The speaker of this, the first session of the second day of the New Attitude Conference, is Mark Dever, whom you may know as the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the leader of IX Marks Ministries, and the author of several notable books. He said he was excited to be here to speak to what he considers to be a bunch of missionaries to the future. His topic essentially boiled down to this: How do we tell the difference between primary doctrine we need to contend for and secondary doctrines we can disagree with but still stay together? What is orthodox and what we can do to encourage each other to hold to it with humility. How can we differentiate between primary and secondary doctrine?
Mark’s message was framed around six questions we wanted us to consider: Do we follow commands to purify or to unite? What are some common fights Christians have? These first two questions set up the problems while the last four present elements of the answer. What are we together for? What must we agree upon? What may we disagree about? How can we disagree well?
Mark warned that the talk would be both dense and long (and it was, though more so the former than the latter).
Do we follow commands to purify or to unite? There are times when people no longer care for sound doctrine and when those who consider themselves believers care little for biblical doctrine. This is, sadly, one of those times. Throughout the Bible we are told to be on our guard for false doctrine. But how do we do this? We have tendencies to be too inclusive or too exclusive (ready to quickly declare someone or something wrong or unchristian, neglecting the wideness of God’s love). None of us approach this problem perfectly balanced. We end up pitting God’s Word against itself by putting one aspect of His character against another. What we should do is to grow in our knowledge of God’s Word and of our own hearts, so we’re more attuned to God’s truth and more appreciative of His love and gracious kindness. Truth and humility should not be enemies and, in fact, if we want to be truly humble we must also be filled with this truth.
Too often we have unity people and purity people, but not people who properly balance both. The unity people are willing to lay aside doctrine and group together around anything else whereas the purity people are fundamentalists, people who separate themselves from unbelievers and from believers with whom they do not agree. They have what Dever calls “a prophetic ministry of correction.” To today we ask how do we take the best of both of these, of the unity and the purity?
What are some common fights Christians have? There are so many to choose from: Sabbath-keeping, music styles, instrumentation, election and predestination, baptism, and on and on. This is the easy one to answer.
Now we move from the problem to the answer.
What are we together for? The cooperation we’re aiming at should determine how much agreement we need. The degree of cooperation in a relationship will depend on how close the relationship will be. There are, after all, different levels of agreement. So we need to ask, what is the purpose of agreeing with this person? For example, if you want to have an evangelistic Bible study, you need to agree on the gospel. If you want to begin a church with someone, you’ll need a greater level of agreement.
What must we agree upon? What are the basics, the essentials? This is a dangerous question and we have to proceed very carefully. Taken wrong, this can sound a bit like the teenager asking “How far can I go?” We must not ask this in the spirit of “What can I get away with?” Christian fellowship can only be had with those who share the Christian faith. In Acts 2 Luke writes that the people first shared the apostle’s teaching and then they enjoyed fellowship. Some errors are more serious than others. Some have to be corrected while others can go on for a lifetime. When we get to heaven, all of us will be corrected on some things simply because we’ve misunderstood some portion of Scripture. Some doctrines can go awry and a person can continue to serve as a faithful Christian.
There are three ways we learn what we must agree upon: through the Bible, through the church and through the conscience. We learn the truth fundamentally and supremely through the Bible—through God’s Word written. We are not to be earthly orphans, self-taught, self-regulating, self-centered. We must be in churches where the Word is taught well and taught faithfully. It is the duty of the local church to define what we must agree upon to be Christians and to be a member of that church. We also learn through conscience. This important part of God’s moral image has not been lost in the Fall, but it is now not always accurate. We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong but the conscience is inherent, not inerrant. We need our consciences to be trained and taught by God’s Word.
Here is a four-fold test to put on a doctrine to see how important it is. How clear is it in Scripture? How clear to others feel it is in Scripture? How near is it to the gospel? What would the effects be doctrinally and practically if we allow disagreement in this area?
One of the best words for a Christian is Evangelical. Jesus was all about news (the “evangel” is a word for “news”). We must not feel uncomfortable with making some truths more important than other truths. This is exactly what Paul and the other biblical writers did. Are you clear in your understanding of what you must believe to be a Christian? Godlessness and falsehood often go together. We must prioritize the doctrines that the biblical writers emphasized.
We must agree upon three things in order to put our trust in God and be saved. God, the Bible and the gospel. We have to believe in the one true God—that He is one, that He is triune, that He is uncreated, that He is morally perfect and that He is the one we are called to believe in. There are theologians today who speak of “anonymous Christians,” of people who believe in no God or in another God. But the Bible does not support this. We have to believe that the Bible is how we know the truth of God. How do we know what God is like? Because He has revealed Himself in Scripture. We must believe the gospel. The good news is that Jesus Christ became incarnate. Without this understanding we couldn’t uphold the truth of God’s triune nature. We also confess his substitutionary death on the cross, of His resurrection and His impending return. We are made right with God by faith alone, by trusting in this Jesus. Someone who does not believe in this gospel is not a Christian. Calling yourself doesn’t make you that, so even though many people consider themselves Christians and call themselves by Christ’s name, they cannot be truly saved unless they believe this.
What may we disagree about? This is not giving permission to not care about things God says in His Word, but rather, showing how much we can cooperate with others who share the gospel. You can have disagreements about practical matters and some of these things may even cause people to separate into different churches. We see this even in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas came to mutually exclusive opinions and decided to separate in love. There are a number of issues in the New Testament that people disagreed with—issues such as eating meat offered to idols and Paul allowed them to disagree as long as they still recognized that both parties were Christians. You can work together with another Christian as long as you won’t be distracted by the things which you disagree on. What are disputable matters today? There are too many to list, but Dever offered and expounded upon four test cases: the millennium, prayers for the dead, complementarianism and egalitarianism, and cooperation in evangelism.
How can we disagree well? Dever turned to the Reformation phrase “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” He looked also to Roger Nicole who asks “What do I owe the person who differs from me?” The Bible tells us we owe love, respect, charity. Be sure to honestly and respectfully represent the opponent’s view. Consider what goals you share and ask what the other person is aiming at with his belief. Nicole also asks, “What can I learn from the person I’m differing with?” You must not be more interesting in winning an argument. We’ll need humility to do this, welcoming correction as the enemy of your pride.
Ultimately we want to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. And we are for the gospel. In essentials unity. In non-essentials diversity. In all things love.