# Seeking Church Unity

In the comments section of this post, I've been having a debate with a Roman Catholic about this whole Protestantism thing, so perhaps now is a good time to write a post about the unity of the Church.

I. My Own Testimony

I suppose I may as well start by discussing my personal history.  I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene (a Wesleyan denomination) but at various stages of my life I have regularly attended services with the Free Methodists (7 years), Baptists (3 years) and Lutherans (1 year), not counting smaller visits.  I also like stepping into Anglican services, and even Catholic Masses (though out of respect for their rules I do not take communion with the Catholics).

While it's true I'm the sort of Protestant who reads the Catholic Encyclopedia for fun, my adventures in ecumenism (interactions between different branches of Christianity) really started in earnest at St. John's College.  During my last semester there I attended Holy Trinity, a wonderful Antiochian Orthodox congregation in Santa Fe.  When I had first been invited to visit the church my freshman year, it seemed like a bizarre eastern cult that just happened to also be about Jesus, but over time I came to realize the commonalities and differences more clearly.  It had a profound effect on my spiritual and musical sensibilities.  Also, the priest (St. John Bethancourt) is the most visibly holy person I have ever met on this earth.  He cannot enter a room without caring about whatever person he meets within. I am eternally grateful for the treasures obtained during this time, yet after careful consideration of the differences in theology, I remain a Protestant.

As a graduate student I attended Layhill Community Church, where during the time for prayer any person could go up to the altar railing to pray with St. Wil, the associate pastor.  He was a man of great faith and I noticed that eerie coincidences would sometimes occur after I prayed with him for things.  (This is the kind of thing skeptics attribute to confirmation bias, but Christians attribute to Divine Providence.)

For instance, one Sunday I asked to be able to worship God better, and the following Tuesday, while opening a bottle of olive oil to cook with, I suddenly remembered all the passages in Scripture about anointing with oil and the Holy Spirit, and was full of joy and praise.  Only afterwards did I remember what I had asked for.   (Despite the potent significance of olive oil as an ingredient in several of the Catholic sacraments, the next example will be even more relevant for church unity.)

Another time I was praying at the altar with St. Wil for the unity of the church, and in the following week (or two at the most) my housemate St. Ray invited me to attend a new bible study for grad students at the Catholic Student Center just off the U Maryland campus!  So of course I went, and actually attended for 4 years which was longer than he did.  Each year the study was led by a different monk from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC (except one year we got a seminarian instead).

After Ray invited me, he suddenly got worried it would be disruptive if I started arguing with everyone about Protestantism, so I agreed to keep it cool.  The first meeting I was silent about that, but vocal about everything else.  The second meeting I confessed; they were rather surprised because they had thought I had been speaking in a particularly Catholic way about the allegorical meaning of Adam and Eve during the first meeting.  I was even invited (along with the others) to sometimes lead class discussions, which I tried to do with a minimum of controversy, focusing on commonalities except when absolutely necessary.

I got to see a lot of their struggles with various aspects of Catholicism, and sometimes tried to formulate ways of looking at the problems which combines the strengths of both types of theology, e.g. "Sacraments are not a way that we manipulate God, they are a way that God manipulates us!"  They were aware that I disagreed about certain important things, but even though we weren't in communion, there was still community and communication!  It was excellent practice for charitable discussion, and I am deeply grateful that they were Catholic enough (the word Catholic means "universal", after all) to include me.

As I said, I tried to avoid excessive controversy in the group, but after hours I had some vibrant discussions with the Dominican brothers about Catholicism, and when I visited the House of Studies I got to have a friendly intellectual brawl, of the sort that causes so much consternation among people who don't like arguments, since they associate them with hostility.  They gave me books by St. Cardinal Newman, whose epistemology ("theory of knowledge") I find a bit whacko, for the reasons mentioned in that recent comments section, the one in which I flagrantly violated Socrates' rule for good conversations.  To keep things shorter, St. Bayes or bust!

II. An Index of Communion

As is well known, Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, on the night of his betrayal:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

for the unity of our love is one of the signs by which the world can see that our faith is real, thus fulfilling his command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

But unity is not easy.  Although in a sense we Christians are already one due to being part of the body of Christ and "members of each other" (Romans 12:5), and in this way we are part of the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church and the communion of the saints, practically speaking the expression of that unity may be impaired.  Just as quarreling siblings may be one family genetically but not be united in affection, or quarrelling spouses may be one in flesh but divided in spirit.

So the expression of unity is something that requires us to all work together to exercise maturity of character, using the gifts which God has provided us.  As St. Paul says:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.” (Psalm 68:18)

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?   He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.   From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  (Eph. 4:1-16)

So, how are we doing on this front?

Well, the bad news is that the Church has splintered into numerous different denominations, not all of which regard each other as being really Christian.  And a few of them aren't really Christian, though most accept the basic truths of the faith as expressed in e.g. the Nicene Creed.  But as St. Lewis pointed out a while back, the commonalities are far more profound than the differences.

Let's try to be honest about how bad this problem really is.  The most common figure one hears (from atheists complaining about the fractiousness of Christians, Catholics complaining about the fractiousness of Protestants, or Protestants complaining about the fractiousness of everyone), is to simply count the number of denominations, getting some huge figure in the tens of thousands, but this is an absolutely terrible way to assess the state of Church unity!

First of all, a lot of these organizational splits were for historical reasons (based on how different groups got evangelized, or because of doctrinal differences or attitude towards slavery or something like that which is no longer a live issue) or were for administrative convenience (e.g. to deal with being in different countries, or because the churches have somewhat different organizational structures which would be difficult to combine), and are perfectly compatible with both groups thinking the other is really Christian and cooperating for the sake of God's kingdom.

It would be better to ask "What is the probability that two randomly selected devout Christians are in communion with each other?"  This gives a numerical measure, a "communion index", describing the degree of church unity.  The answer turns out to be about 1/3 (see below).  Could be better, could be a lot worse.

Merely having administratively independent units is not the same thing as being divided in love, or in communion.  Even the Catholics have 24 nearly-independent administrative units (which appoint their own leaders and have their own customs and rules, but remain in communion with the Pope and accept his doctrinal decrees), while the Eastern Orthodox have about 15 "autocephalous" (self-governing) churches.  These two churches were in communion with each other until about 1054 when both sides started excommunicating each other over an arcane theological dispute.  These excommunications were lifted in 1965, but the churches are still not in communion for other reasons.

There are also 6 independent Oriental Orthodox churches, a group of churches including e.g. the Copts who did not accept the decision of the Council of Chalcedon.  Although I personally think Chalcedon provided the best language for understanding the Incarnation, in retrospect the "Monophysite" or "Miaphysite" group was probably just using different words to refer to the same thing, and were not really heretics in the same way that the Gnostics or Arians were.  Thus it was wrong to excommunicate them; and this is not only my own opinion but also the opinion of the leaders on both sides:

Hence we wish to reaffirm solemnly our profession of common faith in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Jacoub III did in 1971: They denied that there was any difference in the faith they confessed in the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and become truly man. In our turn we confess that He became incarnate for us, taking to himself a real body with a rational soul. He shared our humanity in all things except sin. We confess that our Lord and our God, our Saviour and the King of all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God as to His divinity and perfect man as to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united to His humanity. This Union is real, perfect, without blending or mingling, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without the least separation. He who is God eternal and indivisible, became visible in the flesh and took the form of servant. In him are united, in a real, perfect indivisible and inseparable way, divinity and humanity, and in him all their properties are present and active.

