5 things needed more than theology for unity in the church: a response to Al Mohler

It was some months ago now that I added to my list of things to write about a lecture from Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Convention’s Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. Here is the link to the one-minute video and below is the transcript:

What’s really interesting to us is that Paul sees theology as the answer to division in the church. [I couldn’t find the context from which this clip was taken, so I don’t know what Scripture he was referring to, but I can’t think of any writing of Paul’s that indicates this.]

 

That’s just really helpful for us to know, because the reflex of so many Christians is to think that if there’s conflict in the church, to back off of theology. Because theology is inherently debatable, arguable, divisive. But the New Testament principles says . . . the answer to division in the church is theology. That doesn’t mean theology as an academic discipline. It means doctrine; it means truth.

And you’ll notice every time Jesus is confronted he makes the reality more doctrinally clear. [Actually, Jesus was known for speaking in dark sayings and parables, obscuring the truth on purpose so that only those who really wanted to understand would get it. So this statement is incorrect.]

 

Every time the apostles have to deal with an issue, not once do they agree to a lowest common demonimator kind of consensus theology; instead they lean into even greater definition, greater specificity, greater affirmation of the truth, greater detail. [This makes it sound as if there are no points of ambiguity in theology as understood in studies of the apostles, when actually men and women of God disagree on several points as to what the apostles were really saying.]

“Theology” means “truth”?

“Theology” is actually the study of God and His ways and all that is related (such as mankind and the devil, eternity and sin), while “systematic theology” is an orderly set of beliefs about these things. It’s what seminaries are all about, purportedly. Contrary to what Mohler says, theology is not synonymous with truth. All of us who study theology come more or less close to the truth, depending on a multitude of factors.

If Mohler wanted to say that truth was the answer to division in the church, why didn’t he say they answer to division in the church was “truth”? Why did he say “theology”?

For the record, I believe that theology in and of itself is important. I’d never tell someone they shouldn’t study God and His ways—in fact, I encourage it. When we sing in church, I think about the theology of the songs, and when I’m in a church that practices liturgy, I enjoy repeating liturgy the theology of which I agree with, and I don’t repeat any liturgy that has theology I disagree with.

Also, analyzing the teachings of others, much of which is theology, is one of the primary things I do on this blog and seems to be one of the most appreciated. My theology didn’t come through seminary classes, lectures, papers, and tests, but I’ve been studying the Bible for about 40 years, including intensive book studies as well as word and subject studies (with no class deadlines, so I could take all the time I needed), and have found theologians that I believe have much to teach me.

Also, this website has a page called “the beliefs behind the blog”: my own statement of beliefs that some might call a statement of (some of) my theology.

But what if my “theology”—the statement of my beliefs about God and His ways—is only the framework of the actual motivators for unity with other Christ-followers?  What if the unity I have with other Christians comes from somewhere other than our theology?

Theology is very easy to plan a curriculum around, develop classes around, test on, write papers on, and happily graduate a student with, declaring that he completed all the theological requirements.

Theology is simply statements that reside in one’s intellect. A person can know all the facts of theology inside and out while having a heart full of utter wickedness.

I’ve seen it again

And again

And again

And again.

What is the answer to division in the church?

This is Al Mohler’s unstated question. But we must acknowledge that some churches that have very little disagreement–and so, the appearance of great unity—are actually cults in which the people are taught to treat the Dear Leader like a demigod and nearly worship him. Anyone in a cult like this who begins to internally question can be filled with fear to speak against him lest they lose their church, their reputation, their friends, their family, and often even their livelihood. (Which means, nearly everything.) This kind of “unity” looks beautiful from the outside but on the inside is found to be the death of independent thought.

But if we’re talking about non-criminal disagreements among church members, what’s the answer? Is it theology? No, as far as I know the Bible never indicates such a thing. (When Paul asked Euodia and Synteche to be united in the Lord in Philippians 4:2, it was not on the basis of theology.)

Here are five things I believe are more important than theology for maintaining unity in a body of believers.

Revival, which means an outpouring of the Holy Spirit

Years ago when my husband walked in on me where I was sitting at my desk in messy, snotty tears and he asked what was wrong, I blubbered, “I’m s-s-studying r-r-revival.”

Historically, when the Holy Spirit has poured down on a group of people, there has come an awareness of the presence of God like never before, confession of sins, true repentance, and restitution, followed by forgiveness, restoration, and unity among the people of God, flowing from something completely other than the teaching or preaching of one magnetic and influential human leader.

