|A205 : by Tony Garland |
Your question is something which many believers struggle with. A variation on your question would be something like this: If every believer has the same Holy Spirit and the same Bible how can one explain the differences regarding what they believe the Bible teaches?1
I think the first thing we want to recognize is that within the community of faith, there is a unity on the essentials of the Christian faith. Denying such essentials amounts to heresy and raises the question of whether the person actually has been born of God. So the question really comes down to variations in emphasis and understanding of secondary issues (within orthodoxy).
Unity of Spirit and Faith
I believe Paul's letter to the church at Ephesus offers some helpful insights here, especially two passages from the first chapter:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling . . . 2
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting; . . .3
These two passage seem to emphasize two different aspects of unity. In verse 3, Paul mentions the unity of the Spirit which relates to longsuffering, bearing with one another in love . . . the bond of peace. He goes on to say that there is one body and one Spirit. This unity of the Spirit has to do with all believers having drunk from the same Spirit (1Cor. 12:13). In other words, we already have a unity of the Spirit in that we all believed in Christ when we were born again. He is exhorting the Ephesians to continually forbear with one another maintain a relationship within the household of the faith which recognizes our oneness in Christ.
In verses 11-14 Paul turns his attention to the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry—building up (edifying) the body of Christ. This is clearly a process: till we all come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. It is this unity of the faith which provides protection against winds of doctrine and brings us to Christian maturity. As believers, even though we have (past tense) unity of the Spirit with all other believers—which should be reflected in our patience among the believing community—we are still in the process of developing a unity of faith. The verse says, till we all come to. We are presently involved in an activity leading to a future result of greater unity. This unity of faith does not have in view our basic trust in Christ, but a right understanding of what the Bible teaches.4
In this we find part of the explanation we seek: although, as believers, we are united in Spirit (our placement in Christ when we came to faith), we are still growing by the process of sanctification which leads toward an every greater unity of faith—having an accurate understanding of doctrinal truth and therefore being in agreement. Like any area of sanctification, our progress toward that unity of faith is inhibited by sin. It is sin which prevents those who are already united in the Spirit (believers) from achieving a true unity of faith (belief concerning doctrinal truth in the Scriptures). However, this should not dissuade us from the journey toward unity of belief concerning doctrinal truth because this same problem and challenge attends every area and aspect of sanctification. It is simply part of our growth process as children of God. We know we will never reach complete knowledge of the Son of God and become perfect men until we are glorified and no longer suffer the effects of sin.
Sanctification, Doctrine, and Sin
If the question arises concerning the avenues which sin utilizes to frustrate this process of doctrinal sanctification, there are a number of contributing factors which came to mind. All of these factors have one thing in common: they interfere with the ability of the Spirit, applying God's Word, to bring us further along the path toward the unity of faith which Paul says is our ultimate goal.
As to your last question: what can be done about it? I don't think we can solve the problem—it will be with us so long as we are subject to the presence of sin. The best we can do is: (1) be aware of the issue of sin which precludes obtaining complete unity of faith; (2) become aware of the ways in which sin operates to interfere with our proper understanding of God's revealed truth; (3) realize that we do have unity of the Spirit and therefor a responsibility not to allow differences over secondary issues interfere with our love for those who will also be with us for eternity in heaven.
- Hermeneutics - The way in which we learn to read and interpret the Scriptures is perhaps the biggest single issue which can derail our progress toward a unity of the faith. This is an extremely important area to understand and form convictions upon because it affects how one derives meaning from the text of the Word of God. Since God's Word is the primary tool which the Spirit employs to bring us toward Christian maturity, how one interprets and understands what is written is critical. This also explains why differences in views over secondary doctrines can nearly always be traced back to differences in principles regarding interpretation.
- Where Saved and Raised? - When we come to faith, or shortly thereafter, we are introduced to other believers or a fellowship. When initially saved we tend to imprint with the movement or fellowship within which we are initially raised as newborn believers. During this transition, we cling very tightly to our new found faith among those whom we first find fellowship. This provides some safety initially, but there is a tendency to imbibe every aspect of the particular fellowship or movement into which we were born. Until the process of doctrinal understanding has time to operate in our lives (and depending on how well we apply ourselves to understanding God's Word), we will tend to parrot the views we first learn.5
- Hero Worship - In many cases our experience is one of learning a lot from several key individuals. Relative to our own walk, they seem to know everything about the Scriptures. Thus, there is a tendency to place them upon a pedestal and to develop an allegiance to their teaching which is unbalanced. When confronted with Scriptural truth which runs counter to our spiritual hero, we bend or minimize the truth so we can retain our treasured allegiance.
- Group Think - We tend to feel more secure when we belong to a group. Thus, we may gravitate toward fellowships and other believers which we can more readily identify with. This can be a source of great fellowship and an avenue of true growth. But it can also inhibit our progress if we happen to become comfortable within a group or denomination which elevates a favorite doctrine or viewpoint above the revealed Word of God. In these cases, our personal comfort becomes an enemy of the truth.
- Fear of Man - Wherever men gather together, they tend to form cliques and formalize organizations. Over time, the organizations and their formal structures (including codified beliefs) can become a calcifying element which greatly discourages following the truth wherever it may lead. I'm not talking here about agreement on primary doctrines such as the historic creeds, but where certain practices or views on secondary issues become a litmus test for participation in such an organization. Where the latter occurs, it can become too painful or disruptive to follow truth if it happens to cross the boundary of the organization.6
- Being Pigeon-Holed - Those who are called to teach are often pigeon-holed into areas of specialty. There are a number of reasons why this happens. It may be due to having developing a greater familiarity than others with some aspect of Scripture which remains a hot button within the Christian community (e.g., Calvinism, Arminianism, prophecy, sanctification). As one is called repeatedly to address an area of greater familiarity, it inhibits the necessary time to broaden exposure into companion truths of God's Word which can then be neglected. For example, as a dispensationalist, I'm frequently the recipient of questions related to Israel, the nature of the Church, the nature of the kingdom, and prophecy in general. Ministering to these questions due to ongoing confusion within the Church community at large leaves less time than I'd prefer for growing in an understanding of many other areas of God's Word. Time spent in defense and damage control leaves less time to move forward offensively in our growth in broader doctrinal truth.
- Limited Time and Abilities - Each of us has limited time and abilities. No one person is able to obtain the same understanding of all elements within God's Word. The Scriptures are a vast panorama of information and subjects and our limited resources are puny in relation to what God has revealed. Thus, we have to live with areas of less understanding knowing that although we are on the road to unity of the faith we won't ever arrive there until we are taken up (whether alive or at death).
|1.||Individual translations may vary in their preference for Greek manuscript family and rendering into our native tongue, but the doctrinal content is essentially identical.|
|2.||NKJV, (Eph. 4:1-4)|
|3.||NKJV, (Eph. 4:11-14)|
|4.||Because the phrase unity of the faith mentions faith, many Christians assume Paul must be talking about the faith — belief in Christ: salvation. However, he appears to be referring to belief in relation to an accurate understanding of the truths of God.|
|5.||In my case, I was born-again in a church which held to a preterist view of eschatology and believed Holy Spirit baptism (with evidence of speaking in tongues) was a second work beyond salvation. I've come to reject both of those views through the study of Scripture.|
|6.||This is especially difficult for believers who are women. One of the great blessings and gifts of the female gender is a recognition of the importance of relationship. However, when following truth leads to disagreement, the resultant stress can be very difficult for the woman—often the wife of someone called as a teacher in the body of Christ.|
|NKJV||Unless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.|