Posted by: Moses | May 1, 2010

Practical Thoughts about Liberty and Unity

Pursuing Unity Through Understanding These Truths

        In each of the passages considered, Paul steps back from the disagreement and evaluates it eschatologically. He asks whether from God’s eternal perspective the various actions and beliefs will even matter. In 1 Cor 1-4, Paul clearly sees the fundamental unity of believers as far more important than the flavors of Christianity that they placed above their unity. Unequivocally he concludes that instead they should defer that judgment to Christ. In matters of doctrinal difference, humility and recognition of limited revealed knowledge must not be checked at the door. Today, this doctrine could apply in instances of doctrinal differences that do not immediately relate to a person’s right standing before God. For instance, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is essential to the purification of a believer before God; however, the mode of our symbol of baptism has no such bearing and perhaps such disputes that create denominations merely along these lines should be avoided. Similarly, perhaps the exact mysteries of the Lord’s Supper should be left well enough alone if the consequence of a dogmatic position yields factions (a synonym for denomination) within the Christian church. This is not to say that the depths of these truths should not be plumbed and expounded. However, Paul critiques those who would sacrifice the unity of Christ’s bride upon the altar of these non-gospel truths. He even threatens them severely with the wrath of God (1 Cor 3:17). To give historical example, late in the Reformation, a conference was called to try to unite the Reformed Churches of Switzerland with the Lutheran churches of Germany. At this conference (called a Coloquy) Luther seems to have been very wrong by Paul’s standards of liberty. At the Marburg Coloquy Zwingli rightly insisted on downplaying the idiosyncrasies of each reformer’s belief in order to “confess our union in all things in which we agree; and, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points.” Luther flatly refused, describing the Swiss reformers as “being of a different Spirit” than Christ.

        In Romans 14 Paul deals not with nuances of doctrine but with Christian practice. He sees hearts filled with faith acting with different responses to the OT law. However, he also sees people breaking the law of love by slandering and judging one another over issues that have little bearing on the ultimate kingdom of God. The kingdom has to do with “righteousness, joy, and peace” not nuanced practice of the law (Rom 14:17 ESV). However, the stronger brothers need to be careful not to tempt the weaker to go against their conscience, soliciting them to sin. In a modern milieu, the debate over how to view the Sabbath and pacifism come immediately to mind.

        The Sabbath debate may be particularly parallel due to Paul’s discussion of holy days. This may have actually been one of the original issues Paul was discussing with the Romans. Interestingly, Paul does not solve the dilemma. Justin Martyr expresses Paul’s meaning beautifully, saying in his dialogue with Trypho that those who

observe such institutions as were given by Moses…and [wish to perform] the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren.

Though Justin is obviously not a Sabbatarian he concludes that this issue is not one to divide over. From Paul’s view it would seem that one can celebrate a holy day as to the Lord or celebrate all days as to the Lord. He does not give an option that no days are holy to the Lord. Either one day a week is specially separated, or all days of the week are as hallowed as that one would be. Similarly, some apply some of Christ’s statements about non-violent responses unilaterally and come away with doctrinal implications of pacifism using NT strictures. Though I may disagree, unity around the gospel should still be possible.

