|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 17, June 21 to June 27, 1999|
I'm delighted to be able to share this occasion with you, the birth of FIRE! What a great name. I hope, of course, that it doesn't encourage too many jokes about fire hazards, fire hydrants, fire fighters, or fire exits.
Have you ever heard somebody quote the verse, "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" I have heard it rather often. Usually what people mean by this quote is that we cannot work together unless we agree on any number of things. Let's say that you are amillennialists and I am a postmillennialist. Or, better still, let's say that you are Baptists and I am Presbyterian. Well, we cannot work together unless we somehow work out this difference of opinion. Either you have to change your view, or I have to change mine, or we'll have to find a third alternative. Well, I certainly am not going to change mine! But if we can't come to agreement, then we cannot cooperate. We must separate; I'll go my way, and you'll go yours. The church isn't big enough for both of us. One of us must leave, or be expelled. Maybe one of us will have to start a new church, or even a new denomination. We can't even speak in one another's churches — so, goodbye.
Just kidding. The fact that you've invited me here (and thanks for that) indicates that you don't think this way. But that kind of thinking is a temptation to all of us, especially, I think, in the Reformed tradition (we like to cross every "t" and dot every "i"). So that we can get some more clarity on this issue, I want to argue tonight that nothing in Scripture requires us to be agreed on everything in order to walk together. We can walk together, and we can work together, even though we are not 100% agreed. Indeed, if we both belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, we should be working together.
Let's look first at that passage, "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" Do you know where that comes from? It comes from the prophecy of Amos 3:3. Part of the problem is the translation. The NIV is better here, I think. It reads, "Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?" You see, it's not saying that two people walking together must agree on everything. Rather, it's saying that two people walking together must have agreed to walk together. It's stating the obvious. This verse is part of a group of seven things that are obvious:
Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?Seven obvious things, leading to the climax, the sovereignty of God over history. What is most obvious of all is that when disaster comes to a city in Israel, it is God's judgment.
Does a lion roar in the thicket when he has no prey?
Does he growl in his den when he has caught nothing?
Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground where no snare has been set?
Does a trap spring up from the earth when there is nothing to catch?
When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble?
When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?
When two people walk together, it means that they have agreed to walk together. That's obvious. It doesn't mean that they agree on everything — that would not be obvious, but absurd. Think back on the last time you took a walk with somebody: your wife or husband, your father, your son, your friend. Did you agree on everything? Probably not. I doubt if any two people agree on everything. Indeed, we often go for a walk with someone to air our differences. During my seminary years, I studied with Cornelius Van Til, the famous apologist. Often when students disagreed with him about something, he would invite them for a walk. He was a great walker; I think that's part of the reason he lived into his nineties. He was often in better shape than the student he walked with, and I think part of his strategy was to wear the student down. At any rate, there was a lot of disagreement expressed on those walks. I know, because I took part in some of them.
Amos 3:3, then, is not teaching the absurdity that two people can't walk together unless they agree on everything. That idea is not biblical, and it isn't true.
Look at Romans 14. Here Paul faced two controversies in the Roman church. First, there was a group of Christian vegetarians, and another group that ate meat. Second, there was a group that observed special days, and another group that did not. Now, Paul was not neutral in these controversies. You can tell that because in each controversy he called one party "strong" and the other "weak." Obviously he thought the strong were right and the weak were wrong. By the way, the strong are the ones who eat meat and do not keep special days. But what I want to point out is the way Paul dealt with these controversies. What did he say? Did he say, "Well, we can't work together unless we agree on this. We must discipline the weak, and expel them from the church if they don't conform. Make them start their own denomination"?
No, far from it. Listen to what he said:
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge another man's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:1-4).Paul wanted this church to stay together. He did not want a separation on this issue. He did not even recommend formal discipline in this case. Rather, he wanted unity in love, despite disagreement. He emphasized two things: first, don't despise; and second, don't judge. The strong should not despise the weak, he should not look down on him. We know what that is like. A Reformed Christian believes he can drink wine; a Christian from a fundamentalist background thinks he must totally abstain from alcoholic beverages. The Reformed guy looks down on the fundamentalist, perhaps even calls him names. He things, "You are ignorant, stupid. I am sophisticated. I went to Westminster Seminary — I know the Greek." It may all be true, but there is no love in the way this Reformed believer speaks to his fundamentalist brother. And what is the church without love? Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love to one another." Love is the mark of the church. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that even if you can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, if you have not love, you are nothing.
