In the last post I discussed the reasons for issues with denominationalism but also the reasons why divisions among Christian perennially exist. There are two questions I want to discuss in this article: First, are denominations necessary, and second, how should we view and interact with Christians of different denominations?
To address the first question of whether denominations are necessary, I would say that denominations are necessary in order for church to be a spiritually meaningful experience. I know that sounds like an odd statement. We usually think of denominations as stimulating division among Christians rather than spiritual unity among them, but here’s why I made that statement. Without denominations, church teaching would have to be extremely basic in order to present messages that everybody could agree with. People would not be able to receive guidance on deep issues of life because many in the church would not be able to accept whatever answer was given.
Now, sometimes, what appear to be difference in doctrine are really just two perspectives on the same truth. But I don’t believe that this “multiple perspectives” approach is a universal solution to doctrinal differences. Some doctrines really are definitively true or false. It is admittedly difficult, though, to know if that is the case. That brings us to the next points: What is the cost of being wrong? What are the spiritual consequences of holding erroneous doctrines? Can we operate in a ministry with Christians who hold doctrines that we deem unbiblical?
To answer these questions, I think we need to think about what faith is. Some people seem to have the idea that faith is a correct understanding of facts regarding who Jesus is, what His death and resurrection means, how we are saved, and how we should carry out our lives. A common reasoning is that even if you claim to believe in Jesus, if you have faulty ideas about what He taught, then you believe in a different Jesus than the true Christ. Now, the idea of a “false christ” is in the Bible, but I think it gets applied too broadly.
Here are some passages that deal with the topic of faith. These are from the New Living Translation:
Romans 10:17 – “So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.”
Romans 10:10 – “For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved.”
Romans 4:18-21 – “Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, ‘That’s how many descendants you will have!’ And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.”
Hebrews 11:1 – “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”
Hebrews 12:1-2 – “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”
The first verse on the list shows that faith comes from hearing the truth about God, and the rest of the verses show that faith is a response demonstrating trust in the truth revealed to us. As the last Scripture showed, the ability to respond in this way and actually “run the race” is a work that God himself has to initiate and complete in us.
These passages do not say anything about our intellectual comprehension of facts. Now, it’s reasonable to assume that somebody who has faith in their heart will not have an intellectual understanding that bears no resemblance to the truth whatsoever. Their mental perceptions should reflect, to a degree, what they believe in their heart. But these mental perceptions are not what define their faith. This is illustrated by the passage about Abraham. It said that there was “no reason for hope.” Abraham figured in his mind that “his body was as good as dead-and so was Sarah’s womb.” Beneath this reasoning in his mind, he was nevertheless “convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.”
So, Abraham responded in faith even though his mind didn’t have all the details worked out yet. Hebrews 11:1 conveys the same idea.
I assume that all of you who are reading this believe in computers. But you probably do not understand everything about how computers work. If you were asked to explain how you think computers work, you would probably give a lot of wrong information. But the fact that you are acting upon belief in computers by using one right now shows that you do believe in them.
I also think about what Jesus said in Matthew 18:1-4 – “The disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.’”
This passages illustrates both a virtue and a weakness of children. The virtue of children is that if they are taught the truth, they can trust and respond to it without their minds getting in the way. They don’t have the mental capacity to grasp subtle theological nuances, yet Jesus used the faith of children to illustrate faith that sets people on a path toward the Kingdom of Heaven. This strongly indicates to me that faith is not contingent on a perfect comprehension of facts.
However, this passage also reveals a weakness of children. Just as they can be easily led into the truth, they can also be easily led away from the truth. This is where their intellectual immaturity is a problem. Children need to eventually grow up and develop the ability to think and reason for themselves so that their faith can find a firm rooting and their minds can guard them against deception. Likewise, even though our starting point has to be child-like faith and obedience, we should not aim to remain in this state. We should strive to grow into a mature comprehension of Biblical truth.
Jesus taught, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). We should not worry that by seeking a fuller understanding of truth, we will be lead away instead. Jesus assures us that if we persist in search of truth, we will eventually discover what we need to know. And as our knowledge grows, we can refute damaging doctrines if they arise.
The idea I have been working toward in this article is that when we see people whose words and actions demonstrate that they are responding in trust to what they hear from Scripture, we have evidence that God has instilled faith in their hearts, and we should not sever spiritual fellowship with them even if we perceive that they have some erroneous ideas about the Bible.
But if that is the right attitude, why does the Bible have so many stern warnings to avoid spiritual fellowship with teachers of false doctrine? Here’s my take on that:
For one thing, we do not have the full teaching of the apostles. In fact, Paul alludes to other letters he wrote, and other things he told the churches, that Biblical historians have been unable to retrieve. Furthermore, the cultural context of the Biblical writings is different in many ways from the culture we live in today. For these two reasons, our understanding when we read the Scriptures is much more limited than the understanding of the immediate audience who heard the apostles preach long ago. Furthermore, the apostles were given a special anointing from God. They were anointed by God to go out and preach new truths about God that were not fully revealed before (Paul called them “mysteries” or “secrets”). Preachers today are not given this commission by God. The role of ministers today is not to reveal new truth about God, but rather to relay what has already been said.
When the Apostles preached, the audience was confronted by the Holy Spirit with power so strong, and a clarity of revelation so obvious, that there was virtually no room for well-intentioned disagreement with what was taught. In those circumstances, somebody who denied the teaching of the apostles was conscious denying the Holy Spirit and demonstrating the antithesis of faith. This, I believe, is why the Bible is so stern about false doctrine and deviation from the apostolic teachings. We don’t have the same fullness and clarity of revelation today, and we live in a very different cultural and spiritual environment, so we should not hold today’s Christians to the same doctrinal standards of the apostles’ immediate audience.
When evaluating the severity of doctrines I disagree with today, the biggest question on my mind is not the absolute value of the error (which is something we cannot determine) but rather, what do people’s attitudes reveal about what is in their spirit. If they profess faith in the teachings of Christ and their lives show evidence of response to Him, I do not see any reason why they should be shunned because of some mental misperceptions.
Let me know what you think about all of this,