by John M. Frame
[Address given at the organizing conference for F. I. R. E., the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals, April 27, 1999.]
I’m delighted to be able to share this occasion with you, the birth of FIRE! What a great name. I hope, of course, that it doesn’t encourage too many jokes about fire hazards, fire hydrants, fire fighters, or fire exits.
Have you ever heard somebody quote the verse “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” I have heard it rather often. Usually what people mean by that is that we cannot work together unless we agree on any number of things. Let’s say that you are amillennialists and I am a postmillennialist. Or, better still, let’s say that you are Baptists and I am Presbyterian. Well, we cannot work together unless we somehow work out this difference of opinion. Either you have to change your view, or I have to change mine, or we’ll have to find a third alternative. Well, I certainly am not going to change mine! But if we can’t come to agreement, then we cannot cooperate. We must separate; I’ll go my way, and you’ll go yours. The church isn’t big enough for both of us. One of us must leave, or be expelled. Maybe one of us will have to start a new church, or even a new denomination. We can’t even speak in one another’s churches; so, goodbye.
Just kidding. The fact that you’ve invited me here (and thanks for that) indicates that you don’t think this way. But that kind of thinking a temptation to all of us, especially, I think, in the Reformed tradition. (In the Reformed tradition, we like to have all our t’s crossed and I’s dotted.) So that we can get some more clarity on this issue, I want to argue tonight that nothing in Scripture requires us to be agreed on everything in order to walk together. We can walk together, we can work together, even though we are not 100% agreed. Indeed, if we both belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, we should be working together.
Let’s look first at that passage, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” Do you know where that comes from? It comes from the prophecy of Amos, 3:3. Part of the problem is the translation. The NIV is better here, I think. It reads, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” You see, it’s not saying that two people walking together must agree on everything. Rather, it’s saying that two people walking together must have agreed to walk together. It’s stating the obvious. This verse is part of a group of seven things that are obvious:
Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?
Does a lion roar in the thicket when he has no prey?
Does he growl in his den when he has caught nothing?
Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground where no snare has been set?
Does a trap spring up from the earth when there is nothing to catch?
When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble?
When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?
Seven obvious things, leading to the climax, the sovereignty of God over history: What is most obvious of all is that when disaster comes to a city in Israel, it is God’s judgment.
When two people walk together, it means that they have agreed to walk together. That’s obvious. It doesn’t mean that they agree on everything; that would not be obvious, but absurd. Think back on the last time you took a walk with somebody: your wife or husband, your father, your son, your friend. Did you agree on everything? Probably not. I doubt if any two people agree on everything. Indeed, we often go for a walk with someone to air our differences. During my seminary years, I studied with Cornelius Van Til, the famous apologist. Often when students disagreed with him about something, he would invite them for a walk. He was a great walker; I think that’s part of the reason why he lived into his nineties. He was often in better shape than the student he walked with, and I think part of his strategy was to wear the student down. At any rate, there was a lot of disagreement expressed on those walks. I know, because I took part in some of them.
Amos 3:3, then, is not teaching the absurdity that two people can’t walk together unless they agree on everything. That idea is not biblical, and it isn’t true.
Look at Rom. 14. Here Paul faces two controversies in the Roman church. First, there was a group of Christian vegetarians, and another group that ate meat. Second, there was a group that observed special days, and another group that did not. Now Paul is not neutral in these controversies. You can tell that, because in each controversy he calls one party “strong” and the other “weak.” Obviously he thinks the strong are right, and the weak are wrong. By the way, the strong are the ones who eat meat and do not keep special days. But what I want to point out is the way Paul deals with these controversies. What does he say? Does he say, well, we can’t work together unless we agree on this? We must discipline the weak, and expel them from the church if they don’t conform? Make them start their own denomination?
No, far from it. Listen to what he says,
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (verses 1-4).
Paul wants this church to stay together. He does not want a separation on this issue. He does not even recommend formal discipline in this case. Rather he wants unity in love, despite disagreement. He emphasizes two things: first, don’t despise, and second, don’t judge. The strong should not despise the weak, he should not look down on him. We know what that is like. A Reformed Christian believes he can drink wine; a Christian from a fundamentalist background thinks he must totally abstain from alcoholic beverages. The Reformed guy looks down on the fundamentalist, call him names. You are ignorant, stupid. I am sophisticated. I went to Westminster Seminary; I know the Greek. It may all be true, but there is no love here, in the way the Reformed believer speaks to his fundamentalist brother. And what is the church without love? Jesus said, “by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love to one another.” Love is the mark of the church. And Paul says in 1 Cor. 13 that even if you can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not love, you are nothing.
