I am grateful to Michael Bird, Brian Rosner, and their colleagues for the work that they have done here and their harmony with Christ in their desire to see the Church more unified. Perhaps this book will help other churches guard against the folly that I and many of my young friends experienced so many years ago.
It is true, as Bird and Rosner mention, that "sometimes church division is a tragic necessity." But, as this book rightly argues, division within the church is surely not best - nor biblical. The authors of the essays contained within this little book make a passionate plea for believers to extend grace, mercy, and understanding towards one another - for the sake of unity - on secondary issues. Or, as the editors put it, this book attempts to determine, "how we can disagree over secondary and tertiary matters without breaking the bonds of Christian fellowship."
The authors of these short essays do an excellent job of presenting their topics with clarity and brevity - showing from the Scripture the goal of Christian unity, but also underscoring the fact that there is very little room for disagreement on issues that are central to the gospel. While the authors unanimously affirm that there is some room for disagreement on secondary and tertiary issues, the clarity with which they define the boundaries between the primary and secondary issues is lacking. Malone notes that the Bible gives examples of, "significant, black-and-white, first order issues." But it might be argued that there are myriad issues that all affect the gospel. Perhaps another volume dedicated to clarity in this area is in order.
It may be that the reason for this lack of clarity between primary and secondary issues is rooted in the fact that this book is not mainly about what divides the Church, but is focused on the fact that we ought to work towards unity. In reference to this goal, Malone reminds us that, "we must be prepared to embark on potentially heated discussions, where the stakes appear to one or both sides as carrying substantial weight....on no occasion are we called to settle for disharmony."
Building on Malone's case, Wilson and Rosner propose solutions to disagreement by giving examples from the Old and New Testaments respectively. While Wilson's essay is well written, I'm not convinced that her example from Joshua 22 truly addresses the issue at hand best. The problem here is simple miscommunication. Once the miscommunication is cleared up - everyone is fine. Now, it may be true that many of our church disagreements are just this - poor communication and lack of willingness to heed Malone's advice to truly sit down and communicate - even heatedly if necessary. Nonetheless, I was unhappy with the level to which Wilson minimized the conversation. Rosner's conclusions from his exegesis of Romans 14 are a bit more helpful. As he shows the necessity for strong believers to bear with those who are weaker in the faith, he rightly maintains that, "Good theology can never be an excuse for the arrogant disregard of others. In this case, thinking you are right on a disputable matter does not mean that you can always have things your own way."
With the previous essays focusing on unity, the offering from Michael Bird is helpful in balancing out the scale. Bird draws attention to the fact that there are issues that necessitate division, namely those that are clearly heretical. While the Bible does call us to unity, there are also grave warnings concerning false teachers that would lead people away from the central teachings of the gospel. While Bird does affirm the importance of love and forbearance, he offers some practical advice for believers faced with false teaching remind us that, "schism is never sought, but is simply the result of what happens when truth and error are brought into close proximity, like the natural separation of oil and water."
Bezzant's addition to the argument does little to add to the conversation, but builds on the previous essay's by offering examples from the history of the Protestant movement. Important from Bezzant's comments is the reminder that living in the tension of differing opinions can be helpful and even healthy when all parties are considering one another.
Leithart makes a lengthy case specifically targeted at American believers and denominations - reminding us that as the gospel travels throughout the world and then finds it's way back into our towns and churches via immigration, we ought to be more cognizant of how our faith communities might be transformed and helped by leaving our denominational doors open to different practices of worship. While his points are well-founded, his case studies are too lengthy for the style of this book. I particularly appreciate his closing admonition for pastors to seek out the international pastors in their area in order to partner with and serve one another
All in all, this is a very worthwhile and helpful collection of essays that will help the Church as we continue to navigate the difficult waters of opinion and biblical interpretation and how those things effect the congregations in which we practice. As I consider the importance of the issues brought to light in these essays, I am thankful for organizations like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel for their desire to see believers rally around primary things for the sake of moving the Kingdom of God forward with the good news.
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