Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is a Statement of Faith Necessary for Unity?

Let’s suppose you have a family in our house church that has been with you for several years. They laugh with you, cry with you, worship with you and serve with you on a daily basis. You’ve heard the Lord speak to you profoundly through these dear people. Their family is part of your family. You cannot imagine being a church without them.

However, imagine now that they do not fully embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. Let’s say they believe that Jesus is God, but that he also takes the form of the Holy Spirit and sometimes the Father. [It’s called the “Jesus Only” or “Oneness” doctrine for those of you who are not familiar with the concept.]

Although they do not agree with you or anyone else in your church family about the Trinity, they also never attempt to argue for their "Jesus Only" view or impose their perspective on anyone else in the church. What do you do? Do you invite them to leave? Do you host an intervention and attempt to show them how wrong they are?

As I was reading Rad Zdero’s latest book, “Letters to the House Church Movement” I found myself asking myself this very question. What would I do? In his book, Zdero provides a specific example of an occasion when he counseled a family to separate themselves from another family they had been serving with for a long time because of just such a difference regarding the Trinity doctrine. But, is that the right thing to do? I’m not so sure.

Also, just this week, Neil Cole published an article at CMA Resources about statements of faith and he included the doctrine of the Trinity at the top of his list of what he calls "Gun to the Head" beliefs

So, let me share with you my thoughts on this idea of formalizing our beliefs into a statement of faith.

First of all, let me affirm that I am a Trinitarian. I do accept the traditional Christian view that God is One being who is revealed in three separate persons as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, is this view something that we should use a litmus test for fellowship, or even for salvation in Christ?

Jesus did not seem to believe that it was of utmost importance that the Disciples/Apostles understand the doctrine of the Trinity. If He did, then He did not stress it to them in His teachings anywhere. Also, the Apostles and the NT church did not ever seem to be of the opinion that agreement with this doctrine be the litmus test for salvation. Again, if they did then we should see some very strong teaching in that regard. And we don't.

Yes, I do believe the doctrine of the Trinity, but I also believe that salvation is by Grace, through faith alone in Christ Jesus. That means when an 8 year old girl prays to receive the Christ as Lord and Savior and begins to follow Him, we do not automatically expect her to be capable of explaining the Trinity to anyone. If she fails to explain the Trinity correctly do we proclaim that she is not saved? I wouldn't think so. So, I'm of the opinion that it's better to allow people to grow in their understanding of who Christ is and not dismiss people for not being where I want them to be doctrinally.

I think my response is also tempered by the fact that our house church is made up of people from a wide variety of backgrounds: Baptist, Methodist, Brethren, Charismatic, Presbyterian, Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, Pentecostal, etc.  Because of this wide diversity we have maintained our love for one another and our unity by simply not allowing any particular theological perspective to rise above the over-arching practice of learning how to follow Jesus in our daily lives and how to love Him and love one another as He commands us.

Do we disagree on doctrine? Yes! But not intentionally, and certainly not during our fellowship time together. Exceptions to this rule are few, of course, but in general we try to focus or time on Jesus and allowing His Spirit to lead us. Sometimes our differing perspectives leak out, but in those cases we are all careful to express those differences with grace. For example, one brother in our fellowship is a dispensationalist. I am not. Most of us are not, actually. So, if our perspective of a particular verse is informed by that doctrine we say, "I believe XYZ because of the way I understand these verses ABC." We try to allow for the possibility that we could be wrong, and we allow others to voice their different view if they want to. But, the key is that none of us is attempting to impose our views on anyone else. We share our perspectives openly but we do not divide on those issues - and we never allow those differences to overshadow our time together in Christ.

Everyone is In Process
One way we have come to understand these differences is by acknowledging that "we are all in process" and by that I mean that we all fully admit that there are convictions we hold today that we did not hold five years ago. We also know that the convictions we hold now could change in the next five years. We are all in process, and because of that we have grace for one another and we do not try to harvest green fruit or coerce people to agree with our perspective.

As you might have guessed, our house church does not have any formalized statement of faith. Whenever someone comes to our church and expresses a desire to join with us we simply say, “If you love Jesus and if you’re sincerely trying to follow Him in your daily life, you’re in!” That’s it. If people aren’t comfortable with this, they usually excuse themselves. (And some have, but not because we invited them to leave).

Here's one reason why we have not attempted to write any sort of Statement of Faith for our house church: Historically, every time the Church has tried to bring unity through the writing of doctrines it has always resulted in greater division because some will always disagree with that doctrine. Doctrinal statements have never resulted in increased unity, only increased division. That's why we allow people to grow in their understanding of Christ and of the Scriptures at their own pace.

