Unity in the church is important. But so is not compromising the truth. Francis Chan wants to know: How do Christians pursue unity without compromising the essential doctrines of Christianity? And how do we determine exactly what those are? When he posed these questions to Bible Answer Man Hank Hanegraaff and Gospel for Asia Founder K.P. Yohannan, the two men gave Chan an answer he did not expect: Humility is key.
“One day,” said Yohannan, “I said, ‘God, please help me to understand, is there a key to this whole Bible?’ And all I could hear, like the bell going off, was one word: humility, humility, humility. And I’m not a Charismatic.” It was partly through this experience that Yohannan learned that humility is essential to understanding the truths presented in Scripture. He said, “The real place of learning the mysteries of God is becoming nothing.”
“In the U.S. right now,” said Francis Chan, “everyone creates their own parameters [for defining biblical truth]. And it’s splintering the church more and more and more.” People follow different leaders because the leaders are gifted or have charismatic personalities. “It’s almost a popularity contest,” he said.
Because influential people can gain followers while saying whatever they want, there is a variety of “theologies” thwarting unity in the church by presenting different views on any number of topics, such as sexuality, divorce and remarriage, and the Eucharist. This seems strange to Chan given that for 1,500 years the church was unified in its position on these issues. “This is ridiculous,” he said, “this can’t be the way.”
Chan is not simply pointing his finger at other leaders for creating problems with unity in the church, nor does he assume that people promoting wrong doctrines are doing so because they have bad motives. Chan said that he himself is guilty of coming to wrong conclusions about Christianity and promoting them without considering the teachings of the early church or seeking accountability from other believers.
When he looks back at his own life and sees times when he promoted wrong ideas, Chan believes that he was sincerely pursuing Jesus during those times. He had a true love for God when he trusted him in high school, and of his later time in seminary he said, “I really believed coming out of seminary that I was fighting for God.”
In seminary, Chan was taught a particular theology and that other theologies were “off.” He now realizes that he had a loyalty to a certain tradition because he came to know Jesus through that tradition. But that does not mean everything in that doctrinal system is correct.
How then can we know what is correct? When Chan became a believer in Jesus, he was taught that if he wanted to know the truth, the foolproof method was to study Scripture for himself. But what happens when multiple individuals study Scripture for themselves and all of them arrive at different conclusions? Isn’t it arrogant for each person to assume that he or she must be the one who is right? “After a while,” said Chan, “you start going, okay, so who arrives at truth? Is it the guy that’s most intelligent? Is it the person that’s closest to God? Because everyone’s getting alone in their office and coming to different views.”
Hanegraaff agreed that studying Scripture for oneself is important, but added that the church, the body of Christ, is an essential part of how people arrive at true doctrine. “I cannot come up with an interpretation that stands in opposition to that which God has mediated through his body by the precious Holy Spirit,” he said.
Chan nodded and responded, “That was a new thought to me, believe it or not.” Previously, he had always thought that what Hanegraaff was describing was trusting in tradition instead of God’s Word. “I had no thought of being saved into the church,” said Chan. “It was about me seeing a message from the Scripture about how I could go to heaven.”
But Chan began to see some inconsistencies in this way of thinking. For example, sometimes a person will leave Chan’s church because Chan and the elders have confronted him about sin in his life. When that happens, it seems arrogant to Chan that the person would think he knows better than his pastor and all the elders combined. “But then it hit me,” said Chan, “‘Do I do that with the early church fathers?’” In other words, if Chan were to study Scripture on his own and come to a conclusion different from the early church fathers, would it not be arrogant for him to assume he must be right?
The doctrine of the church, or the need for the church to play a role in how we arrive at truth about our faith, is one of eight doctrines that Hanegraaff listed as being essential to Christianity. “The church is the ground and pillar of truth,” he said. “We’re never saved in isolation.”
The splintered nature of the modern American church is actually what prompted Hanegraaff to become Eastern Orthodox. Seeing “winds and waves of doctrine sweeping through the church,” he said, is “what ultimately took me back to the ancient church.”
Like Yohannan, Hanegraaff stressed the importance of humility when pursuing both truth and unity in the church, and he shared a lesson from his own experience. At one point in time, Hanegraaff’s Christian Research Institute (CRI) took a public stance that another group called “The Recovery” was a cult. But after doing years of research on that group, CRI concluded that The Recovery was not in fact a cult. Even though CRI and The Recovery disagreed on significant issues pertaining to the Christian faith, Hanegraaff said he had no doubt that the members of The Recovery were “brothers in the Lord.”
So CRI publicly admitted it had been wrong. It was crucial that Hanegraaff and CRI had been willing to listen and to learn, even from people they were convinced were wrong. That posture not only led to a deeper unity between two groups of believers from different traditions but also expanded Hanegraaff’s own understanding of his faith.
“It was people in that move of the Spirit that I saw in far-flung places around the world that gave me a hunger for life,” said Hanegraaff. “I knew about the Lord, and I knew doctrinal truth, but I did not experience the life that some of these people who may have had less intellectual or spiritual or theological acumen than I had. But they had a living, vibrant relationship with the Lord which I pined after, and that opened the floodgates for me.”
As their conversation drew to a close, Chan pointed out that even though the three men had had a productive discussion out of a true desire to see unity in the church, “the truth is, that even this discussion that we’ve had will be taken and will cause disunity.” Someone will pull a sound bite from their talk and use it to tell the world why the three of them are heretics.
You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.
The Apostle Paul dealt with opposition throughout his ministry, but he pursued humility as he defended the truth. “Dividers will always be among us,” said Hanegraaff. “What we’re looking for is people who are humble.” He said Chan set a good example of someone pursuing unity in the church and humility when Yohannan’s Gospel for Asia faced controversy over alleged fraud. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Chan did his own research and investigated what had happened.
Chan said that when he asked Hanegraaff and Yohannan how Christians can know what essential doctrine is, he thought they were going to point him toward a particular creed or book. Pointing him toward humility “wasn’t the answer I was expecting,” he said, “but it makes all the sense in the world to me.”