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“Unity, Liberty, and Charity”: Partnering with Churches of a differing Doctrinal Position

6 minutes to read

My cousin is a doctor who works in the Emergency wing of his hospital. Whenever a patient is rushed into the ER, he has to make quick decisions- should this patient be rushed into surgery, admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or should they be sent to the Outpatient Department (OPD)? He makes his decision based on the seriousness of the medical issue. Sending an OPD patient to the Operating Room would be harmful, and sending an ICU patient to the OPD would lead to a life-threatening situation. 

This is a good analogy for how mature Christians are to think about doctrines and their relative importance to one another. Some doctrines are so crucial that to deny them would result in death, while other doctrines are not as important yet Christians become contentious and divisive, harming the unity of the body of Christ. For this reason, theologians have divided doctrine into categories of importance- Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. Some have even made a 4th category, but for the sake of clarity, I will stick to 3. 

Level 1 doctrines are those that define orthodoxy or core doctrine. Like - the Trinity, Inspiration of the Scriptures, Full Deity and Humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Level 1 doctrines are those that define orthodoxy or core doctrine. These are the most serious doctrines that we as Christians should be willing to ‘die’ for rather than compromise. Examples of Level 1 doctrines include- the Trinity, Inspiration of the Scriptures, Full Deity and Humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, justification by faith alone, and the bodily return of Jesus to earth. 

Level 2 doctrines are those that, though not as important as Level 1, are important enough that denominations, churches and ministries have formed because thoughtful Christians could not agree on them, and they affect how we understand the gospel. Level 2 doctrines lead to practical differences in how we do ministry and church. Examples of Level doctrines are modes of baptism (infant baptism vs. believers baptism), spiritual gifts (“certain gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased to be in operation” vs “all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are in operation today”) and women in ministry (“women cannot be pastors” vs. “women can be pastors”).

Level 3 doctrines are those that we can agree to disagree on and yet remain united in the same local church. Even if Christians within a local church or denomination cannot agree on a Level 3 doctrine, their posture towards one another should be that of charity, patience and tolerance. No one should leave or divide the local church over a Level 3 doctrine. Examples of Level 3 doctrines are most doctrines related to eschatology, view on head covering, frequency of the Lord’s Supper, etc. 

How do we get along with one another?
To get along with one another, i.e. other Christians, we must agree wholeheartedly with one another with respect to Level 1 doctrines. To disagree on Level 1 doctrines is to disagree on the core tenets of the faith, the doctrines that affect the gospel. In other words, we cannot have any sort of partnership in ‘gospel’ causes with people or churches that we cannot agree with on Level 1 doctrines. Take the Roman Catholic church for example:  with respect to Level 1 doctrines, we agree with their position on most doctrines like the Trinity, virgin birth, deity and humanity of Christ, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, etc. However, we disagree with them on the key doctrine of justification by faith alone. Therefore, we cannot partner with such a church for gospel advancement causes, although we could partner as individuals for social causes with our Roman Catholic friends. 

What would relationships look like between churches who agreed wholeheartedly on Level 1 doctrines but not on Level 2 doctrines? For example, how can Baptists and Presbyterians partner meaningfully or Pentecostals and Brethrens partner meaningfully for gospel advancement? One way is by having conferences where we all can fellowship together. One great example of this is the All India Pastors Conference (AIPC). Here Christians from different theological traditions come together for fellowship and to listen to God’s word. Events like this promote unity within the body of Christ and facilitate personal relationships at the local level. Another way is to meet up with pastors in the same city for fellowship once a month. This can be very helpful, and it would encourage gospel advancement in the city. 

As Christians in the body of Christ, we are to work to promote unity in the body of Christ.

How about churches that agree on Level 1 and Level 2 doctrines but differ on Level 3 doctrines? Such churches should partner together when it comes to church planting. They should be willing to pool resources together (money and people) for the sake of church planting. I would hope and expect that their friendships would be deeper and richer because of the greater degree of agreement on doctrine. Another way to partner would be to send pastoral interns to such like-minded churches where they can be trained by different pastors. For example, the seminary where I currently serve sends Hindi-speaking seminary graduates to a good church in Lucknow for further training, and they send some of their young men to us for a season so that we can invest in them. When our church members have to leave our church because of their job or other reasons, we try our best to have them plugged into a like-minded church in the city they’re moving to. 

As Christians in the body of Christ, we are to work to promote unity in the body of Christ. We do this by affirming one another as brothers and sisters in Christ because of our agreement on Level 1 doctrines. While the level of partnership may vary depending on our levels of agreement, as Christians we must be proactive in promoting unity wherever possible for the sake of mission. Christians have much work to do and being a small percentage of the population, we don’t have the luxury of being on our own spiritual ‘island’ or isolated within our theological tribe. We Christians must first discern our doctrinal differences, and then we must unite accordingly. 

May God help us to discern so that we can unite more deeply for the sake of kingdom work in India. 

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