Olly Olly Oxen Free?
Does that mean there are no standards? Of course not. None of us would allow an outsider, or an insider for that matter, to introduce a teaching that was contrary to clear Biblical truth. For example, if someone came and wanted to convince us that Jesus was a space alien from Alpha Centauri, or the spirit-brother of Lucifer, we would all open our Bibles and demonstrate that Jesus is no such thing. The key, of course, is that none of us attempts to sway anyone else in our group to agree with them.

At a basic level, we believe that the Gospel is fundamentally about transformation, not about information. In other words, we follow Christ and we encourage one another to know Him more, to follow His teachings in our actual, everyday lives, and we work to put His Word into action rather than sit around and argue about it from a theological perspective.

Unity or Division?
I think doctrinal statements divide as equally as they unify. For those who agree, unity. For those who do not, division. But if the church says, "We love Jesus and we're following Him in our daily life." Then all followers of Christ can agree with that and those that don't have no place in the Body, because they are not following Christ.

Even with doctrinal statements, there will always be those who silently disagree but who go along with the program because they don't want to be excluded from the fellowship. You will also eventually discover that although everyone agrees with doctrine X, they don't all see doctrine Y the same way...and now you've got another opportunity to start excluding people and dividing the church.

Our variety of doctrinal backgrounds at our house church hasn't prevented us from "walking together" or serving together or advancing the Gospel together, or serving the poor together, or anything else. If anything, we learn from people who might otherwise be excluded from our fellowship because we welcome anyone who says, "I love Jesus and I am doing my best to follow Him in my daily life by the Grace of God."

I don't know about the rest of you, but I don’t want to be in a church where everyone agrees with me on everything. Homogenization isn't our goal. Following Jesus, putting His teachings into practice and encouraging others to follow Him is.

I'd love to hear your thoughts concerning this.




D. L. Webster said...

I agree with you Keith. Our beliefs and ideas are always in process--we (of course) never get to a place of having it all figured out perfectly. Thinking we can and need to is one of the big errors of the Protestant Church and is the reason for so many denominations. The trinity is a tricky subject. While I fully believe in it as well, I understand it is tough and people have come up with different ideas about how it works.

To me, it makes more sense to base fellowship on action rather than belief. Is this person a generally healthy, supportive member of the community? Then let them remain and allow their beliefs to develop over time. In fact, one of the best forms of evangelism is to allow non-believers/non-followers to participate in the community and give them time to decide if it is something they want to be a part of. I'd be more concerned about dealing with someone who is criticizing others or bringing division to the body, even if their doctrine is "perfect".

Eli Chitaka said...

This topic is close to my heart, because I personally do not agree with trinity doctrine even though most christians i know do so its hard when as you say it is used as a litmus test.
I've come to the place I'm ok if someone thinks I'm deceived or misguided, what really matters is whether they put that in the context of our overall relationship and recognize our mutual love for jesus transcends that doctrinal disagreement.
I totally agree statements of faith tend to be more divisive than unifying... they railroad over the organic unfolding of revelation in each believer. We should only be expected to agree to that which has been confirmed to us by God, even if the language we use makes us seem wrong from the outside. What I mean is the worship of knowledge and institutions can cause us to minimize and miss christ in another believer because they do not outwardly align with our superficial judgements and measures.
As to doctrinal differences, personally I feel real dialogue only happens when we genuinely entertain the idea that we could be wrong even if our views side with the majority... especially if we're defending a doctrine which was named and explained largely outside of scripture.
Honestly I see the trinity as a major reminder of the stronghold of the institution even on people that have long since left the IC. Not because I believe its false, rather because its still used as a litmus test and represents an unwillingness to put all our beliefs on the table for scrutiny. There is a lot of justified fear at being labelled a heretic, having less of a public voice and losing friends.
Anyways, thank you for bringing this up, it takes courage.
My gut feeling is that as christ is revealed and made manifest amongst believers, he is more than enough glue to hold them together in unity... certainly some doctrines assist or hinder that.

Kent C. Williamson said...

Unfortunately, Love of Doctrine supersedes Love of Christ in many of the traditional church environments that I've experienced. I refer to it as the God in a Glass Box syndrome...

We want our understanding of God to be so thorough, so full, so right, and so complete... if we can accomplish that maybe we'll sleep better at night. But in reality what we are really attempting to do is to control God... define Him by how we experience Him... limit Him so we can understand Him... contain Him so we can control Him... ultimately we try and crowd Him into the Glass Box and put him on display for the world around us to see. And the smaller the Glass Box, the better... if we can fit Him in our pocket, we can take Him with us and show Him off when needed.

