Toward a Catholic Christianity: Some Practical Guidelines
We should strive to walk on the same road with other Christians and churches as far as prudence and conscience will permit. We may not be able to travel far with some. I believe we can go quite a distance on the same road with others. I’d like to suggest four basic guidelines that should help us express a healthy and God-honoring biblical catholicity that will to some degree advance the realization of Christ’s high-priestly prayer (John 17). We’ll look at the first two below and the final two in the next post (Part 5).
Be Discerning, but Not Cynical
According to a recent Gallop poll, at least 80% of all Americans consider themselves to be Christians. We intuitively (and justifiably) suspect the correspondence between such statistics and the real spiritual condition of such a large portion of our fellow Americans. Many of the people we meet seem to be Christian only in name, which fits with what the Bible tells us. In the last days, men will have form of godliness, but they will deny the power of it. Therefore, we must exercise discernment. We can’t simply assume that every man or church that bears the name Christian is truly Christian.
I once received a postcard from the Reverend Ellen Alston, Pastor of Love Chapel United Methodist Church. The card reads, “We may not all believe exactly the same thing, but the people of the United Methodist Church believe in God and each other. If you’re searching for something to believe in, our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.” I don’t doubt they are an open group of people. They’re very open—probably too open! Sadly, the United Methodist denomination as a whole has departed from a commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Now they’re so open, they allow for and/or teach more heresy than gospel.
So we must be discerning. But we don’t want to become too cynical. We don’t want to assume that everyone who is not a part of our church is not a true believer. Nor should we automatically assume that every Christian outside our church or network of churches doesn’t care about good doctrine, doesn’t believe in the sovereignty of God, doesn’t honor the Lord’s Day, doesn’t show reverence in worship, etc. There are some people who suspect everyone else to be a communist. The mailman is a communist. The barber is a communist. The next-door neighbor is a communist. I fear there may be a few within my own denomination who suspect most professing Christians who are outside our network of churches of being unspiritual and unconcerned about the truth.
But we must not view the believers and churches out there with jaundiced eye! Yes, there may be weaknesses. Yes, there may be deficiencies. But until we know for sure what those weaknesses and deficiencies, we should try to think the best. Try to give the professing brother or the church the benefit of the doubt. After all, true love “believes all things and hopes all things” (1 Cor 13:7).
Distinguish Between Essential and Non-Essential Doctrines
Some teachings in Scripture are of greater importance than other teachings in Scripture. Some doctrines are clearly essential to our salvation while others are not necessarily so. Perhaps some may view an attempt to distinguish between more important and less important doctrines as “presumptuous arrogance.” After all, who are we to decide what’s more or less important in God’s Word! But our Puritan forefathers made such distinctions:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other.
The paragraph implies that there are some truths in Scripture that are “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” and there are some that are not necessary per se. The Scriptures also appear to assign varying levels of importance to distinct teachings within God’s word: “To do righteousness and justice is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice [emphasis added]” (Prov. 21:3); “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others [emphasis added]” (Matt. 23:23); “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures [emphasis added” (1 Cor. 15:3).
I’m not suggesting that we should treat less important doctrines as irrelevant. To paraphrase Christ, “Do the weighty matters first without neglecting the lighter matters.” I’m simply suggesting that it’s biblically appropriate to distinguish levels of importance among the truths of God’s Word. For example, there are several doctrines of “first importance” in the Bible: the vicarious death and bodily resurrection of Christ are the very heart of the Christian gospel (1 Cor 15:3-4). The future resurrection of all believers is the very hope of the gospel—to deny it is to undermine the very gospel itself (1 Cor 15:13-19). The doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential to the Christian gospel—the Apostle Paul anathematizes anyone who preaches differently (Gal 1:8-9). The apostolic authority of the New Testament and the divine authority of all Scripture is another essential doctrine—those who will not acknowledge the Scriptures as the word of God may eventually forfeit the right to be recognized as Christians (Matt 10:14-15, 40; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14-15; 1 John 4:6). These are non-negotiable. I wouldn’t advocate unity with professed Christians or churches that willfully deny these truths.
But I don’t feel that way about every truth in the Bible. Take, for example, the doctrine of church government. Is it necessary to have a congregational form of government in order to be a true church of Christ? Or is it possible to be a true church of Christ and have a Presbyterian or Episcopal form of church government? As a Reformed Baptist, I may believe that congregationalism or independency is necessary for the bene esse (well-being) of the church, but I don’t believe that it’s necessary for the esse (being) of the church. I’m sure there are many true churches with wrong form of church government. But I don’t think what the Bible has to say about church government is as important or as clear as what it has to say about human depravity or salvation by grace.
Can you see why this is important for Christian unity? If you and I do not make these distinctions, we’re going to respond to a genuine brother outside our ecclesiastical circles the same way we would respond to a non-evangelical apostate. We’re going to treat a dispensational Bible church the same way we’d treat a liberal Methodist theologian. I believe that such behavior would be contrary to the intent of Christ’s prayer.