Often people who have observed the revivals can’t even understand what is happening. I can’t imagine any of them saying, “Oh, I see this unity happened because of theology.” No, it was because the Holy Spirit moved in the hearts of His people. When outsiders see it, they say, “There was a spiritual presence there. God is real.”

And how does revival occur? Without exception (according to what I’ve learned), it has been because someone was praying.

Prayer

Young men go to seminary so they can have their theology straight (according to someone) before they start or re-start churches. Then, often, they meet together in coffee shops—my husband overhears them there—brainstorming about how they can brand and market their churches.

Not all of these meetings take place in coffee shops, of course. When a church becomes wealthy enough, they can have their branding and re-branding meetings in plush offices.

I know that the ones who actually pray—and I know they’re out there—aren’t meeting in coffee shops either. If they’re asking God to work and move in the way He chooses instead of simply asking Him to bless their most recent plan and project to keep their church humming along, then they are essentially expressing a willingness for God to turn their plans upside down and inside out and do what He will, because He is God and He has the best plan.

And if their theology isn’t completely “right”? (According to someone.) A life of solid, seeking, earnest prayer that puts the Lord Jesus Christ front and center—in the heart and life rather than just in the intellect and in words—will cover where theology may be off.  That life will also expect the Holy Spirit to continue to reveal truth and correct where we’ve been wrong—in essence, continuing to adjust our theological understanding throughout our lives.

Righteousness

Some theology teaches that the only righteousness we have is imputed righteousness, as Christ’s righteous record is put on our account. This leaves practical righteousness up to our own efforts or lack thereof, as books have espoused such as Godliness Through Discipline by Jay Adams. This is a theology I reject, because I believe the Bible teaches we can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be righteous in our practical lives. (Romans 8:1-17 comes to mind as a compelling example.)

This belief I just expressed, according to theology, is called “imparted righteousness,” and many theologians will disagree with me on it. But I believe the Bible teaches that when people in a body of believers are looking to the Lord for righteousness through the power of the Holy Spirit, as weaker people look to stronger ones for help and the spiritually stronger ones see it not as an opportunity for a power play or to give them a checklist that they as authorities can oversee, but as an opportunity for the Lord to work through them to show His gracious power in the lives of His own, this will bring a beautiful unity in that group.

But what good does it do me to believe one theology over the other? There is no good unless there is actual practical outworking in my life, empowered by the Holy Spirit. I can argue “imputed and imparted” all day, but there is no good in it unless I am actually living it by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The answer isn’t a theology about righteousness, but the actual righteousness itself.

Love

Colossians 3 tells us that love is the “bond of perfection.” Not the “we’ll accept anyone without question” love, which is noxious to the nostrils of God. Instead agape love, the kind of love that, like Jesus, wants to help people be delivered from their sin and shame. The kind of love that, like Jesus, bends down to hear the weak cries of the downtrodden (sometimes literally) and stands bravely against the powerful wicked ones, who are often quite skilled in theology—they were in Jesus’ day, and it hasn’t changed an iota.

There are many who are skilled in theology, who would disdain the likes of Joel Osteen and other “you can do it” gospel preachers (which is not a gospel).  They can speak theology eloquently—even, many conservative Christians would say, correctly—but not only are they devoid of love; they are actively working for the cause of the wicked one.

Someone from a conservative background told me about two of her relatives who at every family gathering would vehemently argue theology. (They usually argued particular points of eschatology, in case it’s of any interest to anyone.) They thought, or pretended to think, that theology was super important—important enough to cause traumatizing family breaches in order to protect their position.

Some might say they should have been unified by the one who was wrong submitting to the one who was right, since according to Mohler Jesus and the apostles spoke so clearly about it. Some others might even say they shouldn’t allow this difference in theology to cause a rift in their relationship.

But that isn’t even the main point.

These two relatives, in their other lives, their secret lives, were both involved in sex trafficking. Their theological arguments, which to the other family members appeared to be incredibly significant since they actually came to physical blows over it, was all a head game.

In reality they were working for the devil.

You think that’s an isolated incident? I could tell you so many stories like that it would make your head spin.

