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 Cos everything's theological 


 Unity in the Gospel

 Jon Dawson

  • Photo of: Jon Dawson Jon Dawson works as a research scientist at the university of Southampton exploring ways of harnessing stem cells to treat diseases. He is married to Nay Dawson who is the UCCF team leader in the South East of England with whom he shares a passion for the CU commitment to unity in mission around the gospel. During his PhD he studied theology part time at Wycliffe hall in Oxford.   View all resources by Jon Dawson

Unity, secondary issues and two ways to deny the gospel

Unity matters but so does truth, so what are we to do when doctrinal differences force us to choose between the two?

Historically, within UCCF and other cross-denominational evangelical groups, discussions center on whether the topic of dispute is a primary or a secondary issue. If we can agree that an issue is secondary then unity in the gospel may be maintained despite unresolved doctrinal differences. If however we must conclude that the crisis pertains to a gospel essential, then unity can no longer be a legitimate option.

Such a distinction is, however, frequently criticized within evangelicalism. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the importance of doctrinal faithfulness and clarity to evangelicals, the designation of a doctrinal point of disagreement as 'secondary’ is often viewed with suspicion. It smacks to many as doctrinal woolliness – a type of ecumenical compromise that places us at the top of a slippery slope towards more serious denial of the gospel.

The celebrated statement of gospel faithfulness (often erroneously attributed to Luther) stands for evangelicals as a powerful deterrent against reducing a contested doctrine to non-essential status: “If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.[1]

However while this concern is often warranted, it is dangerously one-sided. There is another corresponding error which we can, and often do, fall into which is as much a denial of the gospel as doctrinal compromise. It is this corresponding error that seems to be a much more real and present danger for conservative evangelicals. To understand this error we need to first appreciate the centrality of unity to God’s purposes in the gospel and then think a bit more about what it is that makes a secondary issue secondary and a primary issue primary.

Unity lies at the heart of the gospel

Christian unity lies right at the heart of God’s purposes in the gospel. While we could point to lots of places in scripture to demonstrate this point one moment in particular stands out.

John 17:20-26 invites us to listen in to Jesus praying just hours before he goes to the cross. In the final moments of quiet before soldiers burst onto the scene and thrust him before hostile crowds, we see Jesus grabbing the opportunity to pray with his Father. And as John calls us to listen in, we discover to our astonishment that he is praying, in those last moments, for you and me - for those of us who have come to believe in him through the message of the apostles (v20). It is hard to think of a prayer of greater significance for us. To hear Jesus name us in his prayers would be cause enough to listen in; to hear him name us during what he knew would be his last prayer time before his death should cause us to listen with profound urgency and eager attention.

So what does he pray for us? We could anticipate all kinds of needs he may list as priorities but, as we know, he focusses on just one. He prays for our unity.

The unity Jesus prays that we would experience and live out is to reflect the unity he experiences with his Father: “may they may be one even as we are one” (v. 22). The substance of this unity, we discover, is the love of the Father for the Son. We are to love one another as God loves his Son.

But this unity is not merely imitative. Perhaps if it were it would be hard to understand why Jesus should prioritize this aspect of godliness over other aspects that Christian communities are to imitate and model. May they be merciful as we are merciful, may they be generous as we are generous, may they be holy as we are holy. Why at this climactic moment when Jesus is finally to go to the cross to accomplish that for which his Father sent him, is our unity at the heart of his prayer? The answer is surely that unity is fundamental to what Jesus was about to achieve through his death.

Jesus prays: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, may they also be in us” (v. 21). This is astonishing. In the invitation of the gospel, because of the cross, we are welcomed into the unity of love enjoyed between Father and Son. Jesus prays that we will come to know for ourselves the love of the Father that he has enjoyed since before creation (v. 24). The Son’s glory (v. 22) is the Father’s love for him (v. 24) and Jesus now imparts this glory to us. We are to know that the Father has loved us even as he has loved his Son (v. 23). The reason we are to imitate the unity of Father and Son is because of the prior fact that through the achievement of the cross we now participate in this unity for ourselves.

