I have always felt compelled to seek community and build authentic friendships with fellow Christians, first because this is exhortation toward unity is so clear throughout God’s word, but also because my heart deeply craves the connection and refinement such relationships provide. However, even to an extrovert like me, the vulnerability required to cultivate such relationships can sometimes feel arduous or even treacherous.
It is undeniable that some of the deepest wounds in my heart came from fiery indictments made by beloved fellow believers whose passionate disagreements with my own theological perspectives cost me both their trust and their friendship. I felt betrayed, abandoned, and hurt.
And yet I also wonder how many lashes I have dealt as an eager attempt to “stand firm” transformed into an excuse for an untamed tongue. And so it is that we are a broken and fractured body, a church still so very much in need of the grace poured out through Christ, our King.
Oh, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, could this possibly be God’s heart for His people when it comes to the issue of right doctrine? As a mother, at least, my heart says no. Imagine listening in as two of your children engage in a vicious argument with each other over a story from your life prior to their existence and beyond their full understanding.
As you listen to them berate each other, both claiming that the other’s error in understanding will result in their being cast from the family and banished from your love, would it even occur to you to care who was factually correct? Or would your heart break that two people you loved so much could treat each other so horribly? Would any claim of superior knowledge or “defending their faith” about you possibly merit an excuse? If they wanted to know you more, you might wonder, why would they not just come to you and ask?
In the heart of the letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians lies one of God’s most hopeful and explicit exhortations for the unity of all believers. He implores these new Christians, Gentiles at their conversion, to walk with all believers in the body of Christ “…with all humility and meekness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being diligent to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).
As beautiful as these words are to read, the request he was making was no less daunting then than it is now. Into this new church, headed by Christ himself, came Jewish and Gentile believers alike, and a countless number of cultural, ethnic, and faith backgrounds among them. The animosity between many of these groups was centuries deep. Yet God was now calling them all, through Christ’s work, not just into fellowship with one another, but into family together.
The message so perfectly and eloquently delivered in Ephesians 4 is that of a Father admonishing His children that through any magnitude of differences, they are now before all else siblings, holy brothers and sisters, co-heirs through their Christ into an eternal inheritance of life with the God who had stopped at nothing to become their adoptive Father. Children, He says, love one another as I have loved you.
Of course, my own response to God’s perfect request falls far short of the loving, obedient reply of Christ: “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.” It is a more Peter-like, exasperated, “But how?”
How do we practice this admonishment to “be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God has forgiven [us] in Christ” – even in the face of genuine and significant disagreements over God’s Word or even His nature? (Eph. 4:32) How do we, as Christ so perfectly did, “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15)?
Perhaps it is simply the discipline of obedient trust. Our perfect “Abba” would not ask us to do something we cannot, so He does not ask us to reach a doctrinal accord. He simply commands that as we await the unity of faith which we cannot achieve on our own, we do not allow our dissensions to disrupt the unity of the spirit He has given to us. God assures us that if we will let Him, He can bring us into harmony even while we wait for perfect accord.
At the beginning of Ephesians, we find a beautiful and practical example of Paul trusting God in this very way. The church in Ephesus, having whole-heartedly “placed [their] trust in the Lord Jesus” (Eph. 1:15), evidently still knew very little of his God and Father. This would make sense, because unlike Paul, who was raised and expertly tutored in the faith of his Jewish people, the Gentiles only recently came to know Yahweh through their faith in His Son.
How might their inherited traditions and beliefs have filtered their conception of who God was or their willingness to seek Him? It seems that Paul ached for them to come into a more accurate and intimate knowledge of the Father whose love had sent them their Christ.
So how does he approach this desire he holds for them? Does he berate them over their misconceptions or lack of knowledge? Does he question their faith? Does he affirm all perspectives as equally true or hold out his own understanding as the final word?
His inspired words reject the temptation toward any of these responses. Instead, he takes his siblings by their hands and leads them, in prayer, straight to the perfect, loving Father Himself. He prays, “that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him…” (Eph. 1:17).
Even as Paul challenges the Ephesians, even as he yearns for unity of faith with his new spiritual family, he rightly understands that such unity is achieved not by driving doctrines, but only as each member allows himself to be drawn by spirit and truth ever closer into God’s own heart. And so rather than argue or even preach, he chooses to pray over them and to embrace them, fully trusting their faith and their hearts to the God who was the Author and Captor of his own.
So, how ought we approach seemingly irreconcilable differences of doctrines with other believers while keeping the unity of spirit and respecting the integrity of the Word?
Following Paul’s example with the Ephesians, I humbly suggest that we begin by asking God to show us not just the heart of the matter, but the hearts of the believers involved – including our own. God uses our fellow believers to grow and refine us if we let Him.
Next, let us take each other not first to our doctrines, but to our Father through our Advocate Christ Jesus. Let us trust each other to Him in prayer the way Paul entrusted his beloved brothers and sisters at Ephesus. Let us know and believe that we can do nothing apart from him.
Finally, let us not begin and end our discussions in discord or pride, but may we remain rooted together in the blessed assurance of the magnificent, expensive grace in which we all partake. Let us join Paul in his benediction at the end of this exquisite letter, proclaiming humbly, hopefully, and whole heartedly, “Pure grace and nothing but grace be with those who love our Master, Jesus Christ” (Eph. 6:24, The Message).
Then, free to press on together toward the goal of knowing Christ and experiencing the power of the resurrection, letting go of things that are behind and taking hold of things that are ahead, let us await as one united and mature body the return of our King, the perfecting of our faith, and the coming of our eternal inheritance. (Phil. 3:12-15)