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That's a Good Question

Navigating the Thorny Path of Church Unity: What Really Matters?

September 19, 2023

Jon Delger


Nate Harney

JonHey everyone, welcome to That's a Good Question, a podcast of Peace Church. This is a place where we answer questions about the Christian faith in plain language. I'm Jon, I serve as one of the pastors here at Peace, and I get to serve also as the weekly host of this show. And we're excited to launch this new year, new season of That's a Good Question. We want to reach people and help them grow in their knowledge of the Bible and their walk with the Lord. We think a great way to do that is by answering people's questions about the faith. We also think the best way to do that is through a podcast, so people can listen while they're at work, on their way to work, all that kind of good stuff, and there will be video clips available of some select parts of this, and I am here today with Pastor Nate.

NateHey, everyone. I'm also one of the pastors at Peace Church, and it's a pleasure to be here, Jon. Yes, sir. We're gonna have some fun. We have some questions to talk about. The first big question we're gonna launch off with this. What is unity, specifically in the church?

Question #1: What is unity, specifically in the church?

JonWhat do you think, Pastor Nate?

NateWell, what it is, and we've just been talking about this and focusing on this, is when we're aligned, aligned in what we believe, aligned in our mission, aligned in what we feel called to do as a church body. And Pastor Ryan just challenged us with, it's not just being in the same building or just generally being around each other, loving one another, serving one another, truly being part of a community together. So that's a little bit what church unity is and then I think of it...

JonSo, what you're saying is that if we disagree about something we should just get over it and love each other, it doesn't matter.

NateI wish it was that easy because there's kind of two extremes, I think, with church unity. There's unity at all costs, and that's kind of what you're alluding to, is just saying, hey, regardless of what we believe or how we act, for the sake of the unity of the church—and I think some people with well-intentioned belief that for the sake of our testimony as a church, let's just be unified at all costs. But we know that's not true unity. You can label it that, but just because you call it unity, it isn't that, because you're not unified if you actually don't believe the same things and if you're not actually on the same page. But then there is the opposite extreme, and I think the especially the modern Protestant evangelical church, what we're accused of more than many other things, is that we're so specific on our beliefs that we've totally thrown church unity out the door and we'll break up and split up and just splinter based on the smallest things. The joke is always they disagreed on what color carpet they want on the worship center, so they started two new denominations. I think that's very much exaggerated, but there is some truth to the fact that after the Reformation and the major Protestant and Catholic split, that the Protestants started kind of getting in that mode where it's like, okay, if we can't come to terms on something, if we can't be unified, then we just divide. Divide and divide and divide. So what is that middle ground of unity? That's crazy. And now with non-denominational churches, I mean, there's way more differences than that. If you don't have one of the 600 that you like, you just become an independent church, and then you can have your own specific set.



JonTo piggyback this on that, or to tie off even just the idea of unity, having to be around what we believe also so I think of some of the things that scripture says about that I think of a passage that you and I are gonna get to preach soon talks about the unity of the faith and Ephesians 4 think of other passages that talk about Like-mindedness or being of the same mind scripture talks frequently about that's imperative for Christians Real unity comes from shared beliefs about God's Word Shared faith and what God says about about salvation about sin about reality. That's where true Christian unity comes from. I think especially in our area in West Michigan, there happens to be a lot of folks with a lot of family ties. I think family ties and just our culture lends us towards, let's just sweep some things under the rug and let's just get along and not worry too much about what we believe. But real church Christian unity is built around the Bible as the foundation.

NateAbsolutely. And that's that's kind of as we're exploring that middle space of what does it mean to have true unity? You brought up the central. I think the foundational thing is your views on the Bible of do you really believe in God's Word? Is it authoritative? Is it inspired? Is it sufficient? Is it inerrant? That's kind of the most foundational thing But once you start to get into more specific questions than that, that's where I think it can get really tricky. I, in fact, was a part of a church one time where the pastoral team there would often say there are no secondary or tertiary issues. If it has to do with the Bible, it's all primary. And so that lead pastor, I remember specifically one week, he said, I wish we could do more in partnership with other churches, but we've never been able to find another church that we can partner with in any way, because we've never found another church that has all the exact same beliefs and the exact same practice that we do. So that was definitely an extreme case, but there's that. I don't want to start to interrupt.


So would that pastor think that that church is the only one that will be in heaven then?


