The Church Should Maintain Theological Distinctions

Many Christians refuse to place much importance on their differing theological and denominational traditions. To emphasize these differences would be to needlessly stir up conflict and to cause division within the Church. To avoid this conflict, we must lay aside our differences for the sake of the Gospel. By laying aside these differences we act more Christlike, while those who refuse to do so are purposefully vindictive people who needlessly antagonize others with constant argumentation.

But this mindset is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. It is dangerous because it encourages the Church to become intellectually lethargic, and disingenuous because it is itself a doctrinal position, yet feigns neutrality. On the contrary, the Church ought to emphasize its denominational and doctrinal differences, and the supposed reconciliation that comes as a result of minimizing these differences is not even desirable. By washing over these differences, Christians grow increasingly indifferent about their own faith and averse to biblical teaching.

To give a personal example, I remember overhearing two people from my local congregation years ago discussing biblical eschatology – the study of the end times. After comparing a few positions, they concluded that people make too much of a fuss over these views, and that it does not really matter what one believes as long as they are a Christian. Spending one’s time researching or reflecting on these issues for very long is not worthwhile.

Additionally, some years ago I noticed a church in Healdsburg, California that bore the label “Methodist” and “Presbyterian.” When I asked one of their pastors why this was the case, he answered by explaining how a Methodist and Presbyterian congregation decades before had decided their denominational distinctions were not enough to warrant their separation. What was more important than these denominational titles was proclaiming the Gospel and helping their local community.

In each of these cases, those involved resolved to emphasize similarities between groups’ organizational structures and beliefs. They treated any incongruities between themselves and other brothers and sisters in Christ as hardly worth mentioning or thinking about.

The kind of message this mindset presents to members of the Church is that the ideal Christian community is one which basks in the dim sunlight of a least common denominator. Since past distinctions have apparently become antiquated, we are also encouraged to ignore Church history, Church controversies, and past theologians. The story goes that if we have any hope of progressing the kingdom of God, we must profess a Mere Christianity able to welcome the most people possible into our fold. Instead of a Christian’s main concern being about how to progress in faith, holiness, and knowledge of God, the Christian’s concern becomes, “What are the minimum requirements for being a Christian and how can I fulfill these requirements with the least effort possible?”

What ensues is a type of superficial social comradery that places more importance on inclusion than Christian teaching or discipline. Instead of the Gospel being about what Christ has done, through his life, death, and resurrection, the Gospel comes to be defined in terms of an unspecified social unity. Such a unity manifests itself through weekly small talk, incessantly “practical” community service projects, and kitschy sermons praising heroes of egalitarianism. Added in to this mix is the occasional emotive testimony of a church member, just in case the pastor’s sermon was not able to manufacture enough pious feelings among congregants.

Any disagreement or division among believers is perceived as unchristian. To be Christian is to be uncategorically nice, to abstain from judgment, to be uncritically accepting of people and ideas.

Desiring to lay aside doctrinal disagreements for the sake of social unity implies this so-called “unity” is more important than God’s truth. In fact, many theological liberals sublimate social unity to the status of the Gospel. The Presbyterian Church (USA) allowed a Muslim man, Wajidi Said, to offer prayers to Allah in its general assembly last month. A few months before that, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor at Wheaton College, said Christians and Muslims worship the same God and that she stands “in religious solidarity with Muslims.” Rick Warren, a popular pastor of Saddleback Church, although he did not argue for the spiritual unity between Muslims and Christians in this video, emphasized the fact that both Protestants and Roman Catholics believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, while failing to mention whether “salvation through Jesus Christ” entails justification by faith alone or justification by faith and works. Events and statements like these are the logical conclusion of a Church indifferent to its own theological beliefs and denominational traditions.

The Bible does indeed command Christians to remain united and to live in peace with one another, but this does not mean we ought to ignore our differences. We are capable of maintaining serious disagreements while treating each other with mutual respect. It is not automatically quarrelsome to sometimes challenge another Christian’s view on a particular issue or to recognize distinctions between congregations.

Debates over eschatology, baptism, charismatic gifts, or any number of other issues does not itself impede the message of the Gospel or inhibit the Church from performing its function of being “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” insofar as these discussions are charitable and avoid purposefully malicious behavior among believers. The Gospel is of huge importance, but so is every other Biblical doctrine. There is a time for everything, a time to proclaim the Gospel as such, and a time to examine our non essentials.

As long as Christians are not purposely adversarial, and perform all things in moderation, there is no reason why we should ignore our disagreements to achieve a false sense of unity. In doing so, our “Christianity” would lose all meaning. We do not accomplish “unity of mind” when we stop thinking. True Christian unity is an organic process that accepts other brothers and sisters in Christ while recognizing mutual disagreements, not one which reduces Christianity to a bare minimum.