An Unpopular (Biblical) View on Unity
Written by Rob Golding
One of the things I love most about Reformed theology is that it can have its cake and eat it too. For example, does God choose who will be saved “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4), indicating that He only selects some for eternal salvation? Or, does God want “all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4b)? Is baptism a sign and seal (Rom 4:11) of actual salvation for adults or potential salvation for infants? Does God decree whatsoever comes to pass, including evil events, or does He merely allow those evil events to occur (decretive vs. preceptive will)? The answer to all these questions and many like them—in the Reformed tradition—is a joy-filled “Yes!” Perhaps the post-Reformation’s brightest light, Francis Turretin, was able to speak most intelligently about issues like these by utilizing one key intellectual tool—namely, distinction.
God does determine salvation before the foundation of the world in terms of His decretive will, by which He decrees whatsoever comes to pass. But, we must distinguish between His decretive will and His preceptive will which lays down His desire for humans. Specifically, His preceptive will expresses His desire that everyone everywhere would call upon the name of the Lord (1 Tim 2:4; cf. Rom 10:13). So, in one sense, God does will that all shall be saved, but in another not. We arrive at this biblical position—which upholds both types of verses indicated above—by means of distinction. The same is the case with baptism. It can be a sign and seal of salvation for adults who have already made a credible profession of faith. Or, it can be a sign and seal of salvation for infants who have not, indicating that they are in the “outer covenant community” of the church and have unparalleled access to salvation but might not be saved when all is said and done.
These types of distinctions allow the Reformed to uphold biblical truths. However, other Christians, like Arminians, must essentially choose one or the other (e.g., for Arminians, God does choose us before the foundation of the world, but His decision is based on our decision, so it is really us who choose, not God).
Many Christians today, including but not limited to those in the Christian Reformed Church, have been repeatedly missing a crucial distinction. The Bible places an extremely high priority on church unity. But, a distinction must be put in place for us to understand what the Bible means by unity. Specifically, the Bible calls us to radical unity in forgiving one another. We might call this interpersonal unity. But, this type of unity must be distinguished from doctrinal unity, which does not forgive faults. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’d like to give a specific example from Synod 2023.
The minority report for advisory committee 8E argues that officebearers should be able to privately disagree with the CRC’s doctrinal standards, so long as they don’t publicly teach them. (An apt example of distinction!). They say that preventing an officebearer from doing this is “abusive in its own right, and an abject failure to humbly and patiently ‘bear with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:3 [sic]) and to ‘pursue what makes for peace’ (Rom. 14:19).” The problem with this statement is that it fails to distinguish between interpersonal unity and doctrinal unity.
Let’s look at the first reference quoted above. Ephesians 4:2 (quoted in the citation above but mis-referenced as 4:3), which commands us to “bear with one another,” is not about doctrinal “bearing,” if you will. Instead, it is clearly about interpersonal bearing. One of the definitions of “bearing” (ἀνέχω) from the leading Greek dictionary is “to undergo something onerous or troublesome without giving in” (BDAG, emphasis mine). Paul’s use is more likely regarding the need to “put up with” something (BDAG). In either case, the point is that Christians should bear with, put up with, or even undergo poor treatment in the name of love. That’s what “bear[ing] with one another in love” means.
There is not one single verse in the entire Bible that commands us to bear with, put up with, or accept faulty doctrine (in fact, the opposite is the case; see 1 Tim 1:3). Soon after Paul tells the Ephesians to “bear with one another in love,” he explains the reason: “so that we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14a). How is this done? By “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15b). Paul is at great pains to describe the bearing he commands as something done by a person or group who has been wronged in some way (4:25-32), not as something done by a Christian in order to paper over doctrinal disagreements. In other words, bearing with one another is the immediate relative of forgiveness and is the enemy of accepting incorrect doctrine. Paul wants his hearers to love and forgive one another, not accept their errant theology.
How does this distinction play out in Romans 14:19 (“pursue what makes for peace,” cited above)? Well, in the opposite way that the minority report for advisory committee 8E (cited above) would like. Paul says that this is “what makes for peace”—the person with the free conscience (who thinks eating meat is not sinful) should alter his own conduct to conform to the one with the bound conscience (who thinks eating meat is sinful), even if the latter is wrong. He tells them “not to put a stumbling block or offense before a brother” (Romans 14:13, LSB). The point is this: If a person thinks X is a sin, his Christian friend should avoid X even if it is not actually sinful. The application to our context is straightforward. If LGBTQ activity is sinful (as the CRC has always believed), then those who think LGBTQ activity is morally acceptable should abstain for the sake of their “weaker” brothers and sisters. “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything [including engaging in same-sex activity, especially as an officebearer] by which your brother stumbles” (Romans 14:21, LSB).
We must distinguish between two types of unity: One is free with forgiveness, handing it out seventy times seven times. The other is free with doctrine, handing out gravamina just as frequently. The Bible constantly commands us to the former and tells us to run for the hills from the latter: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you … Therefore do not become partners with them” (Ephesians 5:3,7, ESV). Though these concepts are inevitably unpopular and ring harsh in the ears of those who champion a very particular brand of “tolerance” and “acceptance,” the world needs to hear this message of doctrinal purity, because “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:14b). Jesus Christ died so that sinners of every stripe might turn from their sin, take up their crosses, and follow Him. Though this is unpopular, it’s biblical. That is enough.
Rob Golding is a commissioned pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. He serves at First CRC in Artesia, CA.