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This unity is all very well, but what about …

While the principle of Christian unity is one that few will have objections to, how it works out in practice is another matter. For some, unity is fine as long as it means that ‘others’ change what they believe and how they live out their faith to fit in with them. And while that attitude may be something of a caricature, there are certainly many genuine objections to some of the different ways in which Christian unity is worked out.

And indeed, surely unity cannot be unity at any price. If our unity encompasses all who take on the name of ‘Christian’ then the overlap in what we believe and how we live will be small indeed. As one good friend of mine said, how can we be united with others who believe something very different to us? So objections to proposals of unity will sometimes be necessary. But where should we draw the line?

It makes sense when considering this subject to look at some specific arguments and how they stand up to scrutiny, rather than the almost impossible task of trying to look at all different objections. For this purpose I will therefore look at some of what is said by the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) on the subject of Church Unity. I have chosen to look at their arguments for a number of reasons:

  • I have attended FIEC affiliated churches for many years of my adult life, have learned much through these churches and have real respect for their commitment to Biblical teaching and a desire to be faithful to God. It is always helpful to reflect on a differing view from those you respect.
  • Their arguments on the subject are thoughtful and Biblically based. If I believe in taking God’s word seriously – which I do – then for me Bible based arguments are key here.
  • Their arguments are laid out clearly on their website – here. This makes it easy for readers of this blog to look up what they say and hold me to account to ensure that I’m being fair in my response.

Looking seriously at objections to an important issue like this is not something that can be properly done quickly with a few short comments. So I apologize in advance that this is not a short post! And even with a lengthy post, I still feel there is a lot more that could be said but should leave for another time. So feel free to skim through what I say and only dive in to the details where you want to understand what I’m saying more thoroughly.

An attempt to summarize briefly what the FIEC say about church unity is given in the following points:

  • FIEC has always had a purpose of expressing visible unity between different churches, and rejoices in the unity of the gospel of Jesus. FIEC churches may differ in view on various secondary issues but a commitment to the gospel means that fellowship cannot be expressed with those who don’t affirm the fundamental truths of the faith.
  • God’s purpose was for unity in the human race under his good rule, but sin has resulted in broken relationships. God in his grace has created a new people for Himself, the church, which is to be built up in unity, so unity is at the heart of God’s purposes.
  • That unity is established in and effected through the gospel. In practice this means that common cause must be in the basis of a shared commitment to the gospel, expressed by a shared doctrinal basis.
  • The new testament warns of false teachers who will distort the gospel, and we must stand apart from these for the sake of the church.
  • True fellowship between churches exists only when they are faithful to the gospel. This prevents affiliation with groups such as Churches Together which express unity without a commitment to the core doctrines of the gospel as expressed in the FIEC doctrinal basis. This does not preclude the option of working with others with whom there is a common cause on some issues however.

There is much to like in the FIEC statement on church unity, summarized above. It acknowledges the importance of unity, and that unity is at the heart of the purposes of God. It’s great that one of the reasons that FIEC was set up was to bring about and express fellowship between different churches that would otherwise be less connected in practice. I love the section which points out the link between the reconciliation of ourselves and God through Jesus and the reconciliation between Christians, leading to fellowship between ourselves. This is a subject that I might return to in a later blog post.

But when you look more at the details of what is said, and the conclusions drawn, I have problems.

At the heart of the FIEC stance is the assertion that unity exists on the basis of the gospel. In many ways I would say, yes absolutely. Unity and fellowship between Christians is not something we bring about ourselves, or because we think it’s a good idea. No it exists because we are all part of God’s family, we can know God because of Jesus. This is absolutely good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ and is indeed the basis of our unity and fellowship.

But for FIEC, the gospel is then largely defined through a number of core doctrines which it considers essential to unity, as outlined in their doctrinal basis. This is where the problem comes in. I don’t personally have any problem with the doctrinal basis of the FIEC (as given here) and am happy to agree with it. And even for many other Christians from other backgrounds and traditions I think there is much in their core beliefs that they would be happy to accept.

If we go back to the Bible verses which the FIEC Gospel Unity statement references in support of this argument – that unity and fellowship must be on the basis of the gospel – we find the following.

Firstly, the statement says: ‘Christian unity is established through the Gospel. It is through this message that we are saved and united to Christ (1Cor 15v1-2, Rom 1v16, Eph 1v13)’. Let’s look at these referenced verses a bit more:

  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-2. In these verses, Paul wants to remind us of the gospel he preached, by which the Corinthians are saved. He then gives us a well known passage explaining that gospel, often used in communion services, which could be summarized that Christ died for our sins, was buried and was raised to life again.
  • Romans 1:16. Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness by faith. It then continues with a much fuller explanation of this good news in the remainder of the letter to the Romans.
  • Ephesians 1:13. The Ephesians were ‘included’ in Christ when they heard the message of truth, the gospel of their salvation.

