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Can we have unity with other denominations? – Part 1

I know full well this question cannot be fully answered to the satisfaction of discerning believers with one fell swoop, but it is my intention to begin to answer it. It is my belief, the New Testament not only encourages the fellowship of believers of Christ in diverse groups, it demands it.

We are divided in complete opposition to the very wishes of Jesus Christ himself. Oddly enough, when I have presented how division and sectarian partisanship is wrong, I am met with overwhelming agreement. But that agreement is quickly followed up with a qualifier, “but we can’t help it because we must stand for the truth”. Can we not see, every division that has ever existed has one or more opposing parties who claim they have the truth while their opposition doesn’t? You are not alone in thinking your understanding of the scripture is the inspired truth of God. You are not alone in thinking other churches are full of “false doctrine” and should be avoided. The fact is many other churches are saying the same thing about you.

Something we will need to eventually cover is how we misunderstand what the Bible calls “false” teachings, “false” prophets, and heretics. We throw those terms around too flippantly. We will study this further in a separate article, but for now suffice it to say, the Bible reserves these terms for people with malicious intentions and doctrines that are intentional lies. They are never used to describe honest believers who misunderstand or are in error in their understanding. We need to stop assuming the denominated group across the road is a “false” church teaching “false” doctrine. They may indeed be in error, but believe it or not, you are in error too… on some issue or another. I know this because we all are in error. No one has all the answers for every question.

The First Letter to the Corinthians

There is some irony in how we handle division in reference to the first letter to the Corinthians. Some key verses often used to maintain division are found in the letter which was largely written to condemn the partisan and divisive practices of that particular congregation. Paul is very direct concerning their sectarianism and is greatly opposed to it. Yet we find ourselves in the same boat and actually using parts of the letter to promote sectarianism.

Same Mind and Judgment

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
– 1 Corinthians 1:10 (ESV)

Often, I hear this passage quoted alone in defense of remaining divided because of the statement, “that all of you agree” and “be united in the same mind and the same judgment”. The idea obviously being that the denomination across the street and I “do not agree” nor do we hold the same “mind and judgment”, therefore this passage does not apply to my unity with them and that it actually condemns unity with them because we can only be “united in the same mind and the same judgment”. This is simply poor exegesis of the passage. This logic not only ignores the overarching context of the chapter and the book, but it ignores the context of the verse itself. What part of the directive “that there be no divisions among you” was unclear? Simply put, we are using the circumstantial language to alleviate us of the command. But that logic could nullify that directive for any disagreement, which would make it impossible to adhere to. As we’ll see, there were more than one faction in this church group… and if they could agree on everything then the division would not have been there to begin with. So the Corinthians could’ve picked apart that sentence the same way we have and then claimed it didn’t apply to them because they were each “standing for the truth”.

We’ll look at the broader context, but ultimately this is what Paul meant: agree. Not on the divisive topic which separated them. Agree that there should be no divisions among you. Be of the same mind and judgment on the mandate and figure out a way to get along. Now let’s look at how the context provides us this understanding as well as a mandate to stop the division.

First off, go back and read verses 1-9. Paul is very complimentary and loving to this congregation that we will learn was full of sin. They were divided. They allowed promiscuous relationships to go unchecked. They were totally dishonoring the Lord’s Supper. Their assemblies were completely disorderly. They were obsessed with miraculous gifts and ignoring love. They were selfish with their money. They were suing each other. In short, this group was a horrible example of a Christian church. Does this sound like a church you would work with today? Based on how we’re divided over much less, I would guess not. Yet look at how Paul speaks to them:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
– 1 Corinthians 1:2 (ESV)

Note they aren’t “so-called” Christians, he calls them the church of God there. He calls them sanctified. Then the back-handed compliment that they are called to be saints together with all who call on the name of Jesus! Just the ones they agreed with? No. All of them. He continues in verse 8 to say God will sustain them guiltless. Yes, even this vile, poor excuse for a church was in Paul’s fellowship. If we can unite with Christians like this, we can unite with any who are honestly calling upon Jesus as their lord and savior.