The subtext here is the thing which only really mature people are capable of saying, namely: "Oops, I'm sorry, we were wrong." (However, since this original schism, the Catholic church has developed their theology further, so the churches are unfortunately still not in communion.)

Protestants have a lot more sects, but then again most Protestants regard most other Protestant groups as being really Christians, and therefore part of the Universal Church founded by Jesus.  Nowadays the biggest disputes tend to be about the axis that runs from liberal/modernist to fundamentalist/literalist, rather than denominational loyalties.  (I'm somewhere in the middle, since I think miracles have really happened and the Scriptures' teachings on e.g. sexual ethics and so on need to be taken seriously, but I also accept the findings of biology and physics and don't think rigid definitions of inerrancy are the right way to talk about the authority of the Scriptures.)

With a few exceptions, most Protestant denominations allow all those who confess Jesus as their Savior and Lord to take communion in their church.  So does the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient apostolic church which was at one time known as the Nestorian church because the heretic Nestorius was received there, but it is now generally regarded as unfair to tarnish the whole group by his opinions.  (The Assyrian church is much smaller than the others, although historically it was very important and and even spread to China).

So for purposes of calculating the odds that two Christians will be in communion, Nicene Christianity is really divided into 4 large subgroups: 1) Catholics, 2) most Protestants, 3) Eastern Orthodox, and 4) Oriental (listed in decreasing order by number of adherents) plus some smaller groups.  Because the groups are not all the same size, the coefficient is closer to 1/3 than 1/4.

III. Three Kinds of Unity

Is the reconciliation of the major branches of Christianity even possible?  And what can we do to make a difference?

Catholics care the most about unity, and are willing to do the most in terms of practical accommodations.  Also, although they are a big institution which changes very slowly, they do change, and they know how to fall in line behind the decisions of the Pope.  The difficulty is that they think that their past official pronouncements are infallible, and that it is necessary to believe every one of them to be in communion with them.  So in doctrinal terms, it is impossible for them to ever compromise.  That sounds a lot like a deal breaker to me.  Of course, if the Catholics are right about everything, then the hundreds of Protestant denominations would just need to all recognize this fact simultaneously.  Right, that sounds plausible.

The Eastern Orthodox church is a lot closer in its theology to the Catholics, and it would be more feasible for them to hash out a compromise.  And I will wildly celebrate any such union should it occur.  But there's also a lot of bad blood between them as a result of various historical incidents (such as the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, which apparently some of the Orthodox remember as if it were yesterday).  Plus the Catholics made political attempts to take over various of the Eastern patriarchies, which succeeded in creating a bunch of Eastern Rite Catholics, but alienated them further.  Twice the two churches got a bunch of leaders together and announced they were reconciled, but both times the Eastern Orthodox back home refused to accept the decision.

So there's been so much entrenchment of the various sides, with enough bad history between Catholics/Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox etc. that the groups reuniting with each other seems to be quite impossible.

And it is impossible.  Impossible for human beings, that is.  Not impossible for God:

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

“‘If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  (Mark 9:23)

There's always the option of fasting and praying, and genuinely asking God to shine light into our hearts.  Surely God is willing to act when the time is right:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

So the first step is to realize that it is something that God will do, not something we can do.  All of the parties to this dispute believe that there is a God in heaven who can act, so why do we so frequently act as though a negative outcome were inevitable?

The second thing is to recognize how far we've come already.  For a couple centuries, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in order to try to come out ahead politically.  Until everyone got sick of that and decided to have an Enlightenment with secular republics instead.  The killings don't happen anymore, leaving aside Northern Ireland anyway.

Even after that, until quite recently (perhaps a century ago), many Catholics and Protestants seem to have believed that more or less everyone on the other side was going straight to Hell when they died.  This era too has passed.

And it wasn't my generation's doing, either.  It was the hard work of a few individuals in previous generations, who insisted on talking to each other and opening up honest communication, even when it seemed impossible.  Vatican II was a pretty big deal too, what with Catholics rethinking their attitude towards Protestants and accepting some Protestant ideas in the process (e.g. Mass in the language of the people).  Meanwhile, even if there are still some fundamentalists out there who think ecumenical dialogue is of the devil, for the most part Protestants also became more open to the idea that some Catholics have actual spirituality and relationships with Jesus, and that we can be allies in some ways.

“Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37-38)

In fact the wounds of division have already begun to be healed.  The first step was unity of love.  This step came about when different Christian groups became genuinely interested in the well-being of Christians in the other groups (even before they convert to our side).

It is just barely possible to love a group of people and also think that they are lying scoundrels who will go straight to Hell, but we all know that love isn't what usually motivates this attitude.  It's not a coincidence that the word "charity" is used to mean both "Love in the Christian sense" and also "Not interpreting what other people say in the worst possible light".  When you care about people, you don't just want to see the negatives but also the positives.  As St. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.  Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.  You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.  If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Compare to this attitude:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.   It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (1 Cor 13:4-8)

There are always going to be silly, superficial reasons to condemn the other side.  (No matter how many good arguments there are for a position, there will always also be some terrible ones!)  But love does not look for reasons to condemn, but for reasons to rejoice.  If it criticizes, it does so not to boost its own ego, but out of genuine caring and out of respect for the good it sees is already present.  It is willing to investigate carefully before deciding that the other side are evil rebels.

The next stage is the unity of hope.  This step comes when people not only care for those on the other side, but also actually believe that their situation isn't hopeless, that if we form friendships and have dialogues and do good for each other, then it may actually make a difference.  This is the stage we are currently working at, in my opinion, although obviously one could always use more love to fuel the process.

With hope, we actually begin to desire to be in communion with each other, because we have begun to think it might one day be possible.  And even now, we can want this together (making due allowances for the fact that what complete unity would look like, is itself one of the theological controversies in question), and we can pray for it together.

“Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

I'm thinking this means, two or three Christians who have to work a bit to understand each other and agree about something!  (Not 2 or 3 self-satisfied Christians who are already primed to think in exactly the same way, and who don't care what anyone outside their group thinks.)  Real unity requires effort, but the reward is that it produces real community:

How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in harmony!

It is like fine oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down Aaron’s beard
onto his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon
falling on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord has appointed the blessing—
life forevermore.  (Psalm 133)

Of course not all of us are called to ecumenical work trying to understand other types of Christians—some of us are to focus on serving individual congregations (which can already present enough challenges for reconciliation!), or to provide aid to non-Christians, or to evangelize, or to serve the body of Christ in some other way.  We all belong to each other, and according to the law of our King, the Son of David:

The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle.  All will share alike.  (1 Sam 30:24)

And the final stage will be the unity of faith, when the love that is between us is enough that God can work through it so that we fully recognize and repent of the divisions that are between us.  I don't know exactly what a practical version of this would look like (and as I said, this is one of the very things which is disputed), but I can still work towards it.  Jesus prayed for it; it is possible.  Let's have it happen in this world rather than wait for the next one.

