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In this excerpt from Turning Around the Mainline: How Renewal Movements are Changing the Church, Tom Oden writes wisely (and passionately) about the right and wrong ways to pursue ecclesiastical unity. Evangelicals who still call the mainline their home will know exactly what he is talking about.

Oldline ecumenical debate and planning are prone to misfire through a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of unity and truth: They do no seek unity based on truth.

Four modern ecumenical arguments in particular misfire, as shown by David Mills. They even make Christian disunity more likely. These four following arguments have prevailed in liberal ecumenism, each unintentionally eliciting disunity. Each is a mistake “if-then” correlation:

1. If we can just get together on some common ethical standards, then we will therefore achieve the unity of believers.

2. If we could have the same open ecumenical feelings or experiences, then we would feel our unity.

3. If we could just be open to dialogue, then we would grow toward unity.

4. If we merge the separate institutions based on different memories created by the Spirit, then we would experience our unity through an institution, and thus we now must renew our commitment to the institutional vestiges of ecumenism.

All these attempts are alike in one way: they put unity ahead of truth. They squander the truth to achieve a superficial unity. All are mistaken. All spawn disillusionment with efforts at Christian unity. Together they have resulted in the ecumenical turbulence that now buffets us.

All misfire for the same reason: they base unity on something other than the truth, by avoiding the only basis from which Christian unity can emerge—that is the revealed Word whose hearing is enabled by the Holy Spirit and received through faith. (111)

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23 thoughts on “Unity Based on Truth”

  1. One of the problems with all these approaches is if you throw out truth there is nothing to be united about. If we have no message that runs counter to what the world says we are irrelevant.

  2. Wesley says:

    In truth, i was not there to witness the entirety of the conversations (i only read the transcriptions from Driscoll’s blog) but this same “putting unity ahead of truth” idea seems to be what was being leaned towards in Elephant Room 2. Anyone have any comments or light to shed on that please?

  3. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “All these attempts are alike in one way: they put unity ahead of truth. They squander the truth to achieve a superficial unity.”

    It’s not just the mainline LibProts who do this. The Emergers do this also. And some liberal evangelicals too.

  4. paul says:

    I agree with all but question #3….maybe I don’t understand it though…How will we know if we agree on the Truth if we are unwilling to dialogue? How will we communicate the Truth in love if there is no dialogue? If we are willing to sit down with non-Christians and dialogue about the truth, why would we be unwilling to dialogue with someone who professes Christ as Savior and Lord?

  5. Scott says:

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the post, I think the other side of the gospel coin would have us engage, discuss, and push back on those who would call themselves our brothers but who don’t merely believe differently on secondary issues, but who believe wrongly on primary issues.

    Ironically, the truth of the gospel calls us to strive for unity, and that means reaching over fences to call people home. How else does that happen unless we dialogue? Conversations don’t mean compromise. We should encourage faithful, steadfast men to engage others over the truth of the Scriptures in person. Otherwise, we’re just letting wayward shepherds and their sheep (literally) go to hell.

  6. paul says:

    @scott…Amen my bro, Amen.

  7. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Some people make conversation/dialogue a false idol.

    Conversation/dialogue to a certain extent is fine. But it’s not the end-all, be-all.

  8. Andy says:

    Thanks for this Kevin. As an evangelical in the mainline (PCUSA) this seems spot on to me.

    I would love to read your thoughts on what it means to be an evangelical in a mainline denomination. How do we labor faithfully with such a disregard for truth in our larger church? Where are lines in the sand, and breaking points. There are so many people with opinions on how/when/why/if we should remain within mainline denominations, I definitely would like to hear yours. Thanks for all your writing and thinking, brother.

  9. Sharon says:

    I second Andy’s request for guidance. I also am an evangelical in a PCUSA church, and have been praying about and wrestling with the issue of ‘lines in the sand.’ I have spoken with leaders in my local congregation about this issue of separating from the denomination, but they just don’t seem to feel as strongly as I do about the issue of being “attached,” even it’s in name only, to people who reject the truth of the Bible. Help!

