BY BRIAN MCNARRY
In 1985 Emo Phillips told this joke live on British television:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
In 2005 this joke was voted the funniest religious joke in an online survey with over 10,000 votes being cast. I must admit that the first time I heard this joke I had a good laugh over it, but as I thought about it I felt a very sad response rise in me. I can’t say for sure that the author of this joke was trying to make a statement or not, but the genius of humor is that it can point out something that we would rather not talk about in a non-threatening way.
Each step of the joke shows that these two have more and more in common, right up to the so-called “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” Yet the difference of councils is enough to condemn the man on the bridge to death. We may not condemn our opponents to the same fate, but it is often true that we split and fragment over small matters when we still agree on the larger matters. When we hold agreement on the bigger matters, but divide over the small things what we are really saying is that uniformity matters more than unity.
The thought that we have to be completely uniform in our belief, faith, practice, and preferences to be united with other followers of Christ is a myth that refuses to die. In fact, if we were able to somehow create a church where every person held to identical views in all areas of faith, practice, and preference, this church would only have pseudo-unity and not true unity. True unity can only be found when we are able to collectively decide what are the matters of critical importance and then come to mutual respect on the smaller matters where we do not hold identical views.
This raises a vital question: How do we decide what is an essential matter of faith and what is not? If we go to the early church, their first rallying point was the simple statement “Jesus is Lord.” Yet as more people came to belief in Christ, this central tenant needed to be expanded upon. In Acts 15 we see that there is a big question about accepting Gentiles into fellowship, and the council of Jerusalem is convened to make a decision. The council talks and discusses, and after James gets up to speak they make this declaration: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements” (Acts 15:28 NLT). The council decided on three matters of practice that are to be followed in order for Gentiles to have full acceptance in the church. At this time in history, these things were the essential matters of faith that created unity for those who held to them.
Eventually these essential matters became the creeds or statements of confession that people would say and hold to as the essential matters of faith. Paul’s letter to the Philippian church contained one of these early creeds (Philippians 2:6-11), and later the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed were written to further clarify and unify the essential components of our faith in God. The important part to remember is that no creed was ever written to be exhaustive and comprehensive, rather they were written to create the shared foundation that the church would hold to. When it came to matters not stated in the creeds, it was up to each congregation and their leaders to rely on scripture and the Holy Spirit to make decisions. This is the message of Hebrews 5:11-14, where the church is called to grow to spiritual maturity so that they will recognize right from wrong.
Even if the church we are in today doesn’t use the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds in their regular worship service, churches have their own unifying foundation in their statement of faith. The vast majority of all denominations, churches, and other Christian organizations have a statement of faith and the vast majority of all of these statements of faith are remarkably similar in the essential matters. Sure there will be some small differences, but the vast majority of these statements of faith contain identical belief about God. This is where we find our unity.
Then comes the two sticky questions: What do we do when we can’t agree on the essential matters? And how do we stay united when we disagree about the secondary matters? I’m not going to presume to have all the answers to these questions, but what I can provide is some direction that I believe will help us to stay in the room and keep discussing the matters that we disagree about.
First, we need to recognize that that differences ultimately strengthen our own faith and collectively strengthens the church when they are discussed and worked through together. The often repeated proverb “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” (Prov 27:17 NLT) is true of churches and groups as well. As we discuss our differences there is a sharpening that happens when each person in the conversation is digging into scripture and seeking the Holy Spirit. No matter what the result is, this is a positive process for everyone involved.
Secondly, we must have a focus on respect for each other and a commitment to stay in the conversation. When we can truly respect and love our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to different viewpoints, then we will be able to discuss these matters with clarity, honesty, and integrity. It is all too common in Christian circles where we tear down and demonize people who hold different views because it’s an easy way to discredit their position and make our own look stronger. This is being combative instead of contending with the topic to bring out the best in all of our viewpoints.
Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves if we fully understand other people’s views on the topic being discussed. Can we repeat their position using our own words in a way that they would agree is a faithful and true representation of their understanding. This goes a long way toward developing respect and may help us realize if we need to make changes to our viewpoint.
And finally we must remember that unity does not mean that we have to accept everything. There will be times when we cannot come to complete agreement, and that is okay. Then comes the second stage of deciding if this disagreement is severe enough to cause a parting of ways. The famous example of this is Paul and Barnabas splitting over the decision to include John Mark on their next missionary journey (Acts 15:36-40). The scriptural account does not place blame on either Paul or Barnabas, and this happens immediately after the unity that was found at the council of Jerusalem. Therefore, when this happens we can take a step back to realize that we are united with each other on the bigger and primary topics, and depending on the topic maybe it’s something where we can create room for different views to coexist. Paul and Barnabas were both completely convinced of the importance of sharing the gospel, and both continued the work of sharing the gospel and showing God’s kingdom to the world. While it may not be the ideal outcome that we hope for, sometimes it is necessary to pronounce a blessing upon each other and let the paths separate.
Unity is a deceptively complex topic. There will never be a static point where we will be perfectly united and stay there for the rest of our lives when we live in a shifting culture with important topics that the church will need to respond to. When we recognize that unity does not require uniformity, I believe this will put us in a better position to have these conversations and have an effective witness to the world.
Brian's whole understanding of faith and Christianity changed when he started to encounter what it means to live life with God instead of for God. One thing that Brian is passionate about is walking with people as they explore their faith in Christ and learning how to honestly seek God in the midst of our doubts and fears. Brian is the Pastor of Grand Valley Community Church in Brandon Manitoba. He is married to Nikki and they have one daughter named Olivia. When Brian isn't working on a sermon at a Starbucks or at home with his family, you can usually find him fly fishing or building model air planes.
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