I recently watched a LifeWay video featuring J. D. Greear, a Southern Baptist pastor and author. His focus in the video was church unity, specifically denominational unity since the video was geared toward Southern Baptists.
He praised the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message as a document that allows individuals to disagree on many theological issues, yet enables them to unite under the gospel of Jesus and his evangelistic mission. He noted that the BF&M doesn’t take sides on many issues, though he lamented that some read into the document things that aren’t there.
One statement in particular stood out to me so much that I rewound it multiple times in order to write it down: “We don’t have to see eye to eye on exactly everything, and we can bless each other even if we see a certain theological issue, and a more minor issue,differently–Calvinism and Arminianism would be a good example of that.”
Christians are Good at Dividing Ourselves Over Small Things
Shortly before his arrest, Jesus prayed,
I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. (John 17:20-23, NASB)
However, an honest observer realizes that Jesus’ followers are experts at dividing, not uniting. Even worse, it seems that the prayer of many Christians isn’t “Lord, help me be like you,” but “Lord, make everyone else agree with me in your name.” Sadly, there is an elitist attitude among many Christians that says “I’m right, you’re wrong, so change or get out!”
Sometimes the disagreements are gospel-centered, such as the Reformers’ opposition the the Catholic Church’s works-based theology and their unwillingness to care for the people. However, at least in the United States, many of the divisions are over far less important matters, or even trivial things.
I’ve known churches to split over the color of the carpet, the appearance of the pastor (hair style, wearing a tie or lack thereof), and other vain absurdities. And let’s not forget the centuries-old worship wars that are really arguments over generational musical tastes wrapped in a theological garb to justify the sheer insanity of the fight.
However, there are issues that distinguish Christian denominations: baptism, the nature of the Lord’s supper, Calvinism, speaking in tongues, and others. While these differences should distinguish denominations, they should not divide Christians. Nevertheless, for many Christians, these topics are proverbial lines in the sand and walls of separation that none should dare cross.
Cross-Denominational Cooperation is Possible, Yet Many Still Choose Elitism and Division
While serving in Florida, I had the honor or helping coordinate multi-denominational community worship services at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meeting place changed if needed (though we often met at our church since it had the largest seating capacity). The assignments rotated between the pastors so that everyone was involved. Did we do it perfectly each time? No. But did we honestly try? I believe so. When there was a disagreement or concern, we came to each other and resolved it. We also tried to learn from our errors and improve it each time.
The last Thanksgiving I was there, the service was held at our church (Southern Baptist) and the sermon rotation fell to the Methodist pastor–a female. Yes, a female pastor preached in a Southern Baptist facility. I use the word “facility” intentionally because the building is not the church; it is merely where members of the church meet to worship.
Some Southern Baptists would have a heart attack or stroke at the very idea of a woman preaching in the “church” (see my comment above). However, while all my deacons and I disagreed with the idea of a female senior pastor, we agreed that she wasn’t serving as our pastor, but was representing her denomination. More importantly, we realized that the gender of the preacher was insignificant compared to the destiny of people’s souls. We affirmed that the gospel trumps gender every single time.
Nevertheless, there are some who would refuse to associate with the Methodists over this relatively minor issue. And this isn’t to say that our church was perfect: there were some who were outspoken in their dislike of my cooperation with a local non-denominational church that leaned (but wasn’t full) charismatic.
Back when hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, churches in my birth town of many denominations united to provide for those seeking shelter. They gathered supplies of food, water, gospel tracts, blankets, and anything else that victims might need, including information on where to go. A quasi-base-of-operations was established at an interstate exit in far Northeast Texas and people were invited to come by, rest, get refreshed, relax, and receive help. It was beautiful! It was divine! It was Jesus’ bride doing Jesus’ work!
However, one local Lutheran pastor lost his pastorate over it and other instances of cross-denominational cooperation. The church elders and congregation adamantly opposed working with any church other than Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. That’s ugly! That’s sinful! That’s the servants of Satan doing Satan’s work!
The walls of division are not only among die-hard denominationalists; there are some within denominations who create discord and disunity in the name of the unifying gospel of the one God. Within my denomination, this recently has been most pronounced in the Calvinism debates.
It’s Time to End the Calvinism Crusade
Over the last decade or two, there has been a rise in those who call themselves Calvinists or Reformed (nearly all–if not all–Reformed are Calvinists, but not all Calvinists are Reformed). This increase has led to a subsequent and very vocal anti-Calvinist response.
Over the years I’ve seen both sides become more entrenched and determined to win this (as I once heard it said) “theological war for the soul of the SBC.” Calvinists became stubborn to the point of egostical pride, looking down their raised noses at non-Calvinists as somehow less biblical or even anti-biblical and anti-gospel. In my experience, ego and theological elitism seem to be par for the course among some Calvinists and Reformed Baptists, though not all.
Simultaneously, anti-Calvinists (not all are Arminians) dug in their heels, became just as stubborn as their Calvinist counterparts, and gave in to their own pride. They continue to look down their raised elitist noses at Calvinists, seeing them as less biblical or even heretical. I once even had a professor refuse to support me in the gospel ministry (though we do agree on the gospel) simply because he thought I was a die-hard Calvinist.
This theological civil war over what Greear called a “minor theological issue” has led to animosity and division. You’re a Calvinist? Can’t work with you. You’re not a Calvinist? Can’t work with you.
There are some who, based on their writings, sermons, and overall work, seem to be more on fire for this war than for the war for souls. For them, dogma is their idol, and their brand of theology is their gospel. Even worse, they wrap this sin of causing division in a garment of biblical quotes in order to whitewash their sin.
It’s Time to Unite in the Gospel Love of Jesus
Whether the division is over denominational distinctives, personal style preferences, or theological disagreements, it’s time to end the wars. It’s time to come together as Jesus prayed we would. That doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything, but we can agree on the evangelistic, gospel-centered mission of Jesus: share Jesus so others can be saved.
Things need to change. The gospel of Jesus needs to replace the gospel of Calvinism or the gospel of anti-Calvinism. We need to let go of the hate, animosity, distrust, and disunity these senseless wars have created and unite in the love and gospel of Jesus. As Greear said,
What someone believes about the finer points of Calvinism is not usually the issue; it’s how they believe it. We may have trouble achieving absolute clarity together on every one of the “five points,” but we can be absolutely clear on the fact that the Bible condemns a divisive and uncharitable spirit over something about which gospel-loving Christians have historically had trouble finding complete agreement.
Greear’s voice is a beautiful song among the many rhetorical gunfire. He’s calling us to unite in Christ, not divide over dogma. As Christians we can cooperate despite our differences because we can unite in the gospel truth:
- Everyone is a sinner and destined to judgment
- Jesus died to pay for sin
- Every person who believes in Jesus as their risen Lord and Savior is saved
- We are to love God and each other
Everything else is secondary, tertiary, or irrelevant.