Love is also missing when the weak believer judges the strong. He says, you are sinning when you drink wine, or eat meat, or fail to observe religious feasts. Paul says this attitude is ignorant and arrogant. You, Mr. Weak Believer, you are not the judge. God is. Leave it to God. Or if you want to become a judge in the church, learn more of God's Word, and learn something of the freedom God gives us.
Agreement would be a good thing. Certainly Paul wished that all weak believers would become strong believers. He wanted them to learn from God's Word that they had freedom in Christ to eat meat, to drink wine, to ignore special days. But more important is love. Love is more important than agreement on this issue. Brothers and sisters in the church ought to love one another even when they don't agree. They ought to walk together, to work together, even though they be disagreed.
Now I don't want you to misunderstand me. Obviously we cannot treat all disagreements this way. There are some disagreements that really do keep us from working together. When some Jewish Christians tried to teach the Galatian Christians that they had to become Jews before they could become Christians, Paul spoke very strongly to them. What the Jewish Christians were saying was a "different gospel." Paul's response was very clear, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned" (Gal. 1:10). There can be no fellowship between those who believe in salvation by grace and those who believe in salvation by keeping the Law. Nor, according to 1 Corinthians 5, can there be fellowship between Christians and those who claim to be Christians but live in unrepentant immorality. When a member of the Corinthian church committed incest and did not repent, Paul said to the church, most emphatically, repeating himself four or five times, "Put this man out of the church." Here Paul followed the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 18. There are disagreements that are that serious — so serious that we should put offenders out of the church, or, if they come to dominate, we must leave.
Sometimes, in such cases, God's people must even break away from one denomination and start a new one. When that happens it is very sad. We tend to think that the beginnings of our denominations are glorious occasions, and on the anniversaries we celebrate, hold self-congratulatory conferences, and write self-congratulatory books. But I think that for God, the beginning of a new denomination is a grievous time. That isn't what God wants, although he does ordain it in his eternal decree. For the Lord, this is not a good thing. It grieves his heart because the founding of a new denomination means that sin took place, either by the ones who left, or by the ones who stayed, or by both. And it means that the body of Christ is rent, divided. God does not want his church to be divided into many denominations. Denominations are not part of biblical church government. God provided one church, ruled by Jesus Christ, through his apostles, elders, and deacons. Something very wrong is happening when that church is divided. And something terribly wrong has happened that has produced the thousands and thousands of denominations that exist in the world today.
You are interested in forming a new affiliation. This is not a rending of the body of Christ, a further disruption in the unity of God's people. (If it were, I would scold you.) Rather it is an increase in unity: Christians otherwise independent of one another, who want to pray together, work together, join hands in the work of the gospel. That's wonderful. An advance in unity, in an age when the church at large is prone to more and more disunity! That unity is something precious. I urge you to treasure it, to nurture it, to build it up. Don't let it be broken by disagreements. When you disagree, work out your problems with respect and love for one another. Don't despise one another, and don't condemn one another, unless the gospel is really at stake or unless problems develop that require formal church discipline. You also need to pray for discernment, so that you will be able to see more clearly what issues actually do imperil the fellowship of the church and which ones do not. It is love that is the highest mark of the church. It is love by which the world ought to be able to tell that you belong to Christ.
There are those who think that the way to maintain unity in a church, denomination, or conference, is by having a written confession that specifies in detail those points on which everybody must agree. I do believe in creeds, and I treasure the great creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church. But a common written confession is not the key to unity. For one thing, no confession can cover everything. For another, even the best confessions must be applied to current circumstances, and that is not always easy to do. But the most important problem with confessions is this: a written confession is a fallible human document, however much biblical truth it may contain. Unlike God's inspired Word, the Bible, any human confession may contain errors. So we dare not make the fellowship of our churches depend on agreement to everything in a confession. If you have a rule that people agree to everything in the confession, then you make it impossible to correct the confession in the light of God's Word. That means the confession becomes equal to the Bible. I think it's good to have a confession so that people both inside and outside the church can get an idea of what the church believes and does. But we dare not make the confession infallible. Our written rule of faith must be, as Luther and Calvin so clearly put it, Scripture and Scripture alone.
What is the key to unity? Not a written confession in addition to Scripture. It is good to have confessions, I think, but Scripture never tells us to write them or to make them normative. What is the key to unity? Love. Love lives with a certain amount of disagreement. And when the disagreement becomes too serious to live with, love deals with it (Gal. 6:1) in a gentle spirit, and with proper witnesses (Matt. 18), and with grief and sadness.