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Affectional Symmetry for Doctrine as the Foundation for a New Ecumenism

There is an ethical need for a certain symmetry of affection for truth.  This symmetry would lead to greater gospel unity amongst God’s people (The Church) and a greater gospel witness to a lost world.  If Catholics and Protestants, Open Theists and Calvinists, Complimentarians and Egalitarians, Calvinists and Arminians, etc. could decide that their unity in the gospel was more important than their disagreements on everything else, and actually live this conviction out consistently … (!) … there would be a New Ecumenism at work that could change the face of Christendom.  

Let me explain … 

One way of describing the essence of true godliness is this: godliness is keeping your priorities straight.  This is because keeping one’s priorities straight would include keeping God as the priority of your heart’s affection, and such love would entail obedience to the entire law (Mt 22:36-40; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Jn 5:1-3).  It is also true, by that same token, that when something of lesser value than God takes the place of priority in our affections, this is the essence of sin (Jn 3:19; cf. Mt 22:36-40; 1 Jn 5:1-3). 

Have you ever asked the question, “Why should we love God more than anything else?”  One true answer would be, “Because He commands us to,” but this would miss the design of the question, for we are asking a more penetrating question about just why it is in the first place that we are commanded to love God above all things.  The answer cannot be in any particular act of God’s redeeming love toward us (e.g. because he redeemed us and has sent His own Son to die for our sins, has loved us, etc.), for if we seek to ground the necessity for God to be the priority of our affections in any one of His redeeming acts, we would have no grounds for why Adam should have loved God above all things before the fall.  The answer is quite simply that God sees love for Him as the greatest of all commandments because He is more worthy of our love than all things; He alone possess infinite worth. 

It would be sin to love so many things which are good in and of themselves, and worth loving, if at the same time our hearts grew cold to those things which were far more worth loving.  It should be no wonder to Christians that depression is such a wide-spread epidemic, coupled with shocking numbers of suicide.  There is no quicker way to make the soul unbearably sick than to feed it with everything worth two cents while starving it from enjoying the most worthy of all things.  The human race was created for something infinitely bigger than those things we settle for in our desperate scramble for satisfaction-namely, The Uncreated.  As the saying of Augustine goes, “…you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Thus, it is easy to see why God has commanded us to love Him above all things.  It is the most loving thing He could have commanded us.  In fact, all of God’s commandments have just this loving quality to them.  They are for our good.  God’s law speaks to us as divine council for our souls, pleading for us to know ultimate peace and exquisite happiness, and warning us of those things which expedite our own destruction.

Yet for those who have, by the great mercy of God, come to realize this great and ultimate truth, we should not think we have mastered this truth in our experience.  In addition to the human tendency to lapse in our affection for God by applying the strength of our hearts on lesser things, we often allow our affections for certain divine truths of God’s word to be destructively disproportionate to the level of affection such truths deserve.  For example, if those who are Calvinists allow their zeal for the doctrines of grace to exceed their measure of passion for the truth of the gospel such that they become bent more on Calvinism than the more basic message of the gospel, this would be a sin akin to idolatry.  Or, if some group of Southern Baptists, in despising a legalistic approach to abstinence, were willing to allow their zeal for Christian freedom to drink alcohol to divide the denominational unity and thereby ruin the pooling of resources which has been so effective in reaching so many people and nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ, this would be a great sin.  Freedom to drink alcohol cannot-by any sober biblical standard-be worth sacrificing such large scale Christian Unity, not just because of the unity itself, but for the sake of the prospering of the gospel message in the world which that unity affords. 

It is manifest, therefore, that a certain symmetry of affection with respect to various important truths is necessarily a part of getting a grip on the essence of real charity and godliness.

For too long Christians have been unnecessarily divided over secondary matters.  The history of the Protestant Reformation bears witness to schism after schism, resulting in a plethora of denominational zealots who devote themselves to defending and propagating the unique views of their denomination.  All this is done, of course, in good conscience of the individuals involved (we trust), and under a worthy banner: “the truth of God.”  Each denomination is fully convinced against another over some point of soteriology (e.g. Calvinism vs. Arminians, predestination and free will, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility), church government (e.g. legitimacy of the presbytery, plural eldership vs. head pastor as virtual C.E.O., congregationalism vs. elder-authority), legitimacy or mode of certain church ordinances (e.g. infant baptism, foot-washing), etc.  Each person deems his or her teaching with regard to these issues as vital to the health of the body of Christ. 