No, that's another complexity, another layer, because if that was the case, I wouldn't have even attended that church for any amount of time. What ended up happening is they had a refugee ministry that I was involved in, and so I ended up staying there longer than I probably would have. But they definitely didn't say all these other churches don't understand salvation or they don't understand the faith enough, but for them partnership meant we agree on all aspects. So with them feeling comfortable formally putting their name together with another church, in their mind, they wanted to be unified on every single matter, even the smallest minutiae. For Peace Church, an example of how that practically plays out, is we pray for other churches in our area every week. And we pray for churches that we don't have all the exact same theological understanding as. We pray for our local Baptist church down the street, First Baptist, and we're actually, you especially are great friends with their lead pastor. Oh yeah. And we partner with them. I think... He's a great man who loves the Bible, loves the Lord, preaching the gospel. We have some things that we don't see eye-to-eye on that are in Scripture, but those are secondary, tertiary issues. Yeah. So you would say there is such thing as a secondary issue. I would say that, yeah, definitely. What would be something that you would say isn't a primary issue, is secondary? So it's still important, but it's not something you'd be willing to say, or you would say, we're not going to partner with those churches. What are some examples of disagreement?

JonRight. So since we're already talking about one of the easy ones I think is baptism. So I even went to a Baptist seminary and yeah, we're a Reformed church. We baptize babies. We believe in covenant theology. We believe strongly in that. I won't give you the whole spiel here, but we teach that at different times about why we believe that God calls us to treat the family as a covenant family and baptize children. But I would see that as a secondary issue and we're happy to partner with churches that see differently on that. In fact, I think a lot of the churches we do stuff with do see differently on that issue. So, that's one. Yeah, so view of the end times. So, even within our church, we would say there are some key things that we say, yeah, we all need to agree on some of these key aspects of end times. But we have, even amongst our own pastors, have different perspectives on what the so-called millennium will look like, and we don't even have a total alignment on all that, because we think there is openness there. We don't think, we think it's okay to not have Revelation 100% nailed down every piece of how that's going to work out.

NateYeah. That's interesting. And so what, just what would be a couple of primary issues, Jon, where you would say, if a church has a different view than us, we're not going to do an event with them, but we're not going to pray for their blessing on a Sunday and for them as partners in Kingdom ministry, because they're not partners. What would be some of those primary issues, besides believing the Bible is God's Word?

JonYeah, the Gospel. So if they don't preach that Jesus lived, died, rose again, that that really happened and that happened in order to save people from sin and give them eternal life, then we would not be, we're not on the same team, right? We're not preaching the same message. We preach that gospel. Then I think some of the cultural issues of our day rise to that level. Things like sexuality. If there's a church that's affirming of same-sex behavior, we say that Scripture is pretty clear about that. We love those people. We hope that they turn from their sin to Jesus and receive salvation and walk with Jesus, but we don't affirm that. The Bible is pretty clear that it doesn't affirm that behavior. And so a church that's saying, this is good, this is in fact from God, is the opposite of what we're saying. And so we wouldn't pray for the Lord's blessing on them. We pray for the Lord to work in their hearts and maybe turn them from their ways. Similar gender ideology, I kind of put all that in the same category, same basket.

NateAnd fundamentally, from the examples you're sharing, what I'm hearing is that ultimately it does come down to whether or not they see the Bible as God's word and obey as God's word. to have a different view on it is ultimately to have a different view of the scriptures, not as authoritative, not as inspired from God. Whereas when you bring up some of the nuances we might have on end times or our exact interpretation, maybe even on some of the finer details of creation and a perspective on that, where there is some gray area that we're trying to figure out, we're trying to navigate, those primary issues are crystal clear and foundational in Scripture.

JonRight. The more clear Scripture is, the more there ought to be agreement. The issues where there's a little bit less clarity, like baptism, for example. Again, we believe it's clear, but we also see that there is ambiguity there, and we understand that, and I think I have tons of friends that are Baptists, and we give each other a hard time about that sometimes, just in fun. But we believe that there's enough ambiguity in the scripture there that we can both be faithful Christians who are seeking to follow the Bible, and yet we see these things a little bit differently.

NateYou had some fun, specific questions that we could talk about about unity. Yeah, I know that have left the Protestant faith or the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church some of the guys I went through ministry training with and I've had people challenge me especially the guys who are in the Catholic Church of why is the Protestant Church not trying to make an effort to become reunified with the Catholic Church. So as a… Wait, are we not the same anymore? We tried to reform them. We tried our best. But Pastor Jon, if someone was to ask you, as a pastor in a Protestant church, and particularly in a Reformed church that still, you know, in certain ways and certain practices, to the outside onlooker, might look more Catholic in a couple of their practices or more similar to the Catholic Church, are you actively thinking through how we get reunited with the Catholic Church or not?

