When division in the church is illegitimate

Evangelicals in Britain are at present dividing over various (arguably secondary) issues and yet are uniting with Anglo-Catholics and charismatics. These three groups have been historically suspicious of each other and yet they have been brought together by a common sense of outrage at the way liberals have walked all over the historic faith, especially with respect to sexual ethics.

Evangelicals have also formed networks, partnerships, clubs, cliques and parties which put some distance between themselves and other groups. The issues at the heart of these divisions are often complex and nuanced, requiring detailed theological explanation which generally results in greater confusion rather than clarity. Federal Vision, PCA, old school, new school, alumni of various colleges and so on have grown suspicious of each other for reasons which seem rooted in gossip, rumour and labelling.

The following Venn diagram sets out the legitimate boundaries for unity and division. I hope to show that these categories are derived from Paul’s letters to the Romans and Ephesians, both of which were written to avoid illegitimate division in the church.

Faith love tradition knowledge experience

Christian unity begins and ends with God’s acceptance of sinners through their faith union with the person of Christ. God accepts Jew and Gentile, with all their external differences, on the basis of an acknowledgement of their sin before God and their faith in Christ alone as Saviour and Lord. Thus, anyone who falls within the central yellow circle of the diagram is united to Christ as head (Ephesians 1:10 and 4:15) and should not divide from anyone else who professes the same basic faith in Christ.

Romans 10:10-11 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Everyone in the yellow circle is saved. The weakest believer and strongest saint are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). The blue, orange, green and purple circles represent various areas of emphasis in the Christian life, all of which are important but which we struggle to keep in balance because of deficiencies in our personalities. But these deficiencies must not divide those who are united by faith in Christ as the righteous one who died for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).

And so we find, in Rome, that a group of culturally, experientially, morally and epistemologically disparate believers were told by Paul to accept and love each other with brotherly affection, despite their differences, because the sacrificial love required to love someone who doesn’t think, feel, act or know like us is what makes God look glorious:

Romans 15:7 Therefore welcome one another (Jew and Gentile) as Christ has welcomed you (as penitent sinners), for the glory of God.

The only legitimate question Christians have as a basis for unity is “do you believe in your heart that you are a sinner by nature, saved from the wrath of God by God through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and for his glory?” If both parties admit their total dependence on Christ for salvation then they are to work toward practical unity without dividing for as long as they maintain their personal confession of faith in Christ. And so, Paul tells Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ not to separate into church networks of their own but remain united in Ephesus:

Ephesians 2:8-9-4:1-15 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast…therefore…walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ

Christian unity is found in the person of Christ and his work alone. Illegitimate division is, therefore, along any fault-line other than saving faith in Christ alone. The tendency, however, is for Christians to divide over matters of obedience to the law, experience, ecclesiastical practice or epistemology. It won’t do. It doesn’t exalt the Christ who died for sinners with all our deficiencies.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
This entry was posted in Heterogenous Church, The Cross, The nature of grace and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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