The answer isn’t theology, which I believe these two relatives could both pontificate on quite eloquently. It isn’t even a theology about love, distinguishing the kinds of love and pointing out that agape love is the highest and best. The answer is the love itself.  In Ephesians 4 Paul urged the Ephesian believers

to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another, in love eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

An experiential awareness of the indwelling Christ

Jesus Himself prayed in His great High Priestly prayer not only for His current disciples at that time, but for all who would believe on Him at any time,

that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  . . . I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfect in one and that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them as thou hast loved me.

This cannot be accomplished by a study of theology.  For this, we cry out to God for His Holy Spirit to be very real in our lives, to give us the awareness that will bring true righteousness, to grow in us the consciousness of God’s love for us through Jesus Christ, which can be a cup of cool water offered to thirsty souls who are dying of sin and shame.

What was Al Mohler’s purpose?

Is it cynical of me to think the reason Al Mohler says the solution for division in the church is theology is simply because he wants to promote expensive educations at prestigious seminaries, one of which he presides over?

Or is it perhaps simply an observation of what is going wrong in so many conservative evangelical churches? It can’t be ignored (though I believe many do try to ignore it) that people are leaving these very churches—and even God—in droves, something that causes some of us great agony but seems to barely cause the blink of an eye from those who are busy preaching their theology, especially if those who are leaving don’t have money to contribute to the building fund.

True righteousness (as opposed to self-righteousness) and agape love (as opposed to self-love, leader worship, or ignoring of sin), are both representations of  our holy God. They come through the power of the Holy Spirit rather than through study of theology. (In fact, study of theology has been known to promote arrogance, since one might then be able to claim “my study of theology makes me better / smarter / more unquestionable / more worthy of praise than you.”)

Prayer—not “Please now give Your stamp of approval” prayer but “We are desperate for You to show up and move and work among us, and if You don’t show up all our efforts are wood hay and stubble” prayer—must be part of any church that has any hope of being unified. Not just singing a song about it. But actually praying.

A true consciousness of the indwelling Christ in us, the hope of glory, which will fill us with joy and strength to give to others. And the moving of the Holy Spirit that some of us are actively praying for, longing for, searching the skies for. O God, bring us the kind of unity that will refuse to protect the evil “bitter roots” in our midst, the “false apostles” as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:13, who are “deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ,” but a unity that will instead cast out those ministers of Satan who “transform themselves as ministers of righteousness.”  The kind of unity in which the strong will protect the weak, loving them and serving them, and the weak will rejoice and grow strong.

This, my friends, would be a unity that would be a taste of heaven on earth. I’ve heard rumors that it’s possible. Lord God, speed the day.

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Kayla
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Kayla

I have seen over and over again what happens when theology is put on a pedestal or elevated to too prominent of a place in churches and the lives of individuals; It has never resulted in anything good. Thank you for this articulate blog post that helps sort through this issue.

Quietrunner
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Quietrunner

“On earth as IT IS in heaven” You know my heart has been turned toward the only thing I know to do for almost two years now…DESPERATE PRAYER Those sweet times of prayer with the Lord are given by Him… thus my confidence that He will work as He accomplishes “ on earth” exactly as He knows will bring glory to Himself and people to an acceptance of His power. I believe WE do not obligate God in any way with our petitions, but as He fills us as you have beautifully said here with His power to ask for what He would want accomplished we can pray with renewed boldness.. thank you

Rickie
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Rickie

Well said and so true!

Norma Brumbaugh
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Absolutely.

Mark
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Mark

Isn’t Albert Mohler’s theology centered around TULIP? Or another way of putting it, does his belief make him stay within the perimeters of TULIP?

I have witnessed first hand that some Ministries that stay strictly within the perimeters of TULIP have a Law and Sin Centered and less Christ Centered.

I’m not sure, but they spend a lot of time raising doubt on the salvation of those that profess to be Christians, “even if they live and do right, believing in Christ dying for our sins but also caring and loving”, I think because of their belief in Election Theology and a no free-will option.

If they raise doubt on others, when others appear to be doing everything “right”, then they must be doubting their own salvation,,

Election Theology being one of the cornerstones of TULIP, I wonder if Mohler doubts his own salvation or those close to him that profess to be 5 Point Calvinist.

Erick
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Erick

I am a ‘Calvinist’ and a TULIP guy. I don’t think this is about doubting our own salvation. This is about examining ourselves constantly to make sure we are in the faith AND being able to identify other Christians by their fruits. But i have to be honest Mark — are you the one Christian who has never doubted his salvation?