The statement also says ‘ When the Lord Jesus prays for unity, it is amongst those who receive the Gospel (John 17:20).’ In John 17:20 Jesus prays for all who will believe in him through the disciples’ message, that all of them may be one. The emphasis then is on the message about Jesus that Jesus’ followers pass on. This follows on from earlier in the chapter where Jesus prays ‘I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them’.

The statement then follows with a section looking at how we receive the Spirit through the gospel, which references the following additional verses which the statement connects with the gospel:

  • Galatians 3:2. Paul asks – ‘did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?’ So the emphasis here is on believing what has been heard rather than following a law.
  • James 1:18. God gave us birth through the word of truth.
  • 1 Peter 1:23. We have been born again through the living and enduring word of God.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:9-16. God has revealed his truths to us through his Spirit.

The statement then also states ‘When we work and cooperate together, it is in the cause of the Gospel (Phil 1v27)’. In this verse Paul says we should conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel. While Philippians 1 talks about the gospel quite a bit, it doesn’t particularly expand on what that ‘gospel’ is other than the immediate meaning of the word, that it is the good news about Jesus.

Reflecting on all these verses I would say, yes, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that our unity is in the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and this is a valid point to make from the Bible. But these verses generally refer to the ‘gospel’ in a fairly straightforward way without going into great doctrinal depth: simply saying that Jesus died, was buried and raised to life again; it is the good news about Christ; we should believe in Jesus etc. It is not appropriate to take such verses which reference the gospel as the good news about Jesus and then apply them to mean that unity is in the gospel as we may choose to define it in more detail.

The FIEC statement talks about the necessity for agreement on the ‘fundamentals’ or the ‘essentials’ for unity to be realized. It is somewhat self-evident that ‘essentials’ must be held in common for unity to be meaningful. But problems comes when we define what those essentials are. It may seem helpful to define a separation between what is ‘core’ and what is ‘secondary’ over which we can disagree, but the Bible does not support us much in this task of separating doctrines into such ‘core’ and ‘secondary’ categories. There is a tremendous richness in the gospel, about all that God has given us in Christ. Christians have thought and written – and disagreed – about how to understand many aspects of this through the ages. But throughout Scripture the gospel is often described simply, as the good news about Jesus, focused on him, who died and rose again and through whom we are forgiven and reconciled to God. If we define the ‘essentials’ as anything much beyond a message of good news about Jesus, then that list of essentials readily becomes a description of what we believe is important out of all the richness we discover in the Bible with poor justification for what is included and what is left out.

The FIEC statement says that “We are unable to affiliate formally to groups such as Churches Together which exist to express unity between churches naming Jesus as Lord, but without concern as to whether they hold to the core doctrines of the gospel as expressed in our Doctrinal Basis”. Yet on the Churches Together in England website (here) we have a statement of faith that starts “Churches Together in England unites in pilgrimage those Churches in England which, acknowledging God’s revelation in Christ, confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, and, in obedience to God’s will and in the power of the Holy Spirit commit themselves …”. This statement of faith confesses Jesus as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures – a statement which I find far closer to the sentiment of the verses referenced about unity than those of the FIEC themselves.

Let’s just consider one element of the FIEC doctrinal basis as an example, given that FIEC consider that a doctrinal basis such as theirs identifies the core doctrines which must be held in common at the heart of any real Christian unity. The example I consider is their doctrine of the Bible, something which I care about greatly as well. The FIEC doctrinal basis states that:

God has revealed himself in the Bible, which consists of the Old and New Testaments alone. Every word was inspired by God through human authors, so that the Bible as originally given is in its entirety the Word of God, without error and fully reliable in fact and doctrine. The Bible alone speaks with final authority and is always sufficient for all matters of belief and practice.

While I might prefer to phrase things a little differently, I essentially agree with what is said here. I also very much see how agreeing on the Bible as our final authority is important when we meet with others with different views on our faith. If we can agree on Biblical authority then we can come together to discuss our differences with a common reference which we can look at together, seeking to follow what it says despite coming from different perspectives. So, in practice, a common understanding of Biblical authority will be a great aid to unity. But though this may be true, it is also equally true to say that are many who could not agree to this statement from the FIEC doctrinal basis – maybe they have some questions about what the early church included in the canon of scripture, or they may baulk at the phrase ‘without error’. Yet they are still fully committed to pointing others to the good news of the kingdom which we find in Jesus, and see him as the centre of their faith. I find nothing at all in any of the verses referenced which countenance making such a view of scripture a necessary condition of unity or shared fellowship. I acknowledge it may be more challenging to live out such unity where we do not have a common understanding of a final authority in God’s word, but we are called to follow God’s commands, not to go for the safe and easy options.

