Christian doctrine can seem divisive for several reasons. First, there are many denominations within Christianity that interpret biblical teachings differently. This leads to disagreements over issues like baptism, communion, spiritual gifts, and church leadership. While core beliefs like the divinity of Christ unite Christians, peripheral issues easily divide them.
Second, some biblical doctrines are inherently controversial and challenge worldly values. Teachings on sin, salvation, heaven, and hell starkly contrast with modern relativism. The exclusive claims Christ made about Himself provoke divisions between believers and unbelievers. His call to take up one’s cross and follow Him runs counter to self-centered living.
Third, Christians often struggle to balance doctrinal conviction with God’s command to love one another. Passion for truth can turn rigid and proud, causing disunity. On the other hand, relativism in the name of harmony waters down biblical fidelity. This tension has plagued the church for centuries.
Fourth, human fallibilitymeans even sincere disciples sometimes misapply or misinterpret doctrine. Well-meaning believers adopt flawed perspectives, needing correction through humility, prayer, and wisdom from the broader church. Holding doctrine in grace and charity prevents unnecessary divisions.
Fifth, some exploit Christian doctrine for personal gain, distorting it to justify prejudice, greed, or domination. This hypocritical abuse understandably breeds skepticism of otherwise sound doctrine among those impacted.
Sixth, doctrine holds little appeal for those seeking a comfortable, world-affirming spirituality. Biblical truth often confronts and challenges. A gospel centered on self-denial and cross bearing inevitably divides light from darkness.
Seventh, postmodern society fosters a hyper individualism that puts personal experience above external authority. This makes submitting to historic Christian teaching difficult, prompting many to reshape doctrine to their own perspectives and preferences.
Finally, spiritual warfare itself fuels divisions over doctrine. Satan actively sows confusion to undermine biblical truth (Mark 4:15). As the father of lies (John 8:44), he stirs mistrust between Christians.
In summary, Christian doctrine divides because: 1) there are many Christian denominations interpreting the Bible differently, 2) biblical doctrine contrasts sharply with worldly values, 3) Christians struggle to balance conviction and love, 4) human fallibility leads to misapplication, 5) some distort doctrine hypocritically, 6) doctrine confronts comfortable spirituality, 7) postmodern individualism elevates personal experience, and 8) spiritual warfare sows confusion.
Yet, rightly understood and applied, Christian doctrine should produce gospel-centered unity. With humility and grace, the church must affirm core orthodox beliefs while allowing liberty on secondary issues. Doctrine must be taught with compassion, modeled in love, and grounded in God’s Word more than human interpretation. Division should drive Christians to prayer and Scriptural study, not abandonment of time-tested biblical truth.
Above all, the unifying power of God’s love in Christ must take primacy over doctrinal division (1 Corinthians 13:2). Communicating gospel truth with patience and gentleness can overcome confusion sown by the enemy (2 Timothy 2:24-26). As Christians mature in faith, they gain perspective on biblical priorities and can distinguish core doctrine from secondary issues. This unity amid diversity beautifully reflects the Body of Christ.
Core Doctrines that Unify Christians
Despite denominational divides, Christians unite around basic biblical doctrines that constitute the core of orthodox belief. These include:
- The Trinity – There is one God eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- The incarnation of Christ – Jesus is fully God and fully man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
- The atonement – Jesus died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice, redeeming us from sin through His shed blood.
- The resurrection – Jesus rose bodily from the grave, defeating death and offering resurrection life to all who believe.
- The inspiration of Scripture – The Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, authoritative for Christian faith and conduct.
- Salvation by grace – We are saved from sin by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
These core doctrines form the essence of Christian belief through the centuries, uniting evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers. They provide the central theological parameters for orthodoxy.
Secondary Issues that Divide Christians
Secondary theological issues derive from interpretation and application of biblical passages without direct bearing on foundational doctrines. These tend to divide believers while core doctrines unite them. Examples include:
- Church leadership – Is church governance congregational, Presbyterian, or episcopal in structure?
- Baptism – Should baptism be administered to believers only or also infants? By immersion or sprinkling?
- Spiritual gifts – Are gifts like tongues and prophecy for today? Or were they unique to the early church?
- Worship style – What cultural forms best facilitate corporate worship while maintaining a focus on biblical truth?
