St. Paul teaches that the Church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12ff.). Christ is not divided (1 Cor 1:13), nor should any division be found in His Church. As the Psalmist declares, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psa 133:1). Unfortunately, theological and personal divisions between Christians abound. This sad reality is acknowledged in the Church’s beloved Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:
O Come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace
Satan has two favorite ways of creating disunity among Christians. His preferred option is to convince us to overlook or minimize theological error in the name of “love.” A curse on “love” that is observed at the expense of pure doctrine! False theology is Satan’s greatest weapon against the Church. All too often Christians turn a blind eye to false teaching (especially perhaps when it’s unintentional), not wanting to be seen as causing division or to risk hurting someone’s feelings. But the problem of disunity stems first of all from the existence of error, not with the person who names the error (though how this is handled can certainly make matters worse! See below). As careful as we must be to avoid giving offense, it is eternally more dangerous and unloving to let a brother or sister persist in false theology than it is to confront it.
Satan has been very successful in implementing what has become a common attempt to “reconcile” theological differences. This is the “weasel-creed”, which features lowest-common denominator language so that everyone can believe what they like under the guise of unity. Such an approach cares nothing for God’s Word. Where unity is desired without first reaching theological agreement, it is better to be upfront and admit this than to compose weasel-creeds. Satan likes the weasel-creed because it gives its confessors a false sense of unity while allowing error to persist. Where differences are swept under the rug or go unacknowledged, theological unity is not possible.
Sadly, Christianity is plagued with a great deal of theological disunity. The vast difference between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran church on an issue as fundamental as Christology has been brought to the forefront once again by the recent election of Pope Francis. In his opening remarks to the Catholic faithful, he not only failed to mention Jesus, but rather said, “Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome.”
St. Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “But even we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Instead of challenging the pope’s remarks, many Christians (even non-Catholics!) have instead offered wholesale blessing on his ministry, despite his false doctrine. Jesus is our only advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1, 1 Timothy 2:5), not Mary. Asking Mary to watch over Rome (or anywhere else, for that matter) is a gross form of idolatry. As Psalm 46 begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In her Magnificat (Luke 1:46—55), even the Blessed Mother of our Lord gives all credit and glory to God her Savior (Luke 1:47), acknowledging her lowly estate (Luke 1:48—49, 52—55). Our desire for unity—which is a godly desire—cannot cause us to turn a blind eye to serious theological differences such as this.
Sometimes I hear people object to all of this “theological strictness”, instead preferring to focus on making the world a better place. As with most error, there is an element of truth here. We should note that doing good things in the world is a godly desire. However, this should not cause us to miss the Satanic lie contained in this approach. To ignore or minimize theological concerns in favor of a “social gospel” destroys the Gospel entirely. For the Gospel is first of all about God’s love for us, not about our love for one another. The appeal of “deeds, not creeds” is that it bypasses Christianity entirely while still maintaining the appearance of religiosity. All that is important in this view is what we do. Belief in “god” is secondary, if it is considered important at all. When our acts of love (deeds) are seen as more important than God’s love for us (creeds), the Gospel is destroyed and we are left with blatant works-righteousness. Nothing makes Satan happier than when people believe this.
Satan’s first approach is always to try to destroy the unity of the Church by attacking Her theology, via blatant false doctrine. If he can’t get us to pray to Mary, he’ll try to get us to hold unionistic prayer vigils in the name of compassion or sneak poor/false theology into our churches through Reformed praise songs or into our homes via programs like The History Channel’s “The Bible.” On top of all this, he’ll try to convince us that theology doesn’t really matter (via weasel-creeds or the social gospel). In these matters, Satan has an all-star batting average. 3.2 million people tuned in for the premiere episode of “The Bible.” One church in my town is running a full-fledged marketing campaign for the series, which includes mailings, large banners in front of their building, and community viewings.
But it’s not like Satan gives up when Christians refuse to compromise or minimize theological confession. He just moves on to another unity-wrecking tactic. If he can’t get us to compromise theology, he’ll do everything he can to put us at odds with one another. Far too often in the midst of theological controversy, we are guilty of saying mean-spirited things. A curse on theological purity that ignores the need for love! As St. Paul says, it is possible to understand all mysteries and all knowledge (e.g., have pure doctrine), but where love is lacking, we are nothing (1 Cor 13:1—2). In Ephesians, the apostle exhorts us to speak the truth in love (4:15), and in Romans, he instruct us to “live peaceably with all”, in so far as it depends on us (12:18).
Pastors of all people are not to be quarrelsome (1 Tim 3:3). Unity is not always possible, but it should always be our aim (2 Cor 13:11; Philippians 2:2). Not many people will listen to a mean-spirited jerk, regardless of how orthodox they may be. Not only do we have all of the apostolic injunctions to live peaceably and be loving, our Lord Himself instructs us to be “innocent as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). What’s more, Bonhoeffer says, “Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.” It’s important to bear in mind that everyone we meet is a person for whom Christ died. We should treat them as such.
Christians are no more at liberty to compromise their theological confession than they are to engage in hurtful and unloving actions toward others, whether Christian or not. In the words of President Harrison, what is needed in the Church today is both “solid teaching and rigorous love.” Thanks be to God that the unity of the Church does not depend on us! If it did, unity would be impossible. Jesus gives to us what we couldn’t achieve on our own. The sinful flesh will never embody the perfect theology and love of Christ. Despite the opposition it aroused, Jesus continued to teach the scandal of the cross, that He alone is the way to the Father (John 14:6). Nor did He observe our folly and wash His hands of us. His love is so great for us that He died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). He was not willing to compromise God’s Word or leave us in our sorry state. By His grace—given us in the purely proclaimed Word and correctly administered Sacraments—His Church cannot be divided.
But until God’s Kingdom is fully manifest among us on the Last Day, the Church will continue to be beset by the attacks of Satan, be they of a theological or personal nature. In the meantime, we pray that God would keep His Name holy among us and keep us steadfast in His Word and grace, that we might be strengthened in faith toward Him and live in fervent love with one another.