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Winter 2002 Newsletter: True Unity and Counterfeit Unity
Publish date: Jun 26, 2009
Summary: By © Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD Director, Public Campus Ministries, Michigan Conference Author, Must We Be Silent?
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When to unite and when to divide, that is the question, and a right answer requires the wisdom of a Solomon…To divide what should be divided and unite what should be united is the part of wisdom. Union of dissimilar elements is never good even where it is possible. Nor is the arbitrary division of elements that are alike; and this is as certainly true of things moral and religious as of things political or scientific. –A.W. Tozer
Ever since there was rebellion in heaven there has been division. And alongside this division have been conflicts, wars, and bloodshed. Recent events in the Middle East, Balkans, Africa, and other places testify to the urgent need for unity and harmony in the world.
The religion of the Bible is about restoring unity—unity between God and people, unity between husband and wife, unity between members of the Church, and unity among members of the human family. Such a unity is based on truth, as revealed in the teaching of Scriptures.
But Satan also has his version of unity. His counterfeit unity is nothing more than theological pluralism, the peaceful coexistence of truth and error. Wherever this spurious doctrine has been introduced, it has created confusion in local churches, splitting others, and threatening our worldwide unity.
In this article I will attempt to explain what true Biblical unity entails, contrasting it with the counterfeit unity being advocated in certain quarters of the Church. The article may have implications for the ongoing debates within our church over such divisive issues as homosexuality, women’s ordination, racism and racially separate conferences, liberal higher criticism, Gospel gimmicks, contemporary worship styles, and the questionable Toronto General Conference decision on divorce and remarriage.
Unity: Christ’s Last Prayer Request
John 17 records Christ’s most sublime prayer for the Church. It captures His last words of instruction to his apostles before His crucifixion. Within less than 24 hours, He would be killed. Thus, in this prayer Christ reveals His innermost thought. He prayed this:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23 NKJV).
Christ’s chief concern in His last prayer request was for unity. At least five times He prayed for His followers that “they may be one, as we are” (John 17:11), “that they all may be one” (verse 21), “that they also may be one in Us” (verse 21), “that they may be one, even as we are one” (verse 22), and “that they may be made perfect in one” (verse 23). This unity that Christ prayed for in this John 17 passage is a unity grounded in the Word of God and forged by the Holy Spirit:
Grounded in the Word of God
The unity of the Church for which Christ prayed was not primarily that we might be one with each other. It was not simply the integration or fellowship of believers from different ethnic groups. As one noted evangelical scholar has observed, the unity for which Christ prayed is a unity with the apostles’ teaching. This is evident in verse 20 where He alludes to two groups of believers. The RSV designates them as “these” (i.e., the apostles) and “those” (i.e., all subsequent believers). As John Stott says, “It seems beyond question that the ‘all’ of verse 21, whose unity Christ desires, are a combination of ‘these’ and ‘those.’”i
In other words, the church unity Christ wants to see is one that is in harmony with the teachings of Christ’s inspired apostles. Like the apostolic Church, believers in God’s end-time Church must “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship” (Acts 2:42 ESV). But the teaching of racism is contrary to the Bible. To the extent that this is the case, racism is a barrier to Christ’s prayer for unity. Any ideology–gay theology, feminist egalitarian theology, racism, higher criticism–that is not in harmony with God’s teaching is a hindrance to Christ’s prayer.
Forged by the Spirit
But in addition to the unity with the apostles, Christ also prayed “that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). This is a unity with the Father and the Son. It ensures that at all times the Church lives in harmony with the leading of the life-giving Spirit whom the Father and Christ will send (John 14:15, 26; 15:26; 16:7). Unity with the Father and Son means we shall accept the correction of the Spirit and His guidance into all truth (John 16:8-13). This includes the Spirit’s leading through God’s end-time gift of prophecy (Revelation 12:17; 19:10).
Only as Christ followers are “in us” (i.e., with the Father and Son) can they truly “be one” among themselves (John 17: 21). In other words, the horizontal unity (among Christ’s followers) must be grounded in a vertical unity (which is oneness with Christ). We seek unity on this basis so that “the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (verse 21). Jesus declares, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (verse 23).
In other words, a visible unity results when Christ's followers are in harmony with the apostles and with the Father and Son. This unity is readily evident to the world. It convinces the world of the truthfulness of the Christian message.
