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”

  • Lyle Nelson

    It is good to be passionate about one’s beliefs and I would like to think that many of the differences in opinion that exist within the Christian faith are due to misinterpretation, lack of information and study, simply accepting the beliefs of a trusted pastor, friend, author etc. And certainly Satan does what he can to stir up dissension, even in the Church (perhaps especially in the Church!)

    It is also easy as sinful human beings to react negatively when we perceive that we are being “attacked”, as we may perceive it, when we believe that we are right and the other person is wrong. Matt, I admire your transparency in admitting that you felt some of this in your own heart over some of the more negative comments you received privately. That is called being human!

    But in the end, we must come back to 1 Corinthians 13 and show love for one another – that matters ever so much more than whether we are right or wrong, particularly about a “non-essential”. Without love, demonstrated by unity, correctness means nothing.

  • Hi Matt! I want you know that I fully enjoyed the article the sometimes spirited debates that ensued. In the end most of us can agree on one thing: Jesus Christ is the son of God; He lived as a human being; He died for our sins; He was buried; He rose again on the third day after his death. This above all unites us, despite any man made interpretations or theological disagreements we may have!

  • Bob Mullins

    Sad to hear you got hammered by some for last week…. don’t give up mate! it was a good article, stuff that has divided churches & denominations for centuries. At least you didn’t get burnt at the stake for it!. (Neither did Calvin or Arminius) reminds me of the old joke about what do you call a parrot with a submachine gun… and what can he do? You call him ‘SIR’ and he can do ANYTHING he wants!

  • Shawn Ruth

    I live in John Piper country…Minnesota. And I have had Calvinists attack me saying that if you don’t believe the calvinist tulip doctrines of grace your salvation is suspect. They seem to be two different gospels. Reformed theology limits God’s grace to an elect few and results in apathy as far as evangelism is concerned…the elect will get saved if we evangelize or not…

  • Ian Davies

    Thanks for sharing in such a loving way. I’m probably as accidental a Calvinist as you and still wrestle with alternate views. I wrestle mainly because of the people I love who hold alternate/opposing views and, as you mentioned in this post, the challenge of being able to disagree lovingly. Jesus said that we would be known as His disciples by our love for each other. Sadly, very often we seem to act in a way that seems to say that we think we will be known as His disciples by the doctrinal positions we hold and defend.

    Thank you again for sharing Matt. My prayer is that we (all of us in every Christian grouping/denomination) would start every conversation from a position of humility and love for those we’re speaking to, whether we think we’re likely to agree or not.

    • Chess-Player

      The problem with Calvinists and most futuristic Christians (end-time theology: Millennium, Seven year Tribulation, Israel as a separate entity and the church) is that they do not understand that the elect was and will always be Jesus. He was chosen by the Father to create, to redeem and to reign over His own creation (Jesus is God)

      NAU Psalm 89:3-5 “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, 4 I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations.” 5 The heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD; Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones.”

      NAU Isaiah 42:1-4 “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 “He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. 3 “A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 “He will not be disheartened or crushed Until He has established justice in the earth; And the coast lands will wait expectantly for His law.”

      NAU Luke 9:34-35 ‘While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”

      NAU Luke 23:35 “And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.”

      The Jews knew that Messiah (The Christ) would be the chosen one to reign over them. We, on the other hand, are chosen IN CHRIST, (never outside of Him).

      Those who come to the CHOSEN ONE, are simply responding to he wooing of the Spirit who works on all people to bring them to Christ. The gospel is the means that the Spirit uses to bring people to the Lord. The gospel is not limited, but men do choose to either receive or reject. It is their prerogative.

      My free will is very important to me. I’m not a robot that responds by obligation to a deity that has no respect for my choices. Most people do not respond because they are not interested and could not care less. Others respond because they see the need. God never forces anyone to do something that they don’t want. Jonah is a prime example. God respects our choices. This is why I love Him.

      Mat 13:3-9 “And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow;

      4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up.

      5 “Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil.