Love is also missing when the weak believer judges the strong. He says, you are sinning when you drink wine, or eat meat, or fail to observe religious feasts. Paul says this attitude is ignorant and arrogant. You, Mr. Weak Believer, you are not the judge. God is. Leave it to God. Or if you want to become a judge in the church, learn more of God’s Word, and learn something of the freedom God gives us.
Agreement would be a good thing. Certainly Paul wishes that all weak believers would become strong believers. He wants them to learn from God’s Word that they have freedom in Christ to eat meat, to drink wine, to ignore special days. But more important is love. Love is more important than agreement on this issue. Brothers and sisters in the church ought to love one another even when they don’t agree. They ought to walk together, to work together, even though they be disagreed.
Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Obviously we cannot treat all disagreements this way. There are some disagreements that really do keep us from working together. When some Jewish Christians tried to teach the Galatian Christians that they had to become Jews before they could become Christians, Paul speaks very strongly to them. What the Jewish Christians are saying is a “different gospel.” And, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:10). There can be no fellowship between those who believe in salvation by grace and those who believe in salvation by keeping the law. Nor, according to 1 Cor. 5, can there be fellowship between Christians and those who claim to be Christians but are living in unrepentant immorality. When a member of the Corinthian church committed incest and did not repent, Paul says to the church, most emphatically, repeating himself four or five times, “put this man out of the church.” Here Paul is following the teaching of our Lord in Matt. 18. There are disagreements that are that serious: so serious that we should put offenders out of the church; or, if they come to dominate, we must leave.
Sometimes, in such cases, God’s people must even break away from one denomination and start a new one. When that happens it is very sad. We tend to think that the beginnings of our denominations are glorious occasions, and on the anniversaries we celebrate, hold self-congratulatory conferences, and write self-congratulatory books. But I think that for God, the beginning of a new denomination is a grievous time. That isn’t what God wants, although he does ordain it in his eternal decree. For the Lord, this is not a good thing. It grieves his heart. Because the founding of a new denomination means that sin took place, either by the ones who left, or by the ones who stayed, or by both. And it means that the body of Christ is rent, divided. God does not want his church to be divided into many denominations. Denominations are no part of biblical church government. God provided one church, ruled by Jesus Christ, through his apostles, elders, and deacons. Something very wrong is happening when that church is divided. And something terribly wrong has happened that has produced the thousands and thousands of denominations that exist in the world today.
You are interested in forming a new affiliation. This is not a rending of the body of Christ, a further disruption in the unity of God’s people. (If it were, I would scold you.) Rather it is an increase in unity: Christians otherwise independent of one another, who want to pray together, work together, join hands in the work of the Gospel. That’s wonderful. An advance in unity, in an age when the church at large is prone to more and more disunity! That unity is something precious. I urge you to treasure it, to nurture it, to build it up. Don’t let it be broken by disagreements. When you disagree, work out your problems with respect and love for one another. Don’t despise one another, and don’t condemn one another, unless the Gospel is really at stake or unless problems develop that require formal church discipline. You also need to pray for discernment, so that you will be able to see more clearly what issues actually do imperil the fellowship of the church and which ones do not. It is love that is the highest mark of the church. It is love, by which the world ought to be able to tell that you belong to Christ.
There are those who think that the way to maintain unity in a church, denomination, or conference, is by having a written confession that specifies in detail what everybody must agree on. I do believe in creeds, and I treasure the great creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church. But a common written confession is not the key to unity. For one thing, no confession can cover everything. For another, even the best confessions must be applied to current circumstances, and that is not always easy to do. But the most important problem with confessions is this: A written confession is a fallible human document, however much biblical truth it may contain. Unlike God’s inspired Word, the Bible, any human confession may contain errors. So we dare not make the fellowship of our churches depend on agreement to everything in a confession. If you have a rule that people agree to everything in the confession, then you make it impossible to correct the confession in the light of God’s Word. That means the confession becomes equal to the Bible. I think it’s good to have a confession, so that people both inside and outside the church can get an idea of what the church is about. But we dare not make the confession infallible. Our written rule of faith must be, as Luther and Calvin so clearly put it, Scripture and Scripture alone.