As we shall see in the next section, Seventh-day Adventists take very seriously Christ’s final prayer request of John 17. Concerning this prayer, Ellen G. White wrote this:
The Lord calls for men of genuine faith and sound minds, men who recognize the distinction between the true and the false. Each one should be on his guard, studying and practicing the lessons given in the seventeenth chapter of John, and preserving a living faith in the truth for this time (Testimonies for the Church Volume 8, 239).
Unity in the Remnant Church
As a global movement, comprising people from “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6), the Seventh-day Adventist Church seeks to manifest this unity to an unbelieving world. Without the Church’s worldwide unity, this prophetic movement would disintegrate into a pattern of local options, weakness, and confusion. Moreover, our strength and credibility as a church depends, to a large extent, on our organized unity. For how else can we convince the world that we have a message that heals wounds of division if we ourselves choose to go in different directions?
Basis for Our Church Unity
Throughout our history, three major factors have greatly contributed to our worldwide unity:
1. Our distinctive doctrine and lifestyle. Despite obvious cultural differences, Adventists everywhere in the world have held the same doctrines and embraced the same lifestyle. As a group, they have manifested a distinctive personality. The near unanimity in belief and lifestyle practices has been possible because of our adherence to the teachings of God’s Word.
2. Our sense of mission. Accepting Christ’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), we have always understood our reason for existence to be the clear and persuasive proclamation of God's Word within the context of the end time (Revelation 14:6-12). The sending forth of hundreds of missionaries around the world every year and the movement of our workers “from everywhere to everywhere” have been constant reminders to all that our commission is worldwide and the mission of the Church can only be accomplished by a united body of people from all nations of the world.
3. Our unique church polity (the form of organizational structure in the Church). Despite its limitations, the Adventist Church’s unique church structure—uniting local churches, conferences, and unions at the divisions of the General Conference—has not only maintained the stability of the Church, but has also ensured doctrinal unity and purity, and has facilitated the equitable distribution of the resources of the Church for the accomplishment of its mission.
These factors, together with the Lord’s blessings, may explain why the Seventh-day Adventist Church is enjoying an unprecedented growth around the world today.
Threats to Our Church Unity
There are, however, disturbing indications that our unity as a people is being threatened. For example, as apathy and the spirit of Laodiceanism have crept into the Church, there are tensions in some places about our distinctive doctrinal beliefs and practices. Also, as worldly gimmicks and entertainment are gaining inroads into our preaching and worship styles, we are slowly losing our sense of mission. Still, in other places, liberal ideologies as well as conflicts like tribalism, racism, nationalism, and classism (economic, social, or educational), are testing the strength of our organizational unity.
As a result of these and other factors, we are witnessing the increased activities of dissident or offshoot movements. Inspired by both the “independent right” and the “liberal left,” these movements are disrupting the unity within local congregations. As the offshoots of the left and right continue sowing seeds of discord, there is also a real danger of congregationalism (breakaway independent congregations) within the Church’s form of organization. When the spirit of defiance or rebellion goes unchecked, and when these movements are cherished and encouraged at the conference, union, and division levels, there is the additional risk of fracturing our worldwide unity.
Offshoots of the “Liberal Left” and “Independent Right”
In my work Receiving the Word, I explained that the Seventh day Adventist Church is caught in the middle of a crossfire of attacks from the “liberal left” and the “independent right.”
The liberals, often educated and influential, operate within the church structure; the independents, appearing spiritual and orthodox, operate from without by establishing organizations and structures of their own.
Both groups are critical of the Church because they believe that today’s Adventism is not what it should be. So both attempt to “rehabilitate” the Church.
In order to make Adventism “relevant” for this generation, the liberals seek to “liberate” the Church from its alleged fundamentalist doctrines and 19th century lifestyle. In their attempt to bring a “revival” to the Church, the independents desire to “reform” the Church from its ways of “apostasy.” The liberals reinterpret Adventism’s historic doctrines; the independents oppose any tampering with the Adventist pillars.
Regarding lifestyle or conduct, the liberals emphasize love, acceptance, and inclusiveness. The independents stress law, perfectionism, and uniqueness.
When the liberals on the left speak about the Adventist Church, they often seem to see only the independents on the right; and when the independents discuss the Church, one could almost believe that all members of the Church are liberals.
