I wrote on Tuesday about how a particular evangelical responded to an address I gave on Christian unity last week. The issue, for this earnest brother, came down to the issue of faithfulness to the gospel. I was calling for something (unity) that would involve compromising the gospel thus my appeal might include Roman Catholics. This compromise must be wrong, so wrong that he felt strongly he must openly oppose it out of love for the truth. The gospel, in his thinking, was at stake. (By the way, this is one way I try very hard to be a better listener and not a judge of motives or character. This brother really did believe that he was acting wisely and in character with the truth of the gospel.)

180px-StJohnsAshfield_StainedGlass_GoodShepherd_Face If we appeal to the letters of St. Paul himself we can readily see that a major point of division in the early Church surrounded the issue of circumcision. This was no minor matter if the context of the debate is understood. The gospel was at stake here. Paul’s reaction to the controversy, however, ranges from indifference (1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians  5:6; 6:15) to extreme frustration (Galatians 5:12) and even anger. (Anger is not always wrong!)

Circumcision was potentially a Church-dividing issue in the first century. Yet in the church today it is entirely a non-issue. So does Paul’s specific teaching on this subject have any bearing on our debates about “real Christians” today? I think that it does.

What we know is this – Paul was a pioneer missionary who made three wide-ranging journeys across the world of his time for the purpose of establishing Christian congregations. At each city he visited he left behind fledgling churches of new Christians made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This left the infant church open to some rather complicated issues regarding their teaching and their unity both. Other teachers followed along behind Paul saying to these new converts that “what Paul told you was fine as far as it goes but if you want to be a real Christian, you really should be circumcised.” His gospel is OK so long as you add this important element he left out.

Are not some teachers saying to Christians today “Yes, it’s great that you confess Christ as Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, but if you want to be a real Christian, you should do/believe X.” Depending on which part of the church X comes from, it might mean to “be baptized by total immersion” or “speak in tongues” or “accept the Pope as head of the Church on earth” or something else. In each case, X introduces an impossible division between Christians, as if “all who confess that Jesus is Lord are Christians (but some are more Christian than others)”! The end result is we have the gospel plus X. Just this week I’ve heard a half dozen versions of X.

  • X is the need to be convinced of sin by the right use of the law which will then be followed by a brokenness which will lead you to properly believe on Jesus.
  • X is the requirement that you understand justification by faith alone in precisely the correct way.
  • X is the ability to understand the importance of repudiating homosexual unions in the name of Christ and the courage to openly oppose them in every context.
  • X is a right view of ecclesial authority and thus embracing the “right” church government and forms of Christian dogma.

But the unity that we have in Christ is clearly able to withstand strong diversity and difference. If we seriously embrace our diversity, within our Spirit-given unity, there will plainly be times when we cannot see how some of the beliefs and practices of others are consistent with our personal Christian profession. You could name a list of them, besides the four I’ve named, if I asked you to do it right now. My point is that a genuine striving for unity means we must continue to hold many/most of those we disagree with in the koinonia of love while we continue to discuss, even debate, our difference. If we trust in the corporate guidance of the Spirit rather than measuring one another against our doctrinal/moral statements then we will discover that just as God is always far greater than our understanding of Him, so is the one catholic church. This will require a deep commitment to Jesus and the truth. It will also require a deep – maybe deeper in terms of our emotional and spiritual development – grasp of how great is the love of Jesus for all who follow him even if they are wrong in some important aspect of their faith and practice.

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  1. Dan Brennan June 16, 2011 at 6:01 am

    Great post, John!

  2. Nick Morgan June 16, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    AMEN John!!

  3. Dan B June 25, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Implicates are not explicates. Your posts are a boost to my soul brother! Some of our brethren in the Reformed Evangelical camp hear (with their souls “ear”) us saying the Gospel need NOT include something, simply because we say “The IMPLICATIONS of the Gospel are broader than ones’ own communions’ UNDERSTANDING of its contents.” Put another way, when you or I say that the SAME Gospel contents (as those who “oppose” us from within)ought to produce such and such an attitude, demeanour, and felixibility in the name of Love (explicated by the Apostles), they quickly get rattled thinking we are saying there ought not to be a Holy passion and unction, which at times may need to be confrontational to error. What they miss however, is that this passion and holy ferver is not to be directed AGAINST the saints whose theological hues do not mirror theirs, but rather, those saints whose good deeds, love, charity, and the like, are lacking or severely wanting. It is to those, perhaps snoozing saints, that we need to fire up, exhort, spur and provoke, not each other over words we use, which may be allowed to imply something we ourselves would certainly disagree with in another context! Imagining for a moment James, John, and Paul in the same room debating and discussing. James would fear John too mystical and lacking a certain amount of ethical “teeth” for sanctification, while Paul would poke at James for inadvertantly opening the door to folks misunderstanding the significance of “Christ our Righteousness”. I know, our doctrine of Scripture doesn’t want to imagine Apostles disagreeing, but for heavens sake, how many more Best Selling “Jesus for Today” biographies (at supermarkets) need to tell us conservatives that the social world of the early disciples and church, WAS NOT as coherent, controlled, and uniform and we attempt to squish into a doctrinal straight-jacket. At this point, some will howl, “Sweet Mercy Lord! Save us from the social Gospel folks!”. May you and your family be given a fresh soul vacination for the venom that’s sure to come your way from those who oppose your breadth, confusing it with demonic “ear-tickling”. You are in line with our Lord & the Apostles. Peace.

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