By Mike Willis
Bible unity is the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3), the “unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13). It is a unity that rests on the revealed word of God. Not all unity has God’s approval (see 2 Cor. 6:14-18), only that which is grounded in the word of God.
There are several axioms that one must believe before unity on the revealed truth can occur. Let us consider the following presuppositions at this time:
I. There Is An Absolute Truth.
In order for men to be united in the truth, one must first presuppose that there is an objective truth. We live in a society that has gradually come to accept subjective truth. Each individual has his own personal truth that is true for him but may not be true for others. This leads to an “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” approach to doctrinal and moral truth. Moral and doctrinal absolutes are replaced by subjective truth. So long as this view of truth is accepted, there can be no unity of faith. Only moral and doctrinal unity-in-diversity can exist. The following popular statements are the logical conclusions drawn from the commitment to subjective truth and unity-in-diversity: “You believe in your God, I’ll believe in mine.” “You believe Jesus was the illegitimate child of Joseph and Mary, but I believe in the virgin birth.” “You choose homosexuality; I’ll be content with heterosexuality.” “You believe in divorce for any reason; I choose to believe there is only one reason for divorce that allows a person to remarry.” Any and every view and practice must be welcomed into the local church.
Writing in defense of “tolerance” (another way of referring to doctrinal unity-in-diversity), W.E. Garrison observed, “He whose theory of the world and of life rests upon the conviction that the framework of reality is a system of universal principles and immutable truths cannot lightly tolerate any program which appears to do violence to them. These universals and absolutes are always ready for use as the infallible norms by which to judge any opinion and course of action” (Tolerance 19). He charged that intolerance was related to the Hebrew concept of truth being absolute (44). Later Garrison said,
Whether Christians can be both tolerant and cooperative depends at last upon their ideas of God. With a God who delivers doctrines, frames codes, and lays down explicit and immutable programs of action, there can be little hope of more than a tepid and prudential toleration by one group for others who hold a different view as to the exact content of these revealed doctrines, codes, and programs. With a God who is the giver of life and grace but who leaves all formulations of doctrine and laws of conduct to the wisdom and experience of men, there is opportunity for the development of toleration toward varieties of opinion and practice without the sacrifice of earnestness in contending for that which seems best to each (236).
W.E. Garrison correctly observed that tolerance of many different beliefs, as is common to unity-in-diversity, necessitates a rejection of the belief in an absolute truth.
The rejection of the Bible as a blueprint, opposition to the restoration principle, and the present day condemnation of “legalism” are affirmations of subjective truth.
We reject subjective truth and teach that there is an objective truth, an absolute standard for determining right and wrong. That standard is the Bible. If we accept that the Bible is the revelation of God, it is the truth. There are a number of evidences that the Bible claims to be the revelation of God and, therefore, the absolute truth. Consider some of them:
1. The Old Testament. We can examine only a few statements that emphasize this. (The reader should be careful not to conclude that the few examples cited are a result of a paucity of evidence.) Solomon said, “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23). Solomon said that there is an objective truth that men can learn and make their own. David asserted that he “walked in the truth” (Ps. 26:3; 86:11) and taught the truth (Ps. 40:10). He identified the truth with the revealed word of God (Ps. 119:43,151). He said, “The sum of thy word is truth” (Ps. 119:160, NASB).
2. Jesus expressed his belief in an objective truth. He stated that men must know the truth in order to be saved from sin (John 8:32). He revealed the truth (John 1:17) and was the truth (John 14:6; cf. Eph. 4:21). His word is truth (John 17:17). Furthermore, this absolute truth will be the standard by which all men are judged (John 12:47-48).
3. The Scriptures are the absolute standard of objective truth. They are the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 14:37-38). They are an all-sufficient revelation for all men (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
II. The Truth (the Bible) Can Be Known.
Not only has God given us the truth, but also men can know it. An objective truth that cannot be known by men is worthless, as worthless as having $1 million that a person cannot spend. However, the Bible teaches that men can know the revealed truth.
1. The truth is a revelation. The fact that God has revealed his truth means that men can know it (see Rom. 16:25-26). The word apokalupsis means “to uncover, reveal.” By definition, a “revelation” is something that can be known.
2. The Scriptures expressly state that men can know the truth. Paul stated that men could know his understanding of the mystery of Christ by reading what he had written (Eph. 3:1-5). Indeed, the Lord commanded that men “understand” what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:17). God has not commanded of man that which is impossible for him to do. The command to “prove all things and hold fast to that which is good” presupposes that men can do that (1 Thess. 5:21). Paul said that men can know the truth (1 Tim. 4:3). Those who had fallen back into sin have departed from the truth that they once knew (Heb. 10:26; 2 Pet. 2:20-22).
3. Jesus made salvation conditional upon one’s knowing the truth. Jesus said, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Are we to think that Jesus made salvation conditional upon man’s doing what is impossible for him to do to understand the truth? What kind of God would offer man salvation upon terms impossible for him to attain?
