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.