Church Leadership: Can we stay unified when there are core doctrinal differences in the church?
I originally shared this with my Revival Church senior staff. I’ve communicated what I’m about to share with my various ministries throughout the years, and it’s been incredibly helpful to keep us on track toward revival.
I then realized that this would benefit not only my senior staff, but the greater body of Believers. This will help senior leaders and also those in the body who might may struggle with differing doctrines and focuses.
For example, IHOP and Bethel have some foundational theological differences, mostly surrounding eschatology, yet they remain great and close friends in the mission of Kingdom advance. We should all have the same heart and spirit within us.
Bill Johnson mentioned a key difference between prior church generations and what God’s doing now. We used to gather around doctrines. Movements launched around people adhering to same Christian theologies. Now, movements are launching as people gather around fathers and apostolic leaders who have a bold Kingdom vision and a mission. That is right on. Brilliant.
Here’s what I sent to my second tier of leaders at Revival Church last week:
I shared this with the senior leadership team recently and wanted to also get it in front of the rest of our amazing team! This will help you navigate through challenges with differences of vision and doctrine that arise as you meet and lead people in the church.
I've always shared this at various times in my ministries, but this is the first time I've done so at Revival Church:
- As our church grows, we will see MANY differing doctrines in our camp. I've been around this mountain more times that I can count.
- I've had Calvinists demand I study with them and change the official position of the church in favor of their doctrine.
- I've had strong grace doctrine folks want us to change our position.
- I had a guy hand me a huge manuscript he wrote that details why apostolic ministry is no longer for today and didn't approve of my focus on it in the church.
- I've had anti-spiritual warfare people share their positions. Anti-manifestation people shared theirs. Others don't believe Christians can be demonized. Others are pre-trib, others post-trib, others KJV only, etc.
- Others have shared their critiques regarding our vision, ministry emphasis, over-emphasis on one thing, under-emphasis on another, and on and on and on.
The emails I've received over the last 21 years could fill a book!
In every one of the above situations I listened openly and honored them in their personal pursuits, but I did not allow them to distract my primary focus. I did not allow them to compromise the mission we were on. They may not have realized it, but I had already processed through the positions they hold to and had made my doctrinal and ministry decision long ago.
I love this principle:
Someone once said, “I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.”
We as leaders have to use great caution and wisdom in the way we handle such matters. Confusion, distraction, division and disunity can creep in overnight if we aren't careful.
“In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
This is a key principle for us. The essentials, or the absolutes of scripture, are the classic, foundational Christian doctrines that cannot be violated. If one were to not adhere to an essential, an absolute, then that person would not be a Christian. For example, it’s mandatory for salvation that we agree that Jesus is God. However it’s not mandatory for salvation that we agree in the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. One is an absolute, or an essential, and one is not.
- Have clarity on what the doctrinal positions of Revival Church are and always commit to unity regarding them.
- While it's expected that leaders will hold to differing positions at times (non-absolutes), those positions must not be communicated to others in the church. A good way to handle this situation is: If someone asks you what your opinion on the end times is, for example, you could respond, “The church's position on this is Apostolic Premillennialism and I support them fully.” Now, I also value your personal processing through such situations. It's healthy to do so. If you want to discuss your position with me one-on-one, I'd love to do that at any time.
- Don't ever teach on a topic that is contrary to the position of the church.
- Always have the heart of a protector over senior leadership and the doctrines and vision of the church by voicing support and unity even if your personal doctrines/vision differ.
- If you want to discuss differing viewpoints, always approach me first, and then leave it to me to invite other leaders/people into the discussion if I feel led.
You'll notice that I rarely request feedback among leaders on doctrinal opinions, especially in a group or public setting. That's intentional for the sake of unity. I already know that we'll differ doctrinally. I often tell people, “The debate between Calvinism and Arminanism (for example) is not a new one. I don't have time to recreate that wheel of debate. Research the debated positions online yourself. I adhere to the Arminian position.” I don't let that distraction derail me.
