Should Doctrine Divide Us?

The New Testament is clear: Christians should not be divided (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 1:10; 12:25; Tit. 3:10). It was Jesus himself who prayed “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21).” Yet, it doesn’t take long for one to notice the numerous denominations in our very own country. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson (Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) there are 33,000+ “Christian denominations” in 238 total countries! These staggering numbers somehow do not seem to match up with Jesus’ high priestly prayer.

What is it that seems to be the dividing line between all of these various denominational groups? What seems to be the uniting factor, is that each of these denominations maintains the bare essential elements of the Gospel. That is, each group believes that Jesus Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again (1 Cor.15). This is what in fact sets “Christianity” apart from all other religious groups. However, there are obviously differences among these Christian denominations as seen in the above stat. The question is, what are they?

While there may be other areas of differences among these various denominations I believe a main contributing factor are all of the teachings from the Bible that are extensions of the main message of the Gospel. In theological terminology we call these “doctrines (I’m using doctrines here in the broad sense meaning all the teachings of the Bible).” While all Christian denominations maintain the core beliefs of the Gospel found in 1 Cor. 15, not all denominations are in agreement concerning all doctrines taught in scripture. I believe it is here we begin to divide.

For example, there are some churches who maintain that the doctrine of baptism is an essential element for one to be saved; however, others propose that baptism is merely an outward declaration of one’s faith done after becoming a Christian.  The only prerequisite for salvation, they maintain, is faith alone. Likewise, there are some who believe that the doctrine of “once saved always saved” is taught from the pages of scripture while others hold to the belief that one can forfeit their salvation by living continually in sin. These are just a couple of major disagreements among many others found in differing denominations. One could look at the beliefs of the second coming of Christ, the trinity, the Lord’s Supper, church polity, predestination and find similar disagreements.

The question then arises: should all Christians agree on every doctrinal issue mentioned in scripture or are these open to opinion? In other words, is the Gospel the only thing all Christians must agree on? These questions are not easy questions. There are two observations I would make in considering these questions. First, what actually is the content of the Gospel? For many, the Gospel is stated concisely in 1 Cor. 15: Jesus lived, died, was buried, and rose again. This is essentially the Gospel or good news for Christianity. But is this all that the Gospel entails? In Romans 1:15 the apostle Paul tells the Christians at Rome that he is “eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome.” If the Gospel is merely the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, why did Paul need to preach it again to people who had already heard it? I have heard others refer to the Gospel as the things one must believe in order to be saved. That is, salvific teachings in scripture are what unite us and the rest is open to opinion. This brings me to my second observation. If the only things in scripture that are “essential” for unity are salvific elements, then what do we do with all of the other teachings in scripture? Are the teachings of church polity, eschatology, predestination, even ethical issues like homosexuality up for grabs? If it is only salvific elements of scripture that we must be united on, then the answer is yes, everything else is of opinion.

But how do we respond to the heavy emphasis put on sound doctrine found in the New Testament? The following passages seem to place a high emphasis on sound doctrine.

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them (Rom. 16:17).”

“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph. 4:14).”

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim 6:3-5).”

“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Tit. 1:9).”

“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1).”

While most, if not all Christian denominations, affirm the basic elements of the Gospel found in 1Cor. 15 certain doctrinal beliefs keep us from sharing common ground. Although the belief in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus creates a shared agreement across denominational lines, certain doctrinal beliefs keep us from total agreement. But what exactly does the apostle Paul mean when he tells the Corinthians 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 (1 Cor. 1:10)?” The question still stands: are the essential elements of the Gospel all that we must agree on or must all Christians agree on every doctrinal issue as well? I like the idea of the former while I wrestle with the latter.

Do James and Paul contradict each other?

James teaches justification by works in James 2:20-26. In order to bring his point home James uses two familiar examples from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab. In speaking of these two examples we find a phrase that has caused many scholars much discussion and even resulted in some classifying James as contradictory to the rest of scripture. James states clearly that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by their works.” How are we to resolve this seeming inconsistency with Paul’s clear teaching of justification by faith apart from works (See Romans 4: 5, Eph 2:8)? At first glance it seems that there is no way around James and Paul’s statements. Paul is saying one is justified by faith and James is saying one is justified by works. However, a deeper study of this text will see that Paul and James are not in contradiction but instead complement each other.

The key to understanding Paul and James is their use of the word justified. It is important to understand that words do not always carry one wooded definition but are capable of semantic ranges. That is, words can have more than one meaning. This is the case with justification. When the Apostle Paul uses the word justification he means God’s declaration that a believing sinner stands righteous before him. However, justification can also mean “to vindicate” or “to prove” or “demonstrate” something to be true or just. Let’s take a look at a few passages of scripture that use “justify in the latter sense:

•             Luke 10:29

In Luke 11:19 a lawyer came to Jesus to put him to the test by asking “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the man what he thought the law stated and the man responded by quoting the Shema. Jesus tells the man to go and do this and he would live. The next verse is what I want to point out. Verse 29 says “But he, desiring to justify himself said to Jesus who is my neighbor?” The word “justify” here is the same word we find in both James and Romans. However, this man was not using the word justify here in the sense of making himself righteous before God rather, he desired to “show himself righteous” before others who were listening.

•             Luke 16:15

A similar passage is found in Luke 16:15 wherein Jesus says of the Pharisees “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” Again, justify here is to be taken as a demonstration before men not a legal declaration before God.

•             Matthew 11:19

Matthew 11:19 Jesus says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is saying here that wisdom will be proved true by observing what it produces.

•             Psalm 51:4

Finally, in Psalm 51:4 David writes concerning his sinful actions: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. David meant that God would be shown righteous in his words.

In all of the above passages the word justified is defined as proof or a demonstration of righteousness. This is also the way I believe James is using the word justified. The only way we can be sure is by the context.

The immediate context most surely seems to indicate that justification is referring to a demonstration of one’s profession of faith. Look again at verse 18. “Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.” This clearly indicates that works is something that is shown or demonstrated as proof of a true faith. James in essence is saying “you have faith well then prove it!” As an example of someone demonstrating their faith James refers to the great man of faith; Abraham. We read in verses 20-24 “You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, “and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”It is important to realize that when Paul used Abraham to prove that one is declared righteous in God’s sight by faith he had in mind a faith that was living and active. However James is writing to a group of people who see faith as only some simple proclamation detached from any type of good works. Therefore, James uses Abraham and the incident with his son Isaac in Gen 22 as an example of faith being demonstrated by one’s actions. This is why James writes in verse 22 “you see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” The word completed here means that Abraham’s works were the fulfillment of his true faith. In other words James is not saying that because of what Abraham did he was declared righteous before God. Rather, Abraham’s actions proved that his faith was genuine! This is clearly seen in the Gen 22 Narrative when God says to Abraham in verse 12 “now I know that you fear God.” God knew because Abraham proved it to him!