Efrain
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Efrain

Pastor Mohler is a man of integrity. You have mischaracterizatized his video clip and lecture by admitting you didn’t know what scripture he was using to expound on the truth that theology/doctrine unites the church. It was Jesus who said that the Holy Spirit would guide us to All truth/doctrine/theology. So YES theology/truth/doctrine will unite Christ’s church. Christ said I am the Truth. He also said the word is Truth. Anything outside Christ or His Word will cause division….

Vicki S.
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Vicki S.

Thanks, Rebecca. You have just wonderfully expounded on so many of the ideas that have been troubling my brain for a number of years now.

For time’s sake, I’ll chime in on just one of those points — the idea that “theology” is the rallying point for Christian unity. Um, no — and your point about cultish oneness is too true and far too common.

If theology is what holds the brethren together, then you had better watch out, thinking Christians everywhere! When you reach that place of (nearly) Perfect Christian Doctrine, then close your Bibles and screw in your spiritual earplugs to keep the Holy Spirit out, because otherwise that disruptive third person of the Trinity is going to send your Lego tower of Sound Doctrine tumbling!

And when it does, tragically, you’ll need to find a different group of brothers and sisters with whom to fellowship. Because doctrine has been elevated above people.

TS00
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TS00

This is such an incredibly amazing post, I don’t even know where to start. No, Mr. Mohler, theology is not the answer offered by Jesus and his apostles. It takes a unique ability to stretch the truth to make that claim. Sounds like a clanging cymbal or something . . .

Molly
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Molly

I found this helpful, and in agreement with you, Rebecca, as am I: https://www.the-highway.com/hsguided_Owen.html
“Men may have a knowledge of words and the meaning of propositions in the Scripture without a knowledge of the things themselves (2 Cor. 3).
This knowledge only informs the mind but does not really illuminate and enlighten it. So theology has been turned into an art or science instead of a spiritual wisdom and understanding of divine mysteries (Rom. 12:2).
Scripture is the believer’s rule and the Holy Spirit is his guide.”
John Owen

TS00
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TS00

This is an excellent point, Molly, and I believe extends to all of the error and abuse throughout history, and not just within the church.

Whenever we bow to some self-claimed authority as if it is a God, be it the golden calf of Religion, Science, Politics or any other ideology we will find ourselves submitting to something that is false and, inevitably, destructive.

Science, falsely so-called, in imitation of former Religions, has claimed a false authority to declare what is true, and frequently demands unquestioning submission. There is such a thing as true science, which honestly admits that its ‘truth claims’ are mere theories and ever open to question and testing, but we see little of it anymore.

These monolithic, powerful institutions all use the same sort of hierarchical, authoritarian controls, condemning, silencing and dismissing from the auditorium any who bravely dissent from the proclaimed consensus of ‘truth’. Many are unaware of the brave, talented, highly credentialed individuals who have challenged the idol of Science and many of its ‘unquestionable’ truths, as they are quietly excommunicated from the assembly and their writings and research ‘vanished’ from public view.

What we are seeing today in The Church is exactly what has taken place in every man-made Institution that claims the authority to dictate truth:

“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands afar off, for truth has fallen in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.” (Isaiah 59:14-15)

Note who becomes the prey when Truth is fallen in the public squares – those who seek to defend and do what is just and true.

TS00
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TS00

If a lightweight thug like James MacDonald can pull off such a scheme, imagine what the enormously influential moneyed interests who wield the levers of power across the globe can do?

Rachel Nichols
Guest

I Corinthians 13:2

Mark
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Mark

In your article this question was asked “What is the answer to division in the church?” I can only answer this question from my own experience of being a member of a non-Calvinist church.

Many church members don’t pay attention to the true doctrine and the methodology of how the message is going to be delivered of their Pastor.

There is going to be strife if a Calvinist Preacher is going to covertly enter a non-Calvinist church and attempt to indoctrinate a church to Calvinism. Because Calvinism has so many different “dialects” and virtually 100’s of combinations of TULIP as not all self-professed Calvinist embrace all 5 Points, some might only embrace 1 point so not all Calvinist will see things the same way.

It became even more evident of how judgmental the more aggressive some Calvinist are is when I reviewed a video by Fred Phelps of Westboro suggest that the Arminian Billy Graham was destined for Hell.

Congregations are being caught in the cross fire of academic Calvinist and Non-Calvinist and confusing them with their differing interpretation of scripture and then judging the ones that don’t embrace their doctrine or their methodology.