Speaking as a Protestant I would emphasize that this unity of faith does not necessarily require us to agree on the exact same list of doctrines.  When St. Paul writes:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

it is clear that for him, "one mind" does not actually mean "agrees about everything", for the theme of the entire previous chapter and a half up to this point (Romans 14:1-15:7) is about dealing with the situation in which two Christians disagree about disputable matters.

A doctrine can be true, or even important, without being an essential dogma which must be believed to be a real Christian.  (Even Catholics don't think everything is a dogma, but they do have a procedure for moving more and more things into the "dogma" category... thus making reunion harder and harder as time passes.)

There's a terrible idea called "secondary separation" in a few Protestant circles, which is that you should not only separate yourself from Christians who disbelieve in the doctrines you think are essential, you should also separate from Christians who fail to separate from such people... and so on ad nauseum.  Clearly, in the absence of a Pope, that can only end with a tiny schismatic group of self-righteous Pharisees.  Which is why we shouldn't think that way!

Instead, we need to accept one another.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't have any standards for what we mean when we call somebody else a Christian, since both Jesus (Matt 18:15-20) and St. Paul (1 Cor 5) taught that in extreme circumstances, the church can and should excommunicate people.  But it does mean that our standards for other people need to be less strict than our standards for ourselves.  To summarize in a picture:

Note what happens here if we allow the little circles to expand until they become as large as the big circles.  In that case, we will come out of communion, by refusing to accept somebody else unless they are exactly like us.  This is schism, in which a failure of love leads to a rupture in the bonds of faith.

Although I wrote "believe" in this picture, the same thing applies when we talk about which behaviors are acceptable in a Christian community.  Here it is even easier, since we have more control over our behaviors than over our beliefs.  To have a functioning community, we need to be strict with ourselves, but more accepting when it comes to the conduct of others.

People are always alert to hypocrisy, situations where somebody says that X is required but doesn't do X themselves.  You might think of this as a situation where the "small" circle is actually bigger than the "big" circle, and the person is condemned by their own standards.  But merely avoiding hypocrisy is not nearly enough.  If two people each allow themselves to do everything they personally think is OK, then unless they have identical beliefs, one will step outside the bounds set by the other.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (Luke 6:37-38)

IV. How to get other Christians to accept you

It's fun to argue, and it may cause some individuals to move from one viewpoint to another, but I don't think it's where the most important work lies.  If you want to contribute to church unity, the way to do it is to serve.  The way to get other groups of Christians to recognize what you believe in, is not to fight them but to make yourself indispensable to them.

Think about St. Lewis' writings.  He led millions to Christ, and to a deeper spirituality.  He chose to write primarily about those things which Christians have in common.  And the funny thing is, Christians of pretty much every kind all have him as their hero.  For example, the Eastern Orthodox have a tendency to think that Orthodoxy is the One True Church, and many of them think that those outside of it aren't real Christians.  And yet an enormous number of them admire and respect St. Lewis, an Anglican.  Doesn't matter if it's inconsistent with their general views about the non-Orthodox, they're forced to recognize him as a Christian, because he is just too darn useful to their spiritual lives to anathematize.

“When Christ ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

The communion of saints operates through the gifts we give to each other.  It has not been held back by denominational barriers.  I have heard hymns written by Protestants sung in Catholic Masses; I have seen books written by Catholic saints provide guidance for Protestants.  We are already one family, we just need to realize it.

So go and serve other groups of Christians.  Find out what they need, and then give it to them.  Make it so they can't help but see that the Spirit of God is moving you.  (We are all quite willing to believe that the people who help our team are inspired from above.)  At the very least, we are always able to pray for each other.  Make the Lord's priorities your priorities:

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you?  You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.  I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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### 25 Responses to Seeking Church Unity

1. Tim Isbell says:

Thanks so much for the perspective on unity, and for the extensive history lesson! I must admit, I am also very impressed by the quality of your writing. Are you doing all this alone, or are you getting some editing help from someone? I know in my case, the day after I publish a post I reread it and too often find grammatical or even simple typos! How do you so consistently avoid these?

2. Scott Church says:

I second Tim's thoughts... Wonderful post Aron! I too would love to know how you manage to write in such a readable manner and still be so thorough and enlightening. Anymore, I can spend hours on a mere two-paragraph comment... trying to cover every base, anticipate every potential counter-argument, and with every adjective/adverb imaginable. The end result always seems clunky and without flow so I'll spend hours more editing it. And no matter what... I always find a missing word or typo after I posted it... grrrrr!

How do you manage to manage to produce so much relevant content that's so readable and typo-free? Are there any tricks to it, or is it just a gift? :-)

3. Scott Church says:

See... I did it again! "How do you manage to manage to produce..." Supposed to be "How do you manage to produce..." :-(

4. Ashley says:

Aron, I want to commend you on a great discussion of Christian unity, but as I understand it so far, I need to disagree and offer an alternativeperspective that also enables peace and unity. in Eastern Orthodoxy, we address this issue with the teaching "we know where holiness is, we don't know where it isn't." We are members of the Orthodox Church because we have been called to be, because we perceive God's presence and active work; whether or how he is also working with other Christians, or even pagans, with whom we disagree to one degree or another is not something we must determine concretely. I find this greatly comforting. the responsibility of determining which christian groups are "real Christians" and which are not, what is "essential belief" and what is "optional," is overwhelming! We refuse to draw that line anywhere outside our own church. Are the Mormons not real Christians but baptists are? The Lutherans are real but the JWs aren't? I would say the activity of drawing that line is itself "inessential." It is certainly not necessary to either loving them nor living in harmony. As an eastern orthodox Christian, I celebrate what theologically I have in common with Catholics as well as with Mormons, though with the former I have significantly more to celebrate than with the latter. Still, we do not share common communion with either. St. John chrysostom has advised us to "be like the bee, most noble of animals" who visits flowers, but does not draw attention to the trash. We celebrate the commonality, discuss the disagreements (I'd like to think, always with respect!), and leave the rest up to mysterious grace. I am not sure what value there is in narrowing down what I think is "true" into a subcategory of what I think is "essential to believe." In orthodoxy, communion is also the sign of our unity to one another in faith as the single bride to Christ, not just a unity in the middle part of a venn. Can non orthodox Christians also be members of the body of Christ, as his single bride? It is possible, I would personally bet on it, but we need not either affirm or deny that. We need only practice the faith as we have inherited it, and love those around us. This is the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and I would like to think at least most of us practice it.

5. Aron Wall says:

Tim, Scott,
I typically do re-read my posts at least once, and I spell-check it at the end because otherwise people will point out typos in the comments. But I don't usally show my blog posts to anyone else before posting them, even if I did marry a writing instructor.

It might be because I do a lot of technical writing for my job (I've just finished my 25th article, 16 of which had coauthors to discuss the writing with). Technical writing really punishes convoluted writing styles; you have to work really hard to avoid that. Also I like to read good prose writers, most recently here and here.

Scott, sometimes "trying to cover every base, anticipate every potential counter-argument, and with every adjective/adverb imaginable" and overediting might actually be counterproductive if it makes the writing "clunky". Editing can be good, but it's easy to accidentally produce a sentence whose front end is a camel and whose back end is a rooster, if you don't watch it.

