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Lesson 5: Resolving Doctrinal Differences in the Church (Acts 15:1-21)

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May 7, 2017

You may remember the story of a man who was marooned on a deserted island. When a ship came to his rescue, the captain learned that the man had lived alone on this island for five years. There were three huts, so he asked about them. The man said that he lived in the first one. “Then what’s that second hut?” the captain asked. The man said, “That’s where I go to church.” “What about that third hut?” the captain asked. The man replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.” I think he was a Baptist!

While that story is funny, actual church splits are not so funny. When churches divide, people get hurt. Some get so disgusted that they drop out of church altogether. Some may be so disillusioned that they leave the faith. Many, if not most, of you have been through church splits. We’ve had a couple of them at FCF during the 25 years I’ve served here. In the New Testament, the churches in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae were all in danger of divisions.

As we saw last week, unity among believers is very important to our Lord. He died to secure it (Eph. 2:12-14) and it’s a major part of our witness to the world (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23). So we must be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and to grow to maturity in Christ, so that we may attain to the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:3, 13).

But how do we preserve the unity of the Spirit and attain to the unity of the faith? Obviously, it doesn’t happen automatically! There are at least four kinds of differences, or combinations thereof, which threaten church unity: (1) doctrinal differences; (2) personal differences (caused by personal wrongs); (3) personality differences; and, (4) methodological differences (over how to do the Lord’s work). In this message, I’m focusing on resolving doctrinal differences. I’ll address the other areas in future messages. The main idea here is:

Resolving doctrinal differences in a biblical way is crucial for the sake of the gospel.

You may be inclined to think that doctrine is not important or that theological controversies are for theologians to argue about, but they don’t affect you. But I would remind you that this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which centered on several important doctrinal disputes that the Roman Catholic Church refused to correct. And although some now are calling for an end to the division that happened then, the doctrinal division between the Catholic Church and the Reformers was and still is primarily over the gospel. Thus …

1. Doctrinal differences are crucial because truth matters.

Think about this: What is the difference between a Jehovah’s Witness, who is trying to work his way into heaven but is actually on his way to hell, and you, a believer in Jesus Christ, bound for heaven? The main difference is theological. You may object, “No, the difference is that I believe in Jesus Christ, but he doesn’t.” But every Jehovah’s Witness I’ve talked to claims to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The problem is, the “Jesus” he believes in is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jehovah’s Witness “Jesus” is a created being, not the eternal Son of God.

Perhaps someone would still object, “Isn’t doctrine divisive? Isn’t love the most important thing?” But, what if someone you love was about to drink a glass of water containing deadly poison, because he believed it was pure water? But, you knew that if he drank that contaminated water, he would die. Love would not ignore the truth that that drink would kill him. Even if he sincerely believed that that poisoned water was good for him, it still would kill him. Faith is only as good as its object. Faith in a contaminated glass of water is deadly. Faith in a contaminated gospel is eternally deadly! Spiritual truth is not relative to every person’s opinion of God or the gospel! To be saved, our faith must be in God’s only revealed way of salvation: the eternal Son of God, crucified for our sins and risen for our justification.

In the early church, a doctrinal controversy arose as the gospel spread from its Jewish origins to the Gentiles. In Jerusalem, the early church consisted mostly of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as their crucified and risen Messiah. But when the gospel spread north to Antioch and then beyond (through the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas), many Gentiles came to faith in Christ (Acts 11:20-21). After Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, some Jews called Judaizers, who professed to believe in Jesus, began going to the largely Gentile churches that Paul and Barnabas had established, teaching that in addition to believing in Christ for salvation, the Gentiles must also be circumcised and follow the Jewish ceremonial laws. Paul wrote the Letter to the Galatians to refute their spiritually deadly error.

Eventually, the Judaizers came to Antioch and were teaching (Acts 15:1), “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” After Paul and Barnabas had great dissension with them, the church sent them and a delegation to Jerusalem to get this matter cleared up with the apostles and elders there. The Jerusalem Council affirmed the same gospel that Paul preached, but asked the Gentile converts to abstain from some things that would needlessly alienate unbelieving Jews.

