A while back I received a request to sponsor a college student in a summer missions project. I knew the student to be a Christian, and the missions project was part of the outreach program of the denomination that operates the college. As I always do, when thoughtfully and prayerfully determining whether or not to support a ministry, I looked at the college’s mission and doctrinal statements. While they did say that they wanted to reach the world for Christ, in their doctrines of faith they specified their views concerning end time events, i.e. the tribulation, the rapture and the millennium.
I wondered why reaching the world for Christ should require a particular position on eschatology. Why should opinions on end-time events be presented as co-equal to the issue of salvation? I contacted the college, and respectfully asked them why they push their own denominational opinion. Is their intent really to lead people to the LORD, or are they merely trying to build up their own denomination? The answer they gave me was a real disappointment. They are convinced they have the “whole” truth, and if you don’t believe everything in their canon, then you don’t have as much faith as they do.
It’s as if they are saying God’s plans can only be squeezed — toothpaste like — through the aperture of their own particular brand of wisdom. To me, they are making the Great Omission, following their religious tenets and hierarchy rather than heeding the Spirit of the living God. The Great Commission is about spreading the message of God’s offer to set us free from sin. It’s about our spiritual rebirth, not the adherence to religious dogma. We don’t need more religious dogma in the world. Focus on sectarian issues takes the living and active word of God and turns it into a burden that weighs us down and quenches the Holy Spirit.
For that reason I decided not to support that summer missions project. No doubt these kinds of outreach programs by various denominations do some good. People are helped and even led to make a decision for Christ. But that only happens because God is simply too big to be confined by our human limitations. When someone receives Jesus as LORD, it’s essentially a spiritual experience, not a religious induction. The fine points of Christian “religion” come later.
The Great Commission
Shouldn’t the idea of “reaching the world for Christ” unite Christians of all stripes, everywhere? Isn’t the salvation we have in Jesus Christ so profound and life-changing that it should motivate all of us to spread the word? You don’t have to be an evangelist to support evangelism. You don’t have to be a missionary to support missions. The call to reach the world for Christ is universal because when Jesus gave us the Great Commission he used words of the broadest scope: “all the world”, “all creation” and “whoever”. It’s recorded in Mark 16:15,16:
Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
That seems simple enough. And yet, under the banner of Christianity there is much disagreement as to the precise meaning of these words. Theologians have written volumes about “the good news” (salvation from sin through faith in Christ). I addressed this topic in Hearing The Good News Of God’s Kingdom. Additional volumes have been written about what it means to believe (have faith), what baptism is and the consequences of salvation and condemnation. As expected, different theologians give different meanings to these terms.
The Great Commission doesn’t provide details because Jesus spoke to followers who were expected to already know the details. Those teachings were passed from the Apostles to the earliest disciples and eventually produced what is known as the New Testament. And believers have been arguing about the details ever since. There are over 40,000 Christian denominations and sects worldwide, dividing Christianity into various categories based on distinctive theological differences, worship styles or religious rules. But Ephesians 4:4-6 says,
There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
And similarly, Colossians 3:11 says,
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
The use of the word, “all” in these passages is not to be construed in a pan-theistic way. It refers to all believers — the “one body” — and to the unity we have, not only in our faith and baptism, but in the Holy Spirit, in the LORD, and in God the Father. This is what is called the “universal” church, which comprises all believers everywhere. But that does not imply that the unity of believers is attained through some sort of religious multiculturalism. We cannot sidestep the need to define what Christianity is.
Defining the Church
Early on, the Catholic church was so named, meaning the universal Church — something only Catholics would consider to be true. And even Catholics have their separate divisions. Which Catholic church is the true Catholic church? The principle is the same in all churches. No single denomination is the universal Church. The best definition I’ve heard is that the Church isn’t a religious organization at all, but a spiritual body and therefore “invisible”.
Each denomination defines its own version of Christianity. Historically, efforts have been made to adopt creeds that codify the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. But no single creed holds universal acceptance among all believers. There is always someone who wants to make changes to suit himself. Rather than agreeing to one of the major creeds, an increasing number of denominations and organizations have written their own statements of faith.
How can all Christians be “one” in the face of such diverse opinions? If God the Father of all is over all, through all and in all, does that mean all versions of Christianity are true? If we accept that, then neither Christianity nor the Church can be defined, since many points of contradiction exist. Even if differences of opinion fall short of being heresy, they can’t all be right. Leaving Christianity and the Church undefined is not acceptable. So, we are faced with the Biblical call to unity on the one hand and 40,000 different opinions about theology, religion and even politics on the other.
