Doctrine Divides but Ministry Unites: Rethinking the Ecumenical Mantra

March 4, 2017

How important is unity in the body of Christ? How do we live in the tension between pursuing “peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14) and purity of doctrine at the same time?

There is a familiar mantra amongst Evangelicals, “Doctrine divides but ministry unites.” Many of us have heard this, and possibly found something attractive about it. How often have we attempted to share Christ with someone and heard it suggested that there are too many religions in the world? Or perhaps we have had the fact that there are so many denominations amongst Christians used by those who are looking for a reason not to be part of one. I could not count the number of times I’ve been told that Jesus did not start a denomination, nor did he join one; so why should we?

There may be an air of piety in the statements above, but it is a passing cloud at best. For example, take the phrase, “Doctrine divides but ministry unites.” It is true that doctrine divides, yet Jesus told the Pharisees that their doctrines were wrong, and this clearly led to division. Peter was rebuked by Paul for his doctrine regarding the Gentile’s relationship to the dietary laws (Galatians 2:11). Paul instructs Timothy as well as Titus to stand for “sound doctrine” and to rebuke those who contradict it (2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9). In fact, much of the advice that Paul gives to them seems to center upon the importance of standing for sound doctrine and resisting error.

Does this suggest that division over doctrine is a good thing? In these cases, it might be better to adopt the word “necessary” in the place of “good.” Doctrinal division is a necessary reality in this present evil age in which error persists (in all of us!), and part of what it means to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:2) implies pursuing truth and resisting error. To say it a little differently, perfect unity in this life is a worthy yet somewhat illusory goal. We ought to strive after such unity, but must also live with the reality that it will not be perfected in this life. Setting aside doctrine for the sake of ministry may sound pious, but in reality it will likely end up contaminating the ministry. Consider the following illustration.

Three missionaries arrive at the same remote field to evangelize. One is Baptist, one is Presbyterian, and one is Charismatic. They decide to set aside their doctrinal differences for the sake of doing evangelism together because after all, doctrine divides but ministry unites. As they begin to work together, lo and behold, they have their first convert! There is much rejoicing. But then comes a rather awkward discussion. The Baptist wants the convert to be immersed.  The Presbyterian prefers sprinkling but insists that the convert’s covenant children be baptized along with him. The Charismatic prefers immersion, but insists the man also needs to be baptized in the Holy Spirit! What are they to do?

This fabricated story illustrates the point that while it may sound pious to attempt to set aside doctrinal or denominational distinctions for the sake of ministry, in the end, it is impossible to avoid embodying doctrinal distinctions in the practical ministries of the church. Even something as basic as evangelism immediately leads to differences in theological decisions being made, and then in practically embodying those decisions. There is no such thing as ministry without doctrine. Ecumenical attempts to exalt the name of Jesus apart from doctrinal distinctions often descend into vague descriptions of who Jesus is and what he came to do, and unwittingly work against one of the most foundational definitions of what it means to be the church—“the pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Jesus did indeed pray that the church would be “one” (John 17:11), but he also prayed that the church’s oneness would be anchored in “truth” (John 17:17). Unity and truth are not mutually exclusive ideas; they are two sides of a coin—distinct but inseparable. Unity without truth is liberalism, but truth without unity is factionalism. Both are sinful. As Christians, we ought to pursue both truth and unity.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It is here that we can appreciate the beauty and practicality of confessional expressions of truth. Every church is a confessional church, and every Christian is a confessional Christian. We all believe that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. We all believe that Jesus was or was not God; that God is or is not triune; that salvation is or is not capable of being lost. Our commitment to certain truth-statements implies that we ought to confess those truths clearly and bind ourselves to those who are likeminded. The flower of ministry blossoms best in the field of confessional clarity and integrity. The history of the church, in many ways, is one of doctrinal clarification and its practical application. Every great creed or confession was written in the context of clarifying and defending the truths of Scripture. Truth was not sacrificed on the altar of unity; rather, truth was and remains the foundation of the church’s unity.

Contrary to the postmodern idea that truth is invented by the individual, Christians ought to confess that truth is inherited. The truths we are to believe—including doctrinal truths—are to be handed down from generation to generation, and believed and confessed with increasing confidence and clarity. Nearly two thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the establishment of the church, the church ought to be able to say more with confidence and clarity, rather than less. That is not to say that we are to mindlessly echo the doctrinal formulations of the past or, on the flipside, to fight over every pedantic distinction. We ought to be constantly reforming, constantly submitting our views to Scripture with a willingness to be corrected. But while doing this, we need to remember that true Christian unity is anchored in our confessions of faith and our common mission statement (The Great Commission). That is, truth is not only to be inherited, it is also to be shared.

About the Author
  • Eric Watkins is Pastor of Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, FL, and holds a PhD from the Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands.

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