Five hundred years ago, the hammer fell, and the nail-pierced the door at Wittenburg, which gave birth to the Protestant movement which, over time, grew into the theologically diverse Church that we have today. Some say this is a bad thing, that Protestants never agree on anything, everyone in a sense is their own Pope, their ultimate authority. People argue that the Protestant movement is so fractured that it works against the unity that Scripture promotes (John 17:23; 1 Cor 1:10; Eph 4:11-13; Col 3:13-14). Indeed I say, the Bible encourages unity and even commands it. But you know the old saying; sometimes you have to crack a few eggs to make the perfect omelette. That omelette is still cooking (we’re always reforming).
However, I believe as one friend told me a long time ago that the diversity in the Protestant movement is apart of God’s will to deliberately hold the entire Church accountable to interpreting His Word correctly. Rather than relying on just one or a few people to interpret Scripture accurately for us (this is the priesthood of believers). This was a huge part of the Reformation. The Word was placed into the hands of all of God’s people, not just a few “qualified” men. Praise God for that. We can’t, though, turn a blind eye to apparent differences in our movement. One can walk down a street and note a Presbyterian church next to a Uniting, next to a Baptist, next to a Lutheran, next to an Anglican, all within thirty seconds of one another. With the wealth of information (mostly thanks to the internet) and the progression of theological scholarship, even just one local church can have a diverse theological membership or leadership within its congregation. So, how do we then “major on the majors, and minor on the minors” so the speak? How do we minister with the vast range of theological differences even within our local churches?
Short answer – it depends. Read on.
1. Confessions or statements of faith:
Throughout church history, many confessions, creeds, and statements have been written and nutted out by men greater than most of us that usually major on the majors. These majors include the nature of God, the hypostatic union, the nature of humanity, inerrancy and inspiration concerning Scripture, the atonement, sacraments, and in one way or another the Gospel (repentance, faith, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection etc.). Reading through some of these confessions and even potentially adopting one for your church (or even for just yourself) will go a long way in avoiding potential pitfalls in the future.
2. Humility and grace:
We must remember, especially those of us who are theologically trained, to maintain a position of humility and grace to those we disagree with on the minors. Minor doctrines are positions we might take that we believe to be evident in the Scriptures but don’t necessarily affect one’s standing with God. These minors issues might include eschatology, Calvinism/Arminianism/ Molinism, the age of the earth or universe (evolution and science etc.), continuationism/cessationism, again the sacraments (depending on one’s view, you can categorise some of these in different tiers), complementarianism/egalitarianism. We must always be ready to be wrong on minor issues while still believing we’re right on what we believe (otherwise, why believe it?).
3. Ecclesiology, prayer, and coffee:
Almost every Protestant denomination majors on the majors. You should be able to walk into a Presbyterian church, a Baptist church, a Lutheran church, and hear the same Gospel being preached to their members. However, secondary issues can affect how we minister together practically. For example, pedo vs credo baptism understandably affects the way one does church, and it has some bearing on how the Gospel is displayed, but the differences aren’t salvific. Something like this I would categorise as a secondary issue – significant enough that it affects our ecclesiology, but not so important that I wouldn’t consider the person I disagree with a heretic. A third-tier issue is something like eschatology or the age of the earth, these don’t necessarily have a bearing on your ecclesiology but are important enough to how one largely interprets the Bible and in turn the Christian life. These things can affect how we do church (depending on how militant the person is about their position), but they don’t have to. Third-tier issues can inevitably tie into second and even major tiered issues, so it’s understandable why, in some cases, people may not be able to minister together. However, if leaders and members can somehow embrace the differences, it would make for a theologically, robust church.
This kind of unity is fostered by taking the command to love one another seriously (John 13:34-35), to maintain a humble yet open disposition displayed first from the leadership and then by the members. Lots of prayers, as I’ve heard it said, you can’t hate someone you pray for often, and lots of conversations over good quality coffee with an open Bible. Finally, I’d say encourage mature theological discussion and training. Whether it’s from a seminary, college or your church, people can only grow if you’re willing to teach. If we can encourage this kind of unity and maturity in our theological development, it will hopefully flow out into our churches. It’s hard but not impossible, and I think the rewards are worth it. At the end of the day if the differences end up being too great, at least walk away in love trying to keep the unity of the faith.