God made man as he is and the Bible as it is. The Bible was intended to reveal God’s will to man. If man is unable to understand the Bible, there is either (a) something wrong with man or (b) something wrong with the Bible. But, in either case, the problem falls back on him who made both. To state that men cannot know the truth is to cast aspersions on God!
III. Men Can Understand
That Truth (the Bible) Alike.
This third conclusion is the logical extension of the second axiom. If men understand the Bible at all, they understand it alike. Men may misunderstand the Bible and, because of the misunderstanding, understand it differently. But, when men understand the Bible, they necessarily understand it alike.
God’s revelation is not subject to 100 different equally good interpretations. To so assert is to reflect on (a) God’s ability to reveal himself or (b) His integrity. When God spoke, he spoke in such a manner as to communicate his will to man. He did not speak with the purpose of leaving ambiguity and uncertainty.
Every passage that condemns false doctrine is a bold assertion that men are expected to understand the Bible alike. Consider some of these passages:
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).
Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds (2 John 9-11).
A number of similar passages could be cited, but the implication is that men were expected to come to a common understanding of what God said on the particular issue under discussion.
A fundamental contradiction occurs when brethren argue from the Bible to prove that men cannot understand the Bible alike. Must all men understand alike the Bible teaching that men cannot understand the Bible alike? If a person is going to affirm that men cannot understand the Bible alike, he needs to make his argument without appealing to the Bible for his authority. Every argument he makes based on the Bible contradicts his presupposition. Every argument he makes assumes that all men can understand the Bible alike. To argue and defend his case, he must reject the Bible as his final authority.
The Devil’s Assault:
“We Cannot Understand the Bible Alike”
The devil leads men into a false unity, a moral and doctrinal unity-in-diversity, by deceiving them into believing that men cannot understand the Bible alike. In reading articles advocating unity-in-diversity, there is a common belief that men cannot understand the Bible alike. The usual argument is to list areas in which men are disagreed and then conclude that we can never have unity if we are expecting all men to believe the same truths. Let’s try that out on New Testament areas of conflict. Here is a partial list of things on which New Testament saints disagreed:
Jesus was in the flesh (1-3 John)
There is no bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15)
The resurrection is already past (2 Tim. 2:18)
Man must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15; Gal.)
Men should not eat meat (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
Men should not marry (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
If we argued like our unity-in-diversity advocates, we would say, “We can no more think alike than we can look alike.” “All truths are equally true, but not equally important.” “We must agree to disagree on these areas.” The implication of these arguments is this: we cannot expect to understand the Bible alike. But this approach was not followed in these conflicts. Brethren did not practice moral and doctrinal unity-in-diversity but worked to attain the unity of the Spirit a unity grounded on revealed truth.
When men start blaming doctrinal disagreements on the lack of clarity of the Scriptures, they are arguing for unity in-diversity on the presupposition that men cannot understand the Bible alike. If the fact that men are disagreed on, for example, divorce and remarriage is proof of the lack of clarity of Scripture and justifies unity-in diversity, the same kinds of disagreements on baptism, institutionalism, instrumental music in worship, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the existence of God justify unity-in-diversity in these areas as well!
Tolerance of all doctrinal differences is too broad a fellowship for those advocating unity-in-diversity. They see that these principles consistently followed would ultimately lead to universalism, for men are just as divided over whether or not God exists, Jesus is the Son of God, the virgin birth, resurrection, etc. as they are over church support of human institutions (missionary societies, hospitals, colleges, etc.), instrumental music in worship, choirs, women preachers, etc. To limit the application of the unity-in-diversity principle, the heirs of the restoration who embrace unity-in-diversity divide the Bible into two sections: “gospel” and “doctrine.” Men are expected to understand alike the limited portion of Scripture which they subjectively and arbitrarily label “gospel”; the rest of the Bible, which is subjectively and arbitrarily labeled “doctrine,” can be understood differently. In these areas of subjectively chosen subjects alone, unity-in-diversity is possible.
As the years pass, the number of items that are included in the area of “doctrine” is gradually expanded. This can be seen from the history of every denomination that has accepted the unity-in-diversity approach. Soon the church that practices unity-in-diversity stands for nothing. A person can hold membership in the denomination and believe anything.
The obvious weakness of this is the self-contradictory nature of the presupposition underlying the unity-in-diversity plea: All men must understand alike that men cannot understand the Bible alike. Since truth is consistent with itself, the proposition that men cannot understand the Bible alike is to be rejected as self-contradictory. In addition it is a different kind of unity from the unity of the Spirit.
These three axioms are essential to attaining the unity of the Spirit: (1) There is an absolute truth; (2) That truth can be known; and (3) Men can understand that truth alike. Unless men can agree that these axioms are true, we cannot attain and maintain the “unity of the Spirit.” 9-11).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 18, p. 2
September 15, 1994