We all know that the Bible calls Christians to be unified. We all know that the church around the world is not. And so, we assume, from what we see, that there must be something wrong with the church.
That seems like a sound argument with a solid conclusion, except it isn’t. The concept of Christian unity is a concept that is used as a bludgeon against following Christ. It is used as a weapon against any sort of theological discernment. It is used as a club to keep people from questioning the beliefs or actions of others. But that is not what the Bible’s teaching regarding unity is about.
Take the passage about unity we see at the beginning of 1 Corinthians as an example.
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 – 10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Paul tells everybody to agree. Does that mean that we all must jettison our theological beliefs? Of course it does not. In fact, here, Paul is not even arguing about the basic doctrines of the faith. Paul is arguing that the church in Corinth needs to stop being a collection of little cults of personality. Divisions over which teacher is the coolest, or from which stream your heritage has led to you, those are division that we need to avoid. No one of us has the right to act as though we are good and other believers are lesser because of our favorite author, our denominational background, or which conference we love.
But in no way is Paul writing to allow the Corinthians to throw out doctrinal distinctives for the sake of unity. No, Paul is just telling them to cling to biblical doctrine instead of championing their favorite teacher or club.
So, what does unity mean? Does unity mean that denominations are a sin? No, not on the surface it does not. In truth, there is sin that causes denominational division, the sin of improper biblical interpretation. There must be a missing of the mark for groups to disagree over whether or not we ought to baptize babies or whether or not speaking in tongues involves a private prayer language. Somebody is right, and therefore somebody is wrong. So, yes, sin causes denominations. But, no, dividing over biblical doctrine is not sinful. We are to do what we can to hold strongly to the word of God and its proper interpretation and practice.
What division is OK? Divide if you must make and hold a theological stand. If a person denies the trinity, divide. If a person demands a practice in worship that you know, from Scripture, is unbiblical, you may have to divide. It would be very hard for a charismatic and a cessationist not to divide over issues of worship practice. This last is not either group calling the other non-Christian. But it is each group holding tightly to the word of God as they understand it. And while they differ on such fundamental issues, there will be denominations.
Where we do not divide is over issues of personality and taste so that we show the world that we are just like bickering children. We do not have the, “my dad can beat up your dad,” or the, “ I think Piper can beat up MacArthur in a theological wrestling match,” debate lead to us dividing. We need to be gracious on issues where doctrine is not at stake. WE need to be gracious, but firm, on issues where we must divide over doctrine. And we cannot allow people to get us to turn from doctrine to develop a false unity.