  10. Ann Metcalf says:

    Unity above Truth is extremely scarey. Having a large group of people who are accepting of various forms of Christianity is a mess. It does no good!

  11. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Unity Based on Truth

    Pastor DeYoung, et al,

    Question: Truth based on what particular doctrinal order/centrality?

    For example, let’s take the Together for the Gospel Coalition. Some significant doctrinal differences would be Credo-Baptism vs. Paedo-Baptism and Cessationism vs. Continuationism. There’s unity on the Gospel, but there’s honest disunity on Baptism and Cessationism.

    Yet this disunity on these “2nd-order” issues does not prevent a coalition from forming and uniting around the Gospel.

  12. Nate Archer says:

    A sinking ship it is indeed.

  13. While I appreciate the main point you’re making, often the disruption of unity is more nuanced among believers. I know you’re aware of this and cannot in a small post address the whole picture but it’s worth noting that “truth” must be identified and defined in relation to degrees of necessary agreement for fellowship and cooperation. Those who believe that truth is the basis for unity must be quick to teach people about the differences between debatable matters and non-negotiable convictions. Without such teaching, the lean toward pharisaism and away from love will threaten fellowship in ways that violate the gospel.

    I minister in a very conservative area (Lancaster, PA) so I have had to do a lot of work in teaching about debatable matters. Briefly, I teach that a debatable or disputable matters (Romans 14:1) are areas of behavior, doctrine or tradition on which Christians disagree because specific biblical absolutes do not regulate them. These are matters of personal preference not divine command. They belong to the category of Christian freedom or liberty.

    When a behavior, doctrine or tradition is not addressed in Scripture by a specific moral absolute commanding or forbidding an action or position, it belongs to a category of freedom. In areas of freedom, Christians are encouraged to establish their own convictions but are not permitted to judge or ridicule those who do not share their conviction (Romans 14:3).

    Scripture does not always demand uniformity of opinion among Christians, but it does require a unity of disposition (see: 1 Peter 3:8; Eph. 4:1-3). The question then turns to those matters that are tests of Christian orthodoxy and valid conditions for Christian fellowship.

    If interested in a closer look, I did a four part post on the subject that starts here:

  14. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Steve Cornell: When a behavior, doctrine or tradition is not addressed in Scripture by a specific moral absolute commanding or forbidding an action or position, it belongs to a category of freedom. In areas of freedom, Christians are encouraged to establish their own convictions but are not permitted to judge or ridicule those who do not share their conviction (Romans 14:3).”

    This is extremely helpful Pastor Cornell. Thanks so much.

    The issues/positions of paedo-baptism vs. credo-baptism and cessationism vs. continuationism do not seem to fall under “a specific moral absolute” in Scripture as far as I can tell. Would you agree?

  15. I do not see positions on (and for) baptism and cessation vs. continuation of gifts as tests of orthodoxy or conditions of fellowship. They might effect practical matters related to levels of cooperation but even here grace toward each other must shine. Consider as an example the Lord’s return. We have too many theories on the timing of His return. If someone says, “I don’t believe the Lord Jesus is returning,” he places himself outside Christian orthodoxy. But to be pre- mid- post,…. does not carry the same weight. Many years ago, I was taking a class in Eschatology and we covered the views of the Lord’s return. After class I asked a young man from Africa if his people back home knew all the views. He said, “Oh no. My people only know two things. The Lord is coming and we must be ready.” I asked him not to take the views back home with him.

    The same is true for the age of the earth, mode of baptism, and differences over music. On music, we tell people that we have two non-negotiable standards for music: 1. To sing lyrics that are faithful to Scripture and 2. To be led by faithful followers of Jesus. Beyond this, we tell those interested in our Church that we don’t fight over music styles. If they want to make music a battle, we let them know that they’ve found the wrong Church. We also practice believers baptism but accept other modes as long as one was a believer at the time of baptism (baptism is a command to be obeyed). This position falls under a category I call house rules.

