The Essential/Non-Essential Doctrine Debacle
Disunity Indicates that the Assembly Needs to be Purified
Our adversary, Apollyon, knows very well that if he can infect an assembly with doctrinal error, the resultant theological disagreements will produce disunity while simultaneously promoting "fellowship". “After all”, their reasoning goes, “the NT church from the very beginning had ‘good men who disagree’ on biblical matters; why should we expect that it will be any different with us? So, given that doctrinal disagreement is inevitable, we should, therefore, maintain fellowship even though we may not believe entirely the same things in the same way.”
You’ll find that this evil, twisted reasoning is active in pretty much every so-called conservative church of our day. They put on a good show of “fellowship” while they hide the fact that they really are putrid cesspools of doctrinal error, conveniently obscured by the whitewash of "fellowship".
You may be sure the Lord knows the real truth of all of it.
The fact is, while true unity is innate, natural, expected and common among true believers, the enemy of the church (both the true and and false!) is always at work to sow discord.
Maintaining unity comes with a price:
- faithfulness and purpose, and
- the willingness to confront evil when it appears!
(And it will always appear...)
Achieving unity requires constant effort and diligence!
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents--which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
Unity is not merely the absence of disunity!
I have maintained in this series that true, biblical fellowship proceeds from the unity of doctrine alone!
As the following NT examples show, that principle holds true even when the beliefs are incomplete, immature or even defective. The early church, immature as it was in a great many ways, was not immune to this error in the implementation of their unity.
The first example of false unity not based in doctrine is the appointment of Barsabbas as the replacement Apostle after the death of Judas Iscariot::
So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. And they prayed and said, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
[This is the first clear example of the early church “getting it wrong”, in spite of the fact that they were united in their beliefs regarding their flawed actions.
The context was that the resurrected Lord had been with them for a period of 40 days (Act 1.3), but during that time had not appointed a replacement for Judas. After the Lord ascended to heaven they took it upon themselves to appoint a new Apostle in Judas’ place (a stunning—and truly arrogant—error!).
Somehow, for something this important they must have assumed that in the nearly 6 weeks of the Lord’s presence with them that He nevertheless had overlooked it! The result is that they developed their own “Criterion of Apostleship” and put forth two men, Barsabbas and Matthias who met their newly-and-self-contrived criterion:
The candidate must "have accompanied [the first disciples] all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them]—beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from [them]."
Consider this scene for a moment: they believed the Lord Christ left this matter incomplete, and then proceeded with no instruction from Him to solve this self-created "problem". They developed their own “Criterion of Apostleship” without the Lord's input, then discovered that two men, Barsabbas and Matthias, met the requirement! Then, they cast lots on the assumption that (only!) one of the two men must be the replacement for Judas: "Lord, which of these two is the one?"
One could reasonably ask the question "Why, if both men met the criterion, were not both made apostles?" The whole business is as silly as it is careless. It is a stunning display of "unity" without the prerequisite foundation of solid instruction from the Lord they served. (The only explanation is immaturity with a generous mixture of carelessness.)
Then, last of all, that they were definitely not working the Lord’s plan is made very evident later by the fact that the Lord called Saul of Tarsus as the replacement Apostle. (Act 9.1-6) There is exactly one criterion to become an Apostle: you must be called directly and immediately (that is, without intermediaries) by the Lord Christ Himself. You should also note that the 12 foundation stones of the New Jerusalem are named for the 12 Apostles of the Lamb, not the 13 Apostles of the Lamb! (Rev 21.14) Matthias may have been a faithful man and witness of Christ, but he was never a “Lord-appointed Apostle”.
A second example of false unity not based in doctrine is the Council of erusalem:
EDIT Feb 2019: for a detailed reference on the depth and scope of this error, see Matthias: The First Serious Error of the Apostles on this site.]
"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell."
[This is another major example of unity based on a common, but flawed, theology within the early church. The context is that the number of conversions among the Gentiles began to far outnumber conversions of Jews, to such an extent as to identify the early church as primarily Gentile rather than Jewish. When some of the (perhaps converted, perhaps not truly converted) elder Jews in Jerusalem realized this, they attempted to impose OT law on the new Gentile converts. When Paul and Barnabas learned of this serious distortion of the gospel, they traveled to Jerusalem to deal directly with the controversy and protect the true gospel of grace. There was great debate among the attendees of that conference, with the hybrid-OT-law “decision” quoted above as the result.
The problem with this “theological ruling” is that none of it has any basis in the gospel of grace; it is rather “another gospel” and thereby subject to the curse pronounced by the Holy Spirit through Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians. (Gal 1.9)
And, please do not fail to notice that this is the first example of the arbitrary carving up of the Word of the Lord into “essentials” and “non-essentials” (though “non-essentials” are not explicitly mentioned in this text, you can’t maintain the former without also logically establishing the latter, explicitly mentioned or not).
