This little essay focuses on just a few paragraphs from an article about Christian unity. That is one of those concepts that almost everyone favors, but almost no one can explain in terms that go beyond vague generalities. Let’s think about all this using a recent example as our springboard. That example is:

“Gradations of Unity”
Christian Standard, May1, 2023
Tyler McKenzie

McKenzie’s article has a long illustration as an introduction. We will skip that part and move directly to his few paragraphs on unity. The goal, he says, is “community with a loyal, knotted, caring, transcendent unity in something beyond us.”

One approach to “unity” that has been very popular lately is that unity is achieved by separating doctrine into some scheme of categories. Some of these categories are then seen as barriers to unity.

McKenzie is offering his version of this general approach. He offers “three simple steps” to this community of unity. These are not really “steps.” Instead, McKenzie presents three categories of what he calls “beliefs.” His categories are presented as “concentric circles.” The first one is “beliefs to die for” (emphasis in the original, here and following) which are “essential beliefs of our faith.”

The next category is “beliefs to divide over.” These, he says, are “core beliefs we see as clearly attested to by Scripture but which denominations have split over because interpretations can vary.”

Next come “beliefs to debate.” Here are “beliefs which are ambiguous enough to not break fellowship over but which still should be wrestled with.”

Finally we come to “beliefs to delight in.” These he calls “recreational theology.” I suppose these are beliefs we are allowed to simply play with, whatever that might mean.

Let’s analyze these categories. One bit of ambiguity is the labeling. McKenzie talks about “beliefs.” People can believe (in the sense of accept as true) all sorts of things. But what happens if we substitute “Biblical teachings” for “beliefs”? Are there some Biblical teachings that are “recreational”?

McKenzie seems to think that at least some of these “beliefs” are conclusions about what the Bible teaches, or “attested to by Scripture” as he puts it. He has some that cannot be compromised. He appears to be saying that if you don’t accept these (whatever they are), then you really are not a Christian. His next category takes in matters that, while differing here would not exclude you from Christianity, McKenzie is willing to “divide” from you if you do not accept them. Then come matters that we can continue to debate but not cause us to divide. His last category seems to be matters that just don’t matter.

As tidy as these little labels and their categories are, they are rather pointless without some idea of what goes where. McKenzie’s only conclusion is, “Our churches must do the hard work of prayerfully discerning what goes where.” That is, of course, the $64,000 question. (With inflation, that is probably at least the $640,000 question these days.) And if McKenzie is serious about this, how could we ever have any certainty about what goes where unless perhaps God revealed that to us. Things are beginning to look ridiculous here.

But no matter what McKenzie might think goes into these categories, this nifty little set of categories has another background problem of all such approaches. It necessarily implies that there are things the Bible teaches but that either we simply cannot understand, or that if we can understand them, they just don’t matter much. Even though he does not explain it, something has to make McKenzie’s categories become less important as he moves to the outer rings of his circles. There has to be a problem with that kind of thinking. Did God reveal some unimportant things? Did God try to communicate with us, but simply fail?

Consider again circle two. These are, according to McKenzie, “clearly attested to by Scripture but which denominations have split over because interpretations can vary.” If they are, in fact, “clearly attested to by Scripture” then how is it that “interpretations can vary.” Are some “interpretations” simply incorrect? We have to assume McKenzie thinks so, but it would be nice if he had tried to explain this even briefly.

So this scheme, while it might sound very tidy and helpful on the surface, really says almost nothing concrete. As McKenzie admits in the very next paragraph, “I will admit, it can sometimes get gray on which issues go where. However, most of what we are fighting over are not circle-one issues.” But if even McKenzie is “gray” on which issues go where, then how can he be so sure that “most of what we are fighting over are not circle-one issues”? We have been given a lot of nicely-labeled circles but almost no idea of what to do with them because we don’t know what goes into each circle. That is not very helpful.

But now our author is ready to apply his vague and nearly meaningless scheme. He says, “The problem is that too many people are sending others to hell over the issues found in circles two, three, and four. . . most of what we are fighting over are not circle-one issues. They may be serious issues, but they are not unforgiveable or damnable.”

It is not quite clear the full context into which McKenzie is saying all this. The one hint he gives comes when he talks about, “our churches.” So it appears this is directed at congregations of Christian churches. He seems to be saying that there are a lot of churches where certain non-circle-one matters are considered “unforgiveable or damnable.”

Individual experience is always limited, of course. But I have been heavily involved in at least eight congregations in my life, and I am familiar with the workings of several more. In none of these was anyone ever “damned” or even seriously questioned for holding a belief – any belief. One congregation had an elder who taught Sunday School. In the course of his class, he revealed that he did not believe that Jesus was God. He was a very nice fellow, and a friend of mine. I spoke to him about it, and he did receive my questions well. But he was not even asked to stop teaching Sunday School over that, let alone did anyone condemn him for it. Surely that was something that McKenzie would consider to be of the first circle of beliefs – at least we hope it would.

Near the end of the article, McKenzie has a short section sub-titled “Love Those with Whom We Disagree.” In that section he says, “I have lots of difficult conversations about biblical matters that I know will end in disagreement.” It would be nice to know what kinds of Biblical matters he has in mind here. But from everything we have seen, the worries of McKenzie are directed at the wrong end of the situation.

Not only do churches today tend not to address beliefs in circles two, three, and four, they often don’t even address matters in circle one. (And again, we are not quite sure what is supposed to go where in this mapping.) The problem today is not churches condemning and excluding people over Biblical teaching that is rejected. The problem is that churches often go out of their way to simply not address these matters in any way.

The lack of love most often seen in churches of the twenty-first century comes from being unwilling to confront people about anything they believe. If you “love Jesus” (and you get to define just what that means) that is all and that is enough. Any content to that beyond just “being nice” doesn’t exist in the view of far too many Christians and churches.

McKenzie’s short conclusion begins with the sub-title “Keep the Gospel of King Jesus Central.” Yes, we should do just that. The problem is that, in our culture of radical self-defined individualism, people tend to think that it is their prerogative to decide what is in the gospel of Jesus, and which things in that gospel are important and which things are not. In fact, McKenzie has come dangerously close to doing that himself.

The Jesus of the Bible once prayed to the Father, (John 17:17) “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” He said the teaching of the Apostles would consist of the Holy Spirit taking further teaching of Jesus (which was from the Father), and making it known to the Apostles. (John 16:14-15)

What is curiously absent from anything Jesus said about His teaching, or His further teaching through the Apostles, is a set of circles defining which things are more important, and which things are less important. God doesn’t say something and then tell us that it is really not all that important. That is a straightjacket that has been imposed on the word of God, sometimes by people writing about unity.

People, even and especially people in churches, do not need to be told that some parts of the Christian faith are not all that important. They are (regrettably) becoming more and more willing to accept that. We instead need to remind ourselves that everything God says is highly important. One way we can love people is to remind them of this and help them better understand it.

By Harold Orndorff

Director Of Operations at Christian Bible Institute at the Christian Restoration Association Board of Trustees, Christian Restoration Association Columnist for The Restoration Herald Campus Minister Challenge Unlimited/Christian Student Fellowship Sep 1982 - May 2016 Director and minister for a campus ministry at Northern Kentucky University Adjunct professor at Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary 1983-2001

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