- Eschatology – Will Christians be raptured before, during, or after the tribulation? How literal is the Book of Revelation?
- Old Earth vs young Earth – Does science indicate the earth is billions or thousands of years old? How should Genesis 1 be interpreted?
These disputes do not question orthodox doctrine directly but involve prudential judgment in applying it. Sincere believers interpret biblical passages differently on these issues, prompting denominational variation. Yet they remain united on the essentials of the faith.
Maintaining Unity Amidst Theological Diversity
The New Testament encourages unity among believers while acknowledging some theological diversity. Scripture provides principles for maintaining gospel-centered unity despite disagreements over secondary issues:
- Accept one another – Receive other Christians even when they disagree with you (Romans 15:7).
- Avoid quarreling over opinions – Don’t divide over disputable matters not essential to the faith (Romans 14:1).
- Limit separation – Only divide from false teachers distorting primary doctrines, not secondary issues (Romans 16:17).
- Major on majors – Emphasize core doctrines, allow liberty on secondary ones (1 Corinthians 15:3-11).
- Have one mind in Christ – Be united in thinking and purpose by His Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2:1-5).
- Speak truth in love – Maintain biblical conviction yet with patience, grace, and humility (Ephesians 4:15).
The church consists of followers at varying stages of spiritual growth and understanding. By affirming core doctrines while permitting diversity on secondary issues, we can have unity in truth, patience in love, and liberty in Christ.
Doctrinal Clarity with Pastoral Wisdom
Doctrinal differences need not undermine gospel-centered unity when handled with pastoral wisdom. Teachers must:
- Distinguish core beliefs from secondary applications.
- Acknowledge interpretive disagreements with intellectual humility.
- Avoid dogmatism and condescension toward those with different views.
- Cultivate curiosity, not fear, of opposing perspectives.
- Debate issues without questioning motives or one’s place in God’s kingdom.
- Focus on drawing people to Christ over winning arguments.
With clarity on central doctrines and liberty on the rest, the church gains needed theological bounds without falling prey to Pharisaical divisions. Doctrine is a compass directing us to Christ, not a shackle binding believers in lockstep uniformity.
Doctrinal Polemics vs Embracing Mystery
Two problematic responses to doctrinal controversy are:
- Doctrinal polemics – Some react to confusion by becoming dogmatic defenders of secondary viewpoints as if they were essential doctrines. They divide over opinions, bind consciences unnecessarily, and avoid interacting with other perspectives for fear of being influenced.
- Embracing mystery – Others react to divisions by rejecting theological clarity altogether. They downplay core doctrines as negotiable and embrace all positions as equally valid. This values superficial harmony over biblical fidelity.
A better approach affirms core orthodoxy while allowing principled liberty in secondary disputes. With confident humility, we can explore doctrinal tensions while upholding biblical truth revealed with sufficient clarity.
Doctrine in Community
Since no Christian has flawless doctrine, we need church community to sharpen one other biblically and theologically. Community provides:
- Accountability against blind spots or doctrinal tangents.
- Wisdom from those with different experiences and perspectives.
- Access to historic church teaching and spiritual mentors.
- A hedge against overconfidence, pride, and harsh dogmatism.
- Reminders of gospel grace which relativizes doctrinal disputes.
Our doctrine should be rooted in Scripture more than individual insights. Community safeguards us from subjectivism. And biblical truth rightly delivers us from human traditionalism.
Doctrinal Distinctives with Spiritual Vitality
Doctrinal perfection is unattainable, so no church has flawless teaching across the board. But some local fellowships display greater spiritual vitality through:
- Loving community despite doctrinal differences.
- Joyful worship centering hearts on the gospel and glory of God.
- Faithful expositional preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
- Members embracing discipleship and service in Jesus’ name.
- Grace-filled outreach to those outside the church.
- Unity across racial, cultural, generational, and socioeconomic lines.
These virtues reveal maturity and Christ-centeredness despite imperfect doctrine. Seeking churches strong on fundamentals while flexible on secondary applications may aid unity.
Christian doctrine divides when secondary issues eclipse the core truths that unite believers. But when centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, doctrine provides helpful boundaries that need not undermine spiritual unity. With humility about our fallibility and conviction on biblical essentials, we can have doctrinal clarity and church unity. But this requires commitment to truth paired with grace, patience, and love.