Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Flikr user Lynn Friedman

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Flikr user Lynn Friedman

I began to see these bumper stickers about 2 years ago. The FE (and other) Christian believers I heard comment on this bumper sticker tend to focus on the underlying silliness of the designer’s intent. Some of the religions here (at least specific sects) are not peaceful religions. Even when violence is never to be involved, world views still clash. People of different faiths still have deeply-rooted convictions that inform their opinions on public policy and their interactions with their neighbors. Invariably, this will lead to problems. Such is the state of a sinful world. The designer fails to realize that for the vast majority of religious adherents, “coexistence” is our current state! What the designer wants is not a tolerance of differing views, it’s an imposition: “Don’t live out the dictates of your religion the way you are convicted they ought to be, live them out the way I think they ought to be… even though I don’t adhere to your faith!”

It’s a bit of a different problem, but I see an analogous situation in American Christianity. Perhaps the problem exists all over the world, but I don’t know. I haven’t travelled, and my foreign friends are not Christian. It seems that in this country though, particularly in FE circles, there is an encouragement and indeed it is viewed as a shortcoming if we do not indulge in unionism.

I have an acquaintance from years back who wrote a statement on his/her Facebook wall.

Brethren, methodist, baptist, follower of paul, follower of apollos, calvinist, arminian, blah blah blah. Why do we need labels? I think this search for labels often says that Jesus isn’t enough to set us apart.

To be perfectly fair and honest, this person was not attacking denominationalism or division per se, but rather our desire to identify ourselves by these labels. Before I go on to make comment on this topic, let me note that I don’t understand the point. This is a distinction without a difference.

The stated assumption is that the “labels” set Christians apart. I agree with this. The unstated assumption is one of two things, and the writing makes it difficult to determine which.

I’ll start with the less likely of the two: this “setting apart” is meant to distinguish Christians from non-Christians, because it is explained that this person believes Jesus does a far better job of that. I disagree with this analysis, that this is the purpose of these “labels.” These “labels” are what permit us to know what a local body believes. Without them, utter confusion abounds.

I think it’s much more likely that the unstated assumption is that these “labels” are improperly divisive. Inherent in this Facebook post is the opinion that our differences are so small that they ought not keep us from dividing, that there’s not a dime’s worth of substantive difference between various “labels” of Christianity. But in reality, there are significant differences between just the denominations mentioned, in addition to Episcopalians/Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, Oneness Pentecostals, etc. These may seem like mere labels, but when one examines the distinctions of what each sect believes, it becomes apparent why the labels matter.

When one person believes that Christ presents himself in the Supper bodily and one receives grace by partaking and another says it’s just a memorial, that’s not a small distinction.

When one group says that God saves in Holy Baptism while another says it is only a symbol that shouldn’t be given special emphasis, this is not a small distinction.

When one believes that salvation is entirely of God such that even faith is a gift of God to his chosen, and other places one’s action in making a decision to follow Christ as the qualification for access to salvation, this is not a small distinction. It’s literally changes one’s world view in such a way that cannot possibly be appreciated without a lot of anguish.

When one believes that he must speak in tongues in order to provide proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence in his life (and to thus prove his own salvation), and another points out that this is adding to scripture in a very dangerous way, this is not a small distinction.

When one upholds the doctrine that God exists in 3 coequal, coeternal but distinct persons and another denies this (even while upholding the doctrine of Christ’s deity), this is not a small distinction.

The obvious thing to state is that each of these sects believes it is being faithful to God, not making pointless division. I would like to add one set of connected thoughts though.

In our denominational division, each sect has doctrinal distinctives. What were the doctrinal distinctions between Paul and Apollos? The passage doesn’t even say that there were any. So from the get-go, the comparison is inappropriate. The passage concerning Apollos and Paul does not make the point for which it was referenced. Following men is a fundamentally different prospect than receiving a label based upon the theology they espouse as truth. The passage admonishes those who find their identity in men rather than Christ, not those who divide over truth issues. Secondly, Paul later states that the divisions were necessary to distinguish true teaching from false. That’s a far cry from destroying religious labels.