        In Greenville, and more conservative circles, interpretations of applications of “principles” from Scripture would apply within the Romans 14 passage. Principles are broad, and their interpretation should never be dogmatic where Scripture is not: there is room for disagreement on music, alcohol, cards, and dress standards within the household of Faith. Ironically, Paul urges the Romans to “avoid” those who sow division among the brothers (Rom 16:17). Is Christ so weak as to not to be able to redeem the use of alcohol, something that he created as good (John 2:6-11; Ecclesiastes 3:9-15)? Is Christ so weak as to not be capable of redeeming passionate music for His glory? God certainly seemed to enjoy David’s passionate entrance into Jerusalem, judging Michael for her mockery (2 Sam 6:16-23). The same Christ is referred to as redeeming not only men but all of his creation (Col 1:19-20). Surely Christ did not misspeak when he inspired Paul to write to Timothy that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:1-5). He wrote this while simultaneously castigating those whose consciences are “seared” to not be able to enjoy God’s good gifts (1 Tim 4:1-3). Of course, we must use God’s creation within the bounds of our love for God and His design (ruling out sin) and within the bounds of love for our neighbors (ruling out dragging others beyond their consciences). In the words of Romans 14 itself, “in the Lord Jesus, nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14). I praise God for liberty, but I must also be lovingly careful not to drag a brother who is weak in faith to participate in any of the above. This would force him to sin against his conscience and according to Paul could even destroy him. I can’t go up to a fundamentalist who thinks movies are wrong and lovingly encourage him to violate what he thinks God wants and come to a movie with me. The same is true of alcohol or music. I can teach; I can lovingly show the clear teaching of the Word, but I can never encourage such a younger brother to participate until the Spirit has strengthened his faith in the totality of Christ’s redemption through the Word. We must not hear Paul saying “laugh at the fundamentalists” in these passages. If we do, we missed the point. Paul’s ringing exhortation is rather to love those whose standards are stricter than ours, and never encourage them to sin against what they view as God’s law for them. Ironically many people who have come out from fundamentalism tend to take a wide berth of their former associations in fundamentalism. Romans 14 would advocate the opposite, encouraging us to pursue fellowship with our brothers despite these side-line disagreements (14:1, 15:7). The bottom line: pursue fellowship; teach the truth, but never encourage action until the truth dwells in the heart.

        In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul teaches that even though something may be true in the end before God’s throne, we must still consider how to love those around us and be careful not to take liberty so far as to dive into blatant sin. The kingdom is both “now and not yet,” and the strong must bear with those whose faith is still more in the “not yet.” Even when becoming lawless “to those outside the law” Paul was still “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). Thus, though Paul might eat meat that had been offered to an idol, not asking his pagan host where the meat had come from in order to put no hindrance in the way of the gospel, he would never go so far as to worship with a pagan in order to have a similar opportunity to witness. In a modern context, such principles might apply in how Christians engage culture in the broad sense of media intake and a narrower sense of interfaith participation. Can a Christian benefit from Feature Films For Families even though run by the Mormon Church? Probably, but perhaps the fact that we can benefit from Mormons should not be flaunted around newer believers. In more ecumenical settings these doctrines have ramifications for what types of activities believers can participate with other faiths. Political or humanitarian cooperation might be possible; however, any kind of inter-faith service seems to be specifically precluded by Paul’s doctrine of the preservation of unity. Those who are outside of Christ cannot enjoy the unity of Christ; if the foundation is not there, unity cannot exist.

        All three passages seem to be bound together under the following principle: Christian doctrines and practices should never interfere with the spread or practice of the gospel. To do so would be akin to gnawing off your legs in order to get to the starting line of a race. Thus, we should value accuracy in doctrine and practice; however, to value nuances of doctrine or specifics of practice over the foundational truths of the gospel would communicate a very poor hierarchy of value. In a fallen world sometimes the good must be sacrificed to preserve the best. To return to Paul’s building analogy in 1 Cor 3:10-17, windows, walls, and roofs are important to a finished building; however, if one has to choose between losing a stain glass window or splitting the foundation in two, the choice seems obvious if one wants to preserve the building. In the words of the oft repeated mantra: “In things necessary let there be unity, things unnecessary let there be liberty, and in both let there be charity.”

        I would welcome comments and discussion of other applications of these principles. I presume that I have done little more than pick at the top of the iceberg.


  1. So… This is most likely not at all what you are expecting or even wanting (if the latter is the case, feel free to ignore).

    If a person believes you are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, but also believes in new revelation and the possibility of additional scripture, is this an issue to divide unity?

    … I suppose I’ll keep it at that for now. I just wonder how one determines what exactly those essential issues are. It’s a fairly easy concept within things such as dress or music, but what about larger doctrinal issues?

  2. You might want to check out the previous posts, particularly: “Liberty and Unity Part 2 of 4:” Hopefully you haven’t been crazy enough to have been reading through all of them, but if you’re really interested each is an exposition of a different section of unity in the NT. “2 of 4” goes through 1 Cor 1-4 which deals with differences in doctrinal issues/factionalism rather than issues of practice like this post did mostly.

