Monday, September 12, 2011

Why Can’t Christians Get Along?

By George W. Sarris

It’s no secret that Christians have a hard time getting along with other Christians with whom they disagree. Historically, sincere Christian believers have been persecuted, defamed, tortured, and sometimes put to death by other sincere Christian believers who didn’t agree with their positions on baptism, election, church government and authority, and a host of other issues.

In order not to be caught in some kind of doctrinal or ecclesiastical error, almost all churches and Christian organizations have put together some kind of written statement defining what they consider to be their core beliefs. Whether it be the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 39 Articles of the Anglican Communion, The Baptist Faith and Message, or the Statement of Faith of one or another Christian church or group, they all seek to set out in some clear form what they consider the essence of what it is to be a true Christian believer.

The primary purpose of these statements is to let those outside the faith know what Christians believe, and to make other Christians aware of their distinctive positions on doctrinal or ecclesiastical issues so they can find a place for fellowship with like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, these “Statements of Faith” actually impede unity by separating one group of Christian believers from other Christian believers who do not share their views. Sometimes, those who disagree are considered untaught or mistaken. Sometimes, they are considered heretics whose views must be eliminated and the proponents silenced.

Is Unity Possible?

The word “ecumenical” has come to be known in certain circles within the Christian world today as a synonym for theological compromise. However, it actually refers to the desire within the Christian community to define clearly the essence of what it means to beChristian.

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, the “Ecumenical Councils” were those comprised of representatives of the entire Church who assembled to discuss issues and define positions that were of vital importance to their identity as true followers of Christ.

The idea behind these councils was expressed eloquently in a tract written in about AD 1627 by a little known German divine. Although generally attributed to St. Augustine, it was actually Rupertus Meldenius who penned three short and very profound statements that sum up the central focus of what these councils were trying to do, and what Christians of all ages should be seeking to attain:

In essentials unity. In nonessentials liberty. In all things charity.

Most Christians, even today, would agree with that sentiment. God certainly wants His people to be united in those beliefs that are essential to the faith, gracious towards others who disagree with them with regard to disputable matters, and loving in all interactions with those with whom they differ.

But, “What are the ‘essentials’? And, “Who decides what those ‘essentials’ really are?”

What is “Essential”?

I was quite surprised recently to hear John MacArthur, never one to be accused of advocating theological compromise, utter something that sounded very “ecumenical” in the true sense of the word – although I’m sure he would not refer to it in that way.

He was being interviewed about his views on the doctrine of election – a view which he clearly explained and vigorously defended as the true and accurate teaching of Scripture. Toward the end of the interview, he was asked for his opinion on what those listeners should do who were convinced that Scripture does teach the doctrine of election, but who attend a church where that view is not taught. Did he think this is an issue important enough for them to leave or disassociate themselves from a church that disagreed with their belief?

Dr. MacArthur’s answer was clear and definite. No!

No, you know, I want to say that you don't want to split a church over anything, really, unless you're talking about the deity of Christ, or the character of God, or the nature of salvation. . . . I think if you're in a church where this is not taught, or where there seems to be a resistance to it, you need to humble yourself and be meek and be gracious and celebrate the glory of God in His electing grace in your own life and do the best you can to live your Christian life in that environment. . . . But don't make this some issue that you're going to split a church or create conflict.

Although clearly a central part of his belief system and something he definitely thinks is the true Biblical teaching, Dr. MacArthur did not consider it to be an essential belief that should separate Christians. For him, it is a nonessential element where liberty should be allowed.

All of which brings us back to the questions, “What are the ‘essentials’? And, “Who decides what those ‘essentials’ really are?”

The Statement of Faith of the Christian Church

Interestingly, a document actually exists that was agreed upon by the entire Christian Church assembled for the specific purpose of defining what it was that was essential to believe in order to be considered truly Christian. That document is the Nicene Creed. It was originally drafted at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, with later modifications made at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. It is a statement of faith accepted by almost all those who claim to be Christians even today.

And, interestingly, that same group specifically prohibited other creeds from being formulated and presented as the official teaching of the Christian Church.

The holy Synod has determined that no person shall be allowed to bring forward, or to write, or to compose any other Creed (ἑτέραν πίστιν μηδενὶ ἐξεῖναι προφέρειν ἤγουν συγγράφειν ἢ συντιθέναι),besides that which was settled by the holy fathers who assembled in the city of Nicæa, with the Holy Spirit.

The Nicene Creed is the true Statement of Faith of the Christian Church.

The distinctions spelled out in the various other statements that churches and organizations have drawn up since then are real and held strongly by those with whom they regularly fellowship. However, those distinctions should not become so important that they cause one group of believers to deny other believers the right to disagree with them on disputable issues.

Perhaps we should rename them, Statements of Distinctives.

Why can’t Christians can get along? In part, because we have failed to accept the heritage of our faith and humbly follow the simple advice of Rupertus Meldenius:

In essentials unity. In nonessentials liberty. In all things charity.

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