Mechanics of Church Unity

Theological Triage

This week, I propose a three-tiered framework for considering how important various issues are. When disagreement arises it’s easy to get upset emotionally, and make something more important than it is. As foolish sinners, we tend to shrug at the big things, and blow up over the little things. Having a framework in mind ahead of time can help keep things in perspective. I will put these in terms of church membership and life together, for this essay.

Level One - center circle - the Core.

These issues are non-negotiables for membership: you must affirm these for others to consider you a Christian. They are things we gladly share with other evangelical churches, and even non-evangelicals affirm most of these. We cannot compromise on these. This is the kind of stuff the elders will ask you in your membership interview. You don’t have to understand these things completely, and questions about them are always good, but self-consciously and clearly denying these things would lead to church discipline, without any other moral failing.

Examples would be: personal faith in Christ to atone for your sin by His blood, the Trinity, the Bible as God’s Word, the content of the Ecumenical Creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene, especially). The five membership questions in our constitution that we ask of new members in the worship service would also be in this category, or at least the first three of them. See Galatians 1:6-9; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-5.

Level Two - next larger circle out - Confessional matters.

These are issues that church leaders feel strongly enough about to assert as part of the church’s identity. You will hear us raise these issues, and argue certain positions on them. You don’t have to agree with our positions on these things, though we’d like you to! You may not buy it all yet, but if you feel the need to argue against any of it, we'll help you find a better fitting church home for you. We tend to expect elder and deacon candidates to agree with these. These things are our "distinctives" and you should not expect to change our church identity and culture on these points.

Many question whether it is legitimate to take such definitive positions that exclude other believers. But this is unavoidable. It is impossible to be all-inclusive, doctrinally. Every group of believers decides to baptize infants or not, to ordain women to leadership offices or not, and so forth. Eliminating this category leaves unwritten rules about how any one congregation does or believes things. It is better to communicate them clearly (while avoiding a proud, partisan, flag-waving spirit). Those who question this category are right in that this level will go away when Jesus comes again. It is a pragmatic need, accommodating our lack of like-mindedness until then.

The more defined distinctives a church has the more sectarian it becomes. Everyone doesn’t have to be a clone of the leadership, or of everybody else, doctrinally. We don’t get to like-mindedness by lengthening this list. On the other hand, the fewer distinctives a church has the more undefined and nebulous it is, leaning toward having “no creed but Christ.” This leaves too much room for conflicting expectations and can lead to shrugging at important doctrines. Scripture needs to be interpreted and lived out one way or the other.

For a good summary of our distinctives, see the Westminster Confession of Faith (doctrine) and our Philosophy of Ministry (practice). Two examples from these would be covenant (infant) baptism and a family-integrated approach to church life and worship.

Level Three- last circle outermost - personal Convictions.

These are NOT core, and NOT confessional, and at CHRF we all agree to grant the other feller his convictions about these things. We can discuss and dialog, but we will NOT tolerate promotion of these things to the level of fellowship issues. Often these are methods, as opposed to principles. So if you are convinced that homeopathic medicine is the only option for a true Christian, or that it is “the way we do things here,” and if you cannot allow others to differ, we will tell you to sit down and be quiet. That may not sound charitable, but it is actually ensuring there is room for charity with each other. Sometimes a little force must be used to preserve freedom for others. Third circle matters will NOT be allowed to be given prominence. Some examples would be, home school or Christian day school? Is the consumption of alcohol allowed by Scripture? Nutrition and medicine issues, birthing and feeding methods.

Level Three issues like these may or may not have a “right” answer we can infer from Scripture. If there isn’t one, the issue is “adiaphora.” This is a fancy Greek theological word for “it doesn’t matter.” Scripture doesn’t dictate a right and wrong for if you get a Dell or a Mac (!), live in the city or in the country, and so forth.

This 3-level scheme is not a silver bullet to cure theological disagreement. (Christians don’t just disagree on any given issue, we also disagree on how important various issues are!) But it can defuse tension if we are at least looking at the same grid. A useful project in the future may be discussing where to place issues that are near and dear to our hearts. Just because we get riled up about something doesn’t mean it should move up the list. See Romans 14:1-13 for an example.

It is important to distinguish a third-level matter from Core and Confessional matters, so we are not unnecessarily divisive among ourselves. With the man on the street, we should talk about first level issues saving the second and third level stuff for later. Then again, people may notice us if we stick out from the world on second and third level issues. Our call is to make the connection back to the Core issues. We do x, y and z because Jesus died and rose again to give us new life according to His image! Let us keep the main thing, the main thing, as we serve the risen Lord Jesus Christ this week!

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