Does it matter what you believe?
Does it matter what you believe? If it does matter what you believe, and given that even people who think alike will have some nuanced differences, what line can be drawn that divides believers where “fellowship” can be achieved. In this article, I want to explore whether obedience to God can be achieved even if we associate with people who believe things that are different than what I believe.
Last Saturday night I was in our CBD at King George Square and found myself in an interesting discussion surrounding the importance of certain doctrines. For much of the conversation with this guy, I think he was a Pastor – his name was Andrew, I had remained quite cagey about which religious group I had come from. The difficulty is that when I state my “religious affiliation” there are certain doctrines that are immediately honed in on (the Trinity, the Afterlife, Supernatural Devil, Present day possession of the Holy Spirit Gifts and so on). And I don’t want to necessarily debate these topics or for that matter, have an assumption made about these.
All of these “doctrinal divides” are to me, much more nuanced than their proponents would have you believe, and I get very frustrated when someone says, “oh, well you must have a problem with the afterlife, because you guys believe….”. I want to know what YOU believe, not what your “group” believes.
For partial disclosure, I would actually say with a degree of certainty at this point, that I don’t actually have a religious “group”. I haven’t attended a church service fully for some 10 weeks now, instead holding a private gathering of worship expression in our home for anyone who would like to attend. Organised religion is not the “ecclesia” and I am more and more at odds with the “social club” that most religions have become.
My “denomination” is not what I believe!
So last Saturday night, I was actually interested in discussing with Andrew, the merits or otherwise of organised religion and whether it is appropriate for a “man” (even a godly man) to lead our worship, given the fact that we are all priests of the Most High God. Towards the end of the conversation, I asked Andrew what denomination he and his friends came from, and it turns out that they came from a variety of different groups. Some are from the very conservative end of the evangelical movement and some were a little more on the liberal end.
Eventually, the question arose as to what “religious group” I was affiliated with. I caved and told him who I had previously been associated with. Sure enough – “ah… so you guys would have some ‘stuff’ about the afterlife.”
I said, “well not really, when you die you go to the grave and await the resurrection”. But then, he honed in on the cardinal (in his eyes) sin – “We have big differences on the trinity” and he went on to have a pretty reasoned discussion with me about the implications on holding an erroneous viewpoint on the trinity.
For clarity, here is my stance on a belief in the triune God.
The bible does not know a Triune God. Even Trinitarians accept that the doctrine gradually evolved through the late 1st Century into the 2nd and 3rd Centuries before being somewhat confirmed at Nicaea in 325AD. The fundamental issue, in my view, lies in a lack of understanding of God manifestation.
Any attempt to reason by logic through the doctrine of the Trinity to disprove it ultimately comes up against an assertion that the “Trinity is incomprehensible” and “a mystery”.
Jesus Christ could not be “very God” (one person with God) because then the contradictions within this statement would be overwhelming. Jesus Christ was tempted (Heb 2:18) whereas God cannot be tempted with evil (Jas 1:13). Jesus Christ died (Rev 1:18) whereas God cannot die (1 Tim 6:16). Jesus Christ was seen by men (1 Jn 1:1) whereas God cannot be seen by men (1 Tim 6:16). Jesus ascended to his Father, his God (Jn 20:17) after his resurrection – he did not become “reabsorbed into the Godhead”. His will was separate and independent of God’s will – “not as I will but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
Similarly, the Holy Spirit is the power of God (Lk 1:35) therefore the Holy Spirit works the will of God. What the Holy Spirit does is what God is doing, so when John records the Lord saying that the “comforter, which is the Holy Spirit… shall teach you all things”, he is simply asserting that God will teach them through his divine power. Compare this to Romans 9:17 where it is recorded that “Scripture says to Pharaoh” certain things. The Scripture says nothing of itself, but God did, and a human wrote it down and recorded it. The Holy Spirit is the power of God working in humans to educate, comfort and bear witness to which is to say that God does these things by His power. (These arguments are summarised from “Wrested Scripture” by Ron Abel, Pasadena circa 1962)
But this is not what this article is about!
This article is not designed to give a reckoning of the arguments for and against a triune God. We are looking to establish what basis of agreement we might have with someone who is not strictly in agreement with us.
I get it. Many Christians can’t accept someone who is not Trinitarian. Until recently I would have been on the precise opposite side of the divide around the Trinity being a foundation faith so I understand that this is a big deal for most Christians. If you don’t “believe” in the Triune God, then you are anti-Christ (for an example of this teaching read this). Or (where I was a few years ago), if you believe in the Triune God, then you worship a being that doesn’t exist.
I am writing this article because I believe that God, through His Spirit has actually pushed me to revisit this subject. I am in fact, revisiting many of my foundation beliefs as I grapple with a new life outside of organised religion. Over the last few days, this subject (the importance of the Trinity in faith) has risen a few times and so I feel I am being encouraged to reconsider.
So, the question I want to consider in this article is whether this Christian divide doctrine is actually a foundation upon which salvation hangs. Is there saving knowledge and is there sin by association. Does it matter what I believe?
Eternal Life is predicated on “knowing” God and Jesus?