The effect this has on all true Christians everywhere is a mixed bag, but some of the negative effects include the following: a distraction from the most important Christian beliefs, a confusion about what beliefs are essential and what beliefs are non-essential, a lack of one denomination’s trust and respect for another denomination, perpetual characterizations and uncharitable assessments and accusations of various sorts against those in opposition to one’s denominational or personal position, a lack of appreciation for whatever unity exists in spite of the differences, a lack of cooperation among Christians on important social and political problems, a diminishing of the demonstration of Christian unity, a weakening of Christian influence in an unbelieving world, and the near impossibility of a unified effort to reach and nurture the nations of the earth with the basic message of the gospel.        

On the other hand, if the truth about God is more cherished by Christians than it is despised by unbelievers, it is no more surprising that Christians find themselves in the midst of heated controversy over doctrinally related differences than it is to find Christians in controversy with unbelievers over differences of worldview beliefs.  Those who believe the original autographs to be inspired and inerrant would lack virtue if they did not consequently take great measures in securing their understanding of what the Scripture teaches for the sake of the edification of the body.  If ministers have the responsibility of teaching the people, and one minister’s teaching about the role of women in the church, church government, or the legitimacy of infant baptism differs from another minister’s teaching, it is easy to see how they would find it hard to “do church” together-even if each is willing to esteem the other highly as a virtuous Christian. 

This is part of the result of the fall.  Even as Christians, our remaining sin keeps us from discerning God’s truth perfectly.  Many Christians, while recognizing that institutional divisions (denominations) are a necessary evil on this side of eternity for the sake of conscience have also longed for all Christians everywhere to unite in some significant way.  Perhaps the most successful trans-denominational unity which has been achieved has been by those who have tried to form a strong alliance by rallying around the most basic belief in all Christian doctrine-the basic message of the gospel.  This group of Christians are known as evangelicals (from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” or “gospel”).  While evangelicals cannot by any means be accused of considering all non-essential beliefs as unimportant, they have considered unity in the gospel as the most basic kind of Christian unity.  This evangelical unity was one of the greatest (if not the greatest) by-products of trans-denominational movement of Liberal Theology in the nineteenth century. 

Evangelicals, however, are all too often guilty of not being faithful to this original vision of gospel unity.  When Classical Liberal Theology that no longer believed in the deity and resurrection of Jesus was at stake, it helped us to see how relatively unimportant the secondary issues amongst true believers actually were compared to the need to fight for the basic gospel truth.  But nowadays we are overly zealous for non-essentials.  Particularly Protestant Christians should give more thought to having an evangelical unity and cooperation with anyone who believes in the gospel, even if they happen to be Catholic, Orthodox, Open Theist, Emergent, etc.  Those who work for a New Ecumenism don’t have to give up their secondary convictions, they just have to value the gospel more than those secondary convictions.  They don’t have to love their -ism’s any less so much as they must come to love and value the gospel even more.  

 


St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans by John K. Ryan (New York, New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1960), 43.

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8 Comments

  1. David says:

    Thanks for the post. I agree with the idea of Christians uniting around the gospel and that anything less undermines the witness of the church. I have mixed feelings towards doctrinalists. On the one hand, they can get so caught up in their systematic theology (and their squabbles with other doctrinalists) that they miss the important point of relationship with God and people. Doctrine can become their integration point.

    On the other hand, as mentioned in Chesterton’s ‘The Everlasting Man’, doctrine can keep the church pure. Like a life-giving stream of water that you can still drink from because it has not been polluted by syncretism.

    Practically, what is a gospel-issue and what isn’t? For example, what is a satisfactory view of Scripture? What about those who agree with the gospel but then add other non-gospel ideas?

  2. theophilogue says:

    David,

    You are very perceptive to recognize the danger in getting caught up with secondary doctrinal beliefs. Taking the gospel for granted amongst Christians and focusing all the time on secondary doctrines can cause people to stray from those things which are most important. Arguing over the precise nature of secondary matters, they loose their ability to love those with whom they disagree, effectually undermining the more important doctrine of Jesus–love God and love neighbor.

    As to your question … I would say the gospel is Jesus: The redemptive incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. **** I Corinthians 15:3-4 ****

    To be a Christian, in my understanding, people don’t necessarily have to understand the exact nature of the divine and human elements of the one person Jesus (i.e. the hypostatic union) or the exact nature of the mystery of the trinity (i.e. the Nicean formula) to be saved by God’s grace.

