Howard Marshall on Christian Harmony
Commenting on harmony in the church, Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology, p. 347) writes:
Such harmony could arise in two ways. One possibility is that there is considerable toleration of different points of view, so that people do not fight over differences of opinion on nonessential matters. The other possibility is that people are united because they are in agreement about how they should think and act.
Our generation will not get back on track until it hears this message loud and clear.
Let’s say, for example, that you are in a traditional Baptist church and have a desire (which you share with your pastor and others) that the church move forward toward what all of you consider to be a more biblical ecclesiology, in this case a plurality of elders (“elder-led congregationalism”). This desire, if pursued, is likely to lead to divisions in the church if carried out selfishly – that is, if you fail to consider the other person’s needs rather than just your own. So, although you are convinced that having multiple elders is a healthier and more biblical pattern for the church than a single pastor, you are not interested in fighting to get your way. In seeking to introduce change to our churches, there can never be any irritation or ridicule toward someone with whom we might disagree. We must banish from our mindset once and for all both censoriousness and contempt.
At the same time, it is still possible (and, I think, both desirable and needful) that every congregation consider carefully what the Scriptures teach “about how they should think and act” (as Marshall puts it). I think this is what Paul means by “having the same mind” in Phil. 2:2. He is referring to a disposition of like-mindedness whereby we bring to the table an attitude of unity, cooperation, amity, and harmony. This is a far cry from putting our brains in park or neutral. And it is certainly no excuse for sloppy thinking. There must be agreement in the congregation that the Word of God comes first, and that whatever course of action is decided upon must be dictated by conviction and not simply by convention. We would all do well to remember that it is our duty to have biblical convictions, and that it is our equal duty to allow others to have theirs. But I’m talking about convictions, not blind allegiance to tradition.
I am hopeful that all of us, but especially the 20- and 30-somethings in our churches, might be willing to be nothings in God’s great kingdom-building program, and that we will refuse to overemphasize the “distinctives” that divide us rather than the faith that unites us. It is my constant hope and prayer that we will adopt a big-hearted and grace-awakened approach to kingdom work without legalism, traditionalism, manipulation, negativism, bitterness, and perfectionism. The quality of our churches depends on it. Paul wrote about putting away childish things when we became adults (1 Cor. 13:11), and that includes mindless adherence to ritual. The readers of Hebrews were sternly chastised for their inattentiveness to God’s Word and to their responsibility for spiritual growth (Heb. 5:11-14). It is folly to limit our understanding of the faith to what we learned when we were spiritual infants.
Evangelicals are many but not much, as one sage wryly put it. We have so often failed on character, we have so often failed on kindness, we have so often failed on love. But there is nothing weak or effeminate about grace. At the same time, the church must always be reforming itself. For it is just as easy to fail on truth as it is to fail on love. So let’s be patient with each other, remembering that there are some things that will never clear up until we grow up, and others not until we go up.
February 19, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.