Let’s face it, folks, the unity movement can get a pretty bad rap. I remember a Christian comedian from 30 years ago saying, “Let’s forget all this doctrine and just love Jesus.” What a perfectly terrible idea! I was warned from childhood about the specter of the “ecumenical movement” that was going to unite the world into a dogma-free one-world-church. When I, or someone else, calls Southern Baptists to tone down the hostility and rhetoric over theological issues of the SBC, especially those related to Calvinism, an assumption is often made that either a) I don’t care about theology or b) I don’t understand the issues.
I don’t think that anyone who has sat under my ministry would say that biblical issues are unimportant to me. I’m one of those old fashioned verse-by-verse expositors (though I do vary from time to time) who emphasizes the dangers of aberrant theology in my messages. I believe I have a fair understanding of the importance of doctrines related to our soteriological kerfuffles, though I admit that I have sprained my brain more than once trying to think through some of the finer points about how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility fit together. And even in my younger days, when I ate and breathed systematic theology, I found the ordo salutis just a little bit pointless.
But I want to join my voice to those who say that we CAN work together, that Baptists who are Calvinists and Baptists in the entire spectrum of non-Calvinism CAN fellowship together, partner with one another and work together as one. And my reason for saying this is not a lack of concern or understanding of biblical theology. In fact, I think that true biblical theology demands a commitment to unity, a passion for honoring one another and walking in the fruit of the Spirit rather than in the deeds of the flesh.
That is my thesis today:
Unity is a primary concern in biblical theology. If our theology leads to division and splintering, it is likely the fault of our theology or our arrogant and divisive attitudes about that theology.
A couple of caveats are in order as we begin.
1) Doctrinal Triage is crucial here. Most are familiar with Dr. Mohler’s three-tiered system of triage. I’ve written a series of posts which I call “Brick Walls and Picket Fences,” that delineates four tiers of doctrine and truth. You can find a link here to all the posts if you care to read them. There are doctrines around which we must build a brick wall of protection. Paul warned of enemies of the Cross and expressed some harsh feelings about those who preached “another gospel.” Unity does not demand that we get squishy on the gospel. Those who proclaim false gospels must be opposed, rebuked and confronted. But there are other doctrines that require something a little less imposing than a brick wall of division. Sometimes, a friendly picket fence will do. There are doctrines that define us as Baptists and that we hold precious, but that are not essential to the doctrine of salvation. One can be a God-honoring, Christ-serving, Bible-believing Christian and not believe those doctrines, but one cannot be a Southern Baptist. There are other doctrines that are important and precious, but need not splinter our fellowship in any way.
We do not win peace and unity by compromising the gospel and biblical truth, nor by reducing our commitment to Baptist ecclesiology and theology.
2) True unity does not ignore sin. Some desire us to make peace by being tolerant of that which the Bible condemns. We cannot be more tolerant than God in the name of unity.
We do not win peace and unity by lowering our moral standards.
That having been said, here is what I believe. The current issues facing us as a convention do not, in general fall into either the Brick Wall or Picket Fence (ie. Mohler’s first two) categories. As long as the SBC has existed, there have been Calvinist Baptists and there have been Baptists who rejected Calvinism. These two sides have always argued with each other with varying degrees of intensity and the proportion of adherents has ebbed and flowed, but the two sides have coexisted for most of two centuries.
Now, something has changed. There are some Calvinists who seem to go out of their way to put down non-Calvinists and to question their theological astuteness, their commitment to the gospel and their fairness in discussions. I saw a couple of posts recently by one of the more rabid Calvinists who has basically written the entire SBC off because it does not buy into his rather strict Reformation views. Most Calvinists will privately admit that there are some pretty arrogant and obnoxious Calvinists out there.
And the Traditionalist side has some prickly folks as well. There have been voices calling for a new CR. As the CR fought against the influence of liberalism, the new CR must oppose Calvinism and drive it from the SBC. It’s us or it’s them! Of course, if someone believes that Calvinism is a false doctrine that is outside the boundaries of either orthodox Christianity or Baptist theology, then it is his right to try to do that.
But I am bothered by the extremes on both sides in this debate. Their attitudes and behavior makes me worry about the future of the SBC, if this spirit of conflict and division spreads.
What has changed? Why is it that Baptists could coexist in the 1840s and to the present, but are having trouble doing so today. What has caused this attitude of suspiction, of invective, even of division that is evident in some today. The easy thing to do is simply to blame the other side. “It’s those sneaky Calvinists trying to take over the SBC.” “It’s those mean, divisive, and (for some) heretical Traditionalists.”
I have another theory – one that I know will be rejected by the combatants on both sides of battle.
I believe that the division we are seeing today is the result of a defective theology of unity among Southern Baptists.
Unity is not biblically squishy. It is a theological imperative. True theology prizes and values unity in the same way that the Bible does. Any sound theology involves a passionate commitment to the unity of the Body of Christ – both in local churches and among Christians in general. Any theology that allows for easy division among brothers, that allows us to treat fellow believers as apostates, is defective theology. There is a deep flaw in the “discernment” of the watchbloggers who are quick to point out every theological flaw in others but are not willing to obey the multitudes of scriptures that call us to be one.
Yes, I am saying we have a theological problem in the SBC. It is not that there are too many or not enough Calvinists. It is that there are too many people who simply ignore the weight of Scripture that calls us to live and walk in unity and that admonishes us to treat one another with respect and honor. We have a defective theology of unity. We will argue to the end on theological points that the greatest minds of Christianity have not solved in 2000 years, but the clear and unequivocal call to unity is often simply ignored.