Another important section in the FIEC statement looks at the New Testament warnings against false teachers in the church. The verses referenced in this section are:

  • Matt 7:15. This gives Jesus’ warnings to watch out for false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing – i.e. outwardly they look harmless, but in reality are ready to tear you apart. These will be recognized by their fruit, such as how they live.
  • Acts 20:29-31. Paul here warns the elders of the church in Ephesus that after he leaves savage wolves will come in, even men from among their own number who will distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them. They should be on their guard.
  • Col 2:18-19. This is in the context of those who judge other believers on matters such as what they eat or drink, or religious festivals. The passage describes those who delight in false humility or the worship of angels, puffed up by idle notions and having lost connection with the head, i.e. Jesus.
  • Rev 2:20-23. In this letter to the church in Thyatira the believers are warned against ‘Jezebel’ whose teaching misleads believers into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
  • Rom 16:17. Paul urges the believers to watch out for those who cause divisions and who ‘put obstacles in you way, contrary to the teaching you have heard’. They should keep away from such people.
  • Gal 1:8-9. If anyone preaches a gospel other than the one that Paul and the other apostles originally preached, let them be under God’s curse. One of the main thrusts of the letter is to deal with this theme, but it could be summarized as in 1:6 that the original gospel was one focused on the grace of Christ.
  • Gal 5:12. Paul condemns those who are preaching obedience to the law , such as circumcision, rather than the freedom of faith in Christ.
  • Phil 3:2. Again Paul warns against those who put their faith in things such as circumcision, or their Jewish heritage, obedience to the law etc.
  • 2 Pet 2. Peter warns that there will be false teachers among us, introducing destructive heresies, even denying ‘the Master who bought them’ (i.e. Jesus). Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality, slandering the way of truth.
  • 2 John 9-10. Many deceivers who do not acknowledge Jesus as coming in the flesh have gone into the world. Anyone who doesn’t continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God. If anyone comes not bringing this teaching, don’t welcome them.
  • Jude. In Jude’s letter he urges the believers to contend for the faith, for certain believers have come among them who pervert the grace of God into a license for immorality, and deny Jesus Christ.

It is clear that guarding against false teaching is important. We can’t and mustn’t accept the teaching of everyone and anyone. There will be those who come and distort the truth to the great harm of those that follow them. But who counts as a false teacher? How can we recognize them? How different must their theology be from ours before we should start considering them as ‘false teachers’?

Looking at these questions properly would take a substantial amount of time in its own right. But for now, it’s worth making a few general observations which can be taken from this collection of passages dealing with the subject:

  • False teaching usually loses its focus on Jesus, and looks at something else instead, for example obedience to the law. It often denies basic truths about Jesus such as that he was a real person.
  • The motives of false teachers are often negative and self-focused.
  • False teachers can often be recognized by the lives that they lead. Their false teaching often leads to immorality.
  • Many of these passages are addressed to the leaders of churches – those with a responsibility of care – to look out for the danger that false teachers within their church may cause to those under their care by leading them away from Jesus, or into an immoral lifestyle that will bring dishonour to God.

So false teaching is something we must be aware of, particularly if we have a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of others. There will be individuals (and groups) whose teaching is such that we are best to stay well away from them. But there is a big difference between what is said here about false teachers and avoiding meaningful fellowship with all who do not agree with our doctrinal basis. How we work out avoiding false teaching in practice requires wisdom. But it should not be used as basis for putting aside God’s command to be united with our brothers and sisters who may disagree with us in some theology but who live lives of service and honour to Jesus, and who keep their focus on him rather than on themselves.

I can understood why FIEC argue for a stance which largely limits Christian fellowship and serving together to those with a relatively similar doctrinal understanding. It is difficult to work with those who think differently about what matters to you – the more differently they think, the more challenging it is to work and have fellowship with them. And there are plenty of examples from the past where Christian individuals or organisations have worked together with others from different Christian traditions or theologies and, who in consequence, have lost that focus on Jesus and focussed on other things instead, to their detriment. However, in Mark 7, Jesus describes how the Pharisees and teachers of law supplemented God’s law with their own traditions, and in doing so negated God’s laws. He gives an example, of devoting something to God, causing people to neglect their responsibility to their parents because what they would have given those parents has now been devoted to God. And in doing so they neglect God’s command to honour their parents. To devote something to God was surely a good thing, but not when it is put against following something else God has clearly said. A doctrinal basis can be a good thing too, helping to make clear some of what a group believes and values. But introducing something that can be good should never be a reason to put aside something else which God has clearly commanded – such as God’s command to be ‘one’ with all those others who are also followers of Christ. Jesus’ condemnation of such an attitude is strong and clear.

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