What is the key to unity? Not a written confession in addition to Scripture. It is good to have confessions, I think, but Scripture never tells us to write them or to make them normative. What is the key to unity? Love. Love lives with a certain amount of disagreement. And when the disagreement becomes too serious to live with, love deals with it (Gal. 6:1) in a gentle spirit, and with proper witnesses (Matt. 18), and with grief and sadness.
I want to share with you one more passage about unity and love, and that is our Lord’s prayer in John 17, his prayer to his Father before he went to be crucified. It is sometimes called Jesus’ high priestly prayer, for Jesus was, as a priest, preparing the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of himself, and he was, also as a priest, interceding for his people, both his disciples and those who would believe through the disciples’ testimony. As Jesus faced the worst agony imaginable, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, he thought of us and prayed for us to the Father.
What does he ask the Father? Essentially, he asks that we will be one. Let me read the last part of this prayer: Jesus says,
My prayer is not for them (the disciples) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.
Remarkably, Jesus prays that we will be one as he is one with the Father. That is hard to imagine. The Son and the Father are so perfectly one that they together are one being, one God. That’s the doctrine of the Trinity. We cannot have that kind of unity, because we’re not God. But we can image that unity, we can reflect that unity, for we are God’s image, renewed in the image of Christ.
How can we reflect that unity? Well, we could reflect that unity by agreeing about everything. Certainly Jesus and his Father are of one mind; they agree on absolutely everything. But the passage does not emphasize agreement of ideas. Rather, it gives us three ways in which our unity can be like the wonderful, mysterious unity of the Trinity.
(1) First, the Father and Son bring glory to one another. In the beginning of Jesus’ prayer, he says,
Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.
Then in verses 4 and 5,
I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.
The Son has glorified the Father; now the Father will glorify him. We also read elsewhere that the Spirit brings glory to Christ. And if we are to reflect the Trinity, we, like them, will glorify one another. Verse 22 tells us that Jesus “has given them (us) the glory that you (the Father) gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” There is a glory among us, like the glory in the Trinity itself. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? What does it mean, practically speaking?
To glorify is to adorn. A woman’s hair is her crowning glory, says Paul; it adorns her, it makes her look wonderful. Woman is the glory of her husband-—he makes him look good, even him. When we glorify God in worship, we tell one another how wonderful, how beautiful God is; we adorn him with our praises. God’s glory is that great light that shines out from him when he appears to men. When we glorify God in our lives, we make that light shine throughout the earth, so that like Jesus we ourselves are lights in the world.
Let us glorify each other. Let us make one another look good. We can do that by helping one another to deal with sin, by helping one another with problems, by praising one another, encouraging one another. Paul in Rom. 16 glorifes Phoebe, when he says, “she has been a great help to many people, including me.” Do you glorify your brothers and sisters in Christ? Or are you, like me, sometimes tempted to put them down, to disparage their accomplishments, to injure their reputations ever so slightly, so you can make yourself look a little better by comparison? That’s what the strong believers were doing in Rom. 14. But Jesus would never belittle the Father to honor himself, even though he deserved supreme honor. He humbled himself to do the Father’s will, to bring glory to Him. We need to humble ourselves, to glorify one another.
That should be true even in our corporate church life, in the way we relate to other churches, even churches of other denominations and traditions. As I said before, I’m against denominations, although for the moment we are stuck with them. It would be nice if we could say that all the true Christians in the world are in my denomination, but we know that’s not true. There are true Christians in many denominations throughout the world. Are we seeking to glorify them?
The rule in many churches is that we say mostly good things about our church or our denomination, and we say mostly bad things about other churches or denominations, especially those in other traditions. Now I know that sometimes to glorify a fellow Christian you must correct him. To glorify the Reformed Episcopal church, we will eventually have to set them straight on the principles of biblical church government. But how are we trying to do this? Through put downs? Through caustic, nasty criticism, hard-edged ridicule, peremptory condemnation? Or do we seek first to understand where our brothers are coming from, to recognize what is good in their ministry, and to correct them in such a way as to glorify the work of God in their ministry? To correct them in such a way as to make them look good to the watching world?
