The Christian Standard writes,
I love the spirit of cooperation evident in our churches today as we missionally engage issues of poverty and justice in partnership with other evangelicals. But we must resist the urge to elevate fellowship over a commitment to the essentials. There is simply no need to discard our formerly settled doctrinal views as we pursue unity. I believe there is a both/and to be found here — we can be both committed to sound doctrine and to cooperation with other groups. Can we confident in who we are while sharing our message and carrying our mission with others?
The author is from the instrumental independent Christian Churches, which gives him a little different perspective from those of us from the a cappella side of the Restoration Movement. Their part of the movement divided “when the Disciples chose to pursue ecumenical unity over and above doctrines held as great and essential by Christian Churches and churches of Christ.”
Let me suggest a threefold division of doctrine —
- There are the essentials to salvation at all. Those who deny these doctrines are damned.
- There are issues that Bible teaches but are not salvation issues. Disagree with me and we’ll find out who was right in heaven together.
- There are issues not really addressed by the Bible at all but which affect how we do church.
Let’s call these “faith,” “doctrine,” and “praxis.” Now, in my part of the Restoration Movement, we fight quite a lot over which doctrines are “faith” and which are not. Some of my brothers consider nearly everything the Bible touches to be “faith.”
However, as I’ve argued at some length before, “faith” means, well, faith. The Bible over and over assures us that all those with faith in Jesus are saved. Of course, “faith” includes a commitment to obedience, that is, to allowing Jesus to be Lord of our lives. But one can be obedient and yet mistaken, even as to how to organize a church or conduct a worship service. Therefore, to me, the only essential is faith, which includes “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9).
Alan Rouse has recently posted a series on what one must know to be saved. That seems to be pretty much it for the essentials, to me.
But in the Restoration Movement, the big question is baptism (of believers, by immersion, for forgiveness), right? The Standard doesn’t really share what they consider the essentials to include, but this is one of the defining doctrines of the Movement and is surely what the author was thinking of.
Here’s the long and short of it. If we consider the Baptists or Methodists damned because of their baptismal errors, we need to be busy converting them. If they are saved despite their error, then baptism isn’t an essential, it’s doctrine, and we need to get busy working with them to expand God’s Kingdom. And we need to make up our minds.
I’ve expressed my own views in detail. And I think we are right on baptism, but that God will save those with a genuine faith even if they are improperly baptized (unless they reject proper baptism out of rebellion — a rare event, I’m sure).
Other than baptism, where do we disagree with other denominations on essentials? Do we seriously believe that God will damn people over monthly or quarterly communion? He’s as likely to damn us over not practicing the love feast (Jude 12)!
Thus, before we talk too much about cooperating with evangelicals, our view of baptism as “faith” or “doctrine” needs to be sorted out, and I’m glad we’re starting to see some helpful literature on the subject. But we need more conversation on the subject. It’s not only an emotional issue, it’s a critically important issue in terms of understanding just who God is and how he deals with his people — and how we are to relate to those with the same view of Jesus but different views on baptism.
Books I’ve personally found helpful include —
- Down to the River to Pray by Hicks and Taylor
- Be-baptism by Jimmy Allen
- Baptism in the New Testament by G. R. Beasley-Murray
Of some help might be my own Born of Water.
To summarize, no, we cannot be united with all our brothers and sisters in Christ while hanging onto all our distinctives and settled doctrines, but this is because many of our distinctives and settled doctrines are, well, wrong.
But there are distinctives and settled doctrines that are right, which I would certainly want us to cling to. On some of these, such as faith in Jesus, all Christians agree, or else they’re not Christians at all. But there are a few where we differ from many of our brothers and sisters in other denominations, where I think we’re right, and where we certainly should hang on to our heritage — without causing division. After all, division is a far greater sin than, say, how often we take communion. After all, we could hardly celebrate our unity each week while refusing to be united.