The point is that Paul didn’t see this as an unimportant doctrinal dispute that should be overlooked in love. He saw it as poisoned water that threatened the truth of the gospel itself. Doctrinal differences are crucial when the truth of the gospel is at stake. Even though the Judaizers were probably sincere and only wanted to preserve the Law of Moses, they were sincerely wrong! Paul didn’t just shrug it off, saying, “Unity must prevail! Let’s set aside our differences and come together where we agree!” Rather, he fought vigorously for the truth of the gospel, pronouncing eternal judgment on these false teachers (Gal. 1:6-9)! He saw that people’s eternal destinies were at stake. Correct doctrine can make an eternal difference!

2. Doctrinal differences must be resolved in an attempt to preserve unity without compromising the truth of the gospel.

While unity is extremely important, it cannot trump the truth of the gospel, because if the gospel is compromised, the resulting “unity” is not the unity of the Spirit. It would be a superficial “unity” of some who believe in Jesus and some who did not. Jesus prayed for the love and unity of His disciples, but it was love and unity based on the truth (John 17:17). Jesus claimed to speak the truth (John 8:45) and to be the truth (John 14:6). He told Pilate (John 18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” He promised that He would send to His disciples “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26). So to argue that Jesus set love above truth is false. He knew that tolerating a false gospel is not love, because it would lead the person believing it to damnation, not to eternal life.

The apostle Paul also knew that to preserve peace while compromising the truth of the gospel was not true love and unity. He risked disunity with Peter and Barnabas over a situation that occurred in Antioch (I think before the Jerusalem Council, although scholars debate the timing of this incident). Peter visited the church there and ate with the Gentiles, something strict Jews would never do. He realized that the Gentiles who believed were true brothers and sisters in Christ (Acts 10:28).

But when the Judaizers visited Antioch, Peter and even Barnabas feared their disapproval and withdrew from eating with the Gentiles. But Paul boldly confronted these men in front of the entire church (Gal. 2:11-14). He knew that to preserve unity while compromising the gospel would have been spiritually fatal.

All of this is directly relevant to our day when many influential Christian leaders are calling for Protestants to be unified with the Roman Catholic Church. They argue that we should come together because of the many beliefs we share in common and agree to disagree over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Catholic Church teaches that we must not only believe in Jesus, but also add our good works and merit to be saved. It’s the same error the Galatian Judaizers were teaching: Believe in Jesus plus add your good works. Rome still affirms the canons of the Councils of Trent that condemn those who believe that we are justified by faith alone.

Even the famous evangelist Billy Graham for many years played down any differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He said, “I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church.” Speaking of the difference between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, he said, “I don’t think the differences are important as far as personal salvation is concerned” (both quotes in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided [Banner of Truth], p. 68). He also often said (ibid. p. 33), “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love.”

Because of the powerful influence of Graham and of other well-known Christian leaders advocating reconciliation with the Catholic Church, there is immense pressure on pastors today to drop all doctrinal differences and join together with all who call themselves “Christian.” Evangelical author Ron Sider dogmatically stated, “It is sin to refuse to join in ecumenical dialogue and processes with other Christians who confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior. It is a sin to send our missionaries to other lands with long Christian traditions without first consulting with the churches already there.” In the context, he was referring to countries where Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church are strong (World Vision [April/May, 1994], p. 9). Here in Flagstaff we are currently being urged to join with Roman Catholics in prayer for our city.