Before I launch into this discussion, however, there is related conversation that we need to have.
And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.(Joh 17:3) (ESV)
John therefore argues that eternal life must be predicated upon a knowledge of the only true God and His Son (sent by Him). Thayer’s tells us that to “know” in this instance mean to come to know, to get a knowledge of, perceive – all the usual words for “know” that you would imagine.
Interestingly the word “ginosko” or know, is also used in the Jewish idiom for sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Anyone who is married will be able to tell you that great intimacy between a man and woman is something that grows rather than is immediate in nature. The “knowledge” so to speak, grows with each intimate encounter.
Some argue that John 17:3 is about a clear and exact knowledge of God. Eventually yes and with the granting of eternal life and our perfecting during the 1,000-year reign of Christ, our knowledge of God is likewise perfected, but I think it clear that during our lifetime, we will never achieve a clear and exact knowledge of God.
“Ginosko”, however, according to Vincent’s Word Studies in this instance is a present tense continuance and progressive perception of God in Christ. WE Vine says that Ginosko signifies to be taking in knowledge, to come to know, recognise, understand or to understand completely. He goes on to argue that such knowledge is obtained not by mere intellectual activity, but by operation of the Holy Spirit consequent upon acceptance of Christ (eg 1 Cor 3:16, 2 Tim 1:14, Rom 8:11, Jn 16:13, Gal 5:18).
Knowledge that grows is the foundation
So the foundation of eternal life is a knowledge of God and His Son that grows and develops. The ultimate outcome would appear to be achieved when we are perfected along with all creation and creation itself is handed by the Son back to the Father. (1 Cor 15:24)
Eternal life is not predicated on perfect knowledge, but a knowledge that grows and is inspired by the Spirit Word indwelling in us.
Compare Love and Fear in John’s Epistle
For comparison, take 1 John 4:18 where we find that “perfect love casts out fear”. The Greek for “perfect” is “Teleios” and means “having reached its end, being complete or perfect”. In this, the concept is slightly different to John 17:3 but stick with me here.
Once love is fully developed and completed, the fear of torment or punishment is finally abolished. He adds a rider “whoever fears has not been perfected in love”. This is a growing thing. Grow in love and when it is perfected you will have abolished fear of God’s punishment. Until we encounter the Love of God through the indwelling Spirit of God and until we enable that Spirit to fully engulf us – in the words of John Piper, to fully find our satisfaction in Him – we will not truly abolish our niggling fear of punishment. God is Love and unless we really understand that, we will not overcome our fear of His punishments.
We don’t have perfect love here and now, though we strive to perfect it, therefore fear of “torment” (however small that fear is) is a feature of our lives. Our struggle is to drive it out.
We don’t fully “know” God and His Son now, and therefore we need God’s grace to bridge the gap for us and grant us eternal life.
Is the atonement a basis of division?
So, we find ourselves asking the question, is John 17:3 a basis of division between a trinitarian and a non-trinitarian. Depending on your perspective, one is simply more advanced in knowledge than the other.
I would say that my trinitarian friend simply doesn’t understand the beauty of how God manifests Himself in His children. My trinitarian friend would say that I don’t understand the mystery of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
I would say, we have a basis for discourse and mutual knowledge building. Possibly, my trinitarian friend would say, that I am condemned to hell. To which I, of course, respond “well yes, but not forever, because in the grace of the Father, I trust I will be resurrected one day.”
There are two questions bound up in this question of “does it matter what I believe”. One has to do with who I “associate” with and the other relates to so-called “saving knowledge”.
I think that so-called “saving knowledge” is entirely up to God. I can’t determine what it is. He is the judge of all the earth and I am not the law giver (read the epistle of James on this).
A discussion of what constitutes saving knowledge is fruitless. Personally, I think the parable of the Talents is probably as close to an answer as we can get. God’s expectation of us is directly proportional to where we are at in any given time.
His expectation is that we seek to constantly grow in knowledge of Jesus and Himself and there is no threshold for salvation save the one that God establishes for each believer individually. Even the parable of the prodigal son, or the workers in the vineyard can be seen as clear indicators of this.
So let’s leave that subject alone as one that is well above our paygrade. That leaves the question of association.
My friend from Saturday night posited that there are some core beliefs essential for agreement or “fellowship”, some secondary beliefs that are important to get right and then other beliefs that are not important. The core beliefs in his view, are the Trinity and a couple of others, the secondary beliefs that he squirms about but will accept are things like infant baptism and so on and tertiary beliefs are things like tattoos and so on.
At least we agree on tattoos not being a core issue for salvation. We agree that full adult immersion is an act of obedience. I believe that adult full immersion is essential to salvation, he believes that adult full immersion is not essential to salvation but is a necessary act of obedience (that’s a nuance I guess).
I think that our perfecting will bring us to a full understanding of all aspects of “truth” but frankly, all of this is a part of the “growing of knowledge” that seems central to the scripture.
Distilling the basis of “fellowship”
If I was to distill the scripture into its central core message that must be the foundation of “saving knowledge”, there really is only one such message.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.(Joh 3:16) (ESV)
This is the foundation faith that qualifies us as a “believer” and must form the basis of any “fellowship”.