If God allows for differences among believers, that’s his business. However, if the Bible says there is “one faith”, then it is the business of believers everywhere to be able to say what that faith is. If we cannot do that, then what level of commitment, if any, does the label “Christian” demand? Is it acceptable for Christians to worship and believe as they please, ignoring the Biblical call to unity? Is calling oneself a Christian any different from belonging to a political party or supporting a favorite sports team? Is it just a matter of one’s cultural or group identity? Or are we subject to a greater, unifying authority?
Relativism vs. the Centrality of Christ
If Christians are ever to unite, it will not be the result of human efforts. There are simply too many different human opinions, masquerading as authorities and jockeying for position. Our one true authority can only be found in Christ, as Scripture reveals. Church unity can only be a product of our LORD’s authority. Unity is a spiritual state, attainable only by our obedience to Christ, not to some bureaucratic hierarchy.
But in our generation, the world has become less focused on God and more focused on self. This has given rise to many selfish deceptions, not the least of which is relativism. Relativism has become a prevailing world view. It’s what is taught in almost all schools, colleges and universities. Opinions have become more important than facts. “Fair and balanced” has become a substitution for the objective truth.
The January 2013 edition of Imprimis features an article adapted from a speech given by Nathan Harden at Hillsdale College. A 2009 graduate of Yale, Mr. Harden blogs about higher education for the National Review Online, is editor of The College Fix, and has written for numerous publications. He was a 2010 Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute, a 2011 Robert Novak Fellow at the Phillips Foundation and in 2012 authored the book, Sex and God at Yale (an intentional homage to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God & Man at Yale). In his Imprimis article, Harden writes,
…the fact that Yale as an institution no longer understands the substantive meaning of academic freedom — which requires the ability to distinguish art from pornography, not to mention right from wrong — is a sign of its enslavement to the ideology of moral relativism, which denies any objective truth (except of course, for the truth that there is no truth).
Under the dictates of moral relativism, no view is any more valid than any other view, and no book is any greater or more worth reading than any other book. Thus, the old idea of a liberal education — that each student would study the greatest books, books organized into a canon based on objective criteria that identify them as valuable — has given way to a hodgepodge of new disciplines — African-American Studies, Latino Studies, Native American Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies — based on the assumption that there is no single way to describe the world that all serious and open-minded students can comprehend.
It’s easy to see that the trend of relativism has crept into Christian churches, nurturing a growing variety of ways to explain what it means to be a Christian. Many denominations today no longer even consider the Bible to be God’s authoritative word. In place of God’s immutable truth, they draw from any number of extra-Biblical sources in order to believe whatever they want. This sort of relativism bends meaning into meaninglessness, making such a religion the antithesis of Christianity.
1 Corinthians 27:12 describes the Christian Church as the body of Christ. And Ephesians 1:22 names Christ as the head of this body. The body isn’t to function according to what its members think, but according to what its head thinks.
Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18). The Bible is the authoritative source for learning about Jesus. Outside of Biblical authority, the Church and Christian faith are undefinable. Otherwise, Christianity can mean whatever one wants it to mean. Our faith isn’t something we design ourselves. God gives it to us (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus designs it and develops it in us (Hebrews 12:2). If we, like sheep, have gone astray (Isaiah 53:6), no longer can there be one body or one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, or one God and Father of all. We’re just out there on our own … lost.
Either we set our course by the authority of Scripture, which teaches the centrality of Christ in the Church, or we sink in a sea of endlessly changing versions of the truth. Yet, even if we agree on the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture, there remains the divisive issues of disagreements arising from differences in how certain Bible verses are interpreted. What do we do with that? Is it a matter of “I’m right and you’re wrong”? Or do we just look the other way?
Remembering the principle that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20), we must remind ourselves that we are only able to understand the Bible because God’s Holy Spirit reveals his truth to us. Understanding the Bible goes way beyond the human intellect and requires spiritual discernment. (To begin to grasp the concept of spiritual discernment, stop reading this and take a moment to study 1 Corinthians 2:4-16.) Understanding God’s message to the Church is a spiritual experience. Being in Christ or in the Spirit will take care of Church unity (Romans 9:1; 12:5).