    People don’t have to believe in the Chicago statement of inerrancy to be a Christian. They don’t have to even believe in any form of inerrancy to be a Christian. So long as their view of scripture does not undermine their belief in the gospel, they could still be Christians.

    Gospel issues are those that directly contradict the gospel: **** I Corinthians 15:3-4 *****

    That’s my understanding anyway. Im open to your cross examination on that. Do you see any problem with seeing things this way?

  3. David says:

    I appreciate your Christocentric and gospel-centric approach to ecumenism. I also discern that you have put some serious thought into it. I also long for a more unified, effective Christendom that would influence the world more. The gospel is the key to the kingdom.

    Drawing the line at anything that contradicts the gospel may have weaknesses. In the pastoral letters, emphasis is placed on sound doctrine and the guarding of the gospel. 1Ti 1, 1Ti 4:16, 1Ti 6:3, 2Ti 1:14, 2Ti 2:17. Bad teaching can spread like gangrene. Sin and destructive teaching can affect others like yeast in dough. 2Ti 2:20-21 requires some exegesis. Anyway, it seems that even if a teaching does not directly contradict a small summary of the gospel, it may be false and may destroy the faith of some.

    Perhaps we need to draw some distinctions within types of teaching:
    1. Arguable or immaterial differences, e.g. Ro 14:5. You might place Calvinism and Arminianism here.
    2. Destructive teaching. My concern is that some who claim to not contradict the gospel may be in this group.

    In God’s eyes, humanity is divided into saved and unsaved, but from my perspective I can’t tell. There seems to be a continuum of worldviews and there are large gray areas.

    Anyway, it really is ugly when Christians display a lack of graciousness towards one another because of secondary issues, especially in light of Jn 13:34.

  4. Ricky Love says:

    This sounds like a slippery slope to Liberalism to me, geeze…that’s great 🙂

    No, I have found many of the things you said to be true in my own experience at church, about putting aside secondary issues for the sake of the gospel. There has been so many fruitful things that have come from this, as you know.

    I especially appreciate what you said about God’s commands being loving. I am going to preach tomorrow on Phil 4:8 “whatever is…pure…think on these things.” This is such a loving thing that God would begin a good work in us, grant us to believe, and will and work in us, so that we might be able to think about those things that are pure, namely himself.

    I really enjoyed this one!

  5. theophilogue says:

    David,

    (I read all the passages you listed). Paul was very serious about correcting false teaching and not letting it spread through the church. As a Christian minster, I do my best to do the same.

    I guess I don’t see a contradiction between these passages and every pastors mandate to guard truth and correct false teaching on the one hand … and recognizing that anyone who believes the core gospel message is a Christian on the other hand.

    Even when Paul confronted false teaching, he confronted the people in the church as fellow Christians, not as SUB-CHRISTIAN HERETICS as it were.

    In places where Paul tells the church not associate with those who do not obey his teaching, it’s not the Nicean formula or the Chalcedonian Christology, or Calvinism he has in mind, it’s moral conduct (1 Cor 5:9, 11; 2 Thess 3:6, 14). I don’t see my Oneness Pentecostal brothers, Arminian brothers, Egalitarian brothers, or Catholic brothers as being implicated by Paul’s warnings.

    If someone contradicts the basic ethical teaching of Paul, and taught that homosexuality is OK, drunkeness is OK, orgies are OK, etc., then these passages would apply, because their basic faith in the message of the core gospel is called into serious question.

    Now that I’ve clarified my position better, do you see any other areas of vulnerability?

    Bradley

  6. David says:

    Bradley,

    1 Cor 5:9-11 makes me laugh. But I see your point. I like the categories of moral conduct vs misguided ideas.

    I’m with you. Heretic labelling can be a form of intellectual arrogance and pride, not at all in line with say Php 2:1-5. We should be motivated by love.

    Thanks for engaging,
    David.

  7. Thanks Dave … for “Struggling with Truth” with me! Your thoughts were very helpful to me.

  8. mybigGod says:

    Within each one of us is a desire to hate what is good and love what is false. Every kind of conflict we experience comes in the paradigm of who we know God to be and how we see ourselves by this. So that we define truth as being under the a necessary obligation to be true to ourselves. In this sense we fight a holy war on the inside. We win that war by holding to the truth. Then it is lived out as we understand the nature of who God is.

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