Unity and Doctrinal Disagreements

April 21, 2006

Can we have unity with brothers in error? When we encounter believers who are teaching or practicing Christianity with (what we believe to be) an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of scripture, what relationship should we have with them?

I just performed a quick Google search for the term “brothers in error.” The query returned 177 links. I did not visit them all, but the vast majority of the ones I saw were making the point that we are all brothers in error. None of us has figured everything out perfectly, so we are all “in error” on some point. So if unity is possible, it must be possible to accept a brother who is in error. And therefore if unity is commanded, it is mandatory that we accept those who are our “brothers in error.”

Hebrews 5:11-6:3 says:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

Here we read of a group of Christians who apparently lacked a basic understanding of things like repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection, and judgment. Yet it is quite clear (eg. chapters 12 and 13) that the writer is addressing them as Christians.

Carl Ketcherside once wrote:

It is not a choice between “the instrument party” in error, and “the non-instrument party” with no error. The fact that there are two dozen factions in the non-instrument segment proves that we are not free from error. It is a question as to which brothers in error I will associate with openly and freely. I do not endorse any of their errors, nor do I expect them to endorse any of mine. Therefore, it is really a choice of brethren, and not of errors. But I have no choice of brothers. I can no more choose my spiritual brothers than I could my fleshly brothers. Brotherhood is established by fatherhood; fraternity is the result of paternity. I shall love all of my brothers and move among them as they will allow, sharing in what they can convey, sharing with them what little I have learned. I shall receive them as God received me, not because of perfection, but in spite of imperfection.

We can embrace a brother without endorsing his errors. And hopefully he can embrace us without endorsing ours! It is not our doctrinal agreement that makes us brothers. Everyone who is a son of God is my brother. Gal 3:26-29 states:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What makes a person a son of God? From the above passage, a person becomes a son of God through having faith in Christ Jesus, being baptized into Christ and thus being clothed with Christ. And therefore all who have done that are “one in Christ Jesus.” That defines who is my brother. I must accept all such people as my brothers regardless of their misunderstandings about other things. They may need to be gently and patiently taught, but I must embrace them without reservation as my brothers.

In the same article linked above, Carl Ketcherside continued (emphasis added):

Our brother is mistaken when he writes that I think “that all of us ought to ignore all doctrinal differences.” That is the exact opposite of what I think. We could not ignore doctrinal differences if we tried to do it, and the harder we tried the less possibility there would be of doing it. What I think is that conformity in opinions and interpretations is not essential to the fellowship but fellowship is essential to arriving at harmony. Not one admonition to “live in harmony with one another” (e.g., Rom. 15:5) was ever written by an apostle to bring people into the fellowship. All such exhortations were addressed to those in fellowship and because they were in it. So long as we try to restore “fellowship” by arguing our differences we will only create more division. We need to restore a proper sense of fellowship first and discuss our differences within this frame of reference. Then fellowship will not be disrupted every time we differ. Our present course is suicidal!

Ketcherside made a crucial point: We cannot restore “fellowship” by arguing over our differences. Instead we need to restore fellowship based on our common adoption as sons of God. Then, we need to instruct one another with great humility, gentleness, and patience, until we all reach unity. Let’s not wait until all disagreements vanish before we embrace our brothers. And above all let’s not engage in quarrels over every point of disagreement. As Ketcherside points out, that path is suicidal.

Paul wrote in Eph 4:11-13:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

That is the biblical route to unity. We don’t start out knowing it all. We need to be taught, and inspired, and shepherded, until we reach a mature understanding of the Son of God. Let’s embark on that route!