    I don’t think that the essential issues are as hard as most people make them out to be. We have a mission, to tell people the gospel and to teach them to follow Christ. IF we would ask ourselves the question that Paul does: “Can Christ make this person stand in the final day?” We would simplify our lives greatly in commending our brothers back to Jesus. A brother in Christ is someone else who has been given the gospel, good news that through repentance and belief they can follow Jesus as a citizen of His kingdom, telling other people the same great news!

    I would definitely not think that looking for further prophecy would be a gospel “deal breaker.” Plus, in probably slightly different ways, Grudem, Mahaney, me, and many others believe in a continuance of uninspired revelation. I don’t really know what your friend is thinking in specific. Romans 14 might counsel you to lovingly welcome them as a sibling in Christ, but to lovingly teach as the Lord allows, the sufficiency of scripture etc. That’s the big thing in Romans 14: welcome, don’t bicker, but also kindly teach the truth.

    The realization of Christ’s power to redeem can be a great motivator to keep the gospel the main thing, knowing that if you never get around to hashing out that doctrine or your brother never actually sees Scripture quite as you do… Jesus is mighty to save (Rom 14:1-4).

  3. Well… how much do you know about Mormonism? Because it is, as a hard and fast rule, considered a false religion, but by the description you just laid out, it isn’t. A Mormon would wholeheartedly agree with everything you just said. And they generally don’t like to be called Mormons because they don’t want to be called by a name other than Christ’s – hence the “Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.” And when I say they would wholeheartedly agree, I mean it.

    I know that Mormonism is, like I said, considered a false religion, however; no one can seem to justify why.

  4. I have some articles that might help if you are interested.

    Mormons have a variety of difficulties, not the least of which is a denial of Christ’s true deity as equal to God the Father and an elevation of mankind to eventual deity. Though I don’t fully understand why, denying Christ’s deity is a straight up deal breaker. See 1 John 4 and 2-3 John. I’m very willing to defer to the Word here though I don’t understand all the reasons why.

    However, in terms of gospel unity, consider the book of Galatians. Paul does not deny that the Judaizers believe the official tenants of the gospel. He seems to assume that they do. However, they also add to that kernel additional requirements.

    It is not enough to assent to the truths of the gospel. If you add works of any sort to the gospel of grace you have obliterated the gospel of Grace. That is definitively not the gospel, and though some Mormons would try to deny it they do believe in a system of merit, eventually earning them goditude and god-children if they are good Mormons.

    From your question I was assuming that you meant future revelation that was in agreement with present revelation, i.e. continuationism in more radical flavors.

  5. I should probably also add that this is official Mormon dogma, there are probably lots of less initiated Mormons who might believe otherwise…just like there are redeemed Catholics. Salvation is not in nomenclature.

  6. Yeah, I was about to say that not all of that is what a lot of Mormons believe. They also seem to be in general a bit more comfortable with diversity in beliefs on those issues.

    From what I can gather though, the “works” portion is very similar to a lot of legalism but does have to do with a form of eternal status, which I know is false.

    I feel that because they are often more comfortable with diversity in belief on a lot of those issues that a good number of your “average Mormons” don’t line up with the dogma.

    It just troubles me at times the way Christians deal with the Mormon church. I know for a fact that the manner in which most Christians approach the topic alienates the people. I’m not suggesting linking arms with the Mormon church and doing jigs or anything, I just see a lot of average people who don’t understand why what they believe is different than what we believe and are typically very open to truth.

    hmmm. I’m attempting to write two papers right now on wildly different topics in addition to having this conversation, so nothing is coming out quite right. But… hopefully it’s close and makes some amount of sense.

    And thank you. I can’t seem to get anyone to discuss this with me, and it’s been on my mind for quite some time.

  7. I agree; in fact the general “Christian” response to all sorts of things that they come across is not normally loving. And sadly, the harsh reactions are based almost solely on nomenclature: baptist, presbyterian, lutheran, fundamentalist, evangelical, paedo-baptist, transubstantiationist, pant-wearer, etc.

    In my view, true legalism is as false a religion as Mormonism. I think Paul would agree via Galatians.

    With a genuine legalist who views external standards as constituting or adding to his purity before God, there can be no gospel based unity.

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