A Response to Andy Stanley on “Theological Correctness”–With Help from Jonathan Edwards

Andy Stanley just made waves. At the recent Orange Conference, Stanley spoke on John 17 and said that oneness in the faith is “more important than being theologically correct.” The broader context of his remarks was the need for church unity, as seen in this summary:

“He prayed for our oneness, that we’d be on the same page,” said Stanley. “This is mission critical. If they are not one, we will not win … unity is mission critical and disunity disrupts the mission. … Will we prioritize our oneness over our doctrinal peculiarities? Our baptism, our communion, our style of worship, our preaching?” According to the Christian Post, Stanley said of Acts 15 that the early church was willing to make “theological and cultural concessions for the sake of unity and so should you and so should I.”

Read the whole report. Let me offer three quick responses to these comments on being “theologically correct” and unity.

First, we attain Christian unity only when we are “theologically correct.” Think of the passage Stanley preached on at Orange. There, Christ prays for the Father to bless his blood-bought people. “Sanctify them in the truth,” he petitions the Father (John 17:17). There is no unity, no sanctification, no hope outside of the truth. In similar terms, the apostle Paul grounds unity in the truth. In Ephesians 4:13, he lays out why the Lord gave teachers to the church. They are to “build up the body” until the point that “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). So too in 2 John–it is the truth that is binding the faithful children of God, keeping them safe from “deceivers” who peel off the sheep and divide the body (2 John 7).

Second, we should never put “theological correctness” and unity at opposite ends of the spectrum. As the preceding point makes clear, if we do not have the truth, we have no unity. There is no Christian unity that is not unity in the truth. What Stanley calls “theological correctness” is the very foundation of all biblical mission and biblical community. If you deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, I cannot be united to you. If you deny that the three persons of the Godhead are fully divine, I cannot be united to you. If you deny the sin-cancelling, wrath-absorbing nature of Christ’s crucifixion, I cannot be united to you. If you believe that someone can openly and happily practice sexual sin or take on an ungodly sexual identity, I cannot be united to you.

Unity is not the enemy of doctrine, truth, or theological correctness. Unity and truth are one. They go together. Take away the truth, and we have no unity; take away unity, and we are compromising the truth.

Third, our mission is to work for unity by promoting sound doctrine and acting in Christian love. The church never makes the mistake of putting truth and unity in opposition to one another. Instead, we see the two working hand-in-glove. As we know the truth, the truth sets us free (John 8:32). We are liberated from sin, Satan, death, the spiritual powers and principalities, and hell above all. As the truth sets us free, we join the local expression of Christ’s body, the church. This church exists for the preaching of the gospel, the upbuilding of the saints, and the evangelization of the lost. The glory of God is the banner over all these endeavors. The local church thus possesses unity in doctrine and unity in mission.

It is true that Christians who join actual local churches will not share 100% doctrinal agreement with everyone in the congregation. In fact, on a day to day basis, we may not even share 100% doctrinal agreement with ourselves! But our pursuit of unity in the body does not relax our love of theology, and our desire to handle the Word with care. Our membership in the body is grounded in rich, thick doctrinal unity. We affirm a statement of faith. We covenant together to uphold it, teach it, and promote it. When we disagree, we disagree in charity as much as we possibly can.

Unity does not come from feelings. Unity does not come from shared background. Unity that is gospel-powered unity is unity in the truth–as Paul says, unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

Stanley’s comments need tightening. At the very least, they are sloppy and potentially misleading; at the worst, they are confusing to the sheep, opposed to Scripture, and possibly dangerous.

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Thankfully, we have preachers and teachers in the Christian tradition who understand the power of divine truth. Today, I’m releasing a book on one such teacher: Jonathan Edwards. Doug Sweeney and I have written a book on doctrine, truth, beauty, and most especially God. It’s called The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian. It’s with Moody, and it’s out today. If you’re hungry for truth, feeling starved for it as I suspect many evangelicals do, Doug and I have 440 pages of “big God” theology to offer you.

Edwards labored for decades to drive his people into the truth. He knew the truth was their only hope–theologically, spiritually, philosophically, and personally. Below are two sections from his masterful sermon, “The Importance and Advantage of a Through Knowledge of Divine Truth.” Written in 1739 as an exposition of Hebrews 5:12, these selections show us the heart of a Bible-loving, Bible-confident pastor-theologian. Note how Edwards’s words, while not touching explicitly on Christian unity, nonetheless lead us to such an end.

God hath in the Scriptures plainly revealed it to be his will, that all Christians should diligently endeavor to excel in the knowledge of divine things. It is the revealed will of God, that Christians should not only have some knowledge of things of this nature, but that they should be enriched with all knowledge: 1 Cor.1:4-5, “I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God that is given you by Jesus Christ, that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge.” So the apostle earnestly prayed, that the Christian Philippians might abound more and more, not only in love, but in Christian knowledge: Philip. 1:9, “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment.” So the Apostle Peter advises to “give all diligence, to add to faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge,” 2 Pet. 1:5. And the Apostle Paul, in the next chapter to that wherein is the text, counsels the Christian Hebrews, leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, to go on to perfection. He would by no means have them always to rest only in those fundamental doctrines of repentance, and faith, and the resurrection from the dead, and the eternal judgment, in which they were indoctrinated when they were first baptized, and had the apostle’s hands laid on them, at their first initiation in Christianity. See Heb. 6, at the beginning.

Here is Edwards’s application regarding the seeking of biblical knowledge:

5. Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice. If applause be your end, you will not be so likely to be led to the knowledge of the truth, but may justly, as often is the case of those who are proud of their knowledge, be led into error to your own perdition. This being your end, if you should obtain much rational knowledge, it would not be likely to be of any benefit to you, but would puff you up with pride: 1 Cor. 8:1, “Knowledge puffeth up.”

May God give us a heart of this kind for the truth. Edwards is a sound guide. If you are hungry for sound doctrine, here’s hoping that The Essential Jonathan Edwards can help.

(Image used with permission of Moody Publishers)

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