JonThat's a great question. So I'm so glad that you thought of it and brought it up right before we started this. So obviously I had tons of times to prepare a great answer for this question. It's the most historical question of church unity, I think. It goes back a long ways. And what it comes down to is the doctrine of justification, what Martin Luther said, the church stands or falls on this doctrine. So in the 1500s, the reformers, Martin Luther, guys like him, realized that the Catholic Church had drifted from what the Bible teaches about the basic, clear, core gospel about Jesus living, dying, and rising, and doing so to take away our sins perfectly and completely by grace and not by any contribution of our own. So that had kind of been lost and drifted away from. And so that's the key distinction between Protestants and Catholics.

Now I want to just be quick to say, if anybody's listening and you might be saying, well, I grew up Catholic and I don't see it that way, or I've got friends who are Catholic and don't see it that way. It's true that there are people who are worshiping, going to Catholic churches week in and week out and actually do understand the true biblical gospel, but if they do so, it's actually not in alignment with the teaching, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is a combination between grace and works, between what Jesus has done and what you do through doing the sacraments, through doing different things that your priest says, through going through repentance by confessing your sins to a priest, all those kind of things. It's a grace plus works system. And the Roman Catholic Catechism is even fairly honest about that. That's what it is. And so, so that's the thing. So now we're not looking for reunification except on those terms. I mean, that's the thing is if, if the Catholic Church decided one day to come to the Protestants and say, you know what, we, after much study and prayer, we actually agree with you on these things, then hey, we'd be glad to reunite. But that's the core thing that separates the Protestants and the Catholics. And so until that changes, we can't look for a reunification. Right.

There is no unity if you're not unified on what is fundamentally true. And so even if we were to somehow say, hey, we're going to consider ourselves a part of the Catholic Church, or they were going to say we consider ourselves Protestant, if one of us didn't adjust our view on justification, it wouldn't be true unity anyway. So fundamentally, we are at a bit of a, we're in between a rock and a hard place where we're not moving on our view of justification, neither are they. Right. So it seems like. And it's been there for a long time now. It's been going for a while. Yeah. Maybe though a miracle will change and a pope will come in and say, hey, we've gotten this wrong all the way. Yeah. But we don't see that happening anytime soon. Right. Right. Yeah. Interesting. We do have plenty of people that come who grew up in a Catholic background and they come and they say, man, we've, you know, we're hearing what you guys have been preaching. We're studying the Bible. We're seeing some things that are different from what we grew up with and we're taught and we're so excited to get to hear the gospel and walk with Jesus with you guys. And we're so thankful for that.

NateYeah. It's a shame because I think you'd look great in a tall pointy hat and robe. So I think you'd really rock the outfit. So too bad we can't. They do have much cooler robes than ours. That's cool.


NateYeah. Any other unity issues you can think of?

JonOh man, you brought up another great one earlier that I think we should talk about. Yes, question of, so we've talked about this primary versus secondary issues, and there's one tricky one that I think has been talked about for the last couple of decades about where is it? Is it primary? Is it secondary? What is it? And that is the question of gender roles. Complementarianism and egalitarianism are the official terms for the positions, but what you believe about what the Bible teaches about men and women and their roles in the home and in the church. So, Pastor Nate, what do you think? Is that a primary issue, a secondary issue?

NateWell, part of the reason I've brought it up to you before is, in a season where I was working for a non-profit, I didn't even think about this, but it worked with a lot of different denominations and a lot of different churches, and I am complementarian, and I quickly found myself working with a lot of female pastors. And so I had to really think through what is honest for me to say because fundamentally, even though for some people they could take this as real personal and as offensive, I don't have a biblical category for a female pastor. I don't think the Bible has a category for it. That's not to diminish at all who they are as a person, certainly not to diminish their value as being made in the image of God and the specific gifts that God has equipped them and the specific missions that God has called them to. But as I read the scriptures, I don't see a category for female pastors. So how do I interact with a modern day female pastor as I try to partner with them to accomplish the Great Commission?

I wish I could say I found a really clear, really easy answer, but for me, fundamentally, I realized that that wasn't sustainable for me to work in that environment long-term. Because while I didn't think it was an issue of salvation, I certainly thought it goes back to that fundamental question of how are we reading it through a timeless lens where we say, God, what are you trying to say to us, even when it's hard, and even when it doesn't line up with my modern understandings of culture and how things should work, versus just saying, hey, do you know what, times have changed, so I'm going to read into this through the lens of our modern culture, and I'm going to adapt what God's Word says to fit with my worldview instead of adapting my worldview to God's Word. And so for me, it didn't work. It just didn't function for me long term.