I readily admit that there have been many shameful divisions among Christians over petty issues, which is sin. But the Bible shows that there are times when it is sin not to divide over doctrine. When the doctrine concerns how a person gets saved, there can be no compromise. So then, how should we attempt to resolve doctrinal differences in a biblical manner, while trying to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

3. Doctrinal differences can be resolved in a biblical way by taking the following steps:

A. Determine the magnitude of the controversy.

As I mentioned last week, most doctrinal differences may be divided into three broad categories: (1) Essential truth that is necessary for the gospel. To deny these truths would be heresy and a denial of the Christian faith. These truths include:

The inspiration and authority of the Bible: If someone denies this, there is no basis for determining what is spiritually true and false. If the Bible is in error over whether abortion or homosexuality are sin or whether Paul was wrong on the roles of men and women, then maybe it’s also wrong about whether faith in Jesus is the only way to God. The Bible must be our foundation for truth (John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)!

The trinity: God is one God who exists eternally as three co-equal persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God. To deny the trinity is to deny the truthfulness of Jesus and the apostles, who clearly taught it (Matt. 28:19; John 14:9, 16, 26; 2 Cor. 13:14).

The full deity and full humanity of Jesus: If Jesus is not fully human, He could not atone for human sins. If He is not fully God, His death for sinners would not satisfy the holy justice of God. Many Scriptures affirm both His humanity (through the virgin birth) and His deity (Luke 1:30-38; John 1:1, 14; 10:30).

The substitutionary death of Jesus that satisfied God’s wrath as the payment for our sins: Jesus didn’t die only as an example of love; rather, He bore God’s wrath on behalf of all sinners who put their trust in Him (Rom. 3:26; 2 Cor. 5:21). Included here is the truth that all people are sinners who need Jesus to save them (Rom. 3:23).

Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead and bodily second coming in power and glory: If Jesus was not raised bodily, our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). If He is not coming back bodily, He lied and we can’t believe anything else He said (Matt. 26:64; Acts 1:11).

Salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone: We are justified (declared righteous by God) as a gift by His grace through faith, not by works (Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).

(2) Important, but not saving truths. These issues affect how we live as Christians, the way we understand God, man, salvation, the Christian life, etc. So some of them are very important, but genuine Christians differ. Some of these matters fall into a gray zone between the essential and important categories. For example, the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell is very close to an essential truth necessary for salvation; but some, such as the late John Stott, denied it, and I can’t question his salvation. I think, though, that his denial of that truth was a very serious error.

Some other examples of important, but non-saving issues: God’s sovereignty versus human free will in our salvation; views of baptism; church government; biblical prophecy; old earth versus young earth creation; charismatic gifts; roles of men and women in the church and home; Christians and psychology; and, divorce and remarriage.

(3) Interesting, but not essential or important issues. Often it’s difficult to determine exactly what the Bible teaches about these matters. But one way or the other, they don’t affect how you live your Christian life. These include things like, who are the sons of God in Genesis 6? When does the battle of Ezekiel 38 take place? Did Christ descend into hell?

Once you determine the magnitude of a doctrinal issue …

B. Check your attitude.

Due to our propensity toward pride, it’s easy to defend the truth in the wrong way. Granted, both Jesus (Matt. 23:1-33) and Paul (Acts 13:6-12; Gal. 1:6-9) strongly confronted those in error, so sometimes this may be necessary. But we need to heed two Scriptures that guide us in how to correct those in error. In Galatians 6:1, Paul writes, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The “trespass” may be a doctrinal error. Our goal should be restoration, not to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. And, we should act with gentleness and humility.

In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul states, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” We will not win a person in error to the truth by being quarrelsome, impatient, or harsh. Rather, we must gently, lovingly offer correction, while praying that God will grant repentance. Our motive must never be to prove that we’re right and the other person is wrong. Rather, our desire should be to glorify God through the other person’s embracing God’s truth.

C. If an essential issue is at stake:

1) Hear out the issue completely.

The apostles and elders in Jerusalem heard the Judaizers, then Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and James, all stated their case (Acts 15:5, 7-12). We need to make sure that we understand what the other person is saying before we pass judgment (James 1:19).

2) Consider where the person is coming from.

