While hiding as a fugitive in the Cave of Adullum, David wrote, in verse 1 of what would become the 133rd Psalm: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity!"
Notice carefully that the verse doesn’t say, “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together.” For indeed, many there are in this world who dwell together, but not in unity. Many husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, dwell together—but not in unity. Democrats and Republicans dwell together, in state legislatures and in the halls of Congress, but not in unity. Red states and blue states dwell together on America’s political map, but not in unity. At the United Nations in New York City, diplomats and statesmen from around the world dwell together, but not in unity. Nations and global alliances together occupy the terrain of our tortured planet, but not in unity.
And saddest of all perhaps, even professed Christians can be found who worship together, socialize together, attend school together, sit on church committees together—who do many things together, but not in the unity for which our Lord sought in His prayer for His disciples long ago.
False Unity in the Christian World
Today, the subject of Christian unity is exceedingly popular. The ecumenical movement has never been stronger. And rather than taking the approach so many ecumenists took in the old days, which involved the crafting of delicate compromises in areas of doctrine and lifestyle expectation, the contemporary ecumenical spirit seeks togetherness not by attempting to resolve differences, but by simply ignoring them.
The modern charismatic movement, for example, with its ecstatic tongues-speaking and other supernatural signs, draws professed Christians into its fellowship based on a shared spiritual euphoria, irrespective of wide differences in faith and practice. The Religious Right in contemporary America builds its political coalition among widely varied religious groups, for the purpose of electoral dominance on the basis of the few moral tenets its constituents share in common.
Two fascinating stories during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign involved major doctrinal compromises by conservative Christians, which gave every evidence of being politically rather than biblically motivated. The first was when a presidential candidate left the church she and her family had attended for ten years, because that church continues to teach that the Roman papacy is the Antichrist of Bible prophecy. One was led to wonder why it took this candidate and her family so long to decide this particular doctrinal position was unacceptable to them. Was it because they had suddenly found biblical evidence disproving this belief? Or did it have more to do with how many Roman Catholics happen to live in states like Iowa and New Hampshire?
The second such incident took place in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed Mormonism from the list of religious movements designated as cults on the Association’s website. Again the question arises: Did Billy and Franklin Graham do this because the Mormon Church has officially changed its beliefs, and is now in harmony with the teachings of Bible-based Christianity? Or did it have more to do with the fact that so many evangelical Christians believed they had no political choice but to support a presidential candidate who just happened to be a Mormon?
In other words, was this switch on the Grahams’ part based on biblical exegesis? Or political expediency?
What has happened to doctrinal integrity in the ranks of those professing to hold biblical authority supreme over all? The robust convictions that birthed the Protestant Reformation are being swept aside. Neither the authority of Scripture, the exclusive mediation of Christ between God and man, the solemn warnings of prophecy concerning the end-time Antichrist, not even basic biblical teachings regarding Christ and the doctrine of salvation, are being allowed to stand in the way of alliances driven by convenience and circumstantial imperatives. More and more we see the predictions of inspired counsel fulfilled, as Christians set aside major issues of disagreement for the sake of acquiring the political and coercive power depicted in Revelation 13 and The Great Controversy.
False Unity in Contemporary Adventism
But sadly, the lure of false unity is not confined to the non-Adventist Christian world. Some are presently seeking to nurture this illusion of fabricated oneness within God’s remnant church itself. Theories are advanced, conferences are held, in which major differences in doctrine, worship, and lifestyle are relegated—at the very least—to implied unimportance. All it is claimed that we need, these folks insist, is Jesus.
It sounds so wonderful.
According to this mindset, we don’t need to worry if the authority of Scripture is compromised. We don’t need to worry if the writings of Ellen White are treated with indifference or even contempt. We don’t need to worry if professors in our schools teach Darwinian evolution, or if denominational employees or institutions endorse or tolerate agitation in favor of accepting homosexual practice within the church. We don’t need to worry if the sanctuary message and the significance of 1844 are denied. We don’t need to worry if certain ones continue to maintain that even through God’s power in the life, victory over sin remains impossible. All that matters in this eclectic spiritual Nirvana of theirs is that we are all “one in Christ.”