And so as we live in this community of love we are to live out the unity of love among ourselves. Our hope is that the unifying power of the gospel will be further extended into an alienated and hostile world (vs. 21, 23). The proclamation of the gospel of the Son who was loved and sent is about welcoming others into this community of love. Unity lies at the very heart of the gospel.

Unity has a doctrinal basis

But, of course, we do not see here unity for unity’s sake. As we’ve seen, Jesus doesn't pray for unity in the world generally, he prays for unity very specifically for those of us who believe in him through the message of the apostles. Our unity is conditional on believing the message about Jesus. Unity has a doctrinal basis.

Many outside evangelicalism balk at this idea. How can doctrine be the basis for unity?! Doctrine fosters fights and squabbles. Surely unity is best sought through putting aside doctrine and seeking to achieve unity apart from doctrinal distinctives? [2]

Jesus in fact agrees that doctrine is divisive. Earlier in this very chapter Jesus prays for his disciples that they would be ‘set apart’ (sanctified) in the truth (v. 17). The truth about Jesus that the apostles are to believe and to proclaim is in fact something that separates them from the world. But this is vital to their identity as Christian communities. Jesus' community is to be defined as distinct from the world on the basis of its doctrine.

There is a real danger of seeking a ‘lowest common denominator’ basis for unity. Unity here is established and maintained through a process of doctrinal subtraction. Beliefs over which there is disagreement or controversy that seem to threaten the unity of an established community are rejected or else relegated to being “secondary issues”. Secondary issues in this view are those doctrines which by definition are those contested within the community. Over these issues disagreement is permitted (or even celebrated) as confessional diversity embraced by this institutional unity. The problem with this approach (we'll call it LCD-unity for short) is that unity determines doctrine when Jesus specifies that it should be the other way around.

Why is our unity to have a doctrinal basis? Because Jesus wants our unity to be about him. We are to be united around Jesus, the real Jesus - the Son of the Father who was sent into the world. And, the fact is there are both true things to say and false things to say about Jesus and the difference between these things really matters. Doctrine matters because it is the difference between uniting around the real Jesus and uniting around a Jesus of our (albeit very democratic) invention.

So the attempt to define an issue as secondary, simply because there is disagreement over it, should be viewed with suspicion by evangelicals. The effect of designating issues as secondary on this basis is indeed to start on the slippery slope of side-lining doctrine and by so doing side-lining Jesus. Here, the “If I profess…” warning needs to be heard loud and clear.

Another way to side-line Jesus?

But, as I’ve indicated there is another corresponding way to side-line Jesus and deny the gospel, one that is considerably more of a danger to our evangelical communities than the threat of LCD-unity.

This threat could be described as the "gospel-plus” reaction. Here doctrines are not subtracted as 'secondary' until unity is achieved, but are rather accumulated as 'essentials' whenever doctrinal controversy arises.

The gospel, it is argued, is implicated in every portion of the truth of God and so whenever any aspect of this truth is denied, so is the gospel basis for unity. For gospel-plus evangelicals therefore, to mutter about unity in secondary issues when a portion of the truth is disputed is only to flinch at the point of attack. Compromising at ‘precisely that little point’, whatever that little point may be, is to place your loyalty to the community over loyalty to Christ. A community defined by its faithfulness on the disputed point must be reestablished if unity is to be a legitimate option.

Despite its clear motivation to remain loyal to Christ, the gospel-plus response to disagreement is equally as mistaken as the LCD response and, as we will see, can again lead us down the slippery path to denying the gospel. To avoid this path we need to be clear about what it means for a point of disagreement to be classed as a secondary issue.

Putting first things first

Three points of clarification can be made along with the corresponding errors of the gospel-plus response:

1. Designating an issue 'secondary' does not mean that it is of minimal importance.

Let us be as clear as we can. Doctrinal clarity and agreement is always to be sought by God's people. Truth matters, and the truth about God really matters, not least because it surely is the case that the gospel is implicated in every portion of truth.