I'll never forget being invited to speak about a film I'm producing with a group of elders from a baptist church. The story line in the movie encourages believers to work with people across Christian denominational lines. At this point in the meeting one of the lead elders quoted 2 Corinthians 6:14, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" I was dumbfounded. I'd heard that verse used many, many times as a warning against marrying unbelievers, or doing business with unbelievers, but never had I heard it as a reason not to work with people from other Christ-believing denominations. By doing that this elder was showing me his God in a Glass Box.

I still grieve when I think of this... here we are, the bride of Christ, and we look like a splintered, shattered, divided, mess... The Church today is like the mercury from a dropped and broken thermometer... we are scattered across the floor. We each (as our own ball of mercury) think we are all there is, but what we need is Christ to come and push us all back together into one complete whole. Doctrine will NEVER do this... only Christ is able.

Melanie said...

The scenario you paint, in my opinion, is only one way it could play out and thus should not be used as a basis for how you view doctrine being taught/statement of faith. (I see a SOF as an extension of doctrine being taught)
First, what doctrine would be taught? I am assuming you would want this lovely family to teach or be released to disciple other believers, correct? When someone they are discipling asks you, Keith, if you believe this, how would you answer? You, Keith make bold statements just in your facebook posts. I have a hard time believing you would not answer candidly as to what you believe thus causing confusion for the new believer. Moments ago, you posted on fb that if you are only meeting at your church once a week, you are doing it wrong. Wow - that sure is one sided!
Also, ironically, ALL oneness believing christians I have met and spoken with make this a point of contention. Not me, them. I have been asked, in what name have you been baptized? If I don't answer in Jesus name only, I am instructed on how I was not properly baptized and so then I cannot truly be saved. I have a hard time picturing oneness christians leaving this cornerstone of their faith at the door. That is why I call it a fairy tale scenario - this couple you laugh with, cry with and can't imagine doing church without has never mentioned this cornerstone of their faith - unrealistic in my opinion. Now let's say they do say, hey I don't see it as a salvation issue, and can leave it at the door. Then great, let's grow together.
In a more realistic scenario, I would like to hear what you would do: the couple is adamant about this doctrine and refuse to leave it at the door, you go with the flow, let them share this doctrine as you are teaching on trinity. Both teachings happening side by side, confusion for new believers. What happens now? That scenario is more realistic to me.

2 Tim 1:13 What you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching with faith and love in Christ Jesus.

1 Tim 4:16 Timothy, watch your doctrine closely. It may save YOU and YOUR hearers. (caps mine)

Erik said...

I completely understand where you're coming from, Keith. I've seen doctrine exalted over Jesus. It gets ugly. You start following a doctrine so much, that you start to gravitate toward the "leaven of the Pharisees." At other times, really bad doctrine can be just the fruit of demonic influences, and needs to be addressed and corrected where appropriate.

However, there are doctrines I would have taught ten years ago as Biblical fact that I don't hold to anymore, not because my respect for the word of God has changed, it's just the paradigm through which I read scripture changed. (EG: I used to think the Bible was clear about a one view of church, etc.)

I've never pushed doctrine to the forefront of any work I've started or built up. That's not to say I haven't taught solid Biblical principles strongly and laid foundations of the faith in new churches/disciples. Maybe it just comes down to HOW you handle doctrine. I've seen churches with what I'd call some faulty doctrine show a lot of fruit of the Spirit. I've seen other churches with solid doctrine show a culture of selfishness, greed, and arrogance. Which is worse?

Proverbs says, "There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." Jesus said, "They will know you are my disciples by your love for each other." That's probably a good place to start for assessing the health of a church, then making sure some basic solid doctrine about Biblical essentials is reflected in the community.

Keith Giles said...

Melanie: The point I'm making is that it's not my place to decide for everyone else what doctrine will be taught. People are capable of hearing different teachings on the same passage and deciding for themselves which they believe without me, or anyone else, telling them what they need to believe.

And, none of us in our group is trying to get everyone else to agree with us or to change their views. We gather around Christ and we seek Him together. The rest is window dressing.

JC said...

This is so much like our homechurch you could be talking about us. We come from many different backgrounds. Some of us were even born into cults and atheistic homes. If anything our differing backgrounds is what unifies us. If we cannot tolerate doctrinal differences within a close group of people who love one another how can be tolerate those God sends us to minister too. This can only happen though in small groups where you get to know and trust each other day by day, week by week, and year by year. You can only resist division when you truly come to love each other as Christ loves us. We do not all agree on every topic but we do not try to sway anyone either. Some things have never come up and some we just have to put on the shelf until Jesus returns or feels the need to change minds. They are not salvation issues so they should not be allowed to divide. Anyway, I really enjoyed your blog post. It nice to hear of other groups growing and doing what God has put dear to my heart...unification through his love rather than church doctrines.