By Abby Oberst
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. – Gal. 1:6,7.
They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. -1 John 4:4-6
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. – 2 Cor. 11:13-15.
… these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves. Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These are the spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever … These are the grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage… These are sensual persons who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life… Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. – Jude 10-25
Most Christians would concur that unity in the church is a spiritual, and practical, top priority. Jesus prayed and preached unity, and so did the apostles. To look at all the divisions in the church, from the time of Christ to the present, causes us to wonder: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Let’s not let our theology, or doctrine, divide us. Let’s just love one another and be witnesses to the world.” We must be careful, however, of mistaking “unity” for a comfortable homogeny – in which we are all “getting along” at the sacrifice of truth. We need to distinguish between sinful “strife” and God’s corrective measures in His people.
We are in a period of church history when doctrine, once again, is polarizing Christians. Old friendships are strained, and church members are shifting to and fro, seeking places to rest. Long-embraced beliefs are being challenged with great discomfort. Those who have strong convictions are seen as unloving (or unspiritual) trouble makers. A protectionism is coming to the Body of Christ, so as to justify the existence of her various theological bents. The focal point is “dominion,” and with dominion theology comes a galaxy of doctrinal premises which are causing many to balk. Is this disunity or a move of God?
Throughout history God has caused corrective tremors in His church. To examine the Word and the story of its dissemination for the last 2,000 years, is to see God helping His people to GET IT RIGHT. Witness Paul’s stinging rebukes to the Judaizers, who added cultural enhancements to the pure salvation message of grace through faith; or John’s skillful refuting of the Gnostics, who intellectualized spiritual truth to the point of heresy, and claimed exclusive rights to the truth to boot. Consider the ancient and bloody divisions between the Papists and early Protestants; or the unending sparring between Arminian and Reformed thinkers for the past three centuries. We can see that God has always used men to articulate and defend His truth. We ought to see, as well, that the God of heaven and earth is very jealous for His Bride; and, in this fallen world, His corrections (in severity and grace, and for our good) are always costly, and always noisy.
In this age of civility, technology and social scientists, we can give these holy tremors polite-sounding names like “paradigm shifts” and church “movements,” but we need to know that ours is as much a battle for true Christianity as ever was fought.
Why is our personal theology so important? Why can’t we all just work together in harmony to advance God’s purposes in the earth? What does it really matter if one’s theology, eschatology or ecclesiology does not agree with the brothers and sisters in the church next door? The fact is, our doctrine is the core, the epicenter, out of which all our behavior flows. Our doctrine determines everything. Our doctrine propels us to action for the cause of Christ or lulls us into comfortable Christian ghettos.
Doctrine defines our view of our Savior Jesus Christ as either a “pretty please won’t you accept Me?” suitor, or as Lord Sabaoth of the combined armies of all heaven and earth. Doctrine determines whether our churches become clinics and emergicare centers for the emotionally wounded, or boot camps where God’s confident warriors muster and train. It is doctrine that gave us the crusades. It is doctrine that gave us monasticism. It is doctrine that gave us bishops and popes. And it is doctrine that gave us The Reformation. The church can have no unity when her doctrine is not unanimous. Trouble is, nobody likes to admit error.
The Gospel, Plus (or Minus)
The twentieth-century church has a new brand of judaizers, and a new brand of gnostics. We need to be as diligent to identify heresy in the church today as the apostles were in the first century. The preeminence and practice of psychology has “added” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – with the same potential for heresy as any false prophet of old. And the doctrine of dispensationalism has crippled the church to the point of functional disability: our current, handicapped, status as a reproach to our neighbors and a byword among the nations (Ps. 44:13-14).
The esteem for “psychological” answers to the problems of sin, forgiveness, and holiness has crept into the pulpits and pastors’ offices of the contemporary church like a stealth weapon from the enemy’s nuclear arsenal. Combine this trend with the weak, get-me-out-of-here worldview of dispensationalist thinking, and the church is nearly indistinguishable from the world.
Idiosyncratic to our time, dispensationalism does not really believe that the full canon of God’s covenantal blessing, cursing, and promises to the nation Israel, apply also to the New Testament church. Separating the “new” from the “old” covenant in Scripture, means, therefore, that God’s character and Person was one way “then” and another way “now.” It means that we can interpret (i.e., disregard) God’s immutable laws according to our time, the “church age,” and not fully permit Scripture to interpret itself. It means that the end-times prophecies applying to the nation Israel can be appropriated selectively (“Whew, I’m glad I don’t have to do that!”); and that our responsibility on earth to usher in Christ’s return can be tempered, instead, with “designer eschatology.” Given man’s natural predisposition toward comfort and cowardice, dispensationalism renders the church impotent.
Does all this mean that we are to ignore Dr. James Dobson (psychologist), and shoot our dispensational friends? No, it means that we need to listen to modern “Christian” solutions to problems very carefully, and see what is held in the highest esteem: the Word of God or the teaching of men. Let’s look at this in a practical way. Strain, for a moment, to apply today’s typical church remedies to these real-life events:
When the woman (in John 8) was caught in promiscuous sex (with some coaxing and participation on the part of an adulterous man in all probability), did Jesus invite her to a support group for women with low self esteem? Did He blame her parents? Did He even accuse her partner in the tryst? Or did He promise her forgiveness and tell her to stop? Go and sin no more.