The independent right is often perceived as siphoning off tithe from the Church; the liberal left, which includes many church workers, is paid with tithe money while it often appears to be challenging, if not undermining, the beliefs and practices of the Church.
The independent right destroys church unity by encouraging faithful members to separate from the Church. The liberal left destroys the Church’s unity by remaining in the Church and introducing its counterfeit unity doctrine, a doctrine that allows truth and error to coexist.
The activities of both groups are often encouraged by the silence and indifference of mainstream Adventism.
Although in recent times an effort has been made to inform church members (not always accurately) about the activities of the independent right, little has been done to alert unwary Adventists to the influence of the entrenched liberal left. Ellen G. White stated that, “we have far more to fear from within than from without” (Selected Messages Volume 1, 122). If this applies to our current situation, then the mainstream Seventh-day Adventist Church, caught in the crossfire, should be more concerned about the liberals within than about the independents without.
Inasmuch as liberalism’s spurious doctrine of unity is creating confusion and division in local congregations and threatening the worldwide unity of our church, the remainder of this article will contrast this doctrine with the Biblical one.
Liberalism’s Counterfeit Unity
Satan has a counterfeit for every truth in the Bible (miracles, angels, love, faith, Sabbath, etc.). He even counterfeits our Saviour Himself (Matthew 24:24). So it should not surprise us that, in his plan to deceive, Satan also offers a counterfeit unity as well. The counterfeit unity being promoted by theological liberalism adopts a two fold strategy. First, liberalism teaches that God and all good men are for unity, while the devil and all bad people are for division. Second, it confuses true unity with the absence of conflict or the tolerance of error. Let me briefly respond.
Unity is Not Always Good
Those who followed the 2000 United States presidential election campaign may be familiar with the political slogan, “I am a uniter, not a divider.” Many interpret this slogan to mean unity is always good and division is always bad. Christians who have bought into this concept unknowingly extrapolate this campaign slogan into a belief that God is for unity and Satan is for division.
Those who have embraced this mistaken view of unity blindly support or promote any views or practices that are carried out in the name of unity. Such people will not raise a voice against false ideologies like homosexuality, women’s ordination, liberal higher criticism, questionable worship styles, divorce and remarriage, etc. because it is “divisive” to do so. And isn’t division always bad?
But is this belief correct? Is unity always good and division always bad? Let’s not forget that Satan’s goal is always to deceive. If good people were all for union and bad folks are all for division, or vice versa, would it not make it very easy for people to detect error? If it could be shown that God always unites and the devil always divides would it not be easy to find our way around in this confused and confusing world?
Against this mistaken notion of unity, we must make three brief comments:
1. God is Sometimes a Divider. The first divider was God who at the creation divided the light from the darkness. This division set the direction for all God’s dealings in the natural and spiritual realms. Light and darkness are incompatible. If we try to have both in the same place at once, we attempt the impossible and end by having neither the one nor the other, but dimness rather, and obscurity.
2. Satan is Sometimes a Uniter. Ever since Satan tempted our first parents to partake of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he has always sought to unite that which God Himself had divided. Thus, we read in the Scriptures about how the “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” (Genesis 6:1). We also read how the priests of Judah “put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 22:26).
3. Unity Not Always Good, Division Not Always Bad. Uniting things that should never be united in the first place is never good, even where it is possible. Similarly, the arbitrary division of things that should be united is never right. This fact is not only true in the realm of nature and politics, but especially so in moral and religious realms. To divide what should be divided and unite what should be united require a clear knowledge of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment.
Much blood has been shed in tribal wars in Africa because attempts were made during the colonial era not only to divide peoples of the same nation, but also to forcibly unite tribes and nations that historically never got along. In the same way, there will be confusion in the Church if we attempt to unite truth and error, light and darkness. Unity achieved this way is not unity at all; it is compromise. It is sin. And it can be fatal to one’s salvation.
Let us be careful that in our quest for unity, we don’t attempt to harmonize right and wrong. The apostle Paul writes this in 2 Corinthians 6:14: “what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” Ellen White was emphatic: “Light and darkness cannot harmonize. Between truth and error there is an irrepressible conflict. To uphold and defend the one is to attack and overthrow the other” (The Great Controversy, 126).
