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.
[Emo Philips, Reader’s Digest, October 2011, pp 124-125]
In response to my last post, “That They May Be One,” one person commented, “Who among us doesn’t unite with those who agree with us and are repelled by those who don’t? Universalists unite as one among themselves; it like a fraternity while those who disgree with their doctrine don’t. YEC unite together as one while rejecting OEC/ID/theistic evolutionists/evolutionists. The list goes on. Likes unites with likes; this is a simple observastion and experience of life that we all have had.” [All statements from commenters are quoted verbatim.] Apparently the person misunderstands and/or disagrees with the premise of the post. I believe that pursuing the kind of unity Jesus prayed for is extremely important in order to honor Him, to have healthy and joyful churches, and to present a convincing witness to the world, so I will try again.
It is true that there are certain beliefs that are foundational to Christianity. All Christians agree on these points because they are the very ones that identify us as Christians; a person who does not hold these basic tenets is not called “Christian,” because these convictions constitute the definition of “Christian.”
However, it is unwise for any one of us to make our own definition of the essentials of the faith. That was done for us very capably nearly 1700 years ago by more than two hundred bishops from around the world who came together for that purpose. The statement of faith formulated by the Council of Nicea in AD 325 embodies the essence of what it means to be a Christian. In the midst of theological controversy, they came to a consensus about the basics of the faith. As George Sarris explains in his essay “Why Can’t Christians Get Along?” the Nicene Creed has stood the test of time; “it is a statement of faith accepted by almost all those who claim to be Christians even today.” Though the Creed has been translated into many different languages and the wording has been modified, the same basic statement of faith has been affirmed by countless Christians down through the ages—in many churches, every week.
The commenter quoted above seems to have made her own definition of what the indispensable articles of faith are. She says, “I cannot have unity, fellowship in Christ, with a believer that holds to heresy(heresies). I will not align myself with them. I am called to show them agape love while admonishing them but not to unite with them in their false beliefs. There is no concord with truth and error.” She herself identifies what those “heresies” or “false beliefs” are, thinking that those who believe as she does are the ones who really hold to the Word of God: “The Word of God establishes what truth is. Every believer must align themselves with what the Word of God teaches or there will be no unity among them.”
For example, on another post, she commented, “No surprise about the Catholic Church since most of their doctrines and practices violate the Word of God. They rather succumb to the thouths of ungodly man than to embrace and take a stand for the Word of God. We fundamentalists are not stuck in a midieval timewarp. We have chosen to take God at His Word!” In other words, with one sweep she dismisses the Catholic Church because, in her opinion, “most of their doctrines and practices violate the Word of God.”
Neither would she be able to have unity with a Christian who believes in an old earth: “I cannot enter into the work of the ministry with another believer, say in origins, when we disagree with each other. Me, a YEC, would defend biblically a young earth and how God created everything while the OEC would defend his position based on the ideas of man for which there is no scriptural support for.”
This commenter also feels that she can determine when a person is carnal and that she should not have fellowship with such a person: “I see unity as fellowship among believers. If a Christian is walking in darkness (is wordly/carnal) then there can be no fellowship with him (1 John 1:7). Who among us can fellowship with a believer that is away from God because of sin in his/her life? I can’t. My reaction is to draw away from the person.”
In the last two months I have posted nine articles about ultimate redemption—the idea that God wants to save all mankind, He is able to save all, and He will not fail to accomplish His will. After many years of studying Scripture, I have come to believe that God will achieve His purpose as stated in Colossians 1:20—“to reconcile to himself all things”—and I came here to dialog about this idea with other believers. I have presented sound arguments using dozens of Scripture passages to share this concept, which has been held by solid Christians, though a small minority, throughout church history. But for holding this belief, I have been subjected to a barrage of criticism by a number of commenters: my salvation has been called into question, I have been grilled on my orthodoxy, my spiritual condition and my motives have been questioned, and I have been accused of error, heresy, and cultish behavior.
A sampling of the comments includes the following: “Why do I press you for your conversion experience? basically, based on everything you have written I question whether or not your really are.” “You have been deceived Diane. May God help you.” “Why not accept what Jesus said as truth and then seek God to understand the meaning of the scriptures you say claim universalism?” “Why do I suggest you are a heretic? Universalism is not scriptural.” “Your universal beliefs are not scriptural nor are there any testimonies of those who experienced hell and came back to life to tell about it that support your views.” “Hersey in one area can grow into other areas as well and eventually would result in someone losing their salvation because they have walked away from the true and living God. Will that happen to you? I hope not.” “God said through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ that there is no grace beyond the grave if you perish (Luke 16:26). When are you going to receive that revealed truth that God made to His Son? Everything you have written thus far has rejected or ignored that truth!” [From Galatians 1:] “6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ." "Cults (and false teachers) entice people to join by giving them a mission for life and making them feel special." “Why don’t you listen to Him instead of depending on your human intution about the devine? How much longer are you going to reject the words of Christ in favor of your carnal thinking?” “The problem is that you don't understand the character of God nor do you understand the love of God and how He implements it. Consequently your false understanding of God has led you to misinterpret scripture and has resulted in false teaching.” “Sad you are using your talent to try to sell a lemon, a lemon with eternal consequences for yourself and others.......The lemon here is HERESY!”
