I’ve kept this tucked away in a folder since first reading it in 2007. And though I’ve posted it before, today I felt to post it again–perhaps you’ve never read it or if you’re like me, need to reread it. Regretfully the link which was included with this message no longer works, so I’m unable to point you to where it was originally found online. But I can tell you it was written by David Miller editor at SBC Voices and Pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.
Doctrine and Unity
I often feel as if I am being squeezed between two sets of friends. On the one hand, I have theological friends. They value truth, biblical doctrine — the meat of God’s Word. In a world sowed with Satan’s lies, God’s Word is our arbiter of truth. It is an anchor that holds us steady, a rudder to guide us, a lamp to light the way. If we abandon the deep things of God’s Word, we will be easily fooled and led astray by the enemy’s deception. When the pulpit proclaims the deep things of God’s Word and the people are firmly grounded in His truth, Christians will grow strong, discern truth from error, and will understand God’s will. For the church to function properly, they say, it must maintain doctrinal purity. And I agree with them!
I have other friends for whom the highest value is the unity of the body of Christ. Jesus died to redeem one body, they say, not many. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one. Schism in the body of Christ grieves the heart of God and is a personal affront to the blood Christ shed for the church. Besides, they point out, many of the doctrines we divide over really don’t matter that much. Why should the church be fractured over petty doctrinal differences? God wants a unified church. And I agree with them.
And that is why I am torn. I love to study God’s word in depth and teach it expositionally. I think Christians without a firm grounding in scriptures are swimming in shark infested waters. It is folly to reject doctrine in a world of lies. I am amazed at the persistent unwillingness among some to exercise biblical, doctrinal discernment. But I also see, among us “doctrinal” folks, a sometimes petty, critical nature. Some drop the h-bomb (heretic) on anyone who does not agree with any point of their cherished creed or doctrinal system. There is a superiority of attitude among us, the kind of schismatic behavior that Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 11.
I would like to propose a middle ground, one that cherishes doctrine without disdaining unity in the body of Christ. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, identified the facts of the gospel (the death and resurrection of Christ) as “of first importance.” Does not that imply that there are other doctrines that are of second importance? They are important, but not as important as salvation. Is my view of baptism, or the second coming, or of church polity, as important as whether I hold a biblical view of salvation? Can we maintain doctrinal purity without fracturing the unity of the body Christ died for? I believe we can.
Four Levels of Doctrine
I propose that there are four general levels of doctrinal truth. For each level, there is an appropriate “unity response” — a way of dealing with those who would disagree. It is important that we understand each level and respond appropriately.
Level One: Brick Wall Doctrine
There is some truth around which we must construct a brick wall of separation and protection. Jude 3 says, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” There is some doctrine which we must contend for, even to the point of separation. God’s word is a sword, and swords divide. There are some doctrines that all must believe. If you do not believe them, you have denied the faith. There can be no unity in the body of Christ with those whose doctrines threaten the very existence of that body.
Some Christians are unwilling to admit that this level of truth even exists. But doctrines of first importance must be contended for in uncompromising measure. What are those doctrines? I would use 1 Corinthians 15 as a guide. Paul identifies the facts of the death and resurrection of Christ as of first importance. So, “Brick Wall” doctrine is that truth which is essential to the gospel of Christ. If you question the authority of God’s Word, the foundation of the gospel crumbles. Salvation is grounded in a biblical view of a sovereign, triune God. There is no compromise on these doctrines. Salvation by grace through faith alone — the exclusivity of salvation through Christ — is essential doctrine. The fact of Christ’s return to judge the world is necessary. Around these doctrines we must erect a brick wall — tall and thick. Those who deny these truths are not brothers in Christ. They are wolves among the sheep. We do not fellowship with them, we contend with them.
Level Two: Picket Fence Doctrine
A picket fence is a friendly way of separating neighbors. It is not a brick wall that divides, it just establishes boundaries. You chat over the fence, have picnics together, watch over each other’s homes and value the neighborhood you share. Around many doctrines we do not need a brick wall, but a simple picket fence.
Imagine if there was only one church in your city. How (and who) would you baptize? What form of church government would you use? Would you practice tongues or not? Instead of fighting over these issues, we form a “Christian neighborhood.” Around the neighborhood is the brick wall of protection. Inside the neighborhood we have picket fences. We chat over the fence, fellowship together, watch over and bless each other and value our unity in Christ.
Yet, we keep the picket fence. We Baptists can baptize believers, have deacons and vote on everything. The Presbyterians can sprinkle babies. The Bible churches can have elders. The charismatics can speak in tongues and prophesy. The Methodists can methodize. We can all follow our convictions on our side of the picket fence. We try to be good neighbors, have as much fellowship as we can, then go back to our homes to follow Christ according to our beliefs.
There is a church less than a quarter mile from us. There are few doctrines (other than the basics of salvation) on which we would agree. Recently, they wanted to baptize some new Christians, but their building has no baptistery. We opened our doors and filled the tub. Neither of us compromised our doctrine, but we opened the gate in our picket fence, and had the neighbors over for a visit.
