One of the great challenges of the church, of every age, has been to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). The apostle Paul outlined in his letter to the Ephesians a plan to achieve these two essential goals. Peace is reached, he wrote, when brethren walk worthily of the gospel in all humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, and love (Eph. 4:1,2). Unity prevails when disciples maintain and guard the oneness of the Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one body, and one hope (Eph. 4:4- 6).
Every generation of disciples has struggled to attain these goals for a variety
of reasons. First, there is the problem of false teachers -- men who are not
content with revealed truth. Gnostics loved immorality. Judaizers exalted the
law and ancestral traditions, apostates sought hierarchical power and authority,
skeptics denied the faith and overthrew the faith of others, denominationalists
broadened the Biblical view of fellowship, covetous men made merchandise of
brethren and promised freedom to sin. The mouths of these men had to be stopped,
truth had to prevail, and heretical and factious men had to be avoided (Jude
4; 2 Pet. 2:1-3,18,19; 1 Tim 1:3,4; 3 Jno. 9,10; 1 Tim. 1:19,20; 2 Tim. 2:16-18;
Ti. 1:10,11; 3:9,10).
Secondly, carnal men, driven and dominated by the flesh, through envy and jealousy, created strife. Their search for power and control, as with Diotrophes, demanded that brethren line up or else. And those who didn't -- whethe apostles or men of lesser gifts -- were cast out (see 3 Jno. 9,10). Humility, longsuffering, forbearance, and love were all absent. Peace was destroyed, even when no real Biblical or doctrinal differences arose. In cases of this kind, brethren need to grow up, look unselfishly to the things of others, and exalt their fellows above themselves.
Paul apparently referred to this carnal spirit in the churches of Galatia when he wrote: "But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another" (5:15). Yes, these brethren had doctrinal differences -- some had perverted the gospel that had been preached there at the founding of the churches. But it went beyond that. Before he discussed the "works of the flesh" and the "fruit of the Spirit," the apostle reminded them that unless love abounds they will chew up one another until they all have been devoured and consumed.
Our generation has and is now experiencing both of these problems. The 50s, 60s, and 70s were dominated by lively and legitimate debate over the organization and work of the church. Unity was shattered because brethren determined to organize the church beyond its local, autonomous, independent nature. Division came when they insisted that the church function through human institutions, sponsoring churches, and that it support recreational and social activities as essential elements of its mission.
The pain of that open strife had not fully subsided when brethren discovered and elevated other issues that strained the bonds of peace. Sound preachers expressed views of grace or fellowship in words that other preachers viewed as Calvinistic, heretical, or denominational. Ancient issues about the person of Jesus and the relationship of his manhood to Godhood arose to a level of intense scrutiny and rancorous debate. And most recently, brethren, who all believe that divorce for fornication is the only grounds for remarriage, are struggling to define the exact circumstances under which Matt. 19:9 is applicable.
Some of us recall disagreeing with the way brethren worded their views of grace and fellowship, but, after talking with many of these men personally, learned that they belived essentially what we all believe. The same has proved true with certain brethren on the matter of divorce and remarriage. Unless some among us are going from church to church spreading false notions in clear violation of Biblical truth and displaying factious spirits, we see no need to shatter the oneness and disrupt the peace we share in Christ.
What we must avoid is rallying around papers, persons, institutions, and websites to accuse, repudiate, and ostracize brethren who do not adhere exactly and submissively to party lines. I say "party lines" because in some cases we are holding brethren to precise, almost creedal, wording of views regarding designated issues that we hold dear. And it is not always clear why one issue demands precision and others do not. Moreover, it seems to me that the "party lines" are not always on one side of many of these differences.
Is it possible, brethren, that some of these controversial views can be held privately, be restricted to local fellowhsips, and be reserved for final judgment by God? This is not to say that they may not be legitimately stated, analyzed, adn debated. But in the end, can we avoid splintering into a number of sectarian parties that draw up boundaries around ourselves beyond which no dissenter is permitted to trespass?
Otherwise, brethren, we risk ignoring, and consuming one another. If we continue to chew up and spit one another out, we not only destroy unity and peace but hinder our effectiveness in a world of sinners who need redemption in Christ Jesus.
Is what the Bible teaches important? Is it the standard of right and wrong and truth and error? Must we accept, believe, and obey the truth? And are there brethren among us teaching false doctrine? Yes, yes, yes, yes!! But does that mean that every difference must create an atmosphere of debate and repudiation, be pressed to the point of division, be made a test of fellowship, and be stated with fine-tuned, creedal exactness? No, no,no, no!!
This writer doesn't pretend to be a God-ordained arbiter to sort out all of our disputes and compile a list of important and unimportant differences. And he doesn't seek to judge who is guilty or innocent. His point is simple: Let's take a long hard look at ourselves; let's scrutinize honestly those we disagree with, pinpoint what the actual views of these brethren are, and state plainly what they presently are openly teaching that is false; let's purpose to love one another as we love ourselves, think long and hard about our attitud es toward certain brethren, pray and meditate day and night, and then search out earnestly ways to Biblically keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
By L. A. Stauffer in Biblical Insights,
Vol. 5, No. 5, May, 2005.
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