First, I’d love it for the church to be in unity. The body of Christ is not a segregated body, and it ought never be. Each denomination, I believe, ought to be able to relate to one another in continual dialogue and friendship without any sense of malice or animosity.
Second, I do agree that certain theological differences can be safely ignored – to the degree to which Scripture is silent on a particular issue we too must remain silent. God has given us all that we need to know in this life in holy Scripture. Nothing is to be added unto it, and we must speak only to the extent that he speaks.
So, there is certainly a praiseworthy concern driving those who ask this question – a concern that all Christians must share. However, to press this question in a way that relativizes all but the essential doctrines (those doctrines that gets you “saved”, is what normally people mean by this) of Christianity is, I think, to make a grave mistake. For the sake of space, I detect 3 faulty presuppositions that are normally behind this question.
1. It is more tolerant to refuse to speak about theological differences
Those who refuse to use “labels” (labels, as I mentioned in the post above, are inevitable; the difference is just between those who make their labels public and accountable from those who keep their labels hidden), or discuss matters that distinguish one denomination from another may sound incredibly tolerant. The preached word is that these issues are divisive, and thus, for the sake of unity, we ought to refrain from even talking about the matter.
But far from being tolerant to all the differing views on particular theological matters, this view is perhaps by far the most intolerant. Why? Because those who refuse to talk about theological differences are incredibly dogmatic about 1 particular theological conviction – the conviction that these theological topics do not matter. They refuse to want to divide on this issue because they do not believe that these issues are of weighty importance. But why should we believe that this is the case, especially if the particular topic is discussed at length in Scripture (e.g. predestination; women’s ordination; the gifts of the holy Spirit; the nature of Christ’s atonement; the nature of God’s love)? Contrary to the initial perception, those who preach the “tolerance” card within Christendom are intolerant and dogmatic about their conviction that “non-essential” matters are unimportant. Thus, faulty presupposition number two is already made clear:
2. The “Non-Essential” Doctrines don’t matter.
We must keep in mind the distinction between that which is “essential” and that which is “necessary” for the well-being of the church. The above topics might not be essential to believe in order to be saved, or in order for a church to exist, but they are certainly necessary for the well-being of the church. Certainly it is no mere accident that Paul regards the ability to teach sound doctrine and to rebuke those who teach doctrines contrary to that which is sound as a pre-requisite for eldership (Titus 1:9; Rom. 16:17). And certainly the topics I mentioned above are, in Paul’s mind, consistent with sound doctrine because he elaborates at length on each of those issues.
How would it look, practically speaking, for two ministers under the same church to work if one of those ministers were a complementarian (one who believes that women and men are equal in essence but ordained by God to be different in function, entailing also that women ought not assume the role of eldership in the church), while the other an egalitarian (the view that the roles within the church could be filled by either men or women)? How would a church function when a part of their congregation is convinced that the gift of tongues is something to be received by each Christian, while another part believes that this particular gift has ceased to exist since the closing of the Apostolic era? How would their priorities differ? How would that affect their ministries? How would one who believes that God is sovereign over evil counsel a mourning person differently than one who believes that evil is always brought about not by God but by forces outside of God’s control? Is Scripture sufficient or should we still be looking for existing prophets and apostles today? The practical, pastoral, implications of these matters go deep and wide.
Notice, too, that if one limits what is “essential” to the Apostle’s creed, that the creed mentions nothing about justification by faith alone, or on the assurance of salvation (whether a believer can know if he or she is saved?) Is justification by faith alone or the assurance of salvation really an issue that can be ignored? The apostle’s creed also leaves out the issue of God’s knowledge of the future. One who believes that God does not know the future, and one who believes in Roman Catholicism, can both subscribe to the apostolic creed. Should we ignore the issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics, or between Open Theists (those who believe that the future is not knowable by God) and Arminians or Calvinists?
Indeed, those who maintain that theological differences do not matter are often very selective on those issues that they are willing to ignore. Why is a difference of conviction on the topic of God’s knowledge of the future worth ignoring while a difference in the gifts of the holy Spirit is worth debating? If the response to this is concession and turning to say that we should stop debating those things which have been debated for centuries in the Christian church, it follows that we should all stop debating about any theology – and if this is the case, then the Christian church would have nothing to preach (it is worth reminding that in the early centuries of the church, many councils were formed to debate the presence of one letter in a creedal formulation; a single letter determined whether the belief that Christ’s divine nature was similar to the divinity of the Father or identical with the divinity of the Father should be the marker of orthodoxy). Which follows to the third faulty presupposition I detect.
3. That theology is a hindrance to the health of the church
This presupposition demands a whole other post in response (or perhaps a book). I can only say that it is a most devastatingly false one here. As R.C. Sproul has recently published, everyone is a theologian. The difference is whether one’s theology conforms to Scripture, or not. Theology, and a good one at that, is absolutely vital to the well-being of the church (the prosperity gospel and its effects should be a sobering reminder of this truth). Which theological doctrines are vital? Well I’d say perhaps a good place to start to find out is to again survey the historic church confessions and creeds, and return to Scripture’s own clear claims.
Again, it is indeed a tragedy that the church has been divided on a host of theological issues. But it would have been a greater tragedy if the church had not seen those issues to be worth debating in the first place. Theological indifference is more dangerous than theological disagreement.
Unity in the Christian church is not a unity grounded in sentimentality or a vague notion of “warmth.” Relational warmth and true church unity must be one which is grounded by Christ and his truth – the whole counsel of God that is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. The whole counsel of God must be taught, and must be the root from which we grow.