If these types of editing aren't working, try their opposites: streamlining to the essentials, deleting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, going with the first thing that pops out of your brain as long as it isn't awful, and in general aiming more for clarity of expression rather than total precision. Then, if there are still additional points that need to be addressed, putting them in a new paragraph to avoid ruining the old one. (You can go too far with this advice as well, of course, but maybe for balance...?).

Ashley,
Thanks for you comment. It is quite true that my Venn Diagram leaves out some extremely important facts: that it is not usually necessary to even decide to what extent a given individual lies inside or outside the bounds of (small-o) orthodoxy. Also, by saying "I" and "you" it makes it seem like a personal, individual decision, when in practice these things are decided at a more institutional level by bishops and clergy and so on. Perhaps I should have labelled the diagram not with "I" and "you" but with "we" and "you [plural]".

But, I can't agree that there is no judgement involved in the decisions of the Orthodox church. The way that the Orthodox "refuse to draw that line anywhere outside our own church" is precisely by drawing a different line which includes only them on the inside. (Or rather, the Eastern Orthodox church is a collection of organizations which are defined by being inside of the line which they have chosen to draw.)

I am not currently welcome to take Communion in Eastern Orthodox churches; in other words somebody somewhere did indeed draw a line in the sand. The people who made that decision did (and still do) decide what is essential for that purpose, and what is not. And as it happens, the line they drew does not include me. Of course, you weren't the one to draw that line, and as you say it doesn't necessarily imply that the people outside aren't part of the body of Christ. There are other kinds of sharing in Christ, although I don't think that was the attitude of those who drew the line in the first place, back in history.

"It is certainly not necessary to either loving them nor living in harmony." But I doubt any Orthodox person would say, that sharing communion within the bounds of the Orthodox church is unimportant for love and harmony between Orthodox Christians. As you say, it is "the sign of our unity to one another in faith as the single bride to Christ". So how can it possibly be unimportant when interacting with e.g. Catholics? If the sign is known to not match up with reality which it is supposed to signify, that is a problem. Is Christ divided?

Do you think that St. Paul would have been satisfied if the parties of Paul and Apollos at Corinth had agreed amongst themselves to neither affirm, nor to deny, that the other party was part of the body of Christ? I don't! Personally, I would like to be recognized as a Christian by other Christians, not just left to the inscrutable judgement of God. But in our case, I know that we do recognize the Holy Spirit working in each other, and that will have to do for now.

6. Scott Church says:

Thanks Aron... great advice! Actually, I've had similar thoughts of late but it helps a lot to have them validated by someone who writes as well as you do. It's been occurring to me of late that I'm at my best when writing from the heart about things that have been gestating in me for a while rather than trying to rebut something someone else wrote. I do succeed at the latter quite often, I think, but the resulting content is chronically clunky. Perhaps God is trying to teach me a lesson... ;-) I'm going to have a look at the links you provided for inspiration.

Speaking of which... in case you aren't familiar with them yet here are some works by two of my favorite writers who do have a beautiful way with words (not to mention their Christ-like insight);

Barbara Brown Taylor - An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

PS - Feel free to show my writing, here or at my website, to Nicole, technical and otherwise... Any advice a writing instructor might offer would be most welcome! :-)

7. TY says:

Dr Wall,
This is a very thoughtful essay on ecumenism and one that I (as a Anglican) care deeply about for both the Roman Catholics and the Anglicans have been “in dialogue” for over a decade now. Anglicans and Lutherans have made more progress at church unity, and in fact they have common services in some places. We also have common worship with the Presbyterians also and in terms of practical Christianity, we see no differences. So I would agree with you there are more similarities than differences across Christian denominations and where the theological differences exist, in my view they seem immaterial to practical Christianity. In a sense, there has already been broadly based ecumenism in terms of what a Christian life requires on a day-to-day basis.

Part of the problem has been politics and you hit on a main point: “For a couple centuries, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in order to try to come out ahead politically.” A lot has to do with politics and not faith. Henry VIII couldn’t see himself beholder to a Pope (to who he paid dues) for permission to divorce and marry as he pleased. The bloody conflict in Ireland had its roots in Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and inequitable distribution of resources between Catholics and Protestants added fuel to the fire.

And this brings me to a question I have struggled with because I see it asked all the time by people who debunk Christianity for fun, or for a living (by selling "scholarly: books): If Christianity is true and if evangelism is an obligation (as Jesus commanded), why didn’t God ensure a consistent, unambiguous, message was preached and passed on trough the writings of the Apostles since the Day of Pentecost?

Is this a valid question and how would you answer it? Always value your opinion.

8. Aron Wall says:

TY,
Maybe because consistency and lack of ambiguity are overrated? Life is full of paradoxes, so if the Bible is true it must also be full of paradoxes, and hence not "consistent" and "unambiguous" in any obvious sense. We think we know what kind of religion would be good for us, but what if a religion without paradox would be death to us?

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

The important thing is whether we are open to love. Seeing Jesus, but having no love, cannot save. Loving Jesus, but not seeing him, can.

"Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me."

We cannot get someone to love God by hammering them with reasoned facts. Maybe that is why that style of apologetics doesn't work on most people. We can imagine a "perfect world" where it would work, but in such a world why would belief be correlated in any way with salvation? Faith in God saves, precisely because it implies there's something going on which could not have been produced by simply recognizing the unambiguous facts. There is strong historical evidence for Christianity, and pointing this out can be an important part of evangelism, but it's not the whole story.

9. Philip Wainwright says:

I would answer Ty's question this way: God did ensure a consistent, unambiguous, message was preached and passed on trough the writings of the Apostles since the Day of Pentecost, and we have that in the New Testament. But ensuring that an unambiguous message is transmitted does not ensure that an unambiguous message is received. As long as human beings are sinful (on which that unambiguous message unambiguously insists), they will resist God's word on many levels, including that of simple misunderstanding. Satan's primary task is to take God's word away from us, as Jesus pointed out in the parable of the sower. My own experience is that coming to faith in Christ does not protect me from misunderstanding or worse, but it does mean that I continue to expose myself to God's word so that it may do His work. And thanks be to God I see it achieving His purpose even as I see how much remains to be done.

10. TY says:

Thank you Dr Wall for the response, which sounds a bit like what I heard at church service this morning from Margaret (not her real name). I say her grow up from being a giggly teenager in church to now a recently married woman in her early thirties, responsible;e, trying to manage a career, supporting her husband looking for a job in his training, both staring into an unknown future. She told the congregation about her faith journey. It was a very touching. She has always been a steadfast Christian, but not always an Anglican. In university, for a short while, she became an evangelical Christian, and joined a church group. Her parents were always supportive. What mattered was faith in and love for God.

Her return to her Anglican roots was not a rejection of evangelical Christianity; no a rejection of any denomination; it was part of a journey she had to make to discover herself. She said the greatest conviction in her spiritual journey was that God is love. God does not care if the prayer is coming from the lips of an Anglican, a Presbyterian, a Baptist, a Roman Catholic, or a non-Christian. Margaret didn’t say that in those terms, but I’m sure that’s what she implied.

Margaret is full of faith and a dedicated follower of Jesus..