The framers of the Nicene Creed deliberated thoughtfully about what to include as the fundamentals of the faith. They also considered carefully what not to include. They wisely left out those matters that are disputable, the ones that Christians can disagree on and still be Christians. They understood that unity is not dependent on being in agreement about the non-essentials. For example, the creed states that the Father made heaven and earth through the Son, but it does not state when and how the universe was made. It says that for our sake Jesus was crucified, he suffered death and was buried, and on the third day he rose again, but it does not say how we should be baptized or how we should celebrate Communion/Eucharist/the Lord’s Supper. It says the Holy Spirit is the giver of life and should be worshiped and glorified, but it does not speak of spiritual gifts. It says that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but it does not even mention hell, much less what it is like or how long it will last.
It is clear that we will never have biblical unity if we all make our own determinations about what everyone has to believe and do in order to be a true Christian. We should be extremely cautious with labels like heretic, cult, unspiritual, carnal, and even the word wrong. As I said in my essay “Unity in Diversity and Disagreement,” we do need to be solid as a rock on the absolute truths of our faith. But we also need great wisdom to discern the difference between the essentials and the peripherals. As George Sarris pointed out, it is likely that the statement of faith of a church or Christian organization will include their denominational or organizational distinctives. We need to be careful not to turn those distinctives into absolutes upon which our fellowship and unity depend. The Nicene Creed (like the shorter but similar Apostles’ Creed) can give us guidance to separate the few true non-negotiables from the vastly greater number of beliefs in the gray area, where Scripture allows latitude for a variety of understandings.
Obviously not all universalists are Christians who hold to the foundational beliefs of our faith. But it is entirely possible to be a universalist and a true Christian. See, for example, "Can An Evangelical Be a Universalist?" Another resource is Robin Parry's "Bell's Hells: Seven Myths about Universalism" in The Baptist Times. Parry dispels seven false ideas that people often have about universalists and shows that those who believe in the ultimate redemption of all can be thoroughly Christian and evangelical. For a thoughtful discussion of many issues related to the whole subject of Christian universalism, with hundreds of contributions from a broad range of perspectives, see The Evangelical Universalist Forum. A careful consideration of these materials should make it clear that being a genuine Christian and being a universalist are not at all incompatible. Therefore, ETs (Eternal Tormentists) and EUs (Evangelical Universalists) should not break fellowship over this issue.
Our commenter advises me, “Give up the thought that there can be unity in disagreement because Scripture does not teach it. . . . Give up the thought that there can be unity in division; there is no unity in division. To say that there is and should be violates the Word of God.” I am not willing to give it up, because I believe that unity in the Body of Christ, despite diversity and disagreement, is the will of Jesus for His people. She tells me, “I do not agree with your interpretion of John 17; you do not understand what Jesus was referring to when He prayed what He prayed about unity and oneness with God the Father.” But I believe that I am on the right track when I talk about what is on His heart regarding unity.
So how do I know that unity in diversity and disagreement is desirable and doable? For one thing, because I am part of a Christian organization that preaches and practices the very kind of unity that I am talking about. As a member of Community Bible Study for more than 25 years and a leader for more than 20, I have seen firsthand that true biblical unity is possible and it is beautiful. CBS has hundreds of groups all over the United States, and Community Bible Study International is in 72 countries worldwide, with study materials available in 48 languages. Our local CBS has people of all different backgrounds and denominations, from dozens of different churches and communities in our area. We focus on the Word of God and those things that unite us, not those that divide. As the CBS philosophy states, “Community Bible Study makes every effort to stand in the center of the mainstream of historic Christianity. We concentrate on the essentials of the Christian faith, not on denominational distinctives. As we grow in our love and respect for one another we learn that Christians can hold differing views on matters that are not essential to salvation. Regardless of these differences, we learn to love and care for each other as we grow in our knowledge of the Bible and in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Community Bible Study is also evangelistic. Friends reach out to friends who do not know the Lord and invite them to come, and many hear the gospel and become Christians. The CBS Mission Statement is “To make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in our communities through caring, in-depth Bible study, available to all.” In CBS people become disciples and grow into maturity. The loving care shown to them is a witness to the reality of our faith and to the love of God.
Like any family, the Body of Christ does not have to agree about everything in order to be healthy. We are joined together by our birth into the family, and we grow together in unity as we respect one another and help each other follow God’s will. If God could bring together into His household both Jews and Gentiles, who were from totally different backgrounds and were enemies of each other, then He can unite anybody:
He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . . . His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
The mystery of God’s will “according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ” is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). The Word of God exhorts us to have unity and tells the blessings of experiencing it:
How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1, 3)
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. . . . But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it . . . to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:3, 7, 12-13)
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. . . . Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1-5)
My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:2-3)
Above all, our unity glorifies God:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:5-7)
Disclaimer: Lest anyone accuse me of implying that Community Bible Study promotes the doctrine of universalism, let me state that it does not. I suspect that most of the leaders at all levels hold to the traditional position regarding hell. The CBS Statement of Faith does not espouse universal salvation, but neither does it rule it out.