Titus 3:9- But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.
Let's commit to this so we don't have splinter movements within the body.
It’s better to be unified yet disagreed on non-absolutes of scripture than it is to be divided in our search of affirmation of our biblical positions.
John 17:20-21 (ESV) 20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Philippians 2:1-3 (ESV) 1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Ephesians 2:19 (ESV) 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
UNITY OF VISION
While we can all hold to differing non-absolutes of scripture, this doesn’t mean that we won’t be running in a specific direction on a specific track here at Revival Church. We honor those who have differing positions, but we also honor the clear vision and mandate that God has given us as a body. That vision and mandate does include a specific doctrinal focus and position.
For example, we are a church that openly encourages the practice of praying in tongues. We love and honor those who don’t pray in tongues, yet we aren’t going to eliminate our focus on the gifts for their sake. We know we will run with a certain tribe of people, and that’s OK. That vision is worth protecting.
Please always approach me with any teaching topics that you'd like to present in the church before you teach them. With new people coming in it can be easy for new leaders to presume I'm in agreement with something when I actually am not. A simple bulleted outline is all I need, and I trust you have clarity on the vision of the church and won’t teach in opposition to that.
There's no single stream that I'm 100% in agreement with (that would be weird!)… some of IHOP I agree with, some I don't. Some of Bethel I agree with, some I don't. Some of the Word of Faith I agree with, some I don't. Some Baptist doctrine I agree with, some I don't. And on and on!
Here's a great article on how to differentiate between absolutes and non-absolutes of scripture. I gleaned it from Ted Haggard in his book Primary Purpose:
When discussing ministry doctrines, styles and focuses, it’s important that we identify exactly where the particular topic rests within the whole spectrum. Let me explain. I believe there are several different levels in which we can examine structure or style of ministry. Most church bickering and splits would be eliminated if we understood this. Unity would thrive and the Great Commission would be more quickly achievable. Watch the progression from Absolutes of scripture to Interpretations and beyond:
- ‘Absolutes’– Every Christian church must agree on the absolutes. If a church doesn’t accept an absolute, it would certainly not be considered Christian. Absolutes include the fact that Jesus is God, he rose from the dead, salvation only comes through him, there is one true God, Jesus is coming again, sin separates us from eternal life, etc. We can never sacrifice an absolute. We must never waiver from our position here. Churches that accept the absolutes can get together for prayer, fellowship, etc. In Colorado Springs we had the nations largest National Day of Prayer event. Thousands got together to pray for our city in a downtown park. We all agreed on the absolutes.Example of a violation of an absolute: An Arlington, Virginia, minister said, “We have closed our minds to such trivial considerations as the question of the resurrection of Christ. If you fundamentalists wish to believe that nonsense, we have no objections, but we have more important things to preach than the presence or absence of an empty tomb 20 centuries old.”
- ‘Interpretations’– Next on the list, resting on the foundation of absolutes, are interpretations. These are scriptures, that we form opinions or sometimes even doctrines on. They are always taken within the context of the passage. They are fairly focused ideas, but since they are interpretations, there can sometimes be disagreement. The problem is when we allow this disagreement divide the church. Examples of interpretations can be- everybody is meant to speak in tongues, pre-trib rapture, etc. Since these aren’t absolutes, it’s ok to disagree. It’s tragic when people deem certain movements and people as ‘false’ because they disagree with them over interpretation.
- ‘Deductions’– Deductions are broader and more general than interpretations. You can arrive at a deduction when you read a larger portion of several passages of scripture. Doctrines should never be made on deduction alone, but there is much liberty to allow your ministry to include deductions as long as they agree with and enhance the absolutes. As with interpretations, it’s certainly negative to identify deductions as un-biblical when they in fact don’t contradict an absolute.
