“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other…Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body…” (Col. 3:12-15)
“For God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7-8)
The Scriptures make it abundantly clear we are to live in community with other believers. Community is where we find Jesus among us (Matt. 18), where we discover, develop, and deploy spiritual gifts (1st/2nd Cor.), where we become unified and how Jesus wanted the world to know Him through us (John 17). Community was the first thing He established, before preaching or doing any miracles and community was the first thing the Spirit established before He sent a single Apostle out to preach or heal.
If that is so, then why is true Christian community so hard to find here in America? Those who have followed these pages know back in 2009-2011, I was writing a lot about the Fellowship of the Marketplace I had discovered in central Florida [the only grassroots, organic, totally faith-based one, by the way, I have ever witnessed]. It was then a man from Ireland contacted me who was also in search of community. He had read some of my articles concerning the group on Facebook and wanted to know more. He was an amateur film maker and said he was coming to America with a small crew to seek out and record Christian community wherever he could find it. He said he had trolled social media sites for some time to find them, had located 4 or 5 around the country, and wanted to include mine in his tour.
By the time his group came to document what I had written about the following year my wonderful, beautiful, amazing community had split up. A key elder of the group had died from cancer, the couple who owned the coffee shop where the miracle had begun were having their own relationship issues, and the fellowship disbanded [the greatest “why God” moment of my life]. As my friend was on his tour, he was in contact with me, letting me know how things were going. Unfortunately, not so well as he was finding the communities were not as advertised. He said he had kept the FMP for last since it seemed to hold the most promise. I was crushed to have to tell him of the changes that had occurred since he had planned his trip. He came as planned anyway while I was down there, we met, and we lamented the lack of what seemed should be natural biblical community, not just here in America but on his side of “the pond” as well.
In this series I would like to focus on why I believe such a simple biblical concept God calls us all to has become seemingly impossible to find. This first article will focus on doctrinal differences, which is certainly one of the greatest reasons.
We all understand there are basic truths of Christianity which do indeed separate us from others outside the faith. That we are born in sin, separated from God, He sent His only Son to pay the price for our sin, reconcile us to the Father and bring the kingdom of heaven to earth, He arose after death to defeat sin and death, will one day return to Judge all men, we must put our total faith and trust in Him to obtain salvation, He sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to guide and empower us to carry on His work and that when we leave these bodies on earth we will obtain new ones and go to live eternally in His presence in heaven are not arguable.
But beyond these basics there should be literally no doctrine of Scripture that separates us from others within the body. How could the God who calls us to unity and oneness in Him possibly provide that which would serve to separate and divide us? The simple answer is He wouldn’t. It is our false interpretations, along with undue emphasis we put on our favorite doctrines, that causes division. Those divisions we call “denominations.” If you look up the meaning of denomination you find “a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church.” If you then look up autonomous, you find “self-governed, self-contained, existing or capable of existing independently.”
Denominations, caused by differences in doctrine, are antithetical to everything the Bible teaches about unity, fellowship, and “the Ecclesia.” God never intended us to be “self-governed and capable of existing independently.” Denominations are born when those who institute them rise up in pride and say, “Our truths are better than yours, more true or more important than yours. Because your falsehoods threaten our truths, we will segregate ourselves from you, and give ourselves a banner all who join us must carry. We will exist independently from you.”
Everyone has a doctrine or doctrines they hold dear, for God deals with all His children differently as they grow and mature in their faith. Furthermore, perceptions come in to play depending on our background, experiences, and influences in life. Perceptions result in baggage we all bring in to our relationships with God and others. I believe just as God gifts people differently for the benefit of the body, He also gives them a passion for certain truths. But they, like the gifts, are to be used for the benefit of the body, not the segregation of it.
I spent many misguided years dividing and destroying community over this very thing. I was so sure of the rightness of my doctrine and felt anyone who didn’t see things as I did was deceived and a danger to the faith. I edified no one and rebuked everyone. I became an angry, frustrated, and segregated person. I ended up alone in my truths, defending God from the world. What a dead-end street. What a waste of time and life. And how mislead and foolish. Praise God for His amazing grace, for He brought me out of those dark ages and gave me the heart and passion for community I hold to this day!
I now am a part of a group of men I have met with for years. It is as close to a community as I now know. Over those years we have had, and still have, our doctrinal differences which are unavoidable in any group of believers getting together seeking THE truth. I haven’t always fared as well as I would like in dealing with them, but at least I now recognize the “doctrine beast” when he tries to rise up in me to cause division. I am reminded of a day we were debating some point of doctrine and I felt “old Mike” coming on. But then I felt God’s peace come over me as He led me to say to them, “Brothers, there isn’t a man here I will agree with all the time and yet there isn’t a man here I can’t learn something from.”
Jonathan Edwards, known as the greatest theologian and philosopher of British American Puritanism once said, “He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection [love], never is engaged in the business of religion.” Unless a man’s theology desecrates the foundational truths of the Christian faith, love and grace must trump the need to prove we are right about our doctrine. These two qualities must prevail over perceived knowledge if we will ever be able to live together in unity.
I was rather surprised to only find five references when I looked up the word “unity,” and none of them refer to the “unity of doctrine.” Perhaps that is because God knew there would be no perfect unity of doctrine given the nature of men, even redeemed ones. But He did imply living together in unity (Ps. 133), unity in oneness (John 17), unity of the Spirit and of the faith (Eph. 4), and the perfect bond of unity, love (Col. 3) meant putting our doctrinal differences aside and seeking much more meaningful and beneficial reasons to gather.
If we are ever to see true Christian community form in America, we simply must stop “wrangling over words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers (2 Tim. 2),” listen to hear what we may learn from the viewpoints of others [even if we may disagree with them] rather than anxiously waiting to trump theirs with our own and, for the sake of community, accept them as Jesus accepts us every day with all our imperfect truths. As Samuel said, “The Lord looks at the heart,” not the doctrine, and community must be about motivation of the heart before doctrine of the mind. Unity of faith and love in the Spirit is what motivates us to build community. Let’s be about that.