Jesus’ prayer for the church was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21: NASV), and “that they may be perfected in unity” (v. 23). Yet that goal has proven almost impossible to attain. The church today is as hopelessly divided as ever. The question is, why?
Given the fact that much of what separates denominations from each other are doctrinal issues, one might suppose that it is doctrine that causes divisions. The Bible makes it clear, however, that doctrine is meant to unite, not divide. Sound doctrine is necessary for spiritual growth. Christ has given the church a variety of leadership gifts in order to build up the body “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13). To that end Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:14-17). Heresy, on the other hand, is, by its very nature, divisive.
How, then, do we tell the difference between good doctrine and bad? To begin with, good doctrine is doctrine that conforms to the teachings of the apostles (Acts 2:42; Rom. 16:17; II Tim. 1:13,14; 3:10). Since we do not have an unbroken tradition that extends all the way back to the apostles, practically speaking, the only way we can know what they taught is through their own writings, and those of their close associates; in other words, the books of the New Testament. Hence the Bible is our only rule of faith; and our theology, if it is to be sound, must be derived from Scripture.
\ But secondly, sound doctrine is meant to be edifying – its aim is to build up the saints in the faith. Paul instructs Timothy not to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, and then says, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim. 1:5). It is “the doctrine conforming to godliness” (“piety toward God” – Amp.) (I Tim. 6:3). It deepens our faith in God and increases our love for others, and this is what promotes unity.
Bad theology, on the other hand, often involves “wrangling about words” (II Tim. 2:14-18)) and “foolish and ignorant speculations” (“controversies over ignorant questionings” — Amp.) which “produce quarrels” (v. 23). Significantly, false doctrine is often marked by strained exegesis: “. . . the untaught and unstable distort [the teachings of Paul] as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16).
But nearly every evangelical theologian, however, will insist that his theology is biblical. Why then are there so many divisions among us? Obviously they cannot possibly all be right – at least someone is misinterpreting Scripture.
It is a striking fact that many of the most useful and effective spiritual leaders of the 20th Century had little or no formal theological training. The number includes such luminaries as A.W. Pink, C.S. Lewis, Harry Ironside, A.W. Tozer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Billy Graham, Jerry Bridges, and Jim Cymbala. This is not to say that there are not good men who have had a seminary education, but it does point to the fact that many of those whose ministries have been most greatly blessed were not trained that way – they came from outside of the system. Might this not point to a problem in our method of preparing men for the ministry?
Most seminaries and Bible colleges are connected with specific denominations or are committed to promoting a particular point of view. They are Reformed or Wesleyan, Dispensational or Pentecostal. As a result they often display a sectarian spirit, and find themselves emphasizing their own denominational distinctives at the expense of what they have in common with other denominations. Their systematic theology is polemical in nature, defining issues, stating positions, and marshalling proof texts.
Then there is the tendency to engage in hero worship. Luther, Calvin, Wesley and Edwards have all won loyal followings (too loyal, in our opinion), as have also D.L. Moody and Billy Graham. While they were all great men of God, they were not infallible. The tendency, however, is to defend their errors as well as their genuine insights.
In the heat of controversy exegesis is often strained in the effort to prove a point. The result is a tenaciously held dogma with almost non-existent scriptural support. Theologians have contrived ingenious arguments to “prove” infant baptism, the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, and the idea that tongues is the necessary evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Scripture is practically silent on all of these issues).
On the other hand, when we look at the men who were not trained in seminaries, we see a different way of approaching Scripture. They were more inclined to start with the concrete problem of their relationship with God. Who is He? What is He like? What is sin? Who is Christ? What has He done for me? How can I be made right with God? What happens to me in the New Birth? How can I grow spiritually? What will happen to me after I die? They then went to the Bible for the answers. They read other material too, of course. Many of them were remarkably well self-educated. But in another sense they were men “of one book” – they immersed themselves in the Word of God, and they never lost their focus on what the Bible says about the central issues of life. As a result they tended to develop a more balanced perspective. They also had a theology that could be directly used in the practical work of ministry.
Our concern here is to draw attention to our theological method, the way we arrive at our doctrine. To state the matter bluntly, our divisions are caused and perpetuated largely by our academic theologians, and, as it turns out, they have not always proven to be our safest guides in theology. If real unity is to be achieved, we must be prepared to look past our theological nostrums and take a fresh look at Scripture itself. We must begin by recognizing each other as brothers and sisters, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and examine Scripture as faithfully and honestly as we can, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and taking each passage in its natural sense wherever possible. Let us especially beware of idiosyncratic doctrines held by only one particular group.
We are looking at potentially perilous times ahead. Let us hope that when the time of persecution finally comes that the faithful brethren who take their stand for Christ will find a way to reach a consensus on the issues that have so long divided us. For in that hour of trial the fellowship of the saints and the love of the brethren will become more precious than ever.