Let me spell out the biblical support for my theory.
1) God is a perfect union.
The very nature and existence of God is diverse unity – three in one.
I and the Father are one. John 10:30
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. John 17:20-22
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4–6
The passages in John 17 and Ephesians 4 are foundational to the next point, but here they demonstrate the oneness and unity of God. Our God is three Persons united in perfection. Though each of the members of Trinity is unique and different, with different roles within the Godhead, they are absolutely bound. There is no division.
The unified character of God is the basis of united church of Christ.
2) God has redeemed ONE Body and intends it to be ONE.
Look again at those previous verses. The night before he died, Jesus prayed fervently to the Father. Note that he did not pray that their systematic theology would be precise. He prayed “that they may be one even as we are one.” God intended his church to be an earthly reflection of the nature and character of the Trinity – a diverse unity marked by love among those who have been redeemed.
Remember the statement that Paul made to the often fractured and splintered Corinthians?
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:12–13
The parts of the body are not all the same, but they were made by God to form ONE Body. Verse 13 is clear. We were all baptized in one Spirit into one body. The Spirit’s baptism is meant to draw all Christians together in one unified whole. We are also given the same Spirit from whom to drink the living water to sustain us daily. We are united by the common work of grace and the power of the Spirit who dwells within. Knowledge often puffs up, but the work of the Spirit within draws believers together as one.
3) Unity is the natural state of the church.
God is one. Jesus Christ died to redeem one body, not just a bunch of individuals. The Spirit baptizes us as one and we draw water from the same source.
We often talk of producing unity or building unity. But the scripture seems to indicate that we ARE united in Christ and only lose our unity if we mess it up with the works of the flesh. Our disunity is not because of our voiced theological concerns, but because we are not maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.
The readers of SBC Voices are likely aware of the structure of Ephesians. In chapters 1-3, Paul explains the salvation that we have in Christ (by grace through faith). He also deals with the unity that such salvation produces (one new man out of Jews and Gentiles). Ephesians 4:1 is the turning point. In the light of the work of grace that God has done through Christ, we are called to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling.” It is then interesting what Paul thinks is important to the “worthy manner.”
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1–3.
Unity. The first issue Paul raises when describing a worthy walk is a unified church. Note how he describes our unity. He does not tell us to build it but to maintain it. God provides the unity. We must simply maintain what the Spirit has built.
Of course, there is a time for division. When someone proclaims false doctrines that undermine the faith, we stand uncompromisingly. When someone brings disrepute on the Body by living an unholy life, we confront. We are not talking namby-pamby, new-age unity without standards. We are talking about a commitment to maintain a unity that reflects the Godhead, that honors the death of Christ and that maintains the unity of the Spirit.
Division is a last resort for the believer, not a first response.
4) Maintaining the unity of the Spirit is HARD!
It is amusing how often unity is presented as the easy way out, as if advocating unity is simply the lazy way to avoid theological debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unity is the hard way. Paul gives some specifics in Ephesians 4. We must walk in ALL humility and gentleness. We must be patient with the faults and failings of one another and bear with those who are difficult and unlovely. And, of course, later in the same chapter we see the coup de grace of biblical unity.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
Someone who thinks that forgiveness is easy has probably never really practiced it. The reality is that sinners sin. We offend. I offend you and you offend me. That is the nature of life in the fallen world. The easiest thing in the world is to respond in kind to insults or injuries. I wish I had a quarter for every time a pastor or Christian leader on blogs has been challenged and responded by pointing out that the other person offended and did so first! We forget the admonition to return good for evil, to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute (well, annoy and aggravate us). It is easy to walk in the flesh instead of in the Spirit.
When we are walking in the Spirit, we can debate theological topics in the Spirit, without the kind of rancor and division that is produced by the flesh. The problem is not that we discuss Calvinism, it is HOW we discuss it!
One More Scripture
In Galatians 5, Paul draws an interesting contrast between the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. He lists the “works of the flesh” and says that they are evident.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19–21
Look at the works of the flesh I put in italics. What are they? They are the roots of division. I think that these fleshly works are all too evident in the Calvinism controversy in the SBC. We create an enmity to replace the Spirit’s unity and form rivalries, dissensions and divisions. We strive with one another, throw fits of anger and generally treat one another with disrespect. We are often jealous and envious of the successes of the “other side.”
When Paul said the works of the flesh were evident, he may have been foreshadowing the rise of Baptist blogging.
But the Spirit produces vastly different fruit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22–23
The Spirit produces love, causing us to sacrifice our pride and self-centeredness to bless and benefit others. He produces a joy and peace that sustains us. He gives us patience and kindness – two sides of a valuable coin. Patience means to endure the sins and wrongdoings of others and kindness speaks of treating well even those who treat us badly. Gentleness is meekness, the commitment to treat others with care and concern, being careful not to injure them.
Basically, these are the building blocks of unity. The flesh produces division and the Spirit produces unity.
My conclusion is simple. The rampant division in Baptist work, and among Baptist blogs has two roots. First, we have failed to understand the theological importance of unity. We have qualified and caveated biblical unity until it becomes meaningless. But unity is at the root of sound biblical theology. Second, we have walked too much in the flesh and too little in the Spirit. We have blogged too much in the flesh and too little in the Spirit.
Our problems are rooted in bad theology – just not the bad theology we often fight over!