The mantra “Christ unites, but doctrine divides” is a rallying cry in many evangelical circles for the need to glorify Jesus together despite secondary issues that have traditionally come to define us as distinct denominations. Unity among the brethren is certainly not only encouraged (Ps. 133:1) and mandated (Eph. 4:1-3; 1 Cor. 1:10), but is a key issue in the prayer of Jesus (John 17:23). The desire to promote and underpin unity in the Body of Christ should never be deterred for a moment. On the other hand, we live in an age and a culture that promotes and feasts on compromise to the point of bending over backwards to include sinful living. To our shame such a belief prevails even amongst our own churches. On a national scale, Hosea confronted Israel for compromising with the nations around them which ultimately led to their demise (2:5-6). At the level of the church, the Corinthians were obnoxiously welcoming to the man who was committing adultery with his step-mother when they should have been grieved (1 Cor. 5:1-2). In reality, this kind of unity could hardly be called Biblical.
Then there’s doctrine. Doctrine, as despised as it is in our day, is the unsung hero of unity in the early church. You have the fresh converts from Pentecost dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teaching, as first on the list, and unity being an outcome (Acts 2:42-47). Paul saw doctrine as so important that he went into delegations with the Jerusalem church to make sure they were all on the same page doctrinally to keep unity in the Gospel message and to keep schism from Christian Jew/Gentile relationships (Acts 15:1-29; Gal. 1:1–2:16). However, in the attempt to bolster unity in the church, without stretching beyond conviction to “appease people,” and hold up sound doctrine (that inevitably offends someone) undoubtedly a church member will say “But doesn’t Christ unite and doctrine divide?”
I certainly understand where that argument comes from. Everyone has come across the overconfident church leader or pastor who dangerously assumes that his interpretation is the final say, or poorly discerns a secondary issue, a non-essential, as being of the utmost importance, often to the demise of his own ministry and the church he serves. But just because there are leaders out there who hold such views, this should not mean we do away with doctrine all together. Given the teaching of Hosea and the example of Corinth, if we set doctrine aside in hopes of creating unity we will certainly perish. Hosea puts it best “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (4:6). Taking all of this into consideration, it’s very unwise to claim doctrine as the means of disunity, and compromise as a means of unity.
Nonetheless, the Bible nowhere contains the words “Christ unites but doctrine divides.” Nor is there any passage of Scripture that hints at this idea. Without doctrine – a body of authoritative knowledge – you can formulate all kinds of beliefs that are blatantly unbiblical. Hence, the prevailing mindset that Jesus was a soft-shoe, blond-headed Fabio with a long face and a halo who performed healings for the sake of healings and skirted the issue of sin until he was hung on the cross. But how do we know who Jesus really was without the government of the Gospel accounts to restrain or open our beliefs of the real historical Jesus? What can stop a local church membership who unifies around the works and words of the Biblical Messiah?
But on an even more basic level is Christ’s commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Matt 28:18-20a). The Great Commission has less to do with the solo issue of evangelism and more to do with the entire scope of discipleship from beginning to end. This wide-scoped view certainly includes instructing converts in all that Jesus commands. If doctrine only lent itself to division then it would be contrary to the very Commission we so dearly hold to. And, for the record, no one in the entire Bible talked more about the issues that divide churches today than Jesus when he spoke frequently about a literal hell and money management.
As a final thought, listen to Paul, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ …” (Eph 4:11-13). It is hard to overlook Paul’s clear message: God has a whole class of equippers to bolster unity and arm the people with the knowledge of Christ. If we are to shoot for Biblical unity may it be found in a common love for Biblical truth. (Jason Hamilton is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Louisiana.)