11. TY says:

Thank you Phillip. I know what you mean as far as people' willful misunderstanding of Jesus' teachings is concerned, and so I'm not disputing your explanation. But as Aron says, life is full of ambiguity. Even reasonable and faithful Christians would disagree on various passages of Scripture (just scan though any one of Aron's Blog post). So when surrounded by such doubts, ambivalence. contradictions, we can turn to apologetics that could be useful up to point but then is faith in and love for God that usually gets us through.

12. Scott Church says:

Ty,

Whenever I hear the "unambiguous Gospel" argument I'm reminded of an atheist co-worker during my college years who used to complain non-stop about the Bible. He loved to quote his brother, a lawyer, who said the mark of a well-written document was that it could only be subjected to one interpretation. This would be a valid criticism... if the Bible were a legal document. Well guess what... it isn't!

God gave us His Word to reveal Himself to us, call us into relationship with Him, and work out His salvation in our lives and bring us to the fullness of who we were created to be. Imagine what it would take to create a written work with this objective--one that speaks to each and every one of our unique life stories, our hearts as well as our minds, across countless ever-evolving languages and cultures throughout history... and make it as precise and unambiguous as a legal contract. !!! My fiance is a contracts manager for a software firm. She'll tell you how difficult it is just to come up with an unambiguous non-disclosure agreement between two companies. Add to that Philip's spot-on observations regarding our capacity for denial and willful misunderstanding, and you could ask your Christianity debunkers what makes them think an "unambiguous" work with the breadth and scope of the Bible is even possible, much less practical. G.K Chesterton once said, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” He was right.

Furthermore, critics of the Bible (and the Gospel in general) almost always preach science as a better and clearer alternative, blissfully unaware that at the edge of human knowledge it is every bit as ambiguous as the Bible, if not more! Case in point, cosmology. There are almost as many viable models of the origin and evolution of the universe as there are gainfully employed cosmologists. These span numerous underlying frameworks such as M-Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity that are riddled with uncertainties and arbitrariness of their own, and mutually inconsistent with each other. The number of possible false vacua (compactification topologies) underlying M-Theory alone may be as high at $10^{500}$. To get a sense of the sheer magnitude of that number, consider that the number of atoms in the visible universe is thought to be on the order of $10^{88}$. This takes the word ambiguous to its terrifying limits! The Bible's critics habitually hold it to standards they cannot live up to themselves... and it shows.

Furthermore, when it gets right down to it the bread and butter core of the Gospel isn't ambiguous. The vast majority of doctrinal and denominational disagreements within the church are over matters that although important to be sure, aren't central to the message of Christ and Him crucified. Truth be told, it's amazing that the Gospel speaks to the reality of our lives as clearly and consistently as it does!

13. Scott Church says:

Hmmm... it seems WordPress didn't understand my html sup tags. 10500 and 1088 are supposed to be 10 to the power of 500 and 10 to the power of 88 respectively (how do I do it in LaTex?). Aron, please feel free to correct it. Thanks! :-)

[Fixed. You need to write e.g. 10^{500}, but enclosed in double dollar signs like this: $\\10 {}^\wedge\!\{ 500\} \\$, and it will appear like $10^{500}$ --AW]

14. TY says:

Scott, your last paragraphs says it best:

"Furthermore, when it gets right down to it the bread and butter core of the Gospel isn't ambiguous. The vast majority of doctrinal and denominational disagreements within the church are over matters that although important to be sure, aren't central to the message of Christ and Him crucified. Truth be told, it's amazing that the Gospel speaks to the reality of our lives as clearly and consistently as it does!"

Amen to that!

15. willie says:

Aron
I would like your opinion regarding church unity as opposed to uniformity. Would it be healthy to preach unity and uniformity or unity in diversity?

16. Ashley Zappe says:

Thanks for addressing my comment, Aron. I share that discomfort with there being a intentional "blind spot" about non-Orthodox Christians. It leaves a lot unanswered, such as what you say about intereacting with other Christians outside of the communion. I certainly agree that "If the sign is known to NOT match up with reality which it is supposed to signify, that is a problem," but, we don't say "we know this does not match up" and only go so far as to say "the sign matches reality here" without determining what it means elsewhere. That's different than saying we know that the sign does not match. It's like the 'suspension of disbelief,' in a way. But, I feel better about maintaining that blind spot than about having to personally decide what is essential belief and what is optional-- partly because I don't see any helpful application of that distinction. I also feel more comfortable with the communion circle drawn around one church only, with each intentionally within that same circle, instead of across various overlapping aspects of a venn. I remember once being told by a Ba'hai that I was actually a Ba'hai because Christians are within that circle according to Ba'hai; over-inclusivity can be disrespectful too. I don't want to create a hierarchy of truths. Common ground can be found without relegating some truths to 'optional' status--- I often find inspiration from the deep love and brotherhood between church leaders St. Bartholowmew and St. Francis. I see the commitment to totally separate circles, not just the smaller Venn-overlap, as an essential element of their dialogue and deep love for one another.

17. Aron Wall says:

willie,
Definitely "unity in diversity". See 1 Cor 12.

This is not to say that it is a good thing when churches fall into error or sin, but the belief that we must all be alike (or else one of us is doing Christianity wrong) is very pernicious. When it comes to those things where the Bible does not provide clear answers (such as e.g. whether infants should be baptized) I think that God is prepared to back us in the decisions we make.

"Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt 18:18)

18. Chuckles says:

This is an interesting post as always, Aron. Thank you. However, I think it is quite possible that the Bible does require a high degree of doctrinal unity when working with other Christians. Just look at 2 John 7-11. Although the controversy of Christ as coming in the flesh is in view here, it seems this principle can and should be applied more broadly as well. Look at Romans 16:17. Here, Paul tells us we should keep away from anyone who is set on anything that is "contrary to the teaching you have learned". The teaching in view here doesn't seem to be anything denying Christ's physicality like that in 2 John. The teaching seems to be the whole body of doctrine that had been passed on to the Romans. It seems reasonable to assume that this would include the meanings and correct practices of things such as baptism and the Lord's supper.

Furthermore, it seems that just about any false doctrine can pose a real threat to our central doctrine of justification and thus our salvation. I've often heard the analogy of moving forward with false doctrine as being like driving without a windshield; you may be able to go for quite a while without it, but eventually dirt, rocks, and garbage are going to fly in. This isn't to say that every false belief or practice I have is going to immediately lead to a denial of Christ, but it is one step on the way.

It also seems that in many cases doctrine can have a direct effect on the spread of the Gospel. Take pedobaptism as an example. For the sake of argument, assume pedobaptism is correct and that it is a means of grace that provides forgiveness to those who receive it. Furthermore, assume that young children are not under God's grace and thus saved. For someone to withhold baptism from young children because they believe that baptism should only be done to believers is to withhold forgiveness and thus salvation from young children. For the pedobaptist to agree to work with someone who denies pedobaptism seems to be to advance the withholding of salvation from young children. So, many theological disagreements seem to affect salvation so directly that we should not even give the idea that we approve of them by worshiping, praying, or evangelizing with those who are on the other side of the fence.