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. — 1 Corinthians 2:14-16
Yes, If the Church is the body of Christ and Christ is our head, then we do have the mind of Christ. But having the mind of Christ isn’t the same as comprehending the mind of Christ. The job of the body is to respond to the head, not to analyze it. Biblical phrases such as “live by faith”, “walk in the light” and “led by the Spirit” do not refer to our human capacity to understand, our religious zeal or our religious discipline. They refer to our obedient response to the LORD. As the body of Christ, our job isn’t to interpret the nuts and bolts of God’s plan, but to simply be a part of it. Obeying Christ is a function of being in Christ, which fosters unity. Following denominational dictates drives believers into different directions and divides the body.
How are true believers supposed to handle all the differences we find in the Church today? Addressing this issue, the 14th chapter of Romans touches on “disputable matters” (NIV) [“doubtful disputations” in the KJV and “disputes over opinions” in the RSV]. The Greek word from which these phrases have been translated carries the sense that a thing is disputable. It’s an opinion based on one’s own inward reasoning or deliberation. The chapter begins:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.
The first verse is clear that those who have stronger faith, should accept those with weaker faith, and not have disputes over opinions. We can conclude that having a strong opinion is not the same as having a strong faith. This passage isn’t simply about eating. It’s about faith differences. Verse 5 gives us another illustration:
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
The point Paul is making is that some specific beliefs aren’t as significant as the attitude with which the believer holds them to be true. It’s sort of like the story of the widow’s mite. According to Jesus, the poor widow gave more than all the others — meaning that the dollar amount of a gift isn’t what counts, but what is in your heart when you give it. Romans 14:6 affirms that both the weak and strong in faith do what they do to honor and thank the LORD.
Verse 12 says each of us will have to give an account of himself to God. Verse 13 reiterates that we should stop passing judgement on one another and make up our minds not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in each others’ way. We can conclude that the expression of one’s faith according to the condition of one’s heart overrides the need to prove or disprove disputable opinions. This idea is applied universally in verses 22 and 23:
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God… everything that does not come from faith is sin.
The gist of this message is that within the one, universal Church it’s possible to have divergent opinions among the members, as long as they don’t pass judgment on each other because of those opinions, because arguing one’s religious point of view carries with it the risk of destroying unity. Different opinions within the body are to be expected. But problems begin when we allow our differences to place obstacles or stumbling blocks in each other’s way.
If everything that does not come from faith is sin, then Church unity, the definition of Christianity, the Great Commission and the centrality of Christ all come from faith, which comes from the Spirit of God. These things are spiritually discerned by those who have the Spirit, as we saw in 1 Corinthians 2:14. But religious opinions do not necessarily come from faith. Religious rules and practices may be nothing more than human traditions — disputable matters from the minds of men.
The Bond of Peace
The job of determining the difference between matters of faith and matters of religion (disputable matters) is one of spiritual discernment. Ephesians 4:3 says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Church unity here is described as unity “of the Spirit”, attainable through “the bond of peace”, as opposed to religious conformity. This peace is not simply the absence of conflict. This is not peace as the world understands it, but the peace of God that Christ has given us (John 14:27) which bonds all believers together.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I do not support any ecumenical efforts that gloss over significant doctrinal differences. Unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace works when Christ is in authority. But multiple authorities divide the body. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says it this way:
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
Romans 14:5 addresses disputable matters when it says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” But the appeal to “agree with one another” in 1 Corinthians 1:10 refers to indisputable matters. Members of the body of Christ can have disagreements on disputable matters as long as they don’t pass judgment on one another and don’t argue about opinions. But when it comes to indisputable matters, the body must have unanimity for it to remain whole. Knowing the difference between disputable and indisputable requires spiritual discernment and bears prayerful consideration.
Disputable or Indisputable?
Although there is some overlap, as in the case of speaking in tongues, generally, there are three categories of differences among Christians:
◆ how we believe,
◆ how we worship,
◆ and how we live.
How we believe includes our specific views on issues of theology and how we interpret the Bible: historically, allegorically or literally. One of the main differences of belief among Christians comes under the heading of eschatology, the study of end-time events, such as the second coming of Christ, the millennium, the great tribulation and the rapture.
