The Church – truth and/or unity!?

This blog is meant mainly for Christians yet not those who merely attach that label to themselves, but rather those who earnestly try to find out and do the will of God and, pertinent to this article, in these two areas that the Bible happens to say a lot about: unity and truth, realizing that reconciling the two can be a challenging undertaking.

Some of my readers will know something of my own Christian background. I became a Christian as a teenager and came under the influence of a group called the “Plymouth Brethren”. The PBs are like many a denomination (not that they liked to be referred to as such) for it was/is a mixture of good and bad. It is not my purpose to analyze such (although I once had a go – see here), but I thought I’d mention it, for while lots of water has since flowed under the bridge, readers will know at least where I come from. The PBs held strong views on what constituted truth, usually based on a strict, literal understanding of the Bible. For those who did not go along with this (the majority of Christendom), they were often considered to be beyond the pale, so on the question of unity, it was not something many thought was even possible, let known desirable. In the years following, I got to know and engage with Christians of all shades and that continues to this day. Having learned the hard way, as one often does, I have found it usually the best course of action to adopt the find common ground principle and this has put me in good stead when it comes to best serving the community. Yet reconciling truth and unity can be problematic. While unity is something that is desirable, so is getting to the bottom of this whole truth business.

As is often the case when I do a blog, a number of things trigger a line of thought such that I then feel compelled to write about it. Earlier today, someone posted something on Facebook that resonated to such an extent I felt I ought to share it. It was along the lines of having a go at the church at large, which according to this particular post will go out of its way not to upset those outside that it feels it needs to attract. This means glossing over controversial subjects like sin, judgment and repentance but rather emphasising things like love, tolerance and inclusion. According to the originator of the post, this was worse than mildly wrong and I was inclined to agree. After I shared the post, I had second thoughts. I considered my more liberally minded friends who might feel got at, and while I have no qualms getting at anyone in the quest for truth, I realize there are other factors to consider. Casting my mind back to those early PB days and observing the modern day equivalent, I have seen so much sanctimonious bigotry, spiritual pride, blinkered narrowness etc., such that I feel until these folk can sort these aspects out they forfeit the right to speak out. But then truth is truth and is not a subject to be ducked, and while it is all very well to have unity based on unconditional love, how can we unite behind error?

A little after the Facebook share which I then decided to unshare, I came across another post by another friend that contained similar themes to the earlier one. He was sharing an article that had the title: “Good disagreement in the Church of England?” While recognizing “It is clearly both necessary and right that Christians show love for one another in how they handle disagreements”, it raised something it does not support: the “Live and let live attitude?” which seems to have taken over the church, that will likely lead to its “Denying our Master”. Among several Bible texts the article cited, it quoted from the book of Jude (a favorite among some PB hardliners) where we are told we should “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” and the reason which the writer picks up on is “because ‘certain people have crept in unnoticed… who pervert the grace of God into a license for immorality, and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’”. The author concludes “To go back to Jude, it is those who seek to live by their ‘passions’ rather than apostolic doctrine that cause division in the church (v18, 19). It is those that seek to move the goalposts of apostolic faith and life that undermine true gospel unity. They must be lovingly but very firmly resisted!” All of which got me thinking on where the balance lies on truth and unity.

In more recent years I picked up a phrase attributed to St Augustine of Hippo: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” which at the time I thought was pretty neat when trying to find the balance. Before that, a PB Evangelist mentor of mine used to sometimes come out with the ditty: “to live above with those we love, that will be glory, but to live below with those we know, that’s a different story”. It seems to me we are often cast into a paradigm of living below with those we know that we may not agree or get along with and, if we are about making a difference in the here and now, we can’t ignore that challenge. Neither can we ignore that of trying to discern what is essential and what is non-essential and, notwithstanding, finding in all things, charity. It got me thinking of last Sunday when the minister was asking the congregation for prayer requests. One brother came out with Israel, because it was going through a hard time at this moment. I had to resist adding “and the stranger the Torah declares that Israel is NOT to oppress, who are also going through a hard time!” It is never going to be easy. At our church was one who was about to leave a popular church in the town that was (wrongly in his view) teaching that gay sex is ok and thereby presenting a false message to those who needed to know what is the true one, and I recognized he had an even bigger challenge when trying to balance truth and unity.

I have come a long way since those early days PB teaching that put a great deal of emphasis on doctrinal soundness. Soon after that came the Charismatic Movement with its emphasis on hearts over heads and life over light. I later was exposed to those of more Catholic leanings who saw the visible church as the final arbiters in such matters and those with more liberal leanings that attached much importance to issues around social justice. Yet it isn’t just any one of these; it is all of them; and as for truth and unity (among true believers) it is definitely both. On the matter of balancing truth and unity, I am mindful of and put particular store by the real Lord’s Prayer, the one Jesus prayed shortly before he died, where both truth and unity are important themes. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth… That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” John 17:17,21.

On the face of it, we are a long way off from seeing these two ideals, Jesus referred to in his prayer: truth and unity, fully implemented and the best we have seen in 2000 years of church history is glimpses of what our Lord prayed for. Yet since he prayed it, we who he prayed for, with God’s help, need to work towards its realization!

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