This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Some may object to my strenuous assertion that there are only two options with respect to the doctrine of separation. For many, there are three types of behavior that may be demonstrated in the church: separation from heretics, unity with fellow believers, and separation from believers who are not doctrinally “like-minded”. Indeed, the denomination that I used to be a part of went on the official church record with the statement that there are three classes of doctrine that necessarily express themselves in the three classes of separation mentioned above. The number of classes of doctrine is a very important presupposition because it determines the number of classes of disagreement that believers may have. We have seen that Paul told the Corinthians that there were only two classes of disagreement. Either the disagreement was between true believers and separation was the sin of factionalism or the disagreement was between a true and a false believer and the separation was the proper action of separating from heresy. How many classes of doctrine/disagreement are there?
Everybody agrees (although nobody does anything about it ) that factionalism is the separation of true believers. True believers will sometimes sinfully separate from one another over doctrinal beliefs that both generally admit are not required for salvation. Furthermore, everybody also agrees that separating from heretics by means of church discipline is a separation of true from false believers (although, again, nobody does anything about it). In this case, the separation is a result of one party not believing in a doctrine that is essential for salvation (ie. the deity of Christ, the Trinity) The point of disagreement comes up when we ask, what about true believers that have separated and are, in some mystical way, not an example of factionalism? The answer given to that question by the factionalized evangelical Church is that there is a third class of doctrine that sometimes forces true believers to separate from one another.
Two classes of doctrine are obvious. Some doctrine is necessary for salvation. To disbelieve something that is necessary for salvation makes one a heretic and, necessarily, unsaved. The Athanasian Creed (~350) sums this up very well. Before asserting the required doctrines of the faith, the creed says, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” Other doctrines are not necessary for salvation. This category includes the majority of the doctrines found in a systematic theology text. These are the doctrines that we are free to disagree on.
The problem begins when we recognize a third class of doctrine; doctrines that are not necessary for salvation but that we, nevertheless, are not free to disagree on. This is the class of doctrine generally called the “denominational distinctives”. These are the doctrines that we acknowledge as not being required for salvation but that we do not permit other believers, who on account of their disagreement with us, to be a part of us. This third class of doctrine is the intellectual basis for the sin of factionalism/denominationalism. Oftentimes the particular names of the third class doctrine that we hold dear show up in the name of the factional church. “Free Will”, “Seventh Day”, “Four Square”, “Providence”, and “Missionary” are just some of the many doctrines that we have used to separate true believers from other true believers in our regular practice of the sin of factionalism.
In a vain attempt to justify the sin of denominational factionalism, some church leaders will assert that the mythical “third class of doctrine” only actually exists for those who are in leadership positions. These men will argue that the average church member is not guilty of factionalism in any way because he is free to believe anything that is not heresy. Church leaders, on the other hand, are said to have a “higher responsibility”. This higher level of responsibility requires a higher level of “doctrinal purity”. This higher level of doctrinal purity is found in the third class of doctrine. Church members do not need to believe these doctrines, but the more “mature” church leaders do. Not surprisingly, the doctrines contained in this third class are exactly the same as the denominational distinctives.
It is asserted that the average member is permitted to disagree with a doctrine in this imaginary third class, but that church leaders are not free to disagree. If a person is biblically qualified to be an elder but does not agree to one of the cardinal doctrines contained in the mythical third class, he is told to go to another church with more “like-minded” leaders. No matter how much he might try, he will never be considered acceptable for church leadership if he does not conform to the accepted doctrinal distinctives. This, of course, is nothing more than factionalism at a different level. The fact that the separation has been moved from the rank and file member to the leaders of the church does not change the fact that it is still separation of believers from believers and, therefore, factionalism. Furthermore, it becomes abundantly clear to the rank and file member that, although he is technically permitted to disagree with the “higher doctrines”, he is never permitted to speak against the doctrines in any way. Even worse, he is put under a great deal of psychic pressure to change his mind and conform his opinion to that of the denomination. If anyone doubts what I am saying, just try and have your children baptized in a Baptist church or try to not have your children baptized in a Presbyterian church.
The problem with this presupposition of a third class of doctrine that permits, in fact according to our denominational leaders, requires, our separation from one another, is that the distinction does not exist in the Bible. The Bible is black and white. A person is either a believer or he is not. There are certain things that must be believed to be a believer and there are many other things that are matters of personal opinion and conviction. False believers are to be put out of the Church. No matter what, true believers are never allowed to separate over any non-essential for salvation doctrine or behavior. This was precisely the problem that Paul was dealing with in Corinth. Paul by no means permitted the Corinthian believers to separate from each other because they had different doctrinal/behavioral emphases. You will search the Scriptures in vain to find any support for the idea that it is ever proper or correct to separate from other true believers over a class of doctrine/behavior that is not either necessary for salvation or a case of heresy. The third category simply does not exist. The church has created the third category for the purpose of justifying our factionalism. The concept of the third category needs to be abandoned.
Another problem with the doctrine that there are three classes of doctrine for church leaders is that it also creates a false distinction that the Bible does not recognize. The biblical qualifications for elder nowhere spell out a specific list of higher doctrines that an elder must believe. All of the qualifications for elder, except one, are qualifications of character, not intellect. The one qualification that does deal with the intellect is that an elder must be “able to teach sound doctrine.” However, “sound doctrine” is always defined in Scripture as doctrines that are necessary for salvation. It is not even remotely possible that “sound doctrine” might refer to a third class of doctrine that elders, and only elders, must believe. Every reference to “sound doctrine” in the Bible is a reference to a doctrine that is required for salvation, and therefore, required of all believers. All other doctrines are “disputable” and elders are free to disagree on them and teach on them as their conscience’s dictate.