When Paul writes his first letter urging the divisive Corinthian congregation to agree in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:10) one thing that he is not doing is urging them to compromise. It is true that, for Paul, the disagreements are not merely intellectual in character. Repeatedly, we see him challenging the pride that underlies their divisiveness (e.g. 1:18ff., 3:1ff, 4:6ff., 8:1) and urging the humility and love that fosters and constitutes unity (e.g. 8:1, 13:1ff), but he does not leave the actual substance of the various disagreements unaddressed. He is not urging them to simply agree to disagree - Paul wants them to arrive at the truth. He wants them think out the implications of the gospel consistently.

Yet, at the same time, there is no suggestion from Paul that agreement and consistency is to be sought in any other way but in community with those in dispute. Christian unity is the context within which these disagreements are to be worked out. Indeed, the very basis for Paul's exhortation to be of the "same mind and the same judgement" (1 Cor. 1:10) is the prior fact of their unity. It is because of their unity with and in Christ that their divisiveness is so scandalous - "Is Christ divided?!" Paul exclaims (1:13).

In his letter to the Philippians the prior fact of unity is even more explicit: "if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (Phil. 2:1-2)

Agreement and clarity over every doctrine is always something to be urgently pursued. But to recognize an issue of disagreement as secondary simply means that a community united in the gospel is the appropriate context for this often difficult and drawn out aspect of growth in Christian maturity.

The problem with Gospel-plus Christianity is that it puts the cart before the horse. The gospel-plus response makes agreement the context for unity rather than vice-versa. Making unity conditional on such a very high degree of doctrinal agreement is to get things backwards and short-circuit the important process of achieving agreement over secondary issues.

2. A secondary issue is specifically one which ranks below unity in order of gospel priority.

As we've seen, Jesus died not only to reunite us with God but to reunite us with each other (cf. Ephesians 2). Unity is a gospel priority and to abandon unity without sufficient reason is straight forwardly to disregard God's purposes in the gospel. Another way to say this is that unity itself is a primary issue.

Appreciating this allows us to clarify what makes a secondary issue secondary. The gospel-plus response accepts uncritically the LCD definition of a secondary issue as simply a doctrine over which there is disagreement. As a result, when disagreement arises we are left with a stark choice: unity or truth. But to see unity as itself a gospel essential helps us see that a secondary issue is not merely a contested doctrine that threatens unity, nor is it to claim that the contested doctrine doesn’t really matter, but it is specifically a contested doctrine that, while important, ranks lower in gospel priority to unity.

To talk of ranking doctrines in this way may seem to some rather crude or simplistic. We cannot claim, of course, that working out which beliefs are of more or less fundamental importance relative to unity is straight forward. We must see however that such an exercise is unavoidable.

It is in fact, what happens whenever unity is preserved or abandoned in the face of doctrinal disagreement whether this is recognized or not. To preserve unity despite a crisis in doctrine is implicitly to treat the doctrine in question as secondary; to abandon unity for the sake of doctrine is to treat unity as secondary. In either case a prioritization has taken place. The question is whether this prioritization is merely a reaction to disagreement or whether it is the result of careful reflection on what constitutes gospel based unity.

Therefore, in reacting to disagreements by automatically prioritizing doctrinal agreement over unity, the Gospel-plus response treats unity as of secondary importance. This is to illegitimately disregard the primacy of unity to God’s purposes in the gospel.

3. A primary issue is one which is of such defining importance to the identity of the community that to reject the doctrine is to reject the community itself

A secondary issue then is a point of doctrine that, although important, ranks below unity in gospel priority. In contrast a primary issue is one which is not just an important issue but a defining issue.