  1. Do you listen to Wade Hodges?

  2. Many in the COC realize the need for unity, but too often come to the table with a list of errors that must be corrected by those outside the COC before unity can be achieved. Without capitulating to our demands there will be no recognition of them as being our brothers.Unless I’m missing something in your posts, you already accept those who differ with the COC as your brothers in Christ, and are aware we all err to some extent regardless of how our “church signs” are worded.Guess I’m just curious if your advocating unity for only those within the Stone-Campbell Movement, or unity with all believers who claim Jesus as their savior.Most churches (outside the RM) I’m familiar with don’t see a great need to push for unity, they already believe those in the COC are their brothers even if they disagree with some of our beliefs; therefore, unity is something they already have with churches sporting a different name on their “church sign.” Perhaps I’m too thick-headed to understand exactly what kind of unity we are to seek; I believe as individual Christians, regardless of what we call our “home” church, we can claim other believers outside our circle as our brothers without needing any “church” approval.

  3. Milly,I haven’t listened to Wade Hodges speak, though I have read a little from him.Larry:I’m open to embracing as my brother anyone who has been adopted as God’s son. My conviction is, that happens when you repent of sins, make Jesus Lord, are baptized in the name of Jesus, and therefore have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of people who sincerely believe differently from that, and have not completed their conversion, based on the way I understand scripture. I respect their sincerity. I believe they love God and are obeying the scriptures as they understand them. But in all honesty I cannot call such a person my brother in Christ until they have been baptized, thereby becoming God’s son and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is what I understand when I read the scriptures, and that is what I must live by as long as I continue to see it that way. I don’t condemn those folks but I wish they would finish the process so they could receive all the benefits God promises. I wish I could be more open minded on this but to do so I would have to suppress my conscience on what I believe the scriptures say.I also recognize that there are people outside the Restoration Movement that have done everything I’ve described. Those folks are my brothers in Christ.Alan

  4. Larry,I believe in Baptism full in however, I know that others don’t. I was told by a Catholic priest that he believed immersion is best. I also believe that everyone God created is a brother or sister. I pray for the lost and rejoice in those that are found. The table that we sit at will have souls from lots of rituals. We as man have put the lines in the sand that God will erase. Radical thinking from a COC person. No. I am not alone. I’m pleased to call you brother. alan,You can also listen to Wade’s sermons on line.History in the Making is a good listen.

  5. I respect your stand on unity and your unwillingness to sacrifice your belief that baptism is essential if we are to be brothers.What would we be willing to change in ourselves that may be contrary to another groups belief in order to achieve unity? I’m having a difficult time visualizing giving up anything, including much of our cherished traditions.My understanding of baptism and its essentiality to our salvation mirrors your viewpoint. I’m not aware of too many churches that don’t practice baptism to some degree; we just may not agree on their methods. Do we only accept those in other churches who have been completely immersed, or is partial immersion, or sprinkling acceptable for the sake of unity?Is it possible that when we only accept as brothers those who have been baptized exactly as we have (according to our interpretation,) we alienate and create an impossible atmosphere for unity?Sorry I ask so many questions. It just seems like some answers are needed, not just from you, but all who would seek a united brotherhood.Until I can honestly comprehend, exactly, what is needed by all concerned seekers of unity, I propose to treat all who believe in God and His Son as my brother. At a later time there will be those far superior than me that will remove the tares from the wheat and then we will all know exactly who is our brother.

  6. Just to avoid any confusion, I will start by saying that I agree with Alan’s perspective on this. Now…I have recently been able to break free of the “nose-snubbing” toward other religions that I unfortunatley practiced for the longest time. I no longer look at people who genuinely love God but haven’t the some convictions as I have in the same way I used to. I consider them as lovers of God and men. And their faith should not be frowned upon.I believe there are two aspects of unity being discussed here. One is unity about Christ regarding His teaching. The other is unity in Christ regarding our salvation. The former is spoken about in passages like Hebrews 12:14, Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.I must strive to be unified with anyone on this planet. (Even if they do not believe, I am still commanded to achieve some level of unity with them.) I must admit that it is a little easier to do this with those who believe and love God and His Word, even when those beliefs vary from my own convictions. And there will most certainly be a better quality of unity with those folks than with the non-believer. Recently I’ve made extra efforts to build relationships with those of other beliefs regarding Christ’s teachings. It’s been interesting, fun, and rewarding.However, regarding “unity in Christ”, That is addressed in passages like Col. 2:11-12, “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. I cannot, in conscience, say that someone who has not had their sins washed away through the waters of baptism is united with me “soul-to-soul” in Christ. Though the friendship be tight, there is always this wall that keeps me from being 100% unified. And no, I do not believe this to be a self-imposed wall.Try to picture a believer of some other plan of salvation and I studying the Bible with a guy who wants to know Christ. When it comes to the “What must I do to be saved” part it could get a little wierd, don’t you think? So, to the best of my ability, I will love and be unified with all people. But when it comes to unity IN Christ, I cannot let go of my core beliefs.

