Must someone believe properly before they can belong or should we allow them to belong in order that they (we?) might come to believe properly? Should we err on the side of exclusion or inclusion? Doctrinal purity or Christian unity? Believe and then belong or belong and then believe?

  • “I think we should err on the side of inclusion,” says one.

The statement hangs ominously in the air. Given our present state of thinking the very thought borders on heresy. “Who is in? Who is out? Who has it right? Who has it wrong?” These seem to be the pressing questions, especially since the advent of the printed page, the Reformation, and the elimination of all religious authority except individual conscience.

  • “Including someone who is in error is unthinkable; and since so many are in error these days prudence dictates erring on the side of caution (exclusion),” says another.

The statement has its logic. Scripture is replete with warnings against “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” False teaching is a real danger to God’s people. The result? to have it wrong—on almost any “religious” issue—immediately relegates one to the outside and creates yet another Christian Denomination.

But, unity is an ideal, a utopian vision, an impossible-to-attain goal for which we must always be striving. As impractical as unity among Christians may be, it is STILL something very close to the heart of Jesus. Unity among believers is something we must at least consider and reflect upon.

And so let’s go back to the ideal again; let’s lower our defenses long enough to at least consider the Utopian Land of Christian Unity.

Scripture—the New Testament—clearly outlines two broad categories of “false teaching” (not all religious mistakes qualify as false doctrine).The two categories of false teaching identified in the New Testament are:

  • Those Who Deny the Supernatural Nature of the Good News. The first group (ancient Gnostics) denied the divine nature of Jesus as the Son of God. In a dualistic universe Spirit and Matter do not mesh, cannot intertwine, and will never come together. In other words, the incarnation is impossible. Do we have those today who deny the Deity of Christ? Sure do. Should we overlook their error and include them with no further discussion? I don’t think so. The apostles would not have (See 1 John, Colossians, etc.)
  • Those Who Deny the Sufficiency of the Good News. The second group (Legalists, for lack of a better term) denied the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death. In a human-centered universe God eliminates past sins but from there on out it is up to human beings. Once God wipes the slate clean, we must go on to attain religious perfection, doctrinal purity, and moral virtue. In other words, believing that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to believing yet still sinful human beings is heresy. Do we have those today who require more than obedient faith in Christ to remit sins? We sure do (in fact, many of them within our own fellowship!) Should we overlook their error and include them with no further discussion? I don’t think so. The apostles would not have (See Romans, Galatians).

In addition to being doctrinally incorrect, both of these extremes produced undesirable lifestyles. The Gnostics could be perversely immoral. The Legalists could be offensively self-righteous. Again, both of these show up in every generation and must be dealt with by God’s people.

For us living in North America in the 21st century, there is a massive-and-still-growing group in the middle of all these extremes. They immerse adult believers but think that salvation occurs sometime before immersion. They live admirable, Christ-centered lives but believe something different than we do about the Holy Spirit. What are we supposed to do with these believers? In practice we often exclude (err on the side of caution) and ask questions later. The tragedy is that once exclusion is implemented the conversation ends, the journey together terminates, and the hope of growing together vanishes.

What will God the only judge do with these sincere followers of Jesus on the Day of Judgment? Most of us (I pray) honestly answer that we do not know. What if (we’re in that Utopian World of Ideal Make Believe) instead of excluding we included them in our conversation about these difficult issues? What if, instead of labeling and isolating, we walked together on some level with these Truth Seekers—at least with the caveat that we had some fundamental differences of opinion on some extremely important issues? What if we included and worked together toward a resolution rather than making adversaries out of them? Would the nature of God be better reflected? Would the heart of Jesus be better expressed? Would Christian Unity move a little closer toward reality?

Tough but necessary questions.