This distinction again seems to be evident in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. Throughout the letter Paul adjudicates on the various issues of dispute they have written to him about (marriage, church order, food sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts etc.). Paul is eager to bring clarity and correct thinking to these various issues so that the implications of the gospel are lived out consistently in each case. But as we've seen, agreement is still to be sought in community with those in dispute. According to our definition these Corinthian disagreements are over secondary issues.

Until we come to chapter 15. Here there is a marked change of tone as Paul turns to address the question of the resurrection from the dead. Paul is emphatic that in departing from this doctrine, not only do they deny the common faith handed down to them 'as of first importance' (v3), but by so doing they cease to exist as believers altogether (v13-14)[3]. As a result Paul appeals for them to remain 'steadfast and immovable' in this article of faith (58) and warns against keeping fellowship with those among them who persist in its denial (33, cf. 12). The resurrection defines what it is to be a Christian and thus defines the boundaries of the Christian community.

Primary issues are those that define the community - it's basis for unity, it's boundaries. This means, therefore, that whatever those issues are that functionally define the unity of a given community (i.e. those issues that the community has divided and reformed over) these are the issues that for this community are primary. Everything else is secondary.

And so we come to the crux of the problem with the Gospel-plus response. By making unity conditional on agreement around secondary issues, the Gospel-plus response does much more than illegitimately make secondary issues primary: the Gospel plus response treats the gospel itself as of secondary importance.

It is, in other words, to say: "yes we may have the same Savior and the same gospel, but what is really decisive for our unity is what we believe about x,y,z" . By dividing over x,y,z the community is now defined by x,y,z. Unity is no longer about the gospel. Jesus has been side-lined once again.

This is a shocking implication. Though we can be sincere in our attempt to remain faithful, we can still, by demanding too high a level of doctrinal agreement as a condition for unity, end up sidelining Jesus and denying the gospel. Perhaps, on reflection, the logic that ‘gospel plus' equals 'no gospel at all' (Galatians 1:7) should not be unfamiliar to evangelicals. What we often do not appreciate however is that the same logic applies not only to the basis for our justification and discipleship, but also to the basis for our unity.


This essay has not attempted to lay down criteria for deciding when a dispute is of secondary or primary importance, it has avoided referring to any of the specific controversies of our time and has been deliberately vague about the nature of the communities which may find their unity threatened by doctrinal differences. Its purpose, rather, has been to defend the importance, for evangelical communities, of carefully distinguishing primary from secondary issues for the sake of the gospel.

While both Gospel-plus and Lowest-common-denominator responses do inadvertently decide on secondary issues in response to Christian disagreement, both responses are reactionary rather than reflective. One extreme automatically disregards the importance of doctrine for unity; the other automatically disregards the importance of unity for doctrine. Both responses have lost touch with the priorities of the gospel.

Faithfulness to the gospel requires us to steer a path between these dangerous extremes. Being over-zealous in our avoidance of one danger will lead us into the clutches of the other. For evangelicals, zealous as we are for doctrinal faithfulness, it seems that the gospel-plus response to disagreement is the greatest danger to our communities as we seek to remain faithful to the gospel.

Where the battle rages fiercest it is not only bravery that is threatened, but also a clear awareness of who it is we should be fighting against. In our earnest concern to avoid the disgrace of flinching in the heat of battle we must equally beware the disgrace of cutting down comrades in arms. The devil, after-all, is a cunning foe.

May our Father in heaven keep us from the evil one.

[1] The quote can be attributed to Charles, E. R., The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family (London: Thomas Nelson, 1864), 275-6. See Caldwell, B., “‘If I profess:’ A Spurious, if Consistent Luther Quote?” Concordia Journal 35(4):356–359, 2009.

[2] For a robust response to this reaction, see Mike Reeves, Why do we have a doctrinal basis? Theology Network, http://www.theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/why-do-we-have-a-doctrinal-basis.htm (accessed 29/05/2013)

[3] Fee, G.D., The New International Commentary  on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians  (Grand Rapids, W.B Eerdmans, 1987), 718