Unity is Not the Same as Absence of Conflict
To counterfeit the Biblical teaching of unity, Satan seeks to confuse it with peaceful coexistence of truth and error. Those who have embraced this mistaken view think that unity is putting aside theological differences and pretending they don’t exist or don’t matter. Thus, in some of our churches, there are different Sabbath School classes to allow for different theologies. Pluralism in beliefs and the desire to get along with everyone is confused with true unity.
Proponents and supporters of this counterfeit unity sometimes employ Christ’s parables of the wheat and tares, and of the sheep and goats to teach that the Church has no business in separating the true from the false. To such, anyone who challenges conflicting or erroneous theologies in the Church is “divisive” or “intolerant.”
Two brief comments are in order:
1. Coexistence is not the same as unity. It is true that in the Church today, the wheat grows with the tares, the sheep and the goats coexist, and the farms of the just and the unjust lie side by side in the landscape. It is also true that the hour is coming when Christ Himself will divide the sheep from the goats and separate the tares from the wheat. But while a fruit of unity is harmony, coexistence is not the same as unity.
The question is not about coexistence, but of union and fellowship. The fact that the wheat grows in the same field with the tares does not mean the two should cross pollinate. The fact that the sheep graze near the goats does not mean that the two should seek to interbreed. The unjust and the just enjoy the same rain and sunshine, but shall they forget their deep moral differences and intermarry? The prophet Amos asked this in 3:3: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”
2. Absence of conflict is not the same as unity. Counterfeit unity is popular because it argues that the absence of conflict is evidence of true unity. But this is not necessarily true. Sometimes, striving to uphold true unity, the unity founded on Christ’s Word, inevitably results in conflict and persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We must not purchase unity at the expense of Biblical fidelity. Loyalty to God and faithfulness to His truth are jewels more precious than gold or diamond. For these jewels, men and women have suffered the loss of property, imprisonment and even death.
In the last days of the world’s history, an attempt will be made to enforce this counterfeit unity. Different religions and churches will be united on falsehood, and demand all to follow the path of disobedience. But God’s true followers will not embrace this type of unity. They will choose to separate themselves from the path of disobedience. As someone observed, when confused sheep start over a cliff, the individual sheep can save himself only by separating from the flock. For perfect unity at such a time can only mean total destruction.
The Bible’s Teaching about Unity
The Bible rejects pluralism of belief and practice. It rejects the notion that conflicting or contradictory theological views are legitimate and must be allowed to cohabit in the Church. In contrast to today’s counterfeit unity, the Bible teaches that members of God’s Church should uphold a unity of faith and practice.
Unity of Faith
Doctrinal unity is the teaching that (1) all God’s people should uphold a common faith, and that (2) any new teachings or interpretations purporting to come from God must be in harmony with previous truth communicated to God’s true prophets. In the Old Testament, the unity of doctrine was best captured by the prophet Isaiah: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
The apostles in the New Testament upheld this teaching when they constantly sought to establish their understanding of Christ’s redemptive work by appealing to the Old Testament. The early believers also recognized that the unity that our Lord prayed for (in John 17) is founded on “a common faith” (Titus 1:4, 2 Peter 1:1), “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). In the New Testament Church, this spirit of unity was conveyed in a number of ways.
Believers in the early Church understood that they did not exist as independent congregations, each choosing to go their own separate ways, believing their own different doctrines, and caring only for their own local interests. Rather, they saw themselves as a God’s special commonwealth, comprising Christians in every region of the Roman world.
Sometimes the spirit of unity was done through greetings from church to church (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philippians 4:22). The conveyance of greetings reminded local churches that they belonged to a global network of churches. This spirit of unity was also reflected in the letters of recommendation sent from one church to another or from well known leaders, commending God given teachers to other churches (Acts 18:24-28; Romans 16:1-2; Colossians 4:10).
When, on one occasion, the Corinthians cherished a spirit of independence, the apostle Paul wrote that he had sent Timothy to remind them of “my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17 ESV). He also reprimanded them for their independent attitude: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36 NIV).
