Some months ago, a gentleman visited our church on a Sunday morning. Arriving late, he heard only a portion of the message that day. When the service ended, he stood in the vestibule and talked to (I’m tempted to say accosted) three people in succession. Was he concerned that we were denying the inspiration of Scripture, or that we were preaching a false gospel, or that we had corrupted a fundamental article of the faith? No, but he did want to debate several of his pet doctrines. I was reminded of another sect that has been plagued with internal squabbles regarding whether the New Testament church began at Acts 9, or Acts 13, or Acts 22. I am not calling into question the salvation or the sincerity of such believers, only their focus. Without doubt there are a number of fundamental doctrines that we must hold inviolate; there are other admittedly important doctrines over which real believers may in good conscience disagree without causing divisions. And while it is critical that we stand for what we understand Scripture to teach in these areas, allowing differences to divide the body of Christ because of them dishonors the Lord and destroys both the unity and the ministry of the church.
We would be well-served to swallow a strong dose of humility when confronting such issues and to realize that there are differences between capitulation, compromise, and charity. The first occurs if we concede a position or doctrine our conscience tells us is true and forsake it without being convinced from Scripture that the position is wrong. The second occurs when we cease to believe that a particular doctrine or practice supported by Scripture is important. The third occurs when we recognize that a “non-cardinal” doctrine is not cause for refusing fellowship with another child of God.
Sadly, the church seems to be populated largely by two types of people: those for whom doctrine—every doctrine, even the smallest doctrine—is worth fighting for or about, and those for whom doctrine is of so little importance that they can and do “fellowship” with anyone irrespective of belief. But what does Scripture teach and what is its emphasis? “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). Note three things these verses teach.
First, doctrine, or teaching, is critical. “All Scripture” has been given by God so that believers may know and understand truth, for example, about God and Christ, about man and sin, about salvation, and about the future. But obtaining a sound, scriptural understanding of these truths is not the goal of instruction. Second, an essential element of doctrine is moral in nature; to that end Paul cites reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. One who learns truth without having his character changed has missed the mark. Doctrine that does not transform lives serves no practical purpose. In fact, it would be better to be ignorant of the truth entirely than to have some knowledge of it without obeying it. Third, accurate knowledge that transforms a life is intended to produce service. We should note that God is not interested in obtaining service from just anyone or anything. He needs no one and nothing to accomplish His will. Or, if He so desired, He could create automatons—either mechanical or living—to do His bidding. But what He wants is human beings, breathing with wills and desires, who have been transformed by the truth, who love Him, and who want to serve Him.
Are there doctrines that will brook no compromise? Absolutely. Should we hold to what our mind and conscience convince us is scriptural truth? Without fail. Should we refuse to fellowship with brethren over, for example, a difference of opinion regarding the mode of baptism? Surely not. We have lost our focus and have forgotten the emphasis found in Scripture itself when we come to such conclusions. We may, we can, and we must be charitable toward other genuine believers with whom we disagree on some relatively minor issues of doctrine. And, no, it is neither sacrilege nor compromise to profess as much.
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