Ministerial Meanderings

God centered theology in a man centered world.

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Location: Springfield, Missouri, United States

I was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Laurel, Maryland. I served in the United States Air Force for 20 years then retired. Then God led me to become a pastor. I was converted to Christ in the summer of 1966. I enjoy the company of my wife, children and grandchildren. I live with my three cats Hobbs, Taz, and Chloe.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Unity and Identity and Heresy

There is a faith "once and for all [time] delivered to the saints." (Jude 3). There is a content to it. People can know it. But that being said, one can easily see there are many different Christian denominations and groups and they do not all believe the same things. If that is so, how are we (Christians) in unity? Is Jesus' prayer for the unity of His Church in John 17 frustrated? How can we be both in unity and yet diverse?

I believe the answer is given to us in a recent article by Dr. R. Albert Mohler. Dr. Mohler is the President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In the humble opinion of this blogger, Dr. Mohler may well be the smartest man in the Southern Baptist Convention. He divides the doctrines we believe into three groups, or orders. By looking at which "order" a doctrine is in, one can tell where we have unity and where we divide.

First order doctrines are those things which a person must believe in order to rightly be called a Christian. All Christians are unified on these doctrines. There is no dissent. If you are off on one of these doctrines, you are outside the entire Christian faith. Such doctrines would include a belief in one God who has revealed Himself in three Persons. The deity of Jesus Christ and his complete humanity would be another. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross for sinful people is a third. Salvation through faith (alone) in Jesus' atoning sacrifice and his sinless life is yet another. (Note: this list is NOT all inclusive.) But such doctrines as these are doctrines around which all Christians are unified. We are unified as Christians around the first order doctrines.

Second order doctrines are those doctrines which divide us into groups within Christianity. Doctrines relating to church government and polity, modes of baptism, styles of worship (as in the case of Pentecostal and non-Pentecostals), paedobaptism (infant baptism) versus credobaptism (baptism of believers only), and so on. Second order doctrines are what makes one Christian a Presbyterian and another Christian a Baptist. Let me be perfectly clear here. Second order doctrines separate Christians into groups. One can be right about faith in the work of the God-man Jesus Christ for salvation and be wrong about who to baptize (I speak here as a Baptist), and yet still be a Christian. Those people who are divided from us on second order doctrines, we still accept as Christians. But we understand we are divided within Christendom.

Third order doctrines are closer to opinions and various interpretations of scripture. They are the doctrines that separate us within our groups. Among Baptists, one church can practice elder rule and other pastoral rule. One can be King James (Bible) only and another prefer various Bible translations. One church can be instrumental and another non-instrumental. Some prefer certain forms of dress in worship, others do not. Yet, for all the differences, they can all still be Baptist.

So, in some things I am divided from my fellow Baptists, yet, we are both unified as Baptists. In some things I am divided from my fellow Christians, yet, we are unified as Christians. Ultimately I am standing shoulder to shoulder, in total unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

In understanding Dr. Mohler's explanation, I begin to see how we Christians can be both unified and diverse. As we see more and more apostasy and error in the Church these days, it may help us to see where we are the same and where we are different with others who are genuinely in the Body of Christ. We need not be identical, but when it comes to Jesus, it is true that the friend of my friend is my friend.

An important thing to note in this discussion is that first order doctrines also determine what is and what is not heresy. A heresy is defined as a doctrine, that by holding it, proves one is outside the historic, orthodox Christian faith. I said above that if one is wrong about a first order doctrine, they are not a Christian. To be wrong about a first order doctrine would make one a heretic. A false teaching relating to a first order doctrine is a heresy. As the Spirit within us reaches out to relate the Spirit in other believers, as we relate to them in Christian love, it is critical that we discern who is a Christian in error and who is a heretic. This rubric of the three levels of doctrine helps give us a grid for determining these things. It is a tool to help us be discerning. It is a lesson well worth learning.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Andy(Honestseeker) said...

amen Semper! This is so helpful. The danger is when we start condemning people as heretics who disagree with us on the 2nd and 3rd. This really helps in being able to identify what is heresy and what is just honest disagreement. :)

6:32 PM  
Anonymous James Boyd said...

John,
I really appreciate your posts on the theme of unity. You have a very balanced, compassionate approach that is gentle yet uncompromising. That is very helpful to me. I am scheduled to be ordained as a minister this summer, and I realize that my duty in that is to promote the unity of the Body without compromising truth. Your posts have given me much food for thought.

Thanks Again,
James Boyd/Wigglesworth1

10:53 AM  

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