I recently gave 5 ways that your church can grow in unity & love among its members, but we shouldn’t stop there. Your local church isn’t alone; it’s part of the global Church represented by the thousands of local churches throughout the world.
The world is watching
Many conflicts are bound to arise if we interact with Christians from other churches and theological camps, so why even bother? For starters, because the world is watching us (Jn 13:34-35; 17:23).
“Our biggest criticism of Evangelical churches is their lack of unity. They fight and argue instead of loving one another. Every individual church wants to do its own thing and refuses to work with others. That’s not Jesus’ church.”
This is what the Mormons frequently tell a Christian friend of mine living in Salt Lake City. I agree with them…a church like they describe sure doesn’t sound like Jesus’ church! To our shame, though, Christians are sometimes part of churches that can’t be characterized by unity and love. There is often gossip and slander within the individual churches, and if there is any interaction at all with other churches it can be filled with criticism and backhanded comments.
Obviously, there is autonomy and some churches have vastly different beliefs about lots of issues, but if we trust in Christ alone for salvation then we are all brothers and sisters. Therefore, we should seek to love and have as much unity as possible with other Christian churches. We are all the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-26). We are all family (Rom 8:14-17). Do siblings fight sometimes? Absolutely, but they forgive, reconcile, and move forward in love.
Unity & love ≠ agreeing on everything
I’m a fan of Tennessee Vols football. A good friend is an Alabama fan. We used to always watch the game together whenever the 2 teams played each other (aka whenever UT lost…). I hate Alabama football and he hates UT football, but we both love college football! We don’t have to agree on the teams in order to be unified around our common ground and enjoy spending time together. We simply have to love football and one another.
You may have seen diagrams like the one above from the Gospel Coalition that shows different levels of doctrinal importance. They are typically broken down into 3 categories: absolutes, convictions, & opinions.
- Absolutes: Some doctrines are non-negotiable, core beliefs of the Christian faith. These mainly deal with the gospel and salvation (salvation by grace apart from works, the resurrection, etc.). If someone believes these essential truths of the gospel then he has the same Spirit as us and we can fellowship as a family.
- Convictions: These are very important but aren’t necessary to be considered a Christian. A couple of examples would be believer’s baptism by immersion VS the Presbyterian form of infant baptism, or believing that only men can serve as pastors VS having women pastors. These are big deal issues that may cause you not to join a church that believes differently, but there are solid Christians on both sides. We can fellowship with one another as a family even though we disagree over serious doctrines.
- Opinions: These shouldn’t impact which church you attend. For example, I think that the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament was the pre-incarnate Christ. You may think he was just a special angel. There’s a bit of speculation with both views and neither affects how we worship the Lord together.
Where’s the conflict?
The absolutes and most of the convictions will be the same within your local church and your denomination. It’s the opinions that cause disagreement. If we can remember that these are nonessentials then we can avoid a lot of conflicts.
It’ll be harder once you get out of your denominational bubble. No church that doesn’t believe the absolutes is a real church, but there are many that believe the essentials but have very different convictions. You’ll meet Christians who believe the gospel but disagree with you on almost every other issue.
It’s so easy to criticize and even to think that those people couldn’t truly be Christians. Maybe some aren’t, but if they aren’t, it’s not because they don’t believe whatever doctrine you think they should. It’s because they don’t believe in Christ’s saving work (Rom 10:9). We can subtly think that good doctrine saves people instead of faith in Jesus. Thank the Lord that perfectly understanding the Bible and theology isn’t a prerequisite for salvation!
Keep that in mind. It’s humbling. Follow the steps here about cultivating unity & love in your own church and apply them to other churches. As believers, we will always have a foundational point of unity in the gospel. Focus on that and not the many ways in which we disagree. This brings Christ honor and glory. We have to take this seriously because Jesus’ reputation is on the line. What could we accomplish in the world if churches worked together for the sake of the gospel?