      6 “But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.

      “Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out.

      8 “And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. 9 “He who has ears, let him hear.”

      God is love and love never forces Himself on His beloved, otherwise, this deity would be a rapist. I want nothing to do with the Calvinist’s god.

  • mike

    I suppose that I am in the minority here. I do oppose Calvinism and did write you on this blog but you didn’t consider it worthy of a reply. Not sure why you have a comment section.
    But your words in this post calling Calvinism “non-essential doctrines (meaning they are not essential for saving faith)” is shocking. How can you say that? If God elects some to salvation and some to hell then it’s hopeless for many! How can one then know with certainty in which group one fits? Calvinism like the Galatian judiaizers is a doctrine foundational to the way of salvation. It’s no wonder it touched Paul on the raw as well many with this issue. And it is no wonder that John Calvin had people executed who didn’t believe him!

  • Elizabeth Forkey

    When Spurgeon says the same thing the next day 🙂
    October 25

    Morning…

    2 John 2
    For the truths sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever.

    Once let the truth of God obtain an entrance into the human heart and subdue the whole man unto itself, no power human or infernal can dislodge it. We entertain it not as a guest but as the master of the house-this is a Christian necessity, he is no Christian who doth not thus believe. Those who feel the vital power of the gospel, and know the might of the Holy Ghost as He opens, applies, and seals the Lord’s Word, would sooner be torn to pieces than be rent away from the gospel of their salvation. What a thousand mercies are wrapt up in the assurance that the truth will be with us for ever; will be our living support, our dying comfort, our rising song, our eternal glory; this is Christian privilege, without it our faith were little worth. Some truths we outgrow and leave behind, for they are but rudiments and lessons for beginners, but we cannot thus deal with Divine truth, for though it is sweet food for babes, it is in the highest sense strong meat for men. The truth that we are sinners is painfully with us to humble and make us watchful; the more blessed truth that whosoever believeth on the Lord Jesus shall be saved, abides with us as our hope and joy. Experience, so far from loosening our hold of the doctrines of grace, has knit us to them more and more firmly; our grounds and motives for believing are now more strong, more numerous than ever, and we have reason to expect that it will be so till in death we clasp the Saviour in our arms. Wherever this abiding love of truth can be discovered, we are bound to exercise our love. No narrow circle can contain our gracious sympathies, wide as the election of grace must be our communion of heart. Much of error may be mingled with truth received, let us war with the error but still love the brother for the measure of truth which we see in Him; above all let us love and spread the truth ourselves.

  • mike

    If Calvinism believes God’s sovereignity alone decides everything then how did it fail Adam and Eve? If John 3:16 is correct and God’s will is that none should perish how then can any escape God’s sovereign will? Perhaps the universalists are right no one can escape God and that His Love wins in the end for everyone? If God truly saves just some while others He sends to damnation such a God isn’t a loving God and I want none of Him.

  • Matt,
    I don’t quite know if I’m understanding you. May I ask, are you talking about what is expressly named sin and what is not? There are many things that some Christians I know can’t do, because they are convicted of it although it’s not named as sin in the Bible. (ex. there are some who can’t watch any tv .) It doesn’t bother me to watch unless the content becomes offensive. Then there are the things labeled by God as sin, (ex. A man that lays with another man as he does with a woman , it is an abomination)
    The 1st example is a personal conviction whereas the 2nd is named sin.
    My confusion is if you are contending that both are equal and therefore must be followed by everyone? If that is what you are saying then by nw you are aware of the mistake. We can not live Someone else’s convictions.

    • Chess-Player

      The true definition of sin is the breaking of a relationship. God has reconciled Himself to man through Jesus Christ.

      Man must accept God’s initiative and His unbounded love that He plainly demonstrated at Calvary. The gospel is the means to tell others how far God went in order to get them back.

      Their response dictates their eternal destiny. They might say no today, no, ten years from now… but at the end, they will have no excuse because LOVE pursued them all the way to the end.

      NAU 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”