Discern Your Doctrine

June 2, 2007

My daughter and her husband recently brought to my attention a sermon entitled Discern Your Doctrine (available online here) . The sermon was delivered at a recent ecumenical, charismatic conference for singles and young marrieds. The speaker was Mark Dever, minister of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He addressed a very important question for Christians who seek unity: How far can we go in extending fellowship to people with whom we have doctrinal disagreements?

I want to focus in on a few key points in the message. I think he shared some insights that can be very valuable to us in the Restoration Movement as we wrestle with our own doctrinal divisions.

Considering the boundaries of cooperation and fellowship, he asked the question, “What are we together for?” His point was that the degree of unity that is required depends on the reason for being together. Feeding the homeless together requires a different level of doctrinal unity, than getting married, for example. Or, you could pray together with someone with whom you have a doctrinal disagreement that would prevent you from being members of the same church. Agreement needs to extend to the area in which you are cooperating, but not necessarily to all other areas.

To apply this to the Restoration Movement groups, perhaps a non-instrumental church could cooperate with an instrumental church in activities that do not include instrumental music.

The central question in the message was, “What must we agree upon?” Dever acknowledged that this is a dangerous question. One might be tempted to ask, “What can I get away with?” That is the wrong approach. We need to care about what is true, and we must seek to understand truth and to respond appropriately to it. But not all errors are of equal consequence. On a few topics there must be agreement, in order to accept one another as Christians. Disagreement on some other topics may not prevent full fellowship.

Dever proposed four questions to test whether a truth is essential to Christian fellowship:

1 – How clear is it in scripture?
2 – How clear do others think it is in scripture, especially respected people?
3 – How near is it (or its implications) to the gospel?
4 – What would the effect be in practice if we allow disagreement in this area?

He gave several examples to illustrate the use of these tests.

The millennium (Rev 20:2,5). The 1000 year reign is a much debated topic among Christians.
1 – How clear is it in scripture? It is mentioned in two verses, in a context that does not answer all the disputed questions.
2 – How clear do others think it is in scripture, especially respected people? Commentators disagree. There are many differing opinions among people who have studied the subject in depth.
3 – How near is it (or its implications) to the gospel? A person can believe in the essentials of the gospel and respond appropriately without knowing the correct interpretation of the thousand years.
4 – What would the effect be in practice if we allow disagreement in this area? Many churches have members with varying understanding of this topic, with no harmful effect on the church.

Prayers for the dead (Catholic practice) Dever said that this practice contradicts salvation by faith alone, since someone else’s prayer is supposed to change the destiny of a person’s soul. I would present the argument differently, but the essence of my objection is similar. The practice of praying for the salvation of the dead suggests a fundamental error in understanding of the gospel

Egalitarianism vs complementarianism – This was new terminology for me, but basically it addresses the woman’s role in the church. Dever’s point was that accepting women in leadership of the church contradicts direct teaching of scripture, implying that the Bible is not the ultimate authority. So compromising on a topic like this would undermine the authority of scripture and thus the entire framework of Christianity. He illustrated with a comment from a paedobaptist: “If there were a teaching in 1 Tim 2 saying ‘I do not permit an infant to be baptized’ then we would not have any disagreement on the subject of infant baptism.” Dever’s point was that we do have such a teaching on the subject of women in authority. And he indicated that the history of the past 50 years does not give any reason to believe that those who compromise on the role of women would not continue to compromise on other topics until the doctrine of the church looks just like the philosophy of the world.

Cooperation in evangelism – Dever said that his congregation had been asked to perform evangelistic training for a campaign which would send new converts to whatever self-described Christian church was nearby regardless of doctrine. Dever and the other leaders of his congregation declined to provide the training because they could not in good conscience send new converts to churches where they would be taught what they consider to be false doctrine.

In the latter part of the sermon, Dever talked about how to disagree well. He described a unique type of debate in which he and his opponent each sought to write sentences on the board, with which he believed his opponent would agree. The exercise was quite effective at bringing the two to a better understanding and respect for each other. That seems to be a much better approach to dialog than the more traditional hard-hitting debate, which too often presents a caricature of the opponent and his beliefs, leading to less respect rather than more, and a poor understanding of one another.

As I listened to the sermon, I was struck by the similarity of many of his points to the message of Jack Reese in The Crux of the Matter. There are certain doctrines that are central to the gospel, on which there must be agreement in order to have Christian unity. Then there are other doctrines that are farther from the core, on which it is not essential to have complete agreement in order to have unity.

I’m sure there are some core differences between many ecumenicals and many in the Restoration Movement, which would hinder fellowship between these groups. However within the Restoration Movement, I believe we can learn some things from Dever’s message that can help us to overcome some of our division over less central issues. And perhaps through respectful dialog we can come to agreement even with those outside the Restoration Movement on topics like conversion which are so close to the core of the gospel.


  1. Alan-Sounds like a great sermon! This is a discussion that we should be having in our churches. I think for many in very conservative Churches of Christ they obviously consider everything a salvation issue. If you don’t agree with them on every point then you are wrong and they are against you. I obviously don’t agree with this line of thinking nor do you.I think that this was one of the big misconceptions last year with all of the discussions between us and Independent Christian Churches. We were asking those types of questions. But some could not see beyond the instrumental issue and thought that even talking to those churches meant apostasy. Sad. Thanks for pointing out the sermon. And thanks for continuing to promote unity through your blog. You are having some meaningful discussions. Know that while I don’t always comment, I am always reading what you have to say and trying to use it to grow and be challenged in my own ministry.Blessings,Kent

  2. Alan, I believe there are those in Restoration Movement (RM) churches who would agree with your essay (myself included). Where are these people? How can we best effect change within ourselves, our congregations and between congregations (without creating division)? How best could efforts be combined to bring about greater unity from a grassroots level? I posted a link to your essay on RestorationUnity.com.Sincerely, Phil

  3. Hi Kent,Thanks for the kind comments. In many places there is movement away from the rigid lines that have been drawn in the past on peripheral matters. Some folks are not comfortable with that movement and may continue to draw those lines. Over time, as more people articulate the better alternative, I think the “center of gravity” will move to a better place.Hi Phil,Thanks for the link. I don’t know exactly how to answer those questions, but the best thing I can think of for like-minded leaders to do is to articulate their view publicly, both in their own churches and whenever they have a forum to address other congregations or other parts of the Restoration Movement. The more people who are saying these things, the better.

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