After writing the last article (Who’s the Heretic?), I gave more thought to the question of dividing on the Non-essentials: If we ought not to divide on the non-essentials, why then is there so much division amongst Christians and leaders, often on non-essentials?
The common misnomer is that it is doctrine that divides. This misleads many to avoid doctrine since it appears to be such a divisive issue. (A search of the internet will deliver a plethora of articles that support the notion that doctrine divides and must be avoided.) Both extremes of the argument repeat the mantra that doctrine divides: Those who are weak on doctrine will emphasize love and use the argument to discard all doctrine because it is “divisive”. On the other hand, those who are more rigid will say that it is right that doctrine divides since truth and error cannot be in fellowship. Thus, the same saying is used both to avoid doctrine and to over-emphasize doctrine. Yes, doctrine can be over-emphasized – if it is simply a cold, hard set of facts, void of love, grace, and transforming power. And no, I do not believe that our fellowship should be based on the lowest common denominator and that doctrine should be scrapped for the sake of unity, nor do I believe that true love removes the need for, or mitigates against, sound doctrine. (When I refer to “doctrine” in this article, I am referring to what we define as the Non-essentials – see the previous article for a fuller definition.)
The fact is that doctrine does not divide but doctrine has become the great scapegoat on whose back is laid a multitude of sins that are the real cause of division. I know this sounds like “heresy” but follow my argument: Division is the product of bad attitudes and bad behavior and not of bad doctrine.
If the differing parties both exhibit the spirit of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11) and are humble and respectful in their treatment of the other, then no matter how big the doctrinal differences, those differences can be worked through in order to arrive at the truth. However, if just one of the parties is arrogant, legalistic and judgmental, no matter how small the difference – unity will be fleeting and is guaranteed to be destroyed sooner or later.
“… with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:2,3,13). The unity of the Spirit here refers to the unity we have by virtue of our salvation. Since we share a common salvation, we have the unity of the Spirit. Ephesians 4:4-6 lists seven things that all true believers have in common and that is the basis of our spiritual unity. Note that Paul says we need to keep the unity of the Spirit. You can’t keep what you don’t have, but because all believers have the unity of Spirit simply because Father, Son and Spirit cannot be divided, we are urged to maintain the right attitude and preserve that unity.
Later Ephesians 4:13 speaks of the “unity of the faith”. The term “the faith” refers to our doctrine and in this context speaks of the time when there will be unity in what we believe. While verse 3 says we need to keep the unity of the Spirit, verse 13 says we need to come to (arrive at) the unity of the faith. Note that Paul says to keep the unity of the Spirit “till” we come to the unity of the faith. Thus, we are not to divide even if we do not believe exactly the same and are to maintain the unity of the Spirit until we come to the unity of the faith. Here is my paraphrase these verses: “As Christians we have a common salvation, Lord Jesus, Father and Spirit. We must have the right attitude towards one another in order to preserve our unity of the spirit until we have all matured and believe exactly the same.”
There is therefore no excuse for division on the basis of differences on the non-essentials and any division on these issues is rank disobedience to the plain teaching of Scripture. Note also that we do not arrive at the unity of the faith by consensus, negotiation or intimidation but by submission to the ministry gifts of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12).
When we do not have the right attitude (or spirit), division becomes inevitable, not because of doctrine, but because of arrogance, unteachableness, selfish ambition, jealousy or hurt. Then, because we do not want to appear to divide on such carnal things, we begin to nitpick the other’s doctrine until we find something that we can use as the scapegoat for the division! Many times, I have witnessed how brothers begin to pick at various minor issues until they find a doctrinal issue they can blow out of proportion so that they are “justified” to break fellowship or denigrate the other party. In addition, because the doctrinal issue is tenuous, at best, they will exaggerate the differences by using straw man arguments. The idea is make it appear as a violation of an essential doctrine, thereby making you a heretic, which “justifies” them in turning others against you. But, what they are really doing is allowing the Devil to use them to do his dirty work of destroying the work of God. Sadly, they pride themselves in being “defenders of the faith” when in fact they are the exact opposite.
Even if such people are one hundred percent correct doctrinally, they are still one hundred percent wrong:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:13-18).
True wisdom is manifest in meekness. Wisdom that divides and destroys comes from selfish ambition and is ultimately demonic – plain and simple!
Paul says: “…though I… understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but have no love, I am nothing” (1Corinthians 13:3). Thus even if one had perfect knowledge of all doctrine, but had no love the knowledge is useless and invalidated.
In fact, Paul says we should withdraw (break fellowship) with those who are argumentative and whose doctrine does not agree with, and produce godliness (1Timothy 6:3-5). In using the word ‘godliness’ here, Paul does not just have holiness in mind but specifically points to the fruit of the Spirit. Here are some of the things that the context defines as godliness: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness”. (1Timothy 6:11). Therefore, Paul says, anyone who claims to have the true doctrine but does not exhibit love, patience and gentleness is to be avoided. The reason for this is, as I have said, because no matter how correct their doctrine, if they have the wrong spirit, or attitude, their knowledge is empty and they become a tool of the Devil to sow discord among the brethren.
It seems that as we get closer to the Lord’s return, there is a proliferation of those who pride themselves in their hardline, legalistic, and unchristian attitudes and who boast in those things as though they are desirable attributes when in fact, they are simply evidence of their immaturity and carnality (1Corinthians 3:3).
Finally, lest you accuse me of being soft on doctrine: I am fully committed to purity of doctrine and the defense of the faith, but that is only part of the true faith. True wisdom and true knowledge is proven by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and not by boastfulness, bluff, bluster and bullying. Jesus said the fruit will separate the true from the false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20). Our doctrine shapes our behavior therefore the true measure of our doctrine is in our actions more than in our words. Remember that even demons and unsaved academics can learn to recite correct theology, but that does not mean they are saved.
Paul calls his lifestyle to witness to the correctness of his doctrine (1Thessalonians 1:5) and John says “He who does not love does not know God…” (1John 4:8). Therefore, those who wish to demonstrate their spiritual superiority need to do it through the right attitude. Knowledge proves nothing. Computers and the Internet contain more knowledge than anyone who ever lived but they are cold, heartless and devoid of any spirituality. Those who boast of their supremacy on the basis of their superior doctrine but who cannot apply that knowledge with love, patience and meekness are simply walking automatons, programmed by Satan to do his work.
Please permit me to challenge you to think about those with whom you have broken fellowship since becoming a believer. Did you reject them because of jealousy, pride, anger, selfish ambition or any other carnal reason; did you show them the same love, patience and gentleness you expect from the Lord for yourself? If not, don’t use your “pure doctrine” as a cover for your carnality but rather repent and make things right.
Oh Lord, preserve us from those who simply want to use Christianity as a means of proving their superiority and to satisfy their lust for endless arguments, and may I not be one of those. Teach me your kindness, love, gentleness and patience and the true wisdom that comes from above and not from below. Amen.
 See Colossians 2:7; Titus 1:13; Jude 3.