In order to preserve the “unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13), the apostles urged believers to uphold sound teaching (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:13) and counteract false teaching and false teachers (1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1, 6; Titus 1:9-11). They occasionally exposed the false teachings of certain individuals (Philippians 4:2-3; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:17; 4:19). Even John, the apostle of love, and Jude, the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, also found it necessary to call attention to those who were departing from the teachings of the apostles (3 John 9-10; Jude). The Christians in Berea were commended for constantly subjecting the teachings of the apostle Paul to the scrutiny of Scripture (Acts 17:11).
It is, therefore, evident that the New Testament believers embraced a unity of doctrine. If they lived in our day, they would reject any proposals for theological pluralism. The apostle Paul was emphatic when he said, “though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).
The above understanding of unity is the theological basis for the Church’s requirement that all Seventh-day Adventists—including our pastors, church leaders, teachers in our institutions, publishers and editors of our church publications—must adhere to all our 27 Fundamental Beliefs. Wherever the Biblical teachings summarized in our Fundamental Beliefs are questioned or challenged, the result is always pluralism in beliefs and congregationalism or offshootism in church polity.
Unity of Practice
The New Testament also teaches that unity of doctrine should not remain at the intellectual level. It also extends to practice as well as in cooperative actions. This is indicated in a number of ways.
For example, the apostle Paul repeatedly pointed the churches to what was going on in other parts of the Roman Empire. He reminded the believers of the common Gospel that brought them together (Colossians 1:6, 23; 1 Timothy 3:16). In the same way, Corinthian believers were to see themselves united “with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” who is both “their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV).
The apostles taught that what happened in other congregations or parts of the world must have their full interest (see 2 Corinthians 9:2 5; Colossians 4:16). They exhorted the believers to participate in all that was being done elsewhere and to accept the guidelines that were offered for all the churches (1 Corinthians 11:16; 16:1-4). “This is the rule I lay down in all the churches,” writes Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:17, NIV), adding, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33 NIV).
Basing themselves on the above theological understanding, Seventh-day Adventists have sought to uphold their worldwide unity through a number ways: reading the same mission stories and reports, giving mission offerings to finance specific projects, and respecting the Church Manual and other church policies that have been agreed upon to govern the operation of the Church at its different levels. Churches that ignore these practices tend to lack a global vision, tend to be inward looking, and tend to be suspicious or disrespectful of our unique system of church governance. The result is always the same: rebellion and gravitation towards offshootism of either the independent right or the liberal left.
Because unity is a Biblical teaching, and because unity among believers is the most powerful witness we can give about Christ, it is not surprising that Satan also has manufactured his own version of unity to confuse and deceive God’s people. It attempts to unite that which God has divided, and divide that which God has united. Advocated by liberals within the Church, this counterfeit unity poses the greatest threat to the Church. For it undermines our doctrinal beliefs and lifestyle practices, our sense of mission, and our unique form of church organization.
This is why Bible-believing Adventists should be concerned about the Biblically questionable ideas and practices that are creating confusion in local churches, splitting others, and threatening our worldwide unity. I am speaking specifically about: (1) the Gospel gimmicks—e.g., Gospel rock, Gospel clowns, Gospel cafés, Gospel magicians, etc.—that are being introduced in some of our churches; (2) the controversial divorce and remarriage decision that was voted into the Church Manual at the 2000 Toronto General Conference session; (3) the unBiblical and rebellious ordinations of women that have taken place in some North American churches; and (4) some of the contemporary worship styles being pushed in certain quarters of our church.
Those who are pushing this liberal agenda are actually dividing our church and threatening our worldwide unity. Yet, based on the doctrine of counterfeit unity, they often accuse anyone opposing the unBiblical practices as being divisive. Can we afford to remain silent when error is being taught and practiced, and when truth is being undermined?
Let’s remember that when powerful secular ideologies undermine the Biblical faith, God views indifference and inaction a crime. This was the sin of Meroz, an Israelite town in Naphtali: “
Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty” (Judges 5:23 emphasis added).
Ellen White makes it plainer when she wrote this:
If God abhors one sin above another, of which His people are guilty, it is doing nothing in case of an emergency. Indifference and neutrality in a religious crisis is regarded of God as a grievous crime and equal to the very worst type of hostility against God (Testimonies for the Church Volume 3, 281).
This article is adapted from Dr. Pipim’s latest book Must We Be Silent?
Excerpts from the book and comments from readers are available at the Berean Books website.
i John Stott, Christ the Liberator (Inter Varsity Press, 1971): 82.
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