There is a quote on unity that my particular Presbyterian denomination (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) utilizes.
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
This quote has oft been attributed to many different folks ranging from Philip Melancthon to John Wesley and all the way back to St. Augustine. Although all of these men may have said things that sound kind of close to this, our Lutheran friends will probably be excited to know it is more likely from a rather unknown German Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius (the striking man on the left) (see here) in a tract he wrote on Christian unity.
Authorship aside, I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot recently. Over the past few months, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of conversing and “hanging out” (via IRC) with some of the finest Reformed men the internet has to offer. These gentleman have an obsession (and hashtag) with #reformedunity in channel and Twitter. The guys in the IRC channel are a mix of Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians. We find ourselves getting into endless (friendly) debates on the subject of baptism. Presbyterians, being correct, baptize infants, while Reformed Baptists, being wrong, only baptize men and women who make a profession of faith. At the end of the day, whether we’re debating baptism, eschatology, theonomy, or whatever, we always have #reformedunity. We can sit back and know that we have unity where soteriology is concerned. We are all Calvinists devoted to the doctrines of grace. We always find our way back to that.
This idea of #reformedunity inspired a podcast called “Regular Reformed Guys” where the general idea is to bring unity across the Reformed space. There are Reformed folks pitted against other Reformed folks; Reformed circles against other Reformed circles; and we can’t understand why. Why can’t we find unity in Calvinism?
Several other questions have been nagging at me, and I’ve been looking to the above quote for answers, and finding none. Why does it have to be #reformedunity? Why can’t we just have #globalunity? How far should we take this unity thing? What is essential? What is non-essential? Those seem to be extremely subjective ideas. One man’s “non-essential” issue is another man’s gospel issue. What is one man’s essential is another man’s non-essential.
But can we have unity with our Arminian brothers or with our Lutheran brothers? While Calvinism is an essential doctrine to me, other folks’ soteriology are essential to them. How can we then have any kind of unity? In some churches, even eschatology is an essential. How do we find unity outside of our particular denomination or church?
There is no easy answer. Surely, we can lay aside our differences for a period of time, but even then, going out and sharing the gospel regularly will almost always lead to private debate. We all believe we are justified by grace through faith, but our understanding of the order of salvation is different. Arminians claim that you have faith, and then the Holy Spirit regenerates you. Calvinists and Lutherans believe the Holy Spirit regenerates you and then you have faith. The Lutherans tack on that even after regeneration, you can still reject the call of the Spirit, while Calvinists say that if you’re regenerate, you’ll have faith, guaranteed. These massive differences show a difference in gospel understanding. These varying understandings change the way we present the gospel to the unbeliever.
It’s not even always easy to find unity within your own denomination or church. For example, I was asked to teach a few sessions of apologetics to my EPC church’s young adult’s group. While preparing and asking questions to gauge where everybody was, I was somewhat astonished to find that the vast majority of the members of this group were not Calvinists, and that they had never even heard the doctrines of grace (even some of those who had grown up in the church). Since my entire apologetics approach stems from the Reformed camp (Van Tillian Presuppositionalism) and since my entire worldview is Calvinistic, I had to teach a session on Calvinism so that they wouldn’t get confused when I said things like “No matter how much proof you provide, you’ll never persuade anybody unless the Holy Spirit regenerates them.” It was met with a lot of resistance (I remind you, this is in a Presbyterian church). This shocked me because I didn’t know that the EPC (or this church) saw Calvinism as such a non-essential that it’s not even taught to the youth in the church as the official doctrine of the church. I couldn’t cry out for #reformedunity here except for the few who were Calvinists coming into it.
I don’t think we’ll ever (on this side of glory) have full cooperative unity outside of our particular belief structures like we have within them, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. At the end of the day, we need to lean on the last phrase “in all things, charity.” I’m saddened, no… sickened, by the lack of charity I see on the internet from particular high profile folks. Perhaps we won’t have #globalunity any time soon, but that does not mean we need to start insulting, berating, condemning, bullying, etc… folks that we have never even sat down and had a conversation with. We’re so quick to cast judgement based on a 160 character Tweet, or blog post. Listen, we have differences, but we all have some things in common. Maybe we should spend more time with those outside of our camps trying to find unity rather than trying to find differences to argue about. I’m speaking to myself here as well, as I’m prone to get sucked into a debate on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not saying it’s wrong to debate or even argue about differences. Iron sharpens iron. I’m just saying that when we do it, we remember it is a human being made in the image of God on the other side of the computer screen or sitting across from you.
Finally, lets just can this phrase. It is highly subjective. Some people put almost everything into essential, others put almost everything into non-essential. If there is anything we will not find unity on, it is what doctrines are essential. Sure, the Trinity, Christ’s being fully God and fully man, you know, the stuff in the Creeds. But what about those of us who hold to Confessions? Should we put those on the shelf as non-essential in order to find unity? While I appreciate what this quote is trying to portray, I think it oversimplifies the issue. Let’s keep our focus on having charity in all things, even things we disagree on. That’s not saying that we need to bend, twist, or cave on our convictions, rather, it’s saying that we should not assume that if somebody doesn’t agree with us in all doctrines, they are our enemy. If we have unity in the general gospel message that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, then we are brethren. We may have differences, and we may debate them, but at the end of the day, I will embrace you as a brother in Christ.
P.S. Why can’t we all just be Calvinists? It’d make everything so much easier! :p