Do You Belong To Paul, Cephas, Or Jesus?
Today I’d like to share my thoughts about doctrine and unity in the body of Christ. The last few posts have led up to this. In Knowing Jesus-The Supreme Goal of Every Christian, we talked about what it means to know God and to boast in knowing him. When we boast in knowing God, not in our doctrine, wisdom, or might, we walk in unity in Christ. When we boast in other things we will divide over them. (This is not to say doctrine and its implications aren’t important, but having all the same theology is not what unites us.)
Then in the last post, Jesus Still Comes To Us Humble And Riding On A Donkey, we talked about how Jesus comes to us through those he has sent, through other members of the body of Christ. It takes humility to receive him. We talked about how people from many different religious traditions and backgrounds have come together in unity in revival because they were boasting in knowing Christ, and that unified them. By receiving the body of Christ, treasure in earthen vessels, they received Christ when he came to them.
Is There A Church Here For Me?
In the last year, I moved to a new city. I soon began attending a Saturday night cell group associated with a large church here. I have really enjoyed being with the people, talking about Jesus, praying and worshipping together.
However, some focus has turned more recently to doctrine. I told these guys “If unity in the church is based on having all the same theological viewpoints, I doubt there is a church in this city for me! Yet it is so important for me to gather with the body of Christ.” I gave the example of my eschatology, which is common among Presbyterians but which will get a heretic label from many charismatics who are barely even aware of the different views on the matter. On the other hand, imagine me in a Presbyterian church where many think those who speak in tongues and claim miracles are false prophets! Even though my views are well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, they don’t fit in a box!
The young leader I was talking to explained to me that we can be united in Christ but we cannot be united in edifying the church. Is that true? Is it Biblical? Is there then no group of believers that I can walk together with in my city to edify the church? Although there may have been more than one gathering of believers in a city, scripture always speaks of “the church” in that city, never of different churches in one city.
This guy told me that we can have a different opinion than the pastor, but we can’t talk about it. Questions or any other viewpoints should be shared in private with the pastor, not in public as we read scripture together. If you have to talk about what you believe, you should start another church.
So I asked “Do I now need to start another church in order to share what I have learned about scripture, thus pulling away Christians from the churches they already go to and the relationships they have now, because I think I have better theology? Then they will follow me instead of such-and-such a pastor?” It’s hard for me to imagine this is the “unity” that God has in mind for the church!
Identifying Yourself As A Follower Of This Or That Leader Is A Sign Of Immaturity!
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 (NRSV) Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
The end of this chapter again talks about boasting in the Lord, which is what we’ve been talking about. Then chapter 3 continues:
1st Corinthians 3:1-9, 21-23 (NRSV) And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.…So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Paul was a genuine apostle and he was concerned for the spiritual state of those Christian who would say “I follow Paul.” He said this was immaturity. On the contrary, some leaders in the church want and demand that people self-identify as their followers. These are those who, according to Paul, divide the church.
Now think about saying “I am Wesleyan” or “I am Lutheran.” Is this any different than saying “I follow John Wesley” or “I follow Martin Luther?” Don’t misunderstand me. I highly appreciate the life of John Wesley, for example. And I’m not saying that if a pastor is in the Wesleyan denomination, he should leave. As I shared in the last post, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work among people from many denominations and religious traditions. Regardless of their differences, they showed that recognizing and receiving Christ by receiving him by receiving those who are his, was more important than their differences. These Christians were associated with certain denominations, nevertheless, they identified themselves first by association with Christ.
My strong conviction has long been that I refuse to identify myself by a particular denomination or “church.” Yet I celebrate the Holy Spirit’s work in various denominations and groups. I read somewhere that Smith Wigglesworth, likewise, fellowshipped with people of various denominations but refused to identify himself by any one of them. I feel the same way. When I was in Rio, I attended a wonderful Baptist church, with a pastor I very much appreciated. I would minister to people on the street and see them healed. When they asked what church I belonged to I would never say “the Baptist church.” I would, however, tell them that I attended and appreciated a certain Baptist church, but I am not a Baptist. As I have written about before, I’ve often recognized that the question “what church are you from?” is coming straight from an antichrist spirit which is trying to change the subject and distract the person from the revelation of Christ.
I formed this attitude not only by reading scripture, but by getting thoroughly involved in the body of Christ. I was regularly attending three or four congregations in my state, all of which met at different times, ministered in all of them, and had friends in all of them. That was besides relationships with the body of Christ in different states and countries, and Christian friends all over the county who had meetings in their houses. I could not say “this is my church” any more than the other congregations I was involved in. They were all family to me!
I know some people are shocked by this attitude and would say “you sound like a loose cannon, unable to commit.” Yet on the contrary, these relationships with people in the body of Christ have been long-standing. They are not defined by a particular sect! How often we have seen someone “leave a church” and long-term relationships with other Christians suddenly end? In these cases, there is no loyalty based on union with Christ and fellowship with him! It’s only around that organization. “Leaving a church” isn’t even part of my paradigm! It doesn’t make sense to talk like that when we stop defining church by human leaders.
How The Church Falls Into Doctrinal Error
The New Covenant emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in teaching the church and guiding Christ’s disciples into all truth.
Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NRSV) But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
John 16:13 (NRSV) When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Matthew 23:8-10 (NRSV) But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.
1 John 2:27 (NRSV) As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.
A lot of church leaders get nervous if you quote these scriptures! It’s hard to trust the Holy Spirit to lead Christians into all truth. For this reason, there is often a great deal of fear about allowing just anybody to share their revelation from scripture or to speak. What if they say something wrong? What if their theology doesn’t match ours? What if they see something a different way than I do?
The consequence of this is that we don’t allow people to develop in Christ and we don’t make way for the manifestation of Christ’s spirit through the various members of his body. We also fail to teach Christians to discern truth and to test everything. If nobody can say anything except what is approved by the pastor, and the standard for what is true is submission to the pastor’s theology, rather than persuasion from scripture, the Biblical command to test everything is pointless. We also stop Christians from engaging with scripture and stunt their spiritual growth!
If we can’t talk openly about scriptures when we meet as the body of Christ and be sincere about how we view them, then everything follows a certain narrative and the scriptural plurality of elders means little. If the pastor is wrong about something, there is no way of testing it. What’s the point of the scriptural command that a prophet sit down, let two or three others speak, and the believers test what they say, if nobody is allowed to share a viewpoint that disagrees with the church’s theology? (1 Corinthians 14:26-32)
Throughout church history, many church leaders have felt that demanding strict doctrinal conformity (on non-essential issues) would protect the church from error. The basis for doctrine becomes submission rather than persuasion. The idea of letting the Holy Spirit guide believers into all truth is terrifying! But history proves that the opposite is true. When the basis for Christians’ doctrine becomes submission to a leader rather than persuasion, the church always is divided and falls into doctrinal error.
This young leader I spoke of has been a Christian for a few years and is attending the church’s seminary. It seems to me that he is being taught what to believe rather than being given information to consider which may help him to better understand scripture. He isn’t even aware of some of the alternative viewpoints to what his seminary is teaching, and could not tell you why some Christians think differently. He seems to be strongly convinced about certain statements he makes, but is unable to explain why or how he came to those conclusions from scripture. He doesn’t realize that some of those very ideas didn’t exist for much of church history.
This isn’t healthy! He believes he has to hold to the party line in order to be a leader in the church, and if he disagrees with anything, he can’t talk about it. This demand for conformity had made him vulnerable to deception rather than protecting him from it!
I recently told some brothers and sisters in Christ “We don’t have to see everything the same way to walk together. But we do have to have Christ and scripture as our authority for doctrine. We have to be able to sit down together, read the Bible in context, and talk about what it says. We should be able to say “I believe this because I understand scripture is saying it,” rather than “I believe this because I am submitting to the pastor who has studied a lot and received revelation from God and this is what our church teaches.”
Boasting In Your Knowledge And Wisdom Or In Christ?
Often the more you know, the more you will realize how much you don’t know! I have become very familiar with scripture over time and have learned a lot about cultural and historical context, the Greek words underlying certain texts, and more. It is often the people who are least familiar with these who seem to be the most certain that they have everything figured out!
1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NRSV) Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
I am thoroughly convinced of certain things I share, but there are other questions I’d answer “I don’t know” to or “I’m not sure if I understand this correctly.” I don’t know everything, but I do know Jesus and I will boast in knowing him! As passionate and persuaded I am about the things I share, I don’t want anybody to believe anything because I said so. If anything I say is true, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to teach God’s people and to open their understanding to what I’m saying. He is the Teacher. And because I trust the Holy Spirit to guide the church into all truth, I don’t have to try to protect the church from error through control!
Last year when I shared my views on eschatology, I also shared the book of a friend, Will Riddle, whose view contrasts with mine. (But he still makes some good points that we agree on.) It’s not that theology doesn’t matter to me. It’s very important. But it’s not a threat for me to allow people to be exposed to different views, and it doesn’t mean we can’t work together to edify the church. I recently heard our friend Reinhard Hirtler say “You are free. You don’t have to agree with me. It’s all right if you think differently.” I agree! But this contrasts so sharply with the attitude that we can’t walk together to edify the church if we don’t have the same views on non-essential issues.
Most of the people I have received so much from in Christ, both from their teaching and from their lives, have certain views I disagree with. (Even strongly) But I honor Jesus and when I see the Spirit of Jesus manifest through these people’s lives to any extent, I honor him.
What I look for is not people who have all the same theology as me, but those who have sincere love, who have encountered Christ and boast not in having all the perfect doctrine or anything else, but in knowing him. I have known believers from many countries, groups, and denominations. There have been some who were incredibly divisive and boasted in their doctrine, “We’re right and you’re wrong so we can’t walk together,” and there have been others who recognized and honored the Spirit of Christ even when there were differences of perspective among us.
Who Divides The Church?
Acts 20:29-30 (NIV) I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
Wolves divide and destroy the church.
They seek to make disciples of themselves rather than disciples of Christ.
Instead of being concerned when Christians self-identify as their followers, as Paul was when the Corinthians said “I follow Paul,” they encourage it.
Ironically, they call people who question, who think, who work through what they believe and personally own it, who consider scripture for themselves and look to the Holy Spirit to teach them, who boast in Christ and not in human leaders, “divisive.” But they are the ones who are dividing the church!