There was a time when I valued certain theological debates with other believers. As I’ve grown older and experienced more of the world and more of the gospel, I’ve realized how much greater it is to rejoice in what unites rather than what divides.
My experiences rubbing shoulders with many of different theological stripes while training pastors in Ecuador has only deepened this conviction. I can be plenty different from other brothers who still agree with me on orthodox elements of the faith. If we truly agree on levels of first importance (the authority of Scripture, the gospel, deity of Christ, etc.), secondary issues don’t have to divide or prevent us from fellowship.
I ran across a great example of disagreeing theologically but preserving unity in Theologians on the Christian Life: The Church. It shares the demeanor with which Charles Simeon (a Calvinist) approached John Wesley (an Arminian). While there are important differences between their two theological camps, I’m not of the persuasion heaven will only have one or the other.
Here is their conversation:
Simeon: Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Wesley: Yes, I do indeed.
Simeon: And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Wesley: Yes, solely through Christ.
Simeon: But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
Wesley: No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.
Simeon: Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
Simeon: What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?
Wesley: Yes, altogether.
Simeon: And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Wesley: Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Simeon: Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree.
What a beautiful example of majoring on the majors for the sake of the gospel!
Sadly, I believe the devil sows discord and strife among believers, churches, and denominations when people cling too closely to their identity as an “Arminian” or “Calvinist.” Even this past week, I heard of a denomination threatening to expel members of a certain theological stripe—meaning churches could lose legal status, pastoral salaries, and church buildings. This would greatly hinder the advance of the gospel in this particular country.
My prayer is like that of Christ in John 17: that we be one (John 17:11, 22, 23). Let us strive toward that unity by first and foremost having our identity shaped by the gospel and not differences (within orthodoxy) that divide.