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.