The other day, I opined that unity in a local congregation doesn’t require perfect agreement on every doctrinal concept. This is true even for churches like the churches of Christ, churches with a high view of Scripture that demand Biblical authority for religious practices. In fact, I suspect that doctrinal disagreement exists in every church of Christ with more than three members.
Unanimity of belief is not the foundation of congregational unity. Instead, I think these three things are:
Agreement on Corporate Practice. The key difference between the work of the church and the work of an individual is that we do it together. We sing together, pray together, study together, and share in the Lord’s Supper together. Together, we contribute to a common treasury, so that we share in the work supported from that treasury (here, consider Paul’s explanation in Philippians 4:14-17. What the congregation does, the individual Christian does with it.
Because we share in the work of the church, we must also conscientiously approve of the work the church is doing. I believe that it is wrong to use musical instruments in worship, so I can’t participate in worship that uses an instrument. If I were to do so, I would violate my conscience and sin before God. Similarly, I can’t contribute to the treasury if I know that money will be spent on works I consider unauthorized. If I were to do so, it would make me a sharer in sin.
For me to be united with a church, then, I must agree with all of the things it does as a body. Note that this does not mean that I must agree with all the members who make up that body. For I know, there may well be members at Jackson Heights who wouldn’t have a problem with musical instruments in worship. I think they’re mistaken. However, as long as they’re content to give up what they perceive as their liberty for the sake of unity with me, I am content to worship with them. Problems would only arise if they attempted to compel me to participate in something that I believed was wrong.
Agreement on Black-Letter Doctrine. We all know that the witness of the Scripture is not equal on every spiritual issue. God tells us some things explicitly. We know that it’s wrong to commit adultery because He says so plainly. Other things are strongly implied by the text. For instance, the word “pornography” never appears in the Bible, but we understand that Jesus condemns lust, and porn use is always lustful, so it is also wrong. Anybody who wants to argue that their porn habit is godly simply isn’t being honest with the text.
For a church to be united, it must also agree in these matters. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 5 that open sin by one member corrupts the entire congregation of which they are a part. We cannot continue to worship conscientiously with the man who has his father’s wife, or with the man who is doing something similarly egregious.
Note that in practice, this only becomes a problem with sinful behavior or, at the least, sinful speech. It could be that a brother or sister does not accept one of the most significant doctrines of the faith—the bodily resurrection of Jesus, for instance. However, unless they talk about their denial, I will never know. Even then, most elderships aren’t going to treat the member who “has questions” in the same way as the member who is industriously teaching the junior-high class that Jesus never rose from the dead. Shared expression and action, not shared belief, is the foundation of unity here.
Forbearance in Matters of Judgment. However, there are other areas of doctrine in which reasonable people can disagree. We’re pretty sure that premillennialism is a false doctrine, but brethren will find a wide range of views on Revelation to be acceptable. The same thing is true even when it comes to “close cases” of moral practice. Some Christians think that the consumption of any amount of alcohol is sinful; others don’t. Some think that it’s sinful for a woman to work outside the home; others don’t.
In practice, unless some brother is bent on being divisive, we won’t treat issues like these as matters of fellowship. Underlying this is the recognition that others can disagree with us yet do so in good faith. The porn hound can’t be acting in good faith, but the Christian who puts up a Christmas tree very well may be.
Here is where we come to the “bearing with” of Colossians 3:13. Though we consider what a brother is doing to be objectionable, unwise, or out-and-out sinful, we acknowledge that he has the right to make his own judgments in the matter, and we bear with him for the sake of unity.
In this way, even Christians who honor the authority of Scripture can still achieve unity in the context of a local congregation. This is not some impossible dream; instead, in my experience, it’s how the congregations of which I’ve been a part actually have functioned.
This process doesn’t work perfectly. Obviously, the precise line between “You’re lying to yourself about this,” and “That’s your judgment call to make,” is. . . a judgment call. Porn and Christmas trees are pretty easy (reasonable Christians can differ about Christmas trees, porn, not so much), but other matters lie much closer to the line.
However, this is simply another manifestation of the idea that we are individually responsible for understanding what the will of the Lord is. God expects us to make judgments about our own conduct, and He expects us to make judgments about the conduct of others too. It’s baked into the structure of New-Testament Christianity, and we don’t get to dodge our responsibility as disciples.
Such judgment-making can be messy, but it’s unavoidable. The alternative is a moral scheme that leaves no room for moral discernment, in which conformity is enforced by the equivalent of the medieval Catholic Church (“Turn or burn, heretic!”) or even determined before the foundation of the world by a God who denies us free will.
God hasn’t done either of those things. He wants us to be united, but He wants us to be united by figuring things out. Yes, sometimes this produces discord, but it should not surprise any of us when free will produces sin. God is willing to accept the possibility of evil in exchange for the possibility of good, and when brethren work to dwell together in unity, the result is good indeed.