When the early church was forced to scatter, to live in caves, to face unimaginable torture, did they whine about opinion polls? Did they try to look, talk and dress like everyone in the culture for the sake of friendship evangelism? Did they sweeten their message so as not to offend, or not to lose converts who might be uncomfortable with the “repentance” message?
An Example From History
When the Puritans set out to establish a new nation, a city set on a hill, men and women alike sailed off to live their faith and to take dominion in a new world. Some of these women no doubt had harsh parents, were not given the same opportunities as their husbands and brothers, and experienced great hardship. Imagine their starvation, or giving birth on the sea or in the wilderness, or holding dying children in their arms. Did these women invoke the psychological ghosts of an imperfect abusive past, or the injustice of it all? Or were they so grounded in victorious (postmillennial, Calvinistic) eschatology, convinced that they were instruments of dominion, part of Christ’s specific purposes to advance His kingdom on the earth (before His return), that they forged ahead with gratitude? Journals show that the latter case is true.
What has happened to us? Why is a sneer or two by the heathen enough to send us quaking under the covers? It has to do with our doctrine: The doctrine that shapes our individual Christian walk. The doctrine that defines who we are as a church. The doctrine that drives our agenda in the society around us: whether we will be stuck in self-absorption over the hard knocks of our past, or whether we will forgive, accept forgiveness, sin no more, and move on in the army of God. The doctrine that determines whether our churches are self-congratulatory social clubs of the pre-rapture “in crowd,” or whether we are willing, sold-out vessels for God’s purposes in election. The doctrine that determines whether we shrink into hygienic incubators to avoid the dirty business of civil government and commerce, or whether we storm the gates of hell with absolute confidence that these strongholds cannot prevail (even if we don’t have the privilege of seeing them come down for ourselves).
Yes, there is division in the church. But before we are too hasty to cluck over all the “trouble” and the trouble makers, we need to do some personal and corporate inventory in every church. How is our doctrine doing? Have we examined what we believe? Have we added popular, “therapeutic” counseling techniques to the Gospel of Christ to the point that our people don’t take personal responsibility for sin? Are they blinded or immune to their own depravity apart from Christ, and are they also forgetting that His power is sufficient – without their having to be “victims” for life?
Are we a little too concerned about looking “weird” to our culture, our communities, our co-workers? Are we so fearful of discord that there is no doctrine left that we would lay down our lives to defend? Do we cringe at the thought of being labeled “arrogant,” a zealot, an annoyance to our brothers and sisters whom we love in Christ? Are we willing to risk friendships to be corrected by God, and then labor to correct others? These are hard questions. These are life-and-death questions for our day. In a World-War-III climate of battle between the powers of darkness and the dominion of God, we need to ask ourselves if we are, in fact, mistaking “unity” for peace at any cost. Are we in the appeasement mode of a Chamberlain, or standing for unpopular truth in the leadership mode of a Churchill?
Unity without Fallacy
Where does this discussion leave us? Looking back since Mount Sinai, it ought to leave us with a healthy fear of God’s correction when the idolatry of our ways supersedes His own. It should encourage us that He is incomprehensibly faithful to His children in correcting error. It should cause us to study His corrective measures of the past, in His church, and how He has used very ordinary men to bring her back to His doctrinal purity. It should make us highly sensitive to discern the tremors in the church today, and not be too quick to condemn the champions of uneasy doctrines – that is, until we go before God ourselves and seek correction. It should also remind us that, ever since the Garden of Eden, there has been an incalculable toll in human life in the war between truth and falsehood. We cannot expect our job to be any easier.
Jesus Christ, in whose image we are being conformed, showed great compassion to the lost and hurting, and great anger toward muddle-headed, self-serving religionists. If we were truly about the business of making disciples, our churches would not be day-care centers for the chronically confused or doctrinally illiterate (with the watching world musing, “Why bother?”). As we pray for unity in the church, which is the heart cry of every Christian who sees the thrilling possibilities of an integrated army of God in every community, every nation, let’s also pray for unity of belief. The disease of custom-made theology is killing the church. It has made the Body of Christ the host for every virus of sin, deception, and error. It has castrated our power in the earth. In our aversion to doctrinal absolutes, we have rendered ourselves useless.
The unity for which our New Testament fathers prayed, and died, was not a “smorgasbord” of every doctrinal dish served up by men. They prayed and suffered for the pure, unadulterated truth of God. We must let go of “populist” doctrines that swing and sway with popular sentimentality (“My God is a God of love. He wouldn’t be so mean to homosexuals” or “My Bible says that we should always obey civil law, right or wrong” or “I don’t think that these women ought to feel guilty” or “God will understand if I have an affair and divorce my wife…”). We might as well face it, it is not popular to say, “This is God’s truth. Here I stand.”
May God help us to correct our doctrine so that He does not have to do it for us, with His chastisement. May He help us to speak the truth – in love – to our brothers and sisters who are perishing, innocently, under erroneous or false doctrines. And may we have unity.
Abby Oberst is a member of Shiloh Christian Church in Painesville, Ohio, and whose pastor is Phillip Vollman. As bulletin editor for the church, Oberst contributes weekly essays to the bulletins. This is one of them.