these personal conflicts is simply an indication of immaturity. This is especially egregious when displayed by Christian leaders who should be examples to the flock. When we hear that this or that Christian does not speak to some other Christian it is a shame and disgrace to the name of Christ. We may not be able to unscramble every egg, but we can pledge to set aside our petty disputes and seek the good of our brothers (Rom. 15: 1-2). A careful distinction must be made between that which is sin (i.e., a lack of conformity to or transgression of the word of God), and those cases in which people may not have agreed as to the best course of action or procedure. Too often it is personal revenge or humiliation that is sought over the good of our brother and genuine restoration of fellowship. “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
Individual or personal conflicts may easily spill over into organizational relationships. Divisions between groups may also develop due to rivalry or jealousy. One of the fastest ways for a man to fall out of favor with many of his brothers in Christ is for him to experience some visible success in his ministry i.e., growth, notoriety, etc. Such ministerial envy is simply sin. May our desire be to see the gospel go forth. “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Phil. 1:15-18).
As a result of this organizational strife, sniping and shunning have become common—with Christians delighting in the failures rather than the successes of their fellow Christians—losing sight of the fact that we are all seeking to advance the cause of the gospel and not our personal or organizational agendas. We ought to work as hard as we can to build successful ministries and realize the blessing of God and at the same time earnestly pray (even for those with whom we may have disagreements) that they will exceed our success at every point where they are faithfully serving Christ. In fact, whenever we can, we should help them achieve that goal. When other Christians and their ministries advance the work of God at any point, all Christians and their organizations are the beneficiaries.
Association with other Christians or other groups is not a wholesale endorsement of everything they do or say. We don’t even have to preface our mention of them with words like, “Well, I don’t agree with everything Mr. Smith says…”—of course we don’t agree with everything. Neither should we ignore legitimate differences. Nevertheless a maximizing of common goals and agreement is in order. Oh, how the enemies of God must delight as they observe Christians cannibalizing one another.
We must develop a greater sense of community—we are the “people of God.” We are friends, not enemies. As members of the covenant household of God our disputes are “in house.” The enemies of God and His people are outside the camp. Jesus laid down His life for His friends. Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine. When theological differences arise among the people of God, let there be vigorous debate, but let that debate be exegetical in nature and gracious in tone. Genuine Christian love for one another requires us to engage in exegetical discourse with one another. Passionate presentations and spirited debate should be exchanged. Nevertheless, good arguments should not be ruined by quarrels. If we are to present our views to unbelievers with “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15), how much more so with our fellow Christians? Criticism can be legitimate and even helpful when offered in the spirit of Christ. “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Peter 2:1-3).
Having gone through the unhappy trial of a church split over a theological issue, I know the pain that can come from such divisions and I am certain the pain is likewise felt by my brothers on the other side. The pain is deep because of the affection we had and still have for one another. If we could but nurture that affection perhaps the wounds might heal.4 Charles H. Spurgeon (an English Baptist preacher), known for his broad spheres of fellowship, wrote concerning one common area of disagreement between Christians:
Surely to be a Baptist is not everything. If I disagree with a man on 99 points, but happen to be one with him in baptism—this can never furnish such ground of unity as I have with another with whom I believe in 99 points, and only happen to differ upon one ordinance.5
I use this as an example only, for many such issues divide brothers and organizations and we are all losers as a result. One thing is certain, we will never convince someone of their theological error if we cut them off and do not speak to them—neither will we be able to learn from others who just might know something we don’t.
We may wonder, though, about those Christians or organizations with whom we may have substantial doctrinal disagreements. The greatest efforts on some matters may never produce agreement in this life. Again we would do well to learn from the life of Spurgeon as he both gave and received the blessing of Christian charity in such situations. In a sermon delivered in 1875, he offered general praise for D. L. Moody’s and Mr. Sankey’s evangelistic work in South London, (men with whom he had substantial theological disagreements):
Here are two men who have for months consecrated themselves to the preaching of the gospel with no object in the world but the winning of souls for Christ. They have no design or object to gain but the sole glory of God. They seek conversions, conversions to Christ only; and brethren, if there were a thousand faults in them, who am I or who are you to judge them, to say we will not help them in such a work and with such motives?6
Spurgeon also voiced specific criticisms of this evangelistic campaign while upholding the integrity of the men involved.
Likewise, when Spurgeon was vilified by many churches during the famous “Downgrade Controversy”7 evangelical Anglicans supported him. They welcomed him to speak at packed meetings of the Evangelical Alliance and gave him a warm reception.8
Is such a desire and call for Christian charity and unity a profound act of naiveté on my part? If so, then I am comforted by my good company. Jesus prayed to the Father, “that they [the disciples] may be one as we are” (John 17:11). Paul admonishes, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another…” (Rom. 12:10), and Peter writes, “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter. 3:8-9). Surely, to fail here is to fail everywhere, for if we do not have love, we have “become sounding brass or a clanging symbol” (1 Cor. 13:1). David declares, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).
Striving for Christian unity and harmony begins with each of us individually resolving to implement the biblical requirement of humility and brotherly love. We must seek the good our brothers in Christ—even in wrath, remembering mercy. “Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:26-28). “For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3).
My dear brothers in Christ, will you pledge with me to diligently work with one another for Christ’s sake—to work (or overlook—“love covers a multitude of sins”), to settle any unresolved conflicts with other believers and other Christian organizations, and to promote the advancement of God’s kingdom wherever the word of God is faithfully being proclaimed and implemented? The parties must end. “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God” (Rom 15:5-7).
1 By “organization,” I mean local churches, denominations and special ministries. I serve as pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Texarkana, AR, and I am the director of Covenant Media Foundation.
2 It may indeed be sound doctrine that we are promoting. At issue, though, is the manner in which we promote it.
3 The “list of thirty things we believe” is meant to represent our particular creeds—written or unwritten. Placing particular items at the front of the list may not be done literally but functionally.
4 It is my sincere hope and prayer that God would grant a reconciliation between the two congregations and the individuals involved. It is unlikely that the theological differences can be resolved, but I am confident that the love of Christ is sufficient to enable us to have genuine Christian fellowship with one another once again.
5 Sword and Trowel, XXIV, 1883, p. 83.
6 Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1875, p. 335.
7 The “Downgrade Controversy” came about as the result of an article published by Spurgeon titled, “The Down-Grade,” (Sword and the Trowel, 1887), in which he decried the fact that in many churches (including many in the Baptist Union of which he was a member), “The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Ghost is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into a fiction, and the Resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren and maintain a confederacy with them!”
8 A Marvelous Ministry: How the All-Round Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon Speaks to Us Today, (Soli Deo Gloria Publications), 1993, p. 61.