- ‘Subjective Opinions’– Broader still, subjective opinions are arrived at by individuals that experience certain insight when searching the scriptures coupled with living out what they find. Of course, subjective opinions must always agree with absolutes and must not contradict scripture or they must be thrown out. Subjective opinions my include teaching that hymns are more effective than contemporary worship or that we should dress like the culture that we are trying to minister and relate to them on their level. This is where ministry style can have a lot of freedom to experiment by trial and error. Discovering what works best in your situation at this level should never be accepted as absolute truth, or even as a deduction.
- ‘Personal Preferences’– Personal preferences may have less to do with controversial scriptural matters and more to do with personality, likes and dislikes. For example, a minister may prefer to have a robed choir every Sunday while another may prefer a single barefoot guitar playing worship leader straight out of the 70’s. Another example would be to take tithes and offerings by passing a plate rather than having the congregation bring the tithe to the front of the sanctuary and lay it on the altar. The Bible is usually silent on such preferences.
- ‘Feelings’– Feelings would include simply what we like and don’t like. Can you believe there have been church splits on this level??! What color the carpet, or whether to use hymnals or a video projector has more to do with atmosphere than with anything else.
- ‘Cultural Norms’– This simply has to do with the style and system of a particular culture. For example, you may find loud ‘Amen’s!’ in an Afro-American church while it may be more subdued in another style of church. You will also find a lot of cultural difference between different denominations and different socio-economic classes. If every church were a hooting and hollering roller coaster ride, then there would be a large segment of society that would not be reached, and vice versa.
Sometimes scripture doesn’t demand something be done a certain way. If we all focus on the absolutes and resist creating divisions based on lower levels, we will certainly have a powerful army ready and equipped to accomplish the Great Commission. Someone once said, “I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.”
Understand, I am all for discussion. Iron sharpens iron. But sometimes, the scripture remains silent or vague. As long as we do everything we can to create healthy churches, we have a lot of freedom to work it many different ways.
It’s time to take an honest look at the typical Christian experience that is largely disappointing for so many.
Sing along with me:
I went to the enemy’s camp and took back what he stole from me, took back what he stole from me, took back what he stole from me…
This is a fun song to sing and has a sold ring of victory to it, but it has always troubled me. I always wondered why Christians seemed to be playing catch up, perpetually trying to gain back what was lost and attempting to convince themselves that they are victorious. We often try to cheerlead our way to believing we are who God says we are. It’s as if we are sitting on a couch in a counselors office, looking into a mirror and saying, “I’m OK. God likes me. I’m a winner. I’m OK. God likes me. I’m a winner.” If we say it enough, surely it will sink in, right?
Again, let’s be honest. Yes, we as Christians all agree that in the end Jesus wins. Or, do we really believe that? Is it simply easier to believe something that’s far removed and chiseled logically into the stone that holds the tenants of our religion?
What if that end of times war exploded violently and experientially right now? Would we simply embrace peace and easily, confidently know that Jesus wins—or would we freak out and worry as devastation creeps onto our front lawn? Would it it result in a crisis of faith or an eruption of faith?
Our foundation of faith (or lack of it) will result in difficult situations either triggering hopelessness and despair or passionate expectancy.
Lets bring it closer to home.
At any Sunday morning church service I could stand in the pulpit and ask the congregation a question: Who here has a history of financial struggle?
Most hands would shoot to the sky. Yet, we know that scripture declares that every need that we have is provided for!
Philippians 4:19 (ESV) 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Do you see the conflict? It’s a crisis of faith that is unfortunately experienced by most Christians!
Think about the 1260 promises in the Word of God. How many are inactive in the lives of Christians? How many have the enemy stolen away? Just where is that camp that we have to find so we can take back what he stole from us?
Psalm 84:11 (NKJV) 11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD will give grace and glory; No good thing will He withhold From those who walk uprightly.
That’s a really good Bible promise!
Why does that verse feel more like a pipe dream than a common reality experienced by Believers?
Because many Believers are actually unbelievers.
They doubt. They are gripped by unbelief.
Check out this passage:
Matthew 13:10-15 (ESV) 10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “ ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. This issue is gripped the unbelievers in the church!