Association is different from fellowship
Association is different to fellowship. Jesus associated with Pharisees, Publicans and Sinners, Sadducees, Thieves and Romans at different points of his mortality. You can’t avoid this fact and as a Christian, you must be willing to do the same or you will fail in the great commission of Matt 28:16-20.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”(Mat 28:16-20) (ESV)
So how do we understand “fellowship”?
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.(1 Jn 1:5-6) (ESV)
Is it possible to have fellowship with God and yet walk in darkness? Are there a set of foundation “truths” that set us in Light rather than darkness?
The answer to the first must be “no”. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we are lying. It can’t be really argued can it?
The answer to the second is “none of our business”. This is God’s business alone. We don’t get to set one in light and another in darkness. That is God’s purview alone and we meddle in this at our peril.
God is Light
God is light and in him is no darkness. How do we discover this? By observing His son Jesus.
What brings John to the conclusion that God is light? His earnest contemplation of Jesus let him see Life manifest – that Jesus was with the Father and made manifest to us.
Enlightenment therefore can only be in understanding that Jesus was the Logos (the “Word”) made flesh. Jesus was the expression of God’s will, the expression of God’s idea from the beginning of expanding His community with a group of believers.
Therefore, to walk in the Light must be to espouse the eternal purpose of God expressed in His Son.
The Eternal Purpose of God expressed in a Man
From the beginning, God had a purpose of creating a community that expresses or manifests Him. The chief manifestation of Light was Jesus who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb 1:3)
Walking in the light therefore means to express that same radiance in our lives to the people around us, as imperfect as we are.
And that’s the point. We express this imperfectly. We experience His love imperfectly, we are fearful, and we are slowly growing in knowledge of Him. Our fellows on this journey towards perfection are like us, growing in knowledge of Him, experiencing love in weak mortality and sometimes fearful.
Light is experiential not doctrinal
Light is not necessarily doctrine, rather it is experiential in nature and encompasses growth in knowledge and understanding. Sin will occur along the way, sometimes expressing our faulty experience of love and expressing itself in fear, but our fellowship with Jesus in the Light washes away this Sin.
Light therefore does not preclude Sin as such, but those who are “in the light” do not wish to Sin and when they do, they access the sin covering name of Jesus Christ.
So, what about those who embrace darkness?
I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father. And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.(2 Jn 4-11) (ESV)
Much of the new testament epistles particularly but also in some degree the gospels were debating two issues of the time. Those who wanted to drag the new Christians back to the Law (called the “Circumcision Party” by Frank Viola in his book The Untold Story of the New Testament Church) and prototypical Gnosticism.
The Gnostics believed that there was an “original God” from whom various others emanated including our God, Yahweh. They believed that each wave of emanations (I gather including the angels) was less pure than the original “God”. Our God was one of the least pure and therefore was able to create good and evil. Another emanation was “Sophia” or Wisdom and she gave women “special knowledge” (think Eve in the garden of Eden receiving the knowledge of Good and Evil as one of the foundation beliefs of the Gnostics). Of course, Jesus was believed to be another of these emanations who did not actually come to the earth in the flesh but was a spirit or phantasm. Obviously quite a twisting of the truths of the Scripture.
So the question seems to arise from 2 John around “greeting” (“bid him Godspeed”) those who have “false doctrine”. But what is this really arguing?
Well, anyone who does not bring “this teaching” (that Christ came in the flesh) is not of God it would seem from what John is writing to this “elect lady and her children”.
At the time of writing this letter, John was contending with Gnosticism which argued that Jesus was a phantasm, a spirit and did not come in the flesh.
The Salvation Message
In some respects, John is actually referencing what we have just discussed. Jesus was the Word made Flesh. The whole salvation message rests in the fact that Jesus was the idea or “logos” manifest in human form, experiencing testing as we do and therefore representative of us.
A failure to acknowledge the saving work of Jesus as a man, tempted like as we are (in the flesh) yet without Sin is to completely ignore the Love of God as expressed in the Gospel of John:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.(Joh 3:16) (ESV)
So, if there is a foundation belief that dictates any unity among believers, it has to be that Jesus came in the Flesh and did the things recorded of him.
Welcoming someone into your house who does not bring this teaching, greeting them with joy as a fellow in the light, is to take part in the wickedness that says that Jesus was merely a phantasm.
Gnosticism was the issue
Bear in mind what John was dealing with here. This pernicious group, the Gnostics, were spreading deceit among the believers at that time. This was not an earnest striving for knowledge and growth in understanding of God, this was a cancer in the Body and it needed to be cut out. They were teachers who were not interested in advancing the cause of Christianity, they were anti-Christ.
So does it matter who you associate with?
You can’t say that you share belief with someone who outright doesn’t accept the core purpose of God expressed in the physical corporeal existence of Jesus in the earth 2000 years ago. You should not be wishing them well in their belief and teachings. They are not Christians. They don’t follow Christ.
Having said that, association is different from fellowship. Reasoning together with someone to find truth together is the core of our existence. We might not immediately walk together in the light, but that’s OK.
How do people find the light unless they spend time with people that God has called to the light..