Does he really understand the gospel? Is he a new believer who lacks teaching? Or, is he a knowledgeable man who is actively promoting false doctrine by preying on younger believers who don’t know as much as he does? We should be gentle with an unbeliever or untaught believer. But someone who is deliberately teaching false doctrine needs a stronger rebuke.

3) Outside counsel may be needed on a major issue.

Paul and Barnabas brought this crucial issue back to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Sometimes I’ve faced difficult issues where I’ve sought the wisdom of other pastors or church leaders.

4) The Scriptures are the final authority.

James supports the testimonies of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas by appealing to the prophet Amos (Acts 15:15-18). In verse 28, they concluded, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us ….” The mind of the Spirit is not determined by our subjective feelings, but by what the Spirit-inspired prophets and apostles wrote in God’s word. If your interpretation of a major doctrine goes against the consensus of Spirit-filled, godly men, look out!

5) Concessions on minor issues may need to be made, but never on essential issues.

In order not to offend the Jews, Gentile converts were asked to abstain from three things that violated the ceremonial law (things contaminated by idols, what is strangled, and blood). It’s difficult to know why abstaining from fornication is in this list, since it’s an absolute moral issue. The Gentile culture accepted temple prostitution and men having a mistress as common practice. Perhaps many new Gentile converts did not yet understand God’s moral standards on marital fidelity. If Gentile converts continued with these pagan practices, it would hinder reaching Jews with the gospel. So the Gentiles were asked not to offend the Jews on these matters; but the truth of the gospel was not compromised.

6) If a person persists in a major doctrinal error, church discipline may be required.

The goal is always to bring the person in error to the knowledge of the truth. But sometimes, to protect the church and uphold sound doctrine, a person who stubbornly holds to false doctrine must be removed from the church (Matt. 18:15-17; Titus 3:10-11).

D. If it is an important but not essential issue:

1) The elders must determine what course the church will take.

Our church has a position on baptism, the sign gifts, the role of women in the church and home, and other issues. We recognize that other Bible-believing churches differ from us, but we need to answer to the Lord for the light He has given us on these things.

2) If the elders disagree among themselves after sufficient study and prayer, those in the minority should either submit, resign, or move to another church.

On a couple of occasions I have been asked to pastor churches that had women elders. I declined because I could not submit to that view and if I had insisted that the church change the policy before I went there, or I went there and changed the church’s policy, it would have caused serious conflict a church split. The elders need to agree on important issues. Disunity among leaders will translate into disharmony among the flock.

E. If it is a minor issue:

Here, unity and love trump individual preferences. Many issues are not worth fighting over. We are to stand “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:29). But on minor issues, we should (Phil. 2:3), “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.”

Sometimes a cantankerous person will “major on the minors.” He’s convinced that he is right about some minor point of doctrine and he’s on a crusade to convince everyone else that he’s right. At some point, this type gently but firmly needs to be told to back off. Often, there is a deeper issue going on that the person needs to deal with. If you can help him deal with that root issue, he will stop majoring on some minor issue.

Conclusion

I concluded last week with a quote from J. C. Ryle; here is another wise word from him (Warnings to the Churches [Banner of Truth Trust], pp. 110-111):

Controversy in religion is a hateful thing. It is hard enough to fight the devil, the world and the flesh, without private differences in our own camp. But there is one thing which is even worse than controversy, and that is false doctrine tolerated, allowed, and permitted without protest or molestation…. Three things there are which men never ought to trifle with—a little poison, a little false doctrine, and a little sin.

Application Questions

  1. Have you seen a church divided over doctrinal disputes? Was it an essential or important doctrine? Could it have been handled more in line with Scripture? How so?
  2. What doctrinal issues would you have difficulty classing as major versus important?
  3. Why is it essential to emphasize justification by faith alone, with nothing added (see Rom. 4:2)? Can Protestant believers enjoy fellowship with Roman Catholics who deny this truth?
  4. Over which doctrinal issues have you had the most conflict or disagreement with other Christians? How can you apply this message so as to reduce friction over these issues?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)