Christian unity is very important. John S. Robertson emphasizes this and suggests that there may arise divergences of opinion which might mar it. Beware.
It has always been a source of great concern to us that other honest and sincere Christians should hold different views from ours in the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. This has been the cause of much prayer and soul-searching to try to understand why the same Holy Spirit that indwells each of us and Who guides us “into all truth,” (John 16:13) would permit us to reach entirely different conclusions.
Until recent years, this problem did not seem so pressing as these differences were with saints who did not meet with us locally and whom we rarely met. However, the world seems to have shrunk and our parochial perspective seems quite inadequate for our times.
The spiritual revival of this generation, and the emergence of so many new converts with almost no Biblical background, has focused attention on the need for sound teaching, and Christian unity has become a matter of real importance to concerned saints. We have, however, come to the conclusion that it is neither profitable, nor desirable, to probe the mystery of God’s sovereignity, but we cannot in all honesty, remain indifferent to these differences among believers. How do they arise and what should be our attitude towards them?
Our concern is not with the dilettante who pursues biblical teaching as a novel experience in academics. Neither is it with the iconoclast who loves to shock people with some egregious epigram, unsettling some and undermining their faith. Furthermore it is not with sects or cults that embrace strange or mystic doctrines and rites of their own making it is not even with moralists who see men as masters of their own fate and captains of their own souls, thus denying the efficacy of the atoning death of Christ. It is rather with devoted saints who fervently seek the mind of God and His revealed will for them.
It was the earnest desire of Christ that all might be “one” (John 17:21). It was the mark of the early Church that they were of “one accord” (Acts 2:46, 4:24). It was the exhortation of Paul to the churches at Rome, at Corinth, and at Philippi that they be of “one” or “the same” mind (Rom. 12:16, 1 Cor. 1:10, 2 Cor. 13:11, Phil. 1:27, 2:2). Peter too, joins in this exhortation (1 Pet. 3:8). Moreover the subject of Ephesians four is this blessed unity. The question that arises in our minds, in colloquial language is, “Where did we go wrong?.”
Let us begin by frankly admitting it is possible for even the best-intentioned Christian to be deceived. The same Bible that urges unity among believers and teaches the “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:13), warns us of this. Paul tells the saints at Ephesus, “after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30). Mr. Russell Griggs, leader of the Canadian Jesus Movement, tells us how he was deceived by a group calling themselves “Children of God.” They sought fellowship with the Jesus People, claiming to be true believers. An examination of their teaching and practice soon showed they were grossly in error. Mr. Grigg points out that many of the peculiar cults of our day began as a group which had turned to the Bible for enlightenment, but had been led astray by the oblique teaching of one or two into man-made doctrines, entirely unsupported by the Word of God. He adds that the real need of the Jesus Children is sound Scriptural teaching. Alas, how this is being sadly neglected, even among those who were once known for their solid grounding in the Word.
There is a real danger in mistaking mutual compliance for unity. The unity of the body of Christ is inviolate. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), but members of the body do disagree because they are deceived. Many sincere Christians are deceived by plausible explanations of Bible doctrines that appeal to the mind but leave the soul sterile. Our chapter on unity contains this warning, “That ye henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine by the sleight of man, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14).
We have reached that point in history when knowledge is on the increase (Dan. 1:4), and people are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). The writing and printing of books is a profitable business and the demand for them is great. Books on religion are not exempt from this trend. Unfortunately many spend more time reading the latest best seller than in reading their Bible. It is not surprising that differences arise for each writer vies with the other in pressing his view. Gnostics, there have been since the days of the early church. Hierophants have existed in all ages. Rationalism has been the ploy of the arch enemy since Eden. Cloaked in the respectability of scholarship, the writings of men are being read with an avidity, hitherto unknown. Saints are deceived by the subtle sophistry and unsuspected casuistry of rationalistic expositors. Let us beware of this and like the Berean believers who “searched the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11), measure all our convictions by the Bible itself.
No amount of empirical thinking, no probing of the esoteric, nor yet the syllogistic reasoning of scholarship can reveal the mind of God. “The things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:11-12). We would be the last to minimize the debt we owe to Spirit-led scholars who have done so much to give use the Word of God as nearly as possible as it was written. Notwithstanding, if we are to know the mind of God for us, we must be prepared to let the Holy Spirit of God have His way in our thoughts and lives. There is no room for intellectual surmise in the calendar of God. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the rudiments of this world and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). His Word and His alone must be our final recourse in all teaching; His Spirit and His alone, our guide.
Not all our differences arise from accepting the teaching of others. It could be that we are not the deceived by the deceiver. This is doubly tragic when the one we deceive is ourselves. As a child, we remember studying a poem by John Godfrey Saxe, entitled, “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” The poem begins:
“It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
(Though all of them were blind).”
The poem goes on to tell how each blind man, approaching the elephant from different directions, bumped into its side, grasped a tusk, or seized its tail, etc. Each came to the conclusion that the elephant was, respectively, like a wall, a spear, or a rope. The final verse applies the moral:
So oft in the theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what the others mean,
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen.
The Apostle Paul voices the same though in the words, “Now we see through a glass darkly … Now we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Many of us, sad to relate, deceive ourselves, believing our part is the whole. It is well to note that this passage is taken from that beautiful chapter on love. Love should characterize each one of us in our dealings with other members of His body, and especially so on points where we differ. Even the Apostle Paul confessed, “I have not yet reached perfection but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me … If there is any point on which you think differently, this also will God make plain to you. Only let our conduct be consistent with the level we have already reached” (Phil. 3:12 — 15 NEB).
Perhaps the prime cause of self-deception is pride. This baleful enemy of souls also breeds self-justification and self-righteousness. These, together, can destroy our fellowship and our testimony. Diotrephes suffered from overweening pride which would tolerate no opinion but his own, “for he loved to have the preeminence” (3 John 9). He refused the fellowship of the Apostle of Love, John. May we, dear saints of God, heed God’s Word, “Let no man deceive himself” (1 Cor. 3:18). This happens from “doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railing … (1 Tim. 6:4).within or without. Christian unity does not require that we compromise in any way the truth as God has revealed it to us. Certainly we cannot have fellowship with those, even should they claim to be Christians, who deny fundamental truths as the deity of Christ, the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, the fall of man and salvation through faith in the finished work of the cross, etc. From such we must turn away. Let us remember, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpertation” (2 Pet. 1:20). Shun pride and let no one, think more highly of himself than he ought to think” but let each of us “think soberly according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). While we have every right, and indeed it is our duty to cling to the truth as God has revealed it to us, we must, with grace, accord to other saints the same right. “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with brotherly affection; out do one another in showing honour” (Rom. 12:9-10 RSV).