So, what doctrines are Picket Fence Doctrines? First would be beliefs about church structure and polity. Infant or believer’s baptism? Deacons, Elders, ruling pastors? Congregational rule, elder rule, hierarchical rule? Why fight these doctrines? I am Baptist by birth, but also by conviction. I believe the Bible teaches baptism by immersion of believers. But I don’t have to hate those who sprinkle babies. I can open the scriptures and show them what I see there, but until Christ comes again, we are going to have differences of interpretation in the Christian neighborhood.
It is considered a truism that denominations are divisive and evil. I disagree. As long as they are only picket fences in the Christian neighborhood, they allow us to practice our beliefs without having to fight every issue. It is when we erect brick walls of separation around our denominational differences that the problem comes. But the picket fences allow us to maintain friendship while following our individual convictions.
Some major doctrines that may require picket fences: Calvinists and Arminians view so many things differently. The question of God’s sovereignty in salvation has been the watershed doctrine that has divided the church. Though I am opposed to Arminian doctrine, I know many who hold those views and have a passion for Christ equal or greater than my own. So what do we do? We stand at the picket fence and lovingly try to convince one another of our position. When the discussion is over, we shake hands and return to our homes where we worship with the folks who believe as we do.
It is not that these doctrines do not matter. They are crucial. But I must, in humility, recognize that it is possible for someone to be a good Christian who loves Jesus and still comes to a different position than I do on these issues. If someone preaches universalism, I erect a brick wall. No fellowship. There can be no unity with wolves. But if someone disagrees with me on election or predestination, we maintain a friendship over the picket fence.
So, the Christian neighborhood is surrounded by a brick wall that protects us from the wolves, the spiritual predators. Inside that wall, we live in unity. Each of us has our own home, separated by picket fences, but we work hard to build a unified community inside the brick wall. I may not worship at First Assembly, or River of Life, or New Covenant, or Calvary Baptist, but I can still recognize them as my Christian neighbors.
Level Three: Backyard Doctrine
Even if you live in the same home, you don’t always agree about everything. You sit on your deck in the backyard and talk about all kinds of things. Every doctrine of scripture is important. It is important to figure out how the world will end. We can debate the North and South Galatian theories and who wrote the book of Hebrews. We may sit in the backyard and talk about these things, but they do not affect our fellowship and we should never divide over them. Not even a picket fence is needed.
If a doctrine affects salvation, erect a brick wall. If it affects the fellowship or functioning of the church, erect a friendly picket fence. But if the doctrine affects neither, then sit in the backyard talking about it, but never let it become a point of division.
Level Four: Closet Doctrine
A closet is a place of privacy. Some things I believe, I should just keep to myself. I should follow the Lordship of Christ and permit other Christians to do the same. In the early church, the question was whether a Christian should eat meat sacrificed to an idol. Paul told the Romans and Corinthians that each of us can follow our own conscience under Christ, and keep our opinions to ourselves. In 1 Corinthians 8 through 10, and in Romans 14 and 15, Paul spent a long time explaining this principle of personal freedom to his churches.
For us, the issues are observing the Sabbath (or what day to observe it), or taking a glass of wine, or going to the movies, or dietary preferences, or…the list is long. Paul commands that those who say no on disputable issues should not condemn those who say yes and those who say yes should not disdain those who say no. Each of us seeks to be obedient to Christ on these matters and allows others to do the same. We also should be willing to limit our freedom to be a blessing to others.
Three Final Considerations
First, each of us must study the Word of God and try to assign each doctrine to its proper category. We will not always agree where doctrines fit, but with the Spirit’s guidance, we can uphold doctrine without sacrificing unity. Here are the questions I would ask. Is this doctrine essential to the salvation offered by God in Christ? If it is, then erect a brick wall around it. Is this doctrine essential to the fellowship or functioning of our church? If so, then erect a picket fence is needed. If the doctrine affects neither salvation nor fellowship, no fence is needed at all.
Second, great damage is done to the purity of the church when doctrines are moved to lower levels than they deserve. If we compromise fundamental doctrine for the “unity of the church” we endanger the very nature of the church. We cannot treat important doctrines like matters of personal conscience. If we do, we sin against the Lord who bought us.
Third, great damage is done to the unity of the body when doctrines are moved to a higher level than they deserve. I saw a bumper sticker recently: “If it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible.” Here is someone who is making the choice of a Bible version a test of faith. Something that should be left to category 3 or 4 is being moved up to category 1. That fractures the body of Christ. I should not question someone’s Christian commitment because they believe the church will go through the tribulation or because they speak in tongues or baptize infants. I cannot treat these issues as if they were in category 1. If I do, I offend the blood of Christ that was shed to redeem One Body.
Some issues, I should keep to myself and allow you to do the same. Around other issues, I erect a picket fence. We can have deep friendships in the Christian neighborhood, even if we maintain separate homes. Around certain issues, I must erect a brick wall. Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” There are doctrines worth contending for.
Lord, help us to always know which truth fits in which category, so that the Christian neighborhood can be protected from its enemies and still experience the unity you desire.