Because the whole Bible is God's truth, we should not want to affirm the false doctrine of anyone. By worshiping or praying with those who I disagree with on doctrinal points, it seems I affirm what they believe as true. 3 John 8 points to this. We should always want to work together with other Christians for the truth. If two Christians have a strong disagreement on doctrine that we are both set on as the truth, from the each others' view, we are no longer working together for truth. By advancing the work of those we disagree with we seem to be advancing falsehoods. This comes through in the great commission as well. Jesus instructs his disciples to teach Christians to "obey everything that I have commanded you". Certainly, we shouldn't want to advance the teaching of anything contrary to the correct theology behind God's Word. Back to 2 John 7-11, verse 11 mentions that we shouldn't even let those with who we disagree into our homes, let alone pray or worship with them. This seems to count strongly against ecumenical efforts that don't involve direct reconciliation of doctrine.

19. Aron Wall says:

Chuckles,
Thanks for your comment, but I think you are seriously misinterpreting these Scriptures.

Let's start with Romans 16:17. If you read through the Book of Romans in context, you'll see that St. Paul has just devoted more than a chapter of his letter to specifically arguing that Christians should accept other Christians who disagree with them about disputable matters. If you read this section, you will see that accepting other Christians who believe differently than you do is a major theme of the letter to the Romans. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of the highlights:

"Accept him whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters...
Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master, he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand...
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way...
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food...
So whatever you believe about these matters, keep between yourself and God..."

Thus, when Paul concludes by asking that God would "give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mind you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:5), it is clear that he cannot possibly mean by this that Christians need to be in agreement about all doctrines, since he has just spent the last chapter arguing that different doctrines about e.g keeping kosher, drinking alcohol, and celebrating the Sabbath/holidays, should not lead to divisions among the community. Indeed, he immediately goes on to say that we should "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (15:6).

Thus, in verse 16:17, when he warns against those who put "divisions and obstacles in the way of the teaching you have learned", given the content of the preceding two chapters, it seems more likely he has in mind people who try to stir up dissent and schisms regarding disputable matters, than people who promote false teachings about important doctrines.

It is of course true that, on core matters of Christian doctrine or practice, the Apostles taught that we should not welcome into fellowship (as Christians) those who deny them. But for the most part when it comes to doctrines (I am not talking about behaviors such as sexual morality), we only see the Apostles do this with really major theological teachings, such as denying the Incarnation or Resurrection, or reverting back to Jewish ritual as though it could be a source of salvation alongside Christ. As you yourself point out, the literal meaning of 2 John 7 speaks of denial that Jesus "came in the flesh". So the "teaching of Christ" which he is referring to is the basic doctrine about the nature of Christ, of the "Father and Son". So this verse can only be used to support excommunicating other Christians if they deny that doctrine, or another one which is equally essential.

(And of course, 3 John 8 is the flip side; it talks about supporting those who do share the truth about Christ, it does not talk about not supporting those who do not.)

It seems clear to me that the doctrine of pedobaptism/credobaptism is not equally important as the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is certainly not unambiguously clear from Scripture which is the correct answer. It might well be spiritually helpful to have the right answer, but it does not justify cutting off other Christians from fellowship. Won't doing that have an even bigger "direct effect on the spread of the Gospel"?

Suppose I accept for the sake of argument that the wrong approach to baptism might result in a few people being lost who whould have been saved if the group had correct teachings. But won't rejecting your fellow Christians, and failing to give reasonable support to their ministry through prayer and encouragement, lead to many more people being lost? If most of the people who accept the view you disagree with (e.g. on baptism) are nevertheless saved, then by attacking their ministry you could actually decrease the number of people who are saved. You can't assume that not helping that group to evangelize will result in those people joining your group instead. It might just lead to them not becoming Christians in the first place! (For example, because they are in a demographic more easily evangelized by that group, or because they are disillusioned by all the schims in Christianity.)

"If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other!" (Gal 5:15). Paul warns in Romans that a possible risk of selfish aggrandizement of disputes is to "destroy your brother for whom Christ died" and to "destroy the work of God for the sake of food" and to "cause your brother to fall". Hatred and schisms lead to spiritual murder!

Rejecting another Christian group for baptising people with the wrong timing, is like shooting somebody in the leg because they don't eat a healthy diet. This does not promote healthy living! Or to use your analogy, if somebody is driving without a windshield they can actually go quite a long ways like that; it won't improve the situation if you won't fix their engine or sell them any gas.

(Obviously, you are free to donate the majority of your money and time to whichever group you think is doing the most good in the world, which is likely to be the one you agree with most. But that is different from rejecting and undermining the work of all of the other groups, and failing to pray for them. You're supposed to pray even for your enemies, so how can you not pray for those who are sharing the message of Christ in a way you think is partly misguided?)

In the case of 2 John 7-11, we have a situation where some false teachers are denying the core doctrine of the Christian faith, yet nevertheless they try to be welcomed into the homes of faithful Christians for support. (In those days, receiving hospitality of others was a major contributing factor to itinerant preaching---welcoming these teachers was more like becoming a financial donor than like paying a social call is in modern times. St. John's point is that they are essentially bankrolling a group hostile to the Gospel.)

So to replace "who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" with "those with who we disagree" seems like a MAJOR change in the meaning of this Scripture verse. Should I therefore cut you off from fellowship and disallow you from commenting on my blog, because we disagree about the meaning of this verse? I claim not, instead I should accept you as a follower of Jesus Christ who is trying to do his will.

But nevertheless you should be careful, lest your attitude destroy the work of God for the sake of minor doctrines, which people often cling to out of pride. It is a fallacy to say that by accepting your brother in Christ who believes something false, you therefore yourself are forced to promote said false teaching. You might as well say, with equal truth, that by rejecting your brother who believes something true about Christ, you are attacking the truth that he believes.

I have never met two Christians who agree on every single issue of interpretation in the Bible. So the logical endpoint of what you are saying is that you should end up in a Church all by yourself, with nobody else in it. Then, at the Final Judgement, having rejected all those who belong to Christ, perhaps Christ himself will reject you as well. After all, probably you also believe at least one wrong thing (the odds are good!), so that would just be treating you the same way you treated others. Even if you are right, condemning your brother based on a minor theological dispute is far more sinful and wrong than not getting the dispute right.

I'm sorry if these words seem harsh, but I am quite confident that the good of the Church requires people have an attitude of serving our fellow believers even when we don't entirely agree with them. As Paul said in another context:

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Php 3:15-16)

20. Chuckles says:

Thanks for the reply, Aron. To what extant we should join in fellowship with other Christians is something that I've been thinking about a fair amount lately. I appreciate the well thought out response.

With regards to passages like 2 John 7-11, it seems that St. John really is talking more about these central doctrines. I've thought about this in the context of Titus 3:9-11 as well, and it seems to be about people who are actively seeking to divide the church. If doctrine can be separated into central and peripheral doctrine, I'd concede that those passages only support division in central matters.

However, I don't think Romans 16:17 can be written off so easily. It seems what St. Paul is talking about back in Romans 14 and 15 are topics on which the Apostles' teaching didn't make statements one way or the other. These seem to be things like the color of the church carpet. He's not talking about doctrines that we might think of as periphery, like baptism. Although some of the topics mentioned by St. Paul in Romans 14 have been considered doctrine by some Christian groups, what should be in the realm of doctrine and what should not seems to, itself, be doctrine.

