Indestructible Unity Amidst Theological Diversity

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”

Last week I published an article in which I detailed my reluctant journey toward embracing God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation. I wrote the piece not because I wanted to proudly parade my “Calvinistic” theology but because I long for others to delve into the Scriptures, see the magnitude of the sovereign God’s eternal commitment to them, and give him the glory he is due. I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to find joyful rest in the fact that God has chosen to use his unlimited power and unrestricted authority to ensure that they will be the people of faith he predestined them to be.

After publishing it, though, I was reminded of how easily some believers choose to be divided over non-essential doctrines (meaning they are not essential for saving faith) such as this one. Notice how I worded that: people choose to be divided. There are those who insist that various theological issues of the non-essential nature—like election, the gifts and activity of the Holy Spirit, and gender roles in the local church—should be altogether avoided because they ignite loveless hostility among the people of God. But this isn’t an accurate assessment. God’s people are themselves responsible for any sinful attitudes or combative actions that result in disrupted unity. Believe it or not, it really is possible to differ on non-essential matters without drawing blood! Many of my readers demonstrated this last week. Most of the public commenters who disagreed with me communicated their thoughts in a charitable spirit of gentleness and respect (props to you guys!).

However, there were a number of private responses that were a bit contentious—and this discouraged me immensely.

Did I expect all my readers to agree with me? Not for a second! I foresaw some discourse and debate. But did I anticipate that I would be accused of misrepresenting God as an unloving sadist who is unworthy of human worship? No. Did I think some readers would be “done with me” because of my beliefs about God’s sovereign grace? Never! However, what discouraged me most was my own sinful reaction to these unfriendly responses. I tried my best to keep my tongue (and fingers) from giving expression to my fleshly anger, and, for the most part, I succeeded. Inwardly, though, my heart was littered with self-righteous, unloving, and divisive attitudes of which I am profoundly ashamed.

I do not regret publishing the article. I really do wish that all believers would gladly embrace the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty—but, equally so, I wish we would all “be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Varying theological positions on non-essential doctrines is no grounds for division. We should be able to persuade one another toward what we believe is biblical correctness without sinning against one another in the process. Charity should prevail even in the midst of disagreement.

In my article, I mentioned that I had friends who initially tried to deter me from a “Calvinistic” view of God’s sovereignty. One of these friends and I had numerous conversations about this matter over a span of about a year. Our exchanges were open, honest, and often passionate. We both felt strongly that our respective positions were biblical, and we unashamedly attempted to persuade one another to see the legitimacy of these positions. But we never allowed sin to creep in and fracture our friendship.

About an hour after my article went live, this friend sent me the following text message:

“Great post today! And while you know that I don’t fully agree with you, it sure made me miss you that much more [we currently live in different cities]! I miss having you around because you’re literally my only friend in this life who I can wholeheartedly, intellectually debate with and know it won’t affect our friendship. That’s so rare nowadays.”

I have other believing friends with whom I disagree about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, church structure, old earth vs. new earth, church discipline, and more. Actually, now that I think about it, I have very few Christian friends with whom I am totally on the same theological page! The vast majority of my relationships within the church are with people who strongly disagree with me (and I with them) on one or more doctrinal/ecclesiological issues. However, I am grateful and even somewhat proud to be able to say that these variations have not hindered us from living in unified fellowship with one another.

Would it be a different story if we differed in our beliefs about essential doctrines? Undoubtedly. I have friends who do not adhere to the divinity of Jesus, his physical resurrection, or justification by faith alone, and I am unable to enjoy spiritual fellowship with these friends. I know others who profess faith in Christ but deny the sinfulness of behaviors the Bible explicitly condemns and live in a continual state of blatant unrepentance. I also cannot extend the hand of fellowship to these people. Our differences concerning essential tenets of the Christian faith make us spiritually incompatible.

However, if you and I wholeheartedly agree on the essentials but currently differ in our positions on God’s sovereignty, tongues, or church practice, we would be in sin to allow our disagreement to upset our unity. It’s okay for us to think the other is wrong. It’s okay for us to respectfully persuade one another toward what we believe is biblical correctness. But it is never okay, under any circumstance, for us to attack or withdraw from one another. We must mortify every manifestation of our self-righteous flesh that would seek to divide us over such matters. We must, by the power of the unifying Spirit who indwells us, walk arm in arm even if we don’t see eye to eye.

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”

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