Their religious decision is a mish-mash of rules and regulations: the Gentile converts should abstain from sexual immorality, but other sins such as murder, lying, stealing, etc. remain unmentioned. (Why?) Are not those sins important to avoid? Then, there is the entirely new regulation of “things strangled”, concerning which there is no OT instruction at all.
Their aggregate response is classically Jewish: freely add new traditions to the revealed Word of God, but revere them as if they really are part of the OT canon. Years later, the Apostle Paul would effectively dismantle their defective position regarding “things sacrificed to idols” in his first epistle to the Corinthians. (cf., 1 Cor 8 and 1 Cor 10)
EDIT Feb 2019: for reference, see The Jerusalem Council: the Second Serious Error of the Apostles on this site.]
The fact of division may indicate that some are devoted to true unity, rather than being devoted merely to the goal of the absence of disunity.
The NT church in Corinth is the primary example of an assembly divided by all types of sin, immaturity and carelessness of doctrine. The fact is, they were divided in pretty much every way possible, as the following excerpts reveal.
1 Cor 1.10-13
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
The Apostle Paul takes issue, first of all with all these cliques—including the one nominally devoted to “Christ”—because of their intrinsically divisive nature. All of these are artificial because of the fundamental truth that there is but one body in Christ; that they could create and maintain these divisions showed their true lack of understanding and maturity.
The Corinthians were immature; "carnal" (“fleshly”) is the word the Apostle uses:
1 Cor. 3.1-4
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
The Corinthians (apparently from a "social-progressive" and "morally generous" disposition) allowed sin within the assembly: specifically (in this context), the man in an incestuous relationship:
1 Cor 5.1-2,6
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. … Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?
How could this happen? They obviously had defective and immature views of sin and God’s holiness and righteousness, of their responsibilities to “be holy as [the LORD is] holy”.
They were easily aggrieved:
1 Cor 6.1
Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints?
Why? Because they either did not believe or did not obey these:
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
They were morally careless:
1 Cor 6.15-20
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.
They were confused about the place of marriage and how that affected them as Christians:
1 Cor 7.1
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
They were not content in their divinely-appointed position in life:
1 Cor 7.21-24
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
They were confused regarding meat sacrificed to idols:
1 Cor 8.7-9
However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
They thought that Paul the Apostle was somehow unworthy to serve among them because he was not a member of the original 12 apostles:
1 Cor 9.1-2
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
The Corinthians were offended by the fact that the Apostle Paul labored among them “free of charge” (a stunning disposition!):
1 Cor 9.12-15
If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
They were careless and confused regarding idolatry:
1 Cor 10.14
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
The Corinthians were careless regarding other sundry items, and especially careless regarding the observation of the Lord’s table (to the extent that some of them died for their sin):
1 Cor 11.17-19
But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.
And it is at this point we see that in the case in which carelessness, confusion, and sin have infected an assembly, that those who correctly perceive these sins must step forward, “buck the trend” and attempt to correct those sinning within the assembly. It is “those approved” who are holding to the truth of the revealed Word of God that must take a stand against those who have become careless and indifferent.
In these situations, “disunity” is something of a misnomer, because error was seen and therefore must be revealed by those who understand the truth. They may or may not be successful in bringing that assembly back from the brink, but the fact remains that they must try. And in the process, the assembly will be fractured into those who seek to obey the Lord’s Word and those who desire to follow the ways of men to their own destruction.
[The similarity to the action of a biological virus is stunning: those in error will destroy the assembly and themselves just as a virus does with its host biological organism.]
The same model is seen in the Lord’s messages to five of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 of the Revelation of Christ:
Rev 2.4-5 [Ephesus]
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.
Rev 2.14-16 [Pergamum]
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.
Rev 2.20 [Thyatira]
But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.
Rev 3.1-2 [Sardis]
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
Rev 3.15-16 [Laodicea]
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.
The Lord expected that those who saw and understood the sins within the assembly to act accordingly, to “call out” that sin, to work for the repentance of the assembly and the eventual eradication of the sin. It is sin that causes division, and division must be the initial result when those who stand with the Word of God shine the light of His Word on the sin of those within the assembly.
But beware, evil does not like being exposed!
If the Lord is pleased to grant repentance and restoration, then true unity will be established and the assembly will be stronger as a result and less likely to once again experience doctrinal carelessness. On the other hand, if that assembly remains obstinate and disobedient, then it will fall farther into sin.
You see the same model worked out with OT Israel in literally scores of examples: Israel sinned; the prophets would call them out concerning that sin; and the people would either repent (infrequent) or be judged by the Lord (very frequent!) and fall into greater sin and destruction.