    These are exceptions to general teaching on debatable issues for those under authority (children under parents, citizens under governors, and members of organizations or institutions). I call these exceptions “house-rules” or “rules of order.” For those under authority, unless they are being ordered to do things that disobey God, they’re responsible to submit to the rules. Children, for example, must obey their parents’ rules– even on debatable matters. College students must abide by the rules of their institution even if such rules are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Societies and governments sometimes establish rules of order in areas not specifically addressed in Scripture. Since believers must submit to governing authorities (unless they are being asked to disobey to God), they must obey the laws— even on debatable matters. But it’s wise to distinguish these standards from explicit commands of God.

    Groups of believers (like families) are permitted (even encouraged) to establish in-house rules but they are not permitted to judge the spirituality of other believers unless their standards are explicitly required by God. If parents set standards for their homes in areas where the Bible doesn’t explicitly speak (as they should), their children are commanded to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1). Other families in the Church (who do not share their convictions) should not ridicule them but more conservative families should not condemn others for exercising their freedoms on debatable matters.

    We need to teach the required attitudes of Romans 14:3 to our children and our churches to protect them from being pharisees.

    I realize that some Christians feel uncomfortable with behaviors and activities that are “permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.” Desiring simplicity and security, they want everything to be understood as clearly commanded or clearly forbidden. They want everything to be labeled right or wrong.

    If God has not given specific instruction, some teachers will put interpretive twists on more general commands to make them a matter of right or wrong. These people mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issue. But this is artificial unity which ultimately ends up destroying the fellowship and influence of a church.

    I’ve gone on too long but I hope this helps.


  16. Justin F says:

    So who gets to decide what this “truth” is?

  17. James S says:

    Nancy Pelosi.

  18. Lois Westerlund says:

    Thank you, Pastor Cornell! your post was not too long. Your words of wisdom are a model of clear, Biblical thinking. As I was reading through the comments, I had found myself thinking, how can we even talk about maintaining unity without addressing issues of the heart? The unity we are enjoined to keep is a unity of the Spirit. not of doctrine. Scriptural unity requires hearts that are not grieving the Spirit by wrath and bitterness and anger. You seem to touch on this in your last paragraph. Of course, one cannot keep the unity of the Spirit if one does not possess the Spirit, and that means a person has received the Spirit, in repentance and faith in the the atoning work of the Son, as our Lord told Nicodemus. Again, thank you. Your church is blessed!

  19. matt ballou says:

    the most difficult thing for me to deal with is this: if the Spirit is the creator, seal, and guarantor of Christian unity then why are we not unified? why have we never been unified?

  20. Lois Westerlund says:

    Doesn’t Ephesians 4:1-3 address this question? The apostle Paul tells us to walk worthy of our calling with all humility and gentleness,with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He says it requires not only effort but humility and patiently bearing with each other, in love. Usually lacking all those qualities, I find it amazing that I have the sweet perception of unity with my fellow believers that I do! It must be their forbearance! And in the second chapter of Philippians, we are told to have the mind of Christ, to have no selfish ambition, to think others better than ourselves, and finally, to be obedient unto death. That is the only way to be “united in spirit” (vs.1).

    When Jesus prayed for unity, he prayed that we might be one as He and the Father were one. Was that an organizational unity? The spiritual unity Jesus desires means no turf wars, no caring who gets the credit, no desire to be recognized. That will be a witness to a watching world because it is supernatural! It is not human nature; it is not the world we live in. It is the clearest evidence of the transforming work of the Spirit, when Self is replaced by Love. And Love removes the obstacles to true unity in the Spirit. Please don’t misunderstand this–I am not talking sentimental feelings, only reflecting on the Biblical requirements for unity among those who are in Christ.

  21. I am sure Kevin could help answer Matt’s question but I propose six reasons for the ongoing struggle for unity. They are too lengthy to post here, so I will provide the link:

  22. You state, “they base unity on something other than the truth, by avoiding the only basis from which Christian unity can emerge.” This is highly dubious, and unbiblical. How about unity based on love? unity based on mission? unity based on covenant?

    The premise in your post is the reason that organizations like the Gospel Coalition, ostensibly formed to forge unity, end up with a sectarian posture.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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