After the appeal in verse 10 to be united. Paul explains his accusation:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
– 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 (ESV)

This is the very definition of denominationalism. Each sect has divided and given a name to their group. Have you ever noticed, we don’t know what they are quarreling over? We never find out. Paul doesn’t enlighten them with “the truth” on the matter. Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned about the issues they are fighting about, but he is concerned with the division itself because as he alludes to, Christ is not divided. Also, notice one of these groups is actually claiming to be “of Christ” and he doesn’t align himself with that group either.

The rest of the chapter and Chapter 2 all talk about how the wisdom and the knowledge of man are inadequate. Every division or sect has this at its heart. We divide because we have some knowledge or interpretation of the Bible the other sects do not. It is prideful arrogance to dictate your understanding as the “truth of God’s word” while every other group’s understanding of the Bible is a “false doctrine”. Chapter 3 continues to address the need for unity, we never changed subjects. That chapter ends with this:

So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
– 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 (ESV)

How you’ve denominated yourself means nothing to God. You are all Christ’s and therefore God’s. Now we just need to start acting like it.

Unite How?

The teaching so far still confuses people because their understanding of unity itself is flawed. So let’s address how people unite. There are two ways you can be in unity with someone:

1. Unity by Conformity – This means you align only with those who conform completely with you. Some may word it, “united on truth”. But the term “truth” is very subjective. If by truth you mean the gospel message that Jesus died, was buried and resurrected for your atonement, then maybe. But what about the truth on heaven, hell, sacraments, eschatology, miracles, worship practices, Bible versions, serving in the military, the celebration of holidays, and even whether we should vote. I’m not saying there aren’t truths in those areas. I’m saying we have vast amounts of opinions on what that truth is… sometimes in your own congregation. Who determines where the line of conformity ends? Who determines what doctrines are “essential” for fellowship and which ones are not? The Bible certainly doesn’t define fellowship in this way.

2. Unity in Diversity – This means we unite on our faith in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection for our sins. That is where the power lies. That is our only litmus test. For everything else, we will need to find a way to work out those differences peaceably. There may be errors in interpretation and misunderstandings of scripture in the mix. We can work together, rebuke each other, study the differences, and might never come to full agreement on everything. We may even decide we can’t corporately worship together because of our opinions on how it should be done. But, we still acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters. We may still serve in many other ways together and fellowship together with the common knowledge that Jesus is Lord. We can be separate but still family, much the same way adult siblings have their own homes and families… but they themselves remain a family as well.

Paul’s call to unity in 1 Corinthians is referring to the latter, unity in diversity. How do we know this? Simply because if he meant unity by conformity, he would’ve had to address the divisive issues and straightened the sects out by providing “the truth” on the issues so they could all conform to it. But he did not do that. The very fact he calls them to unity without even addressing their quarrels is very telling as to what kind of unity he is demanding of them.

What about the passages about not eating with or avoiding others?

There is very little real estate in this article to cover each and every passage used to promote division, but here is a list of a few (Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Matthew 18:15-17, Titus 3:10, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, 1 Timothy 1:1-20, 2 Timothy 2:16-18, 2 John 8:11).

The sum of these for this discussion is simple. Some of the passages are about internal discipline (not other groups of honest believers). Some of these passages are about disingenuous charlatans who want a following (not other groups of honest believers). Some of these passages are about enemies of Christ who teach against the power of his resurrection (not other groups of honest believers). In fact, none of these passages are directions to separate from groups of believers who are honestly striving to serve Christ to the best of their understanding.

The Biblical call to unity of believers is not built upon conformity of all doctrines, it is built upon the single doctrine that salvation is obtained by faith in Jesus Christ. There is not a litmus test of doctrinal beliefs which one must pass to obtain our fellowship other than the faith in Jesus that makes us brothers whether we like it or not.

If you are looking for a “test of fellowship” look no further than the apostle John:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
– 1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
– 1 John 4:15 (ESV)

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.
– 1 John 5:1 (ESV)

In the next part, we’ll discuss more on the mandate for unity and see how serious Jesus and God feel about division.

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