One might not think that how we worship would be an issue that carried nearly as much weight as how we believe. But the reality is that to many Christians faith is associated with a religious identity. Nuts and bolts issues, such as rules for Communion, baptism, the collection of tithes and offerings, and what kind of music is acceptable in worship become significantly important. The manner in which an act of worship is done becomes as important to them as the act itself because they ascribe specific spiritual meaning to specific religious acts.
The same thing can be said for how we live. To many Christians lifestyle issues are all-important because they consider behavior (which can be seen) as the reflection of God’s work within them — the “new creature”. So they focus on things such as dressing as Christians should dress, eating as Christians should eat and speaking as Christians should speak.
On the one hand, this type of motivation seems to be right. However, perhaps such believers need to think about 1 Samuel 16:7, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Nor would it hurt to consider Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” And possibly 1 Corinthians 2:4, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power…” Enough said. “He who has ears to hear …”
In any case, I am of the opinion that how we worship and how we live are disputable matters. It is my responsibility to not pass judgment on my brothers and sisters in Christ over such matters, so, relying on the bond of peace, I will not argue my opinions. But it is in the area of how we believe that we find the indisputable matters.
Christians validate their beliefs in a number of ways. They may find the basis for what they believe in the Bible, in tradition, or in any other authority they recognize. They may even claim that God has spoken to them personally. But as I have already said, unless one can validate his beliefs by examining what the Bible teaches, his beliefs are without authority. No one who claims to be a Christian, yet denies the authority of Scripture, has any real authority for what he believes. Rather than building on the rock, he is building on sand (Matthew 7:24-27).
Why not “agree with one another” to build our house on Jesus the Rock? Since the Bible is God’s authoritative revelation to us, let’s refrain from interpreting every which way. Being of one mind begins with unity of the Spirit. It also requires that the Church takes care of some very down-to-earth business. We need to maintain high standards of scholarship in our study of Scripture. That involves understanding language and the inherent difficulties of translating certain word meanings. We are not to argue about words (2 Timothy 2:14). We must study the whole Bible and not take passages out of context, whether that means textually, historically or culturally. We must teach sound hermeneutics and exegesis and expose those who simply read their own meanings into Bible verses.
Why not “judge rightly” by standing on the authority of God’s word, which tells us what the Good News is? 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 gives us the basic elements of the Good News: that according to Scripture, Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and was seen by a host of witnesses, many of whom were still living and available for verification of what they saw. Obviously, this portion of Scripture glosses over details that are clearly stated elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, Christ’s sacrifice only saves us when we receive him by faith as LORD and savior. But the Corinthians already knew this.
Paul’s mention of the Good News was even more brief in Ephesians 1:13, again, because the Ephesians already knew what comprised the Good News. However, as mentioned earlier, Paul made an effort to point out to them in 4:4-6 that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all. If we can agree on these Biblical basics, we can let Christ be the Head of his Church. But the current status of the Church is that we are divided into various parts, making the Great Omission rather than obeying the Great Commission. By assuming our own headship we ignore the Spirit of the living God. That must end.
Back To Jerusalem
There comes a point when actions speak louder than words. As the end of the age approaches, shouldn’t we be acting in concert, wrapping up the Great Commission, instead of focusing on things that divide us? Isn’t it of utmost importance for the One Church Under God to be proclaiming the Good News to the billions of human beings on Earth who still haven’t heard it?
Recently I heard about “Back To Jerusalem”, a vision of the home churches in China to complete the Great Commission. Since the gospel came to China from the west, they seek to continue spreading the word until it comes full circle back to where it all began: Jerusalem. You can learn about this wonderful vision at http://backtojerusalem.com/.
On the “About” page, is a map of the “10/40 Window” (explained at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10/40_Window). This area, targeted by Back To Jerusalem, is where Christianity has had the least impact in the world. This is where the people live who need to hear the gospel the most. This is where the last great push of the Great Commission needs to happen. There are about 50 different nations in this area, many of which endure the harsh rule of Islam.
Most of the people in this part of the world don’t have access to information like we do in the West. They don’t have the opportunities or freedoms we do to become informed or to make choices. Most of them have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. This last spiritual target area of the Great Commission should be the task that unites all Christians everywhere.
I understand that charity begins at home. I understand that reaching the world for Christ also means talking to our neighbors. But the 10/40 window is where the need is greatest, both in the population numbers and in poor living conditions.
Christians, whatever action you decide to take, let the Spirit of the Living God rule in your hearts. At the very least, commit these matters to prayer.