Why don’t we see extreme prosperity, healing, joy, life and freedom in the church today?
Matthew 13:58 (ESV) 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
- Tradition. Another way to say it is historical evidence or past experience. If our confidence and expectations come from past experience and cultural norms instead of the wild realities of the Kingdom, you will live like most every other Christian out there—below the bar of Kingdom wonder.
Matthew 15:6-9 (ESV) 6 …So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”
- Powerlessness. Christians are evidenced by their supernatural power. Check out this problematic passage:
Mark 16:14-18 (ESV) 14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
What a situation we have here! In the same breath that Jesus rebuked them for unbelief he was telling them to wise up and figure this Kingdom thing out. They were commanded to deal with their doubt and change the world. The way they would pass the test? Faith-fueled signs, wonders and miracles. Does it strike you as concerning that there are Christians out there that have not discovered the power of God flowing through them? It’s a very serious issue.
- Failure of performance. Have you ever quoted verses that dealt with an issue you were facing? Did you add some prayer to the mix only to be disappointed by a failed mission? The Bible speaks to this directly:
Matthew 17:19-20 (NKJV) 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
It’s unbelief. Doubt. The moment we give room for any ending other than what is promised in Scripture, you can label that unbelief. So, what was Jesus’ prescription for their unbelief?
Matthew 17:21 (NKJV) 21 However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
We don’t pray and fast to cause demons to come out. We pray and fast to cure our unbelief. Apply this verse to any enemy that is winning in your life. Depression, fear, poverty, sickness. If you don’t have belief that joy and power and prosperity and health are yours for the taking, then move into an extreme season of prayer and fasting. Breakthrough hinges on your ability to fully believe without wavering.
This verse makes the point very clear:
James 1:5-8 (ESV) 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
If we doubt, we can’t expect to receive. Period. If your mind entertains thoughts like, “God might heal me,” you are pretty much done before you began contending.
- No joy of salvation. Ouch. This one hurts, but must be addressed. We see salvation and faith so intertwined throughout scripture that we simply have do deal with this. If we as Believers are living most of our lives in the realm of unbelief can we casually presume to be saved? I’m not so sure. Check this out:
Luke 8:11-15 (ESV) 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
Do you see how faith and salvation are connected? Here we see the devil stealing the very thing that ensures their salvation—their belief. The next group experiences the joy of salvation, but didn’t have sufficient belief when the trials came. They fell away. It’s the last group that hears the word (faith comes by hearing the Word!) and endures and bears fruit with patience.
- Faith in what is visible. If we default to what is visible and humanly understandable, we will fall well below the mark of belief. This can have often tragic results. The story of King Asa should be an alarm for all of us:
2 Chronicles 16:12-13 (ESV) 12 In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from physicians. 13 And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign.
I believe one reason we don’t see more healings in America is because it’s too easy to pop a pill and trust that the doctors can heal us. That misguided faith has been devastating in its impact. The majority of our lives as true Believers exists in the invisible realm of the unseen—in the realm of confident belief.
Hebrews 11:1-3 (NKJV) 1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.
For the Believer, the unseen realm has more substance than what our five senses pick up. For the Believer it’s easy and normal to believe the report of the Lord ahead of the report of human experience or human perception.
Church, it’s time we stop hoping and wishing our way to victory. Hope deferred makes the heart sick! We have to put an end to demonic thievery. Pumping ourselves up and cheerleading our way to a low level confidence in God’s Word must give way to a peaceful assurance of breakthrough. We don’t contend for victory, we start at the point of victory. Now, we don’t have to play catch up as we focus on personal identity and success. We can launch with great faith from the platform of success into the world changing missions that God has assigned us to. As champions and authorities in the Earth we don’t ever allow the enemy to steal anything—instead we take dominion over his camp, his domain!
I see a day coming in the church where everybody who simply yet fully believes is wildly joyful, prosperous, healthy and free—strong and ready to annihilate the kingdom of darkness with force!