In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. This quotation, although falsely attributed to Augustine (although I believe he would have agreed with it essentially), is one that is thrown around commonly in Christian circles. The intention is, that in the core essential teachings of Christianity we are to be united, but in the non-essential issues there can be liberty or diversity, and that ultimately in all things we must be charitable to one another. How often though do we truly live this out in the real world? How often do we say or think these thoughts and then turn around and live as all non-essentials are essentials; that those who do not share my particular theology or label can hardly be part of the church?
Back in my old days, I often felt that everyone who did not agree with me theologically could hardly be saved. Thankfully the Lord has removed that hurtful thinking and I am trying to look past labels to the theology behind it and embrace the essentials and look past the non-essentials.
I had been thinking of this slogan as of late in serving with a non-denominational mission group, Slavic Gospel Association. While we do not have a denominational label, if you looked at our doctrinal statement you would see we are essentially Baptist. Even though we are Baptistic in our theology we recognize that there are those outside of the Baptist camp who are genuine believers, also Baptistic, and conservative theologically. We believe there is a core group of teachings that are fundamental to the very essence of Christianity. We would hold those dearly and fight in earnest for them! But we acknowledge that there are things that fall outside of the essentials of the faith that good men differ on. True believers can have different positions on issues of the end times, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, understandings over election and free will, mode of baptism and many other issues. Does that mean SGA does not have a position on these issues? Far from it! Does that mean that the believers in the former Soviet Union we work with do not have a position on these issues? Not at all! My simple point is that there are many of us who hold to some theological positions very tightly that can never be open to working together with a brother who might not view things exactly the same way. Even more than that, there are those who hold to a particular label that would not consider associating with those who would believe the same as they do yet not maintain their label to the nth degree.
Doctrinal precision is extremely important. We must not be sloppy in our understanding of God’s Word. That is why as pastor’s we must be rigorously trained in the exegesis of the Word of God and of Systematic Theology. God spoke to us in propositional revelation for it to be understood. We must be willing to study the whole counsel of God to better understand God and our responsibility to Him. And, I am just as responsible to do this. After years of seminary and personal study I have very carefully held theological beliefs. For instance, I am a 5 point Calvinist. I believe that the Scriptures teach this to be the most accurate expression of the relationship between God and man in salvation. I am a dispensational premillennialist. I believe that this approach to reading the text and understanding the end times is one that is most accurate. Does that mean that we cannot work together with the person who is an Arminian or a postmillennialist? Far from it! For what constitutes a Christian? One who has placed their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and affirms core doctrinal teaching (i.e., the fundamentals of the faith). That means that there are those I might disagree with in the non-essentials (that which is not required to be believed to be saved) that I can still serve with for the furtherance of the work of the Gospel. Again, even more, there are those who might agree with me but use different labels than I would who would not associate with me because we do not share the same labels. That hurts! A label is only as good as the belief that it represents. If in the process of study we adjust our theology to be better reflective of our thinking, we can adjust the label. But in reality, a label is simply an umbrella over all that we believe. And while it is good to have an umbrella over our heads, it can prevent us from getting close to one another. Picture everyone with their umbrellas over their heads. Some are black. Some are red. Some are big. Some are small. But umbrellas make it difficult for us to come together. Once we lower our umbrellas we will often see clearer what we hold in common and only then can we come closer together.
For some reason we wrongly assume that to protect doctrine and the testimony of Christ we feel we must pull in on ourselves and make our camp as small as possible under our label or umbrella. Is it not possible brethren to partner together with other churches who might not agree exactly as you do on every theological jot and tittle for the sake of the Gospel; those who might have a different coloured umbrella? And I must be careful here: I am not advocating embracing unbelief for the sake of being on the same side of an issue. I am not prepared to side with Roman Catholicism on the issue of abortion. But even as I say that are the issues that clear? What do I do if conservative evangelicals are not speaking out on an issue like abortion and the only one who is the Roman Catholic priest? Yes, they disagree with evangelicals on the issue of biblical authority and justification but they solidly affirm the sanctity of life. What do I do then? Is it simply as black and white as many make it out to be? And here is my point.
I am seeing it more and more difficult to reach out and connect with people who are so absolutely tied to their rigid umbrellas or detailed labels. For instance, some Reformed churches, regrettably, want to only work with Reformed people who only think like they do. Some Arminian churches only want to work with other Arminians. What happened to the transatlantic revival of the 18th century where Baptists worked with Congregationalists who worked with Anglicans who worked with Methodists and so on for the sake of revival? These people were not advocating different religions. They affirmed the essentials!
Even though the believers we work with in the CIS are Calvinistic and that the churches we for the most partner with here in Canada are Calvinistic it is hard to get some people to join with us because we do not dot our “i’s” just as they do. Because we, or those we serve, might not have the same umbrella, some people hesitate to join with us or other ministries. What concerns me is that we as Calvinists are more excited to get together and talk about our theological position which we have done many times before instead of talking about how our theology applies in the real world in the life of the church. How does my Calvinism influence my view of missions? How do we put our Calvinism into practice? But more important, how do we apply all of our theology practically in a worldwide church that is much bigger than just Calvinism? My call to everyone is, remember the church is bigger than you think! And God is calling you to work to further the Gospel all around the world. Therefore, do not only think you must partner with an exact same organization that has the same label as your own before you can help. Look past the non-essentials and partner together with solid Christian churches across Canada to reach out; to see churches planted; to see pastor’s trained; to see men and women saved and added to the church. There is much to do and we need the help of all Christians. We need the help of all believers and churches who are committed to the essentials and will be unified in those essentials for the work of the Kingdom.
No one church can hope to reach the entire former Soviet Union. No one church can hope to reach one city, one community, one country, or even the whole world. It will take all of us together. All of us who call on the name of Christ. Is there not a time and place for all those who hold steadfast to the fundamental doctrines of the faith to put aside our theological pride and embrace other brothers for the sake of the Kingdom. Christ is looking for soldiers and warriors. Not everyone in the Army of the Lamb will be exactly the same. Will you take up your standard and sword and fight for Christ together with those who might not be exactly the same as you? The church is bigger than you think and we must all seek to serve Christ by serving our brothers and sisters. Beware your umbrella. Beware the inclination to not embrace your fellow soldier for the mission. When you hold your umbrella it is hard for your fellow soldiers to get in close and protect your back and sides. As the Roman phalanx did centuries before, believers should pull in close and tight to one another despite doctrinal differences that do not make us fundamentally different. We are all fighting for the same army.