Does it matter what you believe?
Does it matter what you believe? If it does matter what you believe what line can be drawn that divides believers where “fellowship” can be achieved. Bear in mind that even people who think alike will have some nuanced differences.
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.
Christmas 2019/20, I was in the CBD in Brisbane at King George Square. I found myself in an interesting discussion surrounding the importance of certain doctrines. I had remained quite cagey about which religious group I had come from in this discussion. The guy was a Pastor I think and his name was Andrew.
The difficulty is that when I state my “religious affiliation” there are certain doctrines that are immediately brought up. Doctrines such as the Trinity, the Afterlife, Supernatural Devil, Present day possession of the Holy Spirit Gifts and so on. I don’t want to necessarily debate these topics or for that matter, have an assumption made about these. At this time, my doctrinal position was different in these areas. I have since changed my position.
All of these “doctrinal divides” are to me, much more nuanced than their proponents would have you believe. I get very frustrated when someone says, “oh, well you must have a problem with the afterlife, because you guys believe….”.
If we are going to discuss beliefs, I want to know what YOU believe, not what your “group” believes.
I would actually say with a degree of certainty at this point, that I don’t actually have a religious “group”. I now attend a Baptist Church. Organised religion is not the “ecclesia” or the “church congregation”. I am more and more at odds with the “social club” that most religions have become.
My “denomination” is not what I believe!
So on that Saturday night, I was actually interested in discussing with Andrew, the merits or otherwise of organised religion. Whether it is appropriate for a “man” (even a godly man) to lead our worship. 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. It turns out that they came from a variety of different groups. Some are from the very conservative end of the evangelical movement. 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, went after the cardinal (in his eyes) sin. “We have big differences on the trinity”, he said. We went on to have a pretty reasoned discussion about the implications of a different viewpoint on the trinity.
Does it matter what you believe?
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 this as a foundation faith. 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). The alternative view is, 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. I am revisiting many of my foundation beliefs as I grapple with a new life outside of organised religion. Over the few days prior to writing this article, this subject (the importance of the Trinity in faith) arose a few times and so I feel I was being encouraged to reconsider.
The question is therefore, is this Christian divide doctrine actually a foundation upon which salvation hangs. Is there saving knowledge and is there sin by association?
Does it matter what I believe?
Does it matter what you believe about God and Jesus?
Before I launch into this discussion, however, there is related conversation that we need to have around the basis of obtaining Eternal Life.
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 a knowledge of the only true God and His Son is the basis of eternal life. 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, means in the Jewish idiom 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. Vine argues that we obtain such knowledge 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. When Jesus perfects us along with all creation and hands us back to the Father he achieves the ultimate objective. (1 Cor 15:24)
Does it matter what you believe in this regard? I argue that perfect knowledge is not the basis of eternal life. Eternal life springs from our growing relationship, based in knowledge, with God and Jesus, 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.
Love, fully developed and completed, abolishes the fear of torment or punishment. John adds that love is not perfect in some one who fears. This is a growing thing. Grow in love and when it is perfect 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. That’s the only real element for “does it matter what you believe”.
Is what you believe 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. Does it matter what you believe about the trinity? Depending on your perspective, one is simply more advanced in knowledge than the other.
Then, I would have said that my trinitarian friend simply doesn’t understand the beauty of how God manifests Himself in His children. My trinitarian friend would have said 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 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.”
Now of course, I accept and embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. So, hopefully, I have grown in knowledge.
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”.
Does your salvation rely on what you believe?
I think that so-called “saving knowledge” is entirely up to God. I can’t determine what it is. In that sense, the question does it matter what you believe is irrelevant. God judges the earth. I am not Judge (James is clear).
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.
Association – Does it matter what people you associate with believe?
My friend from that 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. For him the response to, “does it matter what you believe” is an emphatic “yes” to some aspects.
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). On reflection, I probably agree with him on this.
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. We can’t argue this can we?
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? John earnestly contemplated Jesus. He saw Life manifest – that Jesus was with God and 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 doctrinal purity or “rightness”, 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. Our fellowship, however, 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? Does it matter what they believe?
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). Jesus is an emanation 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 a question seems to arise from 2 John around “greeting” (“bid him Godspeed” in the AKJV) those who have “false doctrine”. But what is this really arguing?
At the time of writing this letter, John contended with Gnosticism. Gnosticism 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.
We completely ignore the Love of God as expressed in the Gospel of John when we do not acknowledge the saving work of Jesus as a man, who was tempted like us (in the flesh) yet without Sin:
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)
A Unifying Belief
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. Welcoming, in this context is more than having a friend visit but rather to actively take the person as one of your own, as a fellow or brother.
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. Gnosticism was a cancer in the body. They did earnestly strive for knowledge and growth in understanding of God. The doctrine had to be cut out. Gnosticism did not advance 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..