If we are one as Jesus and the Father are one, we will glorify one another.
(2) Secondly, we can image the Trinity by serving one another. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is more like a report than a series of requests. It is interesting that when Jesus faced the cross, he spent much more time opening his heart to the Father, telling the Father what he had done, than he did in asking for things. We should think about that as we develop priorities in our own prayer lives. Jesus’ report is that the Father gave him a task, and he carried it out fully. He didn’t spare himself any suffering, any misery. The cup of death for sin could not pass from him. He would take that awful cup of God’s wrath and drank it down to the dregs.
He revealed the Father to the people God had given him, and he protected them and kept them safe. Not one was lost except Judas the betrayer, that Scripture might be fulfilled. He brought them into the love of the Father and the Son.
Over and over in the gospels, Jesus says that he came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of the Father. His own will was perfect. Had he done his own will, his own will alone, he would still have lived a perfect life. And of course his own will was one with the will of the Father, so we wonder why he should make a negative contrast, “not my will, but yours.” But Jesus teaches us here that in his time on earth, his time of humiliation, he comes as a Servant, the Servant prophesied in Isaiah 53, for example. As God, he is Lord; as man, he is Servant. He lives the life of service that Adam should have lived. As Adam and all of us have disobeyed the Father, Jesus obeyed. For our salvation, it’s important not only that Jesus be God, but that he also be a Servant, a perfect man, able to offer himself in sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus had the right to be Lord, the right to have everyone bow to him. But he came into the world, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
When Jesus said that, he was teaching his disciples how to relate to one another, to be servants themselves. James and John, and their mother, wanted them to be rulers in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus said no;
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. (verses 42-44)
As Jesus came to serve, we are to serve one another. Over and over the New Testament stresses this. The great song of Phil. 2, showing the humiliation and exaltation of Christ—it is to show Christians how to get along, “let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
(3) Glorifying one another, serving one another, and, finally, to review an earlier theme in this message, loving one another. The Father glorified the Son, because he loved him before the creation of the world, verse 24. It is that love that Jesus wants to see in his disciples. In the last verse of our passage, he says to the Father,
I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (verse 26)
Love is that attitude of heart that motivates us to glorify and serve one another. And love is the very heart of the Christian life. The two greatest commandments are the commandments to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. The new commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is that they should love one another as he has loved them. Make no mistake, Scripture defines love by nothing less than the cross. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). We hesitate before this holy ground. We can imagine imitating Christ in many ways—but can we possibly imitate his atonement? Surely I can’t die for anyone’s sins! But yes; our love is to imitate Christ precisely as he dies for our sins. That’s the case in Phil. 2, John 3:16, and many other passages:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 John 3:16)
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (4:11).
Love is greater than all spiritual gifts, Paul teaches us in 1 Cor. 13, and without love everything is worthless. And tradition tells us of the old Apostle John, hardly able any longer to speak, standing in the assembly with assistance, to say, “little children, love one another.”
Our theologies talk about the marks of the church, but love is the mark Jesus mentions, the mark that identifies us before the world as Christ’s disciples. Love in the church glorifies God, and it benefits us, but it is also a witness to the world, as Jesus says in verses 21 and 23. In the first centuries, the pagans noticed that love. It stuck out: how these Christians love one another. Today, the pagans tend to notice other things about us: the division, the splintering, the quarrelsome spirit. We need to learn again to love one another as Christ has loved us. We need to learn what it means to lay down our lives for one another.
The world will be watching you, as believers, and as members of a new Baptist conference. How will they think of you? As another bunch of feuding fundamentalists? As a group that gathers to congratulate themselves and put down the Christians outside the fold? Or will they be amazed at the love you have for one another, and for other Christians, and for the lost? Will they remark about how you selflessly strive to bear one another’s burdens, even making major sacrifices? Will they be surprised at how much you glorify one another and the rest of the church? How you give credit to others, make others look better? How much you serve one another, and the depth of your love for one another? If so, you’ll have a fellowship that reflects the very Trinity, God himself, Father, Son, and Spirit. Isn’t that wonderful? To him be all the glory! Amen.