Pilate asked a battered and bleeding Jesus that question, as the Son of God stood before him in chains. From what we know of Pilate’s character, it was probably an expression of cynicism rather than a genuine seeking. But the question is just as valid as ever in an age where truth has become relativised and we have “no right” to impose our views on others. Within Christianity there is a spectrum of positions with respect to how rigorously we should define saving truth. At one end we have churches that ascribe to doctrinal rigor. They alone have “the truth,” and the rest of Christendom is astray from biblical teaching and the original apostolic faith (or, for Roman Catholics, the mother church and her apostolic authority). At the other end we have the very ecumenical churches, which have a brief and perhaps flexible doctrinal position.
Unity and purity are a paradox. To have unity, causes of disunity must be dealt with; either reconciled or overlooked. But if the differences are seen as integral to saving truth rather than just a manifestation of traditional values, they become a question of purity of the faith. But going too far in the endeavour to create a truly pure church inevitably results in division over matters of indifference and conscience. The church becomes an exclusive fortress of “saints” rather than a refuge for sinners. Yet it can’t be a free-for-all either; you don’t get to believe whatever you like and still meet the criteria of “Christian.” The word Christian is, at the fundamental level, the label applied to a follower of Christ. So at one end of the spectrum we could have a legalistic, tightly defined and controlling Christian cult where the smallest dissent in doctrine or practice would result in disfellowship, but at the other extreme, nothing much more than a club that happens to meet in a particular building. Both of these have crossed a line and are well outside the boundary. But where is the boundary? More importantly, where is the optimum point? Where is the correct balance between unity of the followers of Christ, imperfect as we are, and purity of the faith?
The Bible has quite a bit to say about unity, and also about purity. These passages designate the boundary, or envelope, outside of which a church has ceased to be biblical. Unity of brothers is a good and pleasant thing (Psa 133:1). Racial and gender differences are dissolved; we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). The unity of the church comes about by the unifying effect of the death and resurrection of Christ. By being united in him we share the unity of love that characterises the Godhead (John 17:11, 21–23). God who is love in relationship extends the beauty of that unity in distinctiveness with his creation through the work of Christ (1 John 4:7–11). The church then is the body of Christ and we are all members of the one body, despite our individuality and the gifts which God the Spirit distributes according to his will. The Spirit unifies the body of Christ and sanctifies it (Rom 12:5, 16–18; 1 Cor 12:11–14; Eph 4:1–16). The unity which we have in Christ is precious and is to be safeguarded by our loving behaviour to one another (Eph 4:2–3; 1 Pet 3:8; Rom 12:16–18; 15:5–7). Those who would disrupt the unity of the church have forgotten that there is only one foundation; Jesus Christ, upon which we humbly build and plant.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:7–11).
Because our unity is based on the saving work of Christ, we must not cause our brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died, to stumble. That means that when it comes to beliefs and practices that are not essential to the faith, we must give way. We must agree to differ. We must deprive ourselves in order to serve our brothers and sisters and to build them up. Unity must not be achieved by forced conformity, and to squeeze out a brother or sister because of a difference on non-critical matters is a dreadful sin (Romans 14:7–19; 1 Cor 8:5–11). The more rules a church imposes for behaviour and the more detailed a set of beliefs to which its members must subscribe, the closer to legalism and the further from grace that community becomes. To try to force unity on the basis of an over-defined purity will cause a church to implode, and will destroy brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.
On the other hand, there must be common ground for there to be unity. That common ground is our connection to Christ. It is only because we have fellowship with God through Christ, that we have fellowship with each other; NOT the other way around! (1 Cor 1:9–10; 1 John 1:3) The New Testament is full of warnings about false teachings. As early as the first century there were creeping apostasies such as Judaising, Ebionism, Docetism and early Gnosticism. These either denied the humanity of Christ or his deity, and we catch hints of such specifics, as in
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:1–3).
False teachers and grievous wolves would penetrate the flock; impurity of doctrine would lead to disunity and schism (2 Pet 1:1–2; 2 Tim 4:3–4). It does matter what we believe. God was angry with Job’s three companions because they did not speak of God what was right (Job 42:7) Jesus said that to know the only true God is eternal life (John 17:3). The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that to please God we must have faith that he is and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6) To deny that Jesus is the Christ is to be a liar and the antichrist (1 John 2:22). The New Testament is also full of imperatives as to what Christian life should be, how we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices which is our logical and reasonable response to what Christ has done for us (Rom 12:1–2; John 15:1–14; Eph 4:1–7). Furthermore, we are to encourage and exhort one another to remain true to Christ (1 Thess 5:11; Titus 2:11–15).
The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever: Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love. I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we were commanded by the Father” (2 John 1:1–4).
Truth is fundamental, essential to our unity in Christ, to our relationship with him and with each other. There is no other name by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is full of truth; he is the origin of truth and he is the truth (John 1:14–17; 14:6). True worshippers must worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24). Truth sets us free (John 8:32). In Jesus’ physical absence we receive the Spirit of Truth as a Helper just like him (John 14:16–17). The truth sanctifies, and God’s word is truth (John 17:17–19). Truth is the opposite of unrighteousness (Rom 2:8). The word of truth is the Gospel of salvation; those who love the truth are saved, those who love unrighteousness are condemned (Eph 1:13; 2 Thess 2;10–12; 1 Tim 2:4). The church, as the household of God, is to be a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).
Which brings us back to the question, what is truth? What are the essentials of what we must believe? Are they written in the 30 detailed items of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith and 36 Doctrines to be Rejected? Is that what saving truth was for Jesus and Paul and the early church? What about the 39 Articles of the Church of England, or the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism? Or the simple confession of the Apostles’ Creed? Or even the Bible itself;
Undeniably great is the mystery of godliness: [God] was revealed in flesh, was declared righteous by (the) spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1Tim 3:16 literal translation)
The essentials of saving truth reside in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. God’s word is truth, and Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Any “Christianity” that is not centred on the person and work of Jesus Christ is not Christianity. Any church that tries to add things to the all-sufficient work of Jesus is not walking in the truth. No human works, no rules, no exclusivity can replace the unity and purity that comes from being part of the body of Christ, wholly reliant on him for our justification. United in him we stand, divided by matters of indifference we fall.
Look through the New Testament afresh and list the things that are central to the apostolic faith, central to the Gospel. Look at the definitions of truth and how truth fundamentally relates to the person and work of Christ. Examine anew the actual deficiencies of false doctrines; they all revolve around false concepts of Christ and his sufficiency and saving work. God in love sent his Son, that whoever believes in him would be saved. Not, whoever believes in a complex set of doctrines and rules beyond the fundamentals of Christ’s person and work. Not, whoever interprets the Bible through a specific formula or lens such as the works of pioneer writers or a central Society. Not, whoever lives in a certain prescribed way. No, whoever believes in Christ will be saved. The question, therefore, is not, “what is truth?” but Who is truth.
The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 10:8–11)