What's more is that the Bible doesn't seem to make distinctions between these core doctrine and doctrine that is peripheral. Nowhere does a doctrine seem to be optional to believe. This distinction seems to be artificial. Furthermore, the Apostles do mention separating from others based on what we might consider as "minor" doctrine in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. I'm not sure how this could really be construed as only separating with other Christians on core doctrinal issues. St. Paul mentions that whoever doesn't obey the instruction of his whole letter is to not be associated with. Looking back at the rest of the letter, one major point that St. Paul touches on is the anti-Christ. This is certainly something that seems to normally be considered on the periphery. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 seems to speak to this as well.

I would like to mention that when I say "do not associate" with other Christians because of doctrinal matters, this would only go so far as doctrinal matters. We should be loving and welcoming to other Christians and never regard them as enemies. However, we shouldn't join in with them when it comes to prayer, worship, or anything like mission work. I'm not at all recommending a sort of bad blood between Christian groups. We need to serve as the watchman of those who disagree with us, hoping that they'll come back into the correct doctrine. If we simply brush these disagreements under the rug, and agree to disagree, it seems that we're failing in our duty as the watchman. This all must be done with love and respect. I'm sorry I didn't make this as clear as I should have in my previous comment.

21. Aron Wall says:

Chuckles,
It's important to put the 2 Thess passage in context. St. Paul is writing because people were sharing false rumors (supposedly from the Apostles) that the "day of the Lord" (i.e. the end times) had already come (2:2). This caused them to be "idle and disruptive" (v. 6, 11-13), i.e. they had quit their day jobs and were mooching off the community and causing trouble (think about the people who recently believed that Christ would come in 2011).

When Paul says to "special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed," the word command (λόγῳ) is singular in the Greek, so it doesn't refer to the entire letter. It refers specifically to the command given in verses 6 and 12 against being an idle and disruptive person. This is primarily a behavior issue, not a doctrinal issue. (If you like, even minor issues count as major when they are so disruptive that it threatens the ability of the community to survive. But obviously, many differences of opinion are not like that.)

Paul reminds them of the teaching about the Antichrist, not because that is the test of fellowship per se, but because it disproves the contention of the End Timers that the day had already come (since certain other things had to happen first). I sure hope agreement on the Antichrist isn't necessary for Christian fellowship, because the passage is famously obscure! (For example, commenters do not agree on the identity of the entity mentioned in 2:6-7 which restrains the Antichrist from appearing until he/it is taken out of the way.)

And Ezekiel 33:7-9 explicitly refers to warning sinners who do things which deserve death. Is it really plausible that all Christians who misinterpret some significant doctrine in Scripture are under the sentence of spiritual death? Surely there is such a thing as a reasonable difference of opinion.

It seems what St. Paul is talking about back in Romans 14 and 15 are topics on which the Apostles' teaching didn't make statements one way or the other. These seem to be things like the color of the church carpet. He's not talking about doctrines that we might think of as periphery, like baptism.

Just because they seem like minor doctrines in restrospect doesn't mean they weren't considered big issues at the time. Whether or not Christians need to obey one of the Ten Commandments (the Sabbath) and the Torah hardly seems like a minor detail of church decorating. This was THE major theological controversy of the time among Christians. And Paul actually says explicitly that he agrees with one of the groups of people (the group that ate meat and didn't keep kosher) but that didn't mean he imposed that position on everyone else.

What's more is that the Bible doesn't seem to make distinctions between these core doctrine and doctrine that is peripheral.

Um, that was the entire point of Romans 14-15!

But if you'd like some more examples, consider Php 3:15 where Paul seems to allow for the possibility of temporary disagrement, 1 Cor where Paul repeatedly instructs the Corinthians to cease schisming over minor differences of theology, see also Titus 3:9, Luke 9:49-50 where Jesus instructs tolerance towards other Christian groups who are doing good on the grounds that "all who are not against us are for us", Matt 23:3 where Jesus instructs laypeople to submit to their religious leaders despite the fact that he (Jesus) had violent disagreements with them, Matt 23:23 where he distinguishes the "weightier matters of the law" from minor issues such as details of tithing (on which there may still be a correct answer, but they are not essential), Mark 12:28-34 where the greatest commandments are distinguished from sacrifice and offering (see also Matthew 12:7), and perhaps 1 John 5:16 which distinguishes the "sin that leads to death" from lesser sins which do not (LOVE being the key distinguishing point throughout the letter).

Notice also the behavior of the Apostles, who had significant disagreements with each other (e.g. Paul vs. James) and yet they were part of the same Church fellowship (Acts 21, Gal 2:11-14). They could have excommunicated each other over their minor differences, but instead they chose to cooperate in prayer and missions out of obedience to Christ's call to unity in the Church (John 17:20-23). And the following generations rightly recognized both apostles' letters as inspired Scripture, because God was speaking truth through both of them. Splintering with each other over minor interpretations is (obviously) not the way to have unity. When he prayed that we would be "one", Christ obviously did not have in mind that holy Christians with various reasonable interpretations of the Scriptures should spinter into hundreds of mutually excommunicated groups.

While the Church did excommunicate serious heretics or miscreants, the idea of different opposing "denominations" (all simultaneously part of the Church of Christ) was completely unthinkable in the context of 1st century Christianity. I should point out that as a practical matter, excommunication works a LOT better on an individual basis than on a group basis. Excommunicate an individual, and cut off from the approval of the group, he may repent and return. Excommunicate an entire group of sincere Christians, and they'll just support each other and think you are the heretics. Sometimes it must still be done, but only when it does more good than harm. And this obviously must depend on how severe the deviation is!

I understand that you are trying to figure out what is the most loving and biblical way to handle these issues and you aren't motivated by antipathy to those you disagree with. This I wholeheartedly agree with. But I don't see how praying and worshipping with other Christians supports false doctrines unless, in the process of doing so, one is required to say or do something incorrect.

22. Chuckles says:

Sorry I'm replying to this so late, St. Aron. I've been wrestling with this and a number of other doctrines lately. Thanks for taking the time to reply as well.

I can see now that the command to separate 2 Thessalonians is there because there was a behavioral issue that threatened the community, but isn't giving in to a doctrine we believe to be false today just setting someone up for a behavioral issue in the future. Here's an example, if we take a more inclusivist idea of salvation and say that people can be saved without having any conscious knowledge of Christ, this may not do much immediate harm. However, down the road it might serve to undermine the desire for mission work. This one is easy to see, but I may not know how allowing other doctrine I think is incorrect is going to spur bad behavior or threaten the Christian community in the future. Assuming that those promoting the false belief at the beginning are not willing to back down, it seems better to apply church discipline rather than let this turn into a threatening behavioral practice down the road. Now, many disagreements are not like this, but it isn't always to see which one.

I'd concede that Ezekiel is directed at those who introduce an error so fundamental that they controvert the Gospel, something that would really lead to death.

It is interesting in Romans 14 that Paul takes a side on the issue, and then leaves the other alone. The other verses do show a more layered view of doctrine too. The weighty matters of the law really struck me.