Strangely enough, this reasoning is nothing new, despite some of the more radical ideas it seeks to accommodate in contemporary times. As a born-and-bred Adventist coming of age during the 1970s, I remember the pervasiveness of such talk in the Bible classes, youth rallies, and other religious gatherings among Adventist young people in those days. True, it was less blatant in some cases than in others, but the basic message could be summarized in the phrase: “Doctrine is nice, but Jesus is better.” The wiser among such persons were always careful to remind their listeners that they weren’t denying the importance of sound doctrine, Bible prophecy, or standards of holy living. All they were trying to say, they insisted, was that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was presumably more important.
None can deny, of course, that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is more important than a mere theoretical knowledge of what is right, or a merely superficial adherence to lifestyle or worship standards. But many modern and postmodern Adventists have grown increasingly less careful in distinguishing the internalized acceptance of truth and obedience through God’s converting power, from the sort of surface piety that is properly termed legalism. Blanket statements that “doctrine does not save,” “obedience does not save,” take little or no time to distinguish beliefs or activity apart from conversion from beliefs and activity received and produced in the life through the experience of conversion. For too many among us, all these things have been relegated to the “non-salvation” pile, irrespective of whether conversion is involved or not. The unity of Christ’s body, so it is claimed, is only hindered by such particularities. All we need, such persons tell us, is Jesus.
But does the written counsel of God endorse this vision of Christian unity?
Two Visions of Christian Unity
The Bible presents two very different kinds of Christian unity. One of these is found in our Lord’s prayer for His disciples, just before His death:
Sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy Word is truth. As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word. 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 (John 17:17-21).
The ecumenical movement is fond of quoting the last of the above verses. Tragically, they neglect to consider the preceding verses, which maintain that such unity cannot exist apart from being sanctified through God’s Word of truth. Which means that according to Jesus Himself, there is no “oneness” possible without sanctification through the truths of His Father’s Word.
But another Bible passage says a movement will arise in the last days which will seek to fabricate unity among professed Christians apart from God’s Word of transcendent truth. We read about it in the fourth chapter of the book of Isaiah:
And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by Thy name, to take away our reproach. (Isa. 4:1)
In context this is clearly an end-time passage, as the following verses speak of the final purification, beauty, and glory of a restored Jerusalem (verses 2-6)—a destiny not experienced by ancient Israel and which therefore awaits the spiritual heirs of the Old Testament faithful. A woman in Bible prophecy, of course, represents a church (Jer. 6:2; II Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-8). The number seven representing completion and perfection, we can fairly assume that the “seven women” of Isaiah 4 symbolize the entire professed Christian world, with of course the exception of God’s faithful people, who are depicted in Revelation as “not defiled with women” (Rev. 14:4)—that is, the false churches.
The one Man Isaiah 4 is talking about is arguably a reference to the Lord Himself. And these women say to the Lord, “We will eat our own bread.” Bread in Scripture symbolizes God’s Word of truth. Jeremiah, pleading with God at one point, declared, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them” (Jer. 15:16). In His battle with Satan in the wilderness, Christ declared, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).
The seven women go on to say, “We will wear our own apparel.” What does apparel represent in Scripture? The book of Isaiah declares, “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Speaking of the bride of Christ, the book of Revelation states: “And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints” (Rev. 19:8).
But these women in Isaiah 4 are saying to the Lord, We’ll eat our own bread—in other words, we’ll have our own doctrines. We’ll wear our own garments—which means we’ll have our own righteousness. But what in fact do they desire from Jesus?
Let us be called by Thy name, to take away our reproach (Isa. 4:1).
Christians and non-Christians alike agree that disunity among Jesus’ professed followers is a reproach to the Christian faith. And these women therefore ask Jesus’ permission to use His name, despite doctrinal and moral unfaithfulness, in order to take away this reproach. What they fail to understand is that a far greater reproach to the Christian cause than disunity is disobedience to the divine standard of righteousness.
They fail also to consider that Jesus predicted a group of Christians in the last days who will do everything, supposedly, in His name, without rendering obedience to His commandments.
Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father, which is in heaven.
Many will say unto Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:21-23).
In our next installment we will further explore the distinction some make between Jesus on the one hand, and doctrinal and moral truth on the other, in the light of God’s Word.