  7. Milly,Thanks for the tip regarding Wayne Hodges online sermons.Larry, You asked whether we can accept as brothers those who are “baptized” in ways other than immersion. I use the Bible as the standard for determining who my brother is. That sounds trite but it actually is, in practice, how I do that. So I can accept as brothers those who have been immersed according to the scriptures. For those who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus without being immersed, I don’t consider them brothers because I don’t see a scripture calling them sons of my Father. I still respect them and their faith. But they are missing something biblically, something I believe is of great importance. I’d love to help them fill in what is missing but we all know how difficult that can be. The CoC has a reputation for being combative on this and I don’t want to be that way. I will gently teach and then patiently wait for God to work.Conversion really is a unique topic for me. God defines who is my brother. He defines a process through which that happens, and I can’t change his process. Once a person has become a son of God he is my brother, regardless of other doctrinal differences. So there is a wide range of potential disagreements which would not prevent me from calling someone my brother. As Ketcherside said, that doesn’t mean I endorse his errors, and I don’t expect him to endorse mine. Disagreements over things like church government, instrumental music, number of cups in communion, frequency of communion, eschatology, etc would not cause me to reject as my brother a person who made Jesus Lord and was baptized in his name.Danny,You make a great point about the “nose-snubbing”. We often use the term “unity” in some confusing ways. Biblically, unity is a destination. We don’t start out there. We are in a process, being brought to complete unity. (Eph 4:11-13, John 17 etc) We need to love one another along the way.Alan

  8. Alan:Great post, as usual. In one of your comments, you mention Baptism and the receipt of the Holy Spirit. I think that this is key to the conversation.My wife was recently baptised….but she grew up going to church, in the Assemblies of God. The AOG teach baptism as part of the conversion process in their churches, but don’t consider it required for salvation.Sara considered herself a Christian before and after her Baptism. While I convinced her that Baptism was part of God’s plan for her, and that she needed to be baptized to be obedient, she didn’t totally buy that it was a required part of her conversion.We talked about this recently because a friend of ours at church calls her a “new Christian” often, and it kind of bothers Sara since she felt she was a Christian before her baptism. After reading up on the AOG’s practices and hearing her thoughts, I was able to explain to her why I think Baptism (immersion) is so important to the conversion process. The AOG teaches, like we do, that Baptism imparts the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, “The Helper,” changes us internally. It is God inside of us, helping us to live a more holy life, helping us to die to ourselves. Without the Holy Spirit indwelling inside of us, we are unable to live the way that God intends for us. It is impossible for us to be who we are supposed to be without it.There are other important things about Baptism as well, but I think the imparting of the Holy Spirit is one of the most important. This is why those who haven’t been immersed aren’t yet our brothers and sisters. Yes, they love God, yes, they want to obey him…but they haven’t fully obeyed him yet, and they will not be able to fully obey him with their own power – they need the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit.-Clarke

  9. Which usage of “brother” is meant when Jesus teaches us to “love our brother as ourselves” (perhaps paraphrased slightly!)??

  10. anonymous,I think you are referring to the commandment in the law (Lev 19:18), to love your neighbor as yourself. An expert in the law asked Jesus the same question you asked, and he responded with the parable of the good Samaritan–and said go and do likewise. Luke 10:25-37. It’s not limited to those who are in a covenant relationship with God.

  11. Is it our responsibility to decide who is in a covnant relationship with God?

  12. Anonymous wrote:> Is it our responsibility to decide who is > in a covnant relationship with God?No, the passage just says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, in the same way that the good Samaritan did.

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