So I wouldn't see myself partnering closely with an egalitarian church, I think we can be unified in some basic tenets of the gospel, if by gospel we're a gospel-centered church, one of the things we mean by that is we are biblical. We follow the Bible. And so that is one of those tensions. I don't think there's an easy answer. I think each individual has to decide for themselves, but what I've decided for myself that says too much about what they believe about scripture and ultimately, I believe, the path that they're heading down. Because I have found in my experience that most people I see transition to an egalitarian worldview, that path eventually leads to embracing the modern sexuality and gender, and then eventually just kind of an entire dismissal of the Bible as the authoritative, inspired, and errant Word of God. A lot of times that process is slow, and it doesn't always lead there. I have a good amount of friends who are egalitarian and who don't embrace an unbiblical view of sexuality or gender or of other issues, but that's just the trend I've seen, in my experience.

JonYeah. So, yeah, short story for us at Peace Church, you know, the position that we hold is that God created men and women equal in value and yet distinct in role. So you highlighted that earlier by saying we're made equally in God's image, we're equal in value, and yet we have different roles. We look at passages like Ephesians chapter 5, we look at 1 Timothy, we look at different passages in Scripture that point to the different roles that God has designed for men and women. And ultimately, the whole Bible, starting with Genesis 1 and 2, just this distinction between men and women are not the same. God created them equal in value, and yet they're different. And that plays out in different ways in the home and the church. So much I want to say about everything that you just said. So primary and secondary issues, too. So this has been, you know, you referenced the idea of, is it a salvation issue or not? People have brought that kind of language to me before. Well, Pastor Jon, it's not a salvation issue. Well, in the sense that a Complementarian and Egalitarian can both believe in the gospel and be saved, that's absolutely true. And yet, we don't want to just sort of live by this minimum. We don't want to be minimalist Christians that say, well, I just want to get it right enough to get into heaven. We want to listen to and obey all of the Bible. So, yeah, so yes. Can you be saved on both sides of this issue? Absolutely. But we want to be as faithful to the Bible as we possibly can.

NateAnd I could see the primary critique if somebody's looking at how I handle this and say, so you're the arbiter of what a primary and secondary issue is ultimately. If for you the difference is what's clear and black and white in Scripture versus where there's some gray area or room for honest interpretation, ultimately you're saying that you're your own arbiter for what's primary and secondary. And I'll say two things. Number one, there is a little bit of truth to that, where I understand that somebody might say, look at Revelation and say, I think that's as clear as interpreting the basic tenets of the gospel. I think it's so obvious that it's this specific view, and we would agree to disagree on that. But I do also think there is some objectivity here. There are a couple things that are just so clear in Scripture that as you're listening to someone try to defend a position that they're saying isn't clear in scripture, but it really is, you'll just start to watch them do these biblical gymnastics, and they'll start to explain this verse actually means the opposite of what it says, and so does this verse, and so does this verse, and this, you know, at this point where you go, this doesn't seem like it's a confusing gray area. It just seems like you don't like what the Bible is clearly saying.

And so there is a little bit of subjectivity to what is primary, what is secondary, but I think if we're honest with ourselves and we're honest with the scriptures, we know. And the best story I can think of to tell that is I had a friend in high school who after we graduated, he had grown up actually in the Catholic Church, but we ended up going out to grab lunch, and he shared with me that he felt that he was a homosexual and that his intention was to live a homosexual lifestyle. And I asked him how he thought that, how did he remedy that with his Catholic faith, and I just actually really appreciated his honesty. He said, you know what, I've looked at the Bible. I think the Bible is clear that it says homosexuality is a sin and he said Therefore along with living a homosexual lifestyle. I'm also walking away from any Shred of faith that I did or didn't have at any time because that I don't agree with what the Bible says here and I've actually always gone back to that with a lot of appreciation because even though we completely disagreed on that, because I think the Bible is God's word and is the only authority that we can fully rely on in our modern crazy world where everything's changing all the time, but we totally agreed that the Bible was clear on what it taught.

JonAnd that's the- A sad place he landed in, but he got there by honest, an honest looking at the Bible. Absolutely. So I think it's not as gray always as some people would have us think what's primary and what's secondary and I would add to that to the the history of interpretation is worth looking at History is not infallible like the Bible is but It's one thing to say I think it's I think it's worth realizing that some of the things that are being said now, what they're actually saying is, I disagree with what everybody has said about the Bible for 2,000 years. You know, it's just worth, like, realizing that. You know, history doesn't always get it right, but when you're saying, my generation now thinks something that the last 2,000 years of Christians didn't, and we think we're right and they've always been wrong, you just gotta say, wait a minute, let's just think about that for a little bit. I think that's a helpful way to look at it, too. So cool. Awesome.

Well, brother, thanks for the conversation. Thank you. Thanks for talking. Thanks, everybody, for listening. Great to be with you today. Have an awesome rest of the week. Check this podcast out wherever you get podcasts and be sure to share with a friend. Bye!

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