However, I'm confused by the appeal to Paul and Peter. When Paul writes about his confrontation with Peter in Gal 2:11, and then goes on and say that Peter was "not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel" in Gal 2:14. These seem like very strong words. He then even goes on to say that "all who rely on observing the law are under a curse" in Gal 3:10. This all may be well after the events of Acts 21. It seems quite possible that there was a break in fellowship between Peter and James, and Paul.

23. Aron Wall says:

Chuckles,

I would say that excommunication is like chemotherapy. It always does harm to the patient, but sometimes it does even more harm to the cancer and therefore benefits the patient anyway. Because it is a severe remedy it should only ever be done carefully, prayerfully, and for serious reasons, with the guidance and support of other Christians in the Holy Spirit (Matt 18:15-20)

An unjustified excommunication itself causes scandal and bad behavior, therefore it should be done only when we are sure, not only of the righteousness of our cause, but also of the necessity of resorting to this remedy.

Regarding St. Paul rebuking St. Peter:

1) While there is some dispute about the timeframe, I think that nearly all NT scholars date Galatians prior to the events of Acts 21.

2) While I agree that St. Paul used some strong words against St. Peter, I don't see anything in the passage which would suggest actual excommunication. (Presumably his entreaty was in fact successful, since we know St. Peter went on to embrace Gentile companions and in fact to reference the letters of St. Paul (Galatians included) in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Also it seems unlikely that the book of Acts would omit mention of a longstanding schism between St. Luke's two main heroes. (He tells us about the temporary falling out between St. Paul and St. Barnabas over the wisdom of taking St. Mark, which was not of course a matter of excommunication but rather a breakdown of their working relationship.)

3) Would St. Paul even have had the authority to excommunicate St. Peter? After all, Peter was chosen as an apostle by Jesus himself, who gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt 16:19) and a throne in the kingdom (Matt 19:27-28, Luke 22:30), and also made him one of the foundations of the Church (Matt 16:18, Eph 2:20); not only that but Jesus prophesied specifically that none of the apostles besides Judas would fall away (John 17:12) and that St. Peter in particular, despite denying his Master, would be restored to faith and by his ministry strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:32, John 21:15-19).

It is true that for St. Paul, the Gospel was so important that even an angel or apostle could be condemned for turning aside from it (Gal 1:8-9). Nevertheless, it would be contrary to Christ's promises (stated above in the Gospels, and which St. Paul presumably knew about) for St. Peter to actually fall under these condemnations and lose his salvation. And even if he had, St. Paul would hardly have been in a position to remove him from office, since like the other apostles St. Peter was appointed by divine, not human, authority.

In any case, St. Peter was not actually denying that the Gospel would save Gentiles, he was simply acting in a way which was hypocritical and inconsistent with the truth that had already been revealed to him. Under St. Paul's scathing rebuke, presumably he repented and thus the conflict was resolved.

24. Chuckles says:

Hey Aron,

Thanks for continuing this discussion over such a broad time-line.

I guess I should clarify that this wouldn't be an excommunication, but a separation of fellowship. We wouldn't declare the Christian we disagree with an unbeliever, we just wouldn't worship, pray, or join in any sort of mission work with him. I'll agree that this must be applied very carefully and that it should only be done after very careful consideration and prayer. Also, this shouldn't come until after careful instruction and doctrinal correction.

Thanks for responding on Peter and Paul. I guess the point is that the nobody broke fellowship with anybody. Peter followed Paul's rebuke and came back to the correct doctrine, namely not excluding gentiles from the community. There was no need for a break in fellowship because the doctrinal error was corrected. It wouldn't be a excommunication, but a break in fellowship. Paul would still consider Peter a Christian.

I'm not so sure that Romans 14 is about doctrinal agreements though. The color of the church carpet probably isn't the best way to phrase things. This example might better serve what I'm trying to say, in the Old Testament there are clear commands not to eat pork. The New Testament makes it clear that these ceremonial laws are no longer in effect, but the lifelong Jew might still not want to eat pork. Would it be wrong for him to abstain? No. Would it be wrong for the gentile convert to eat pork? No. Both serve God and shouldn't give each other any grief about it. I don't think it is so much that the one who abstains believes that other Christians are doing wrong. In this case, both Christians believe that they are what both they are doing, and what other Christians are doing is fine. However, this isn't the case with doctrinal disagreements. If I believe that the Bible says we should baptize infants and some fail to do so, they are not obeying God's command (or at least what I believe to be God's command). This didn't seem to be the case with the situation in Romans 14.

As such, I'm still struggling a bit with Romans 16:17-18. The "divisions and obstacles in the way of the teaching you have learned" seems like a very broad statement that refers to all Biblical teaching. If the issue of the Roman church in Romans 14 is not doctrinal disagreements but different ways in which we can serve God, then it seems we have to take Romans 16:17-18 as inclusive of everything the Bible teaches. This puts us squarely in our own denominations as we each believe that we have the pure (or at least most pure) Biblical teaching.

I know this is two posts ago, but you mentioned "Notice also the behavior of the Apostles, who had significant disagreements with each other (e.g. Paul vs. James)". What theological disagreement did Paul and James have? They both seemed to believe that Christians could either choose to follow the old Jewish customs or choose not to. The problem was when Peter separated from the gentiles because he believed that Christians had to follow the Jewish customs, something that God seemed to have clearly made optional (Gal 2:16, Gal 2:11-14). If they actually taught two different theologies in their writings, doesn't this also prove a problem for inerrancy and inspiration?

25. Aron Wall says:

Chuckles,
To continue our slow-motion conversation:

I agree that it is very likely that St. Peter responded to St. Paul's rebuke right away. We certainly know he did so eventually.

I was referring to the seeming dispute between St. James and St. Paul over faith and works. Also, I don't think that St. James approved of Jews ceasing to obey Torah commandments (Gal 2:22, Acts 21), even though he regarded Gentiles as free not to do so. In other words, I think there were some theological disagreements even among the apostles.

You ask: "doesn't this also prove a problem for inerrancy and inspiration?" I don't think so. These are statements about the texts which St. Paul and St. James wrote, both of which I believe are true and inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are not statements about the people who wrote them, who at times sinned, like the rest of us. That is, I believe that both of their writings are inspired, and consist of truths. But this does not necessarily imply that they could have hammered out a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" that they would both have been willing to sign off on! Yet God was able to use both of them for his glory, even though they did not always see eye to eye.

(Also, I prefer the term "inspiration" to "inerrency" when describing the authority of the Scriptures, for reasons I describe here.)

"If I believe that the Bible says we should baptize infants"---there is certainly no verse in the Bible which says "You shall baptize infants", nor is there a text that says "You shall not baptize infants" The question is whether we can reasonably deduce it by reading between the lines in the other verses. But if all of our theological deductions have the same authority as the Bible itself, and therefore fall into the category of things we are willing to break fellowship over, pretty soon we will each be in our own denomination that consists only of ourselves. That is what I am trying to avoid here.

In the Church, God is able to use sinners, and also people with partially incorrect theology, to accomplish his purposes. That is in fact one of my core principles about Ecclesiology. Without that, I may as well stay home because there's not much chance that all of my beliefs are perfect. But if God accepts me, I must accept my brother as well. Hence, excommunication must be reserved for extreme circumstances such as someone denying the Resurrection, trying to marry their stepmother, etc. This is how I read the New Testament.