Lastly, and most importantly, consider Christ’s prayer for Christian unity. I think it’s simple to say that Christ prayed that division among his followers would not happen. So he did. In the discourse on Christian division, there is an underlying assumption that has not been questioned though: the denominational and other divisions that exist today, are all involved parties Christian? Stated a different, more thought-provoking way, are followers of Christ divided or are there simply many non-followers intermingled among followers so that “labels” and denominations look like division?

I don’t ask this callously. I don’t intend to tackle this topic now. Let it suffice that I believe large numbers of Christians exist in most denominations, and what’s more I’m not in the position to judge a person’s heart. Only God can judge the heart. I can only judge the confession of faith against what the scriptures teach. I merely brought the point up to leave no stone unturned. My personal viewpoint is that of the Lutheran confessions, that the visible and invisible churches are to be distinguished. A more thorough explanation can be found here.

Collectively, the invisible church is in sin for dividing as it does. But considering it through the lens of the visible church, there are only two ways to fix this.

The first way is for us all to be in perfect unity in Christ in our doctrine. I think it’s plain to see that this is not likely to happen any time soon, and certainly not due to our feeble human efforts.

The second way, barring perfect unity, is for each of us to tolerate false teachings from Hell whose ultimate conclusions either lead people to Hell or else are very detrimental to believers. Why is this the only other option?

If we aren’t in perfect unity, then plain reason dictates that there are differences between individuals and groups such that they do not believe the same thing. Logically speaking, it’s possible that all individuals and groups can be wrong, but it is dictated that not all can be right. This means that at least some individuals and groups hold to positions that are false teaching, meaning the teaching is not of God. If the teaching is not of God, then it must have its origins in something or someone opposed to God.

The only means we have to distinguish true teaching from false is the Bible, and that as each of our sects may or may not fallibly interpret it. So, we’re down to this: do we disappoint Christ by breaking off into our own like minded sects, or do we disappoint Christ by gladly tolerating and supporting those who spread false teaching? What’s more, how do we know when our own thinking is true and biblical rather than simple arrogance: “if everybody believed as I do, we wouldn’t have division..” ?

This is why, given our collective sinful condition, I don’t have a problem with division as it exists in the Christian body today. Indeed, it is necessary. My problem is not with the division, it’s with the cause of the division: false doctrine. This is why Confessional Lutherans (and conservative Anglicans, Orthodox Presbyterians, etc.) are very slow to participate in any sort of service or effort of combined demoninations or synods.

Consider the following, posted on a different individual’s Facebook page while preparing for a Christian youth gathering in the Pittsburgh area.

YOUTH PASTORS, we still need several team members for the “Three Rivers Festival of Hope student” team – we need people who can represent the Lutheran, Anglican, Assemblies of God, Churches of God, American Baptist, Wesleyan and several other churches. Mainly, we need people who can help us share Festival information with youth workers in your denomination/network. Please let me know if you can help!

As a Lutheran, I believe the Scriptures that report of Christ’s bodily presence in the Supper. FE’s do not. I believe what the scriptures say, that Holy Baptism saves. FE’s typically do not. I believe the scriptures that the only part of my own will in the salvation process is that which had to be loosed by God from my slavery to Satan; FE’s typically believe that my free-will reception of Christ’s salvation frees me from my slavery to Satan (so I’m only sort-of a slave to Satan).

So which of the viewpoints above that I believe the scriptures treat as central to salvation and life in Christ is going to be advanced in this gathering? Which of the FE positions is going to be denied as false teaching and contrary to the scriptures? Neither will happen. To request a Lutheran presence in such an event is to request that a Lutheran believer sit in submission to what he believes is false doctrine, doctrine contrary to the Bible.

I think a lot of both of the individuals whom I’ve anonymously quoted in this post. Let there be more God-fearing people like them. Let us “coexist” together in love and in peace. May we always fear, love, and trust God so that we are always a ready help for each other, but let us not overlook the true distinctions we have as we attempt to follow the God of the Bible.


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