Forthright Magazine

Biblical Unity For Dummies: False Starts


In Philippians, Paul promoted Christian unity by rallying the congregation behind valuing and advancing the gospel. However, the question remains. Who am I to identify as my brother and sister? Do I start with those frequenting a brick and mortar location displaying a shingle? Does God claim as his own everyone who demonstrates love? What’s the starting point for identifying God’s people?

If we value promoting unity within Christ’s body, we need to be able to identify how God and Christ identify their people. We need to avoid using secondary characteristics as establishing identity.

The importance of distinguishing between primary and secondary characteristics for identification can be illustrated by a zoo field trip. Imagine school children being given the educational task of biologically classifying various life forms with large categories. How would they identify what belongs together?

Although we are aware of the classic distinctions of mammal, reptile, amphibian, and so forth, imagine a child cataloging the various forms of living things by their color. Such a method would create absurd results! Sulphur butterflies should not grouped with canaries and banana slugs. But what makes this absurd?

Since an animal’s color is at best only a secondary aspect and not the basis of its identification, color is not helpful for determining biological classifications. In order to identify and classify anything, we need to understand its fundamental nature. For this reason, to recognize who God claims as his people we must understand that primary principle God uses for identifying them, not secondary characteristics.

It is possible we might latch onto various secondary characteristics of God’s people. For example, God’s people are those who have repented (1 John 1:6). If someone repents of evil regardless of whether they have faith in Christ, will this make him or her a child of God? When 1 John 3:9 states, “Everyone who has been fathered by God does not practice sin,” John described characteristics of those who have been born of God, not that prime principle by which God claims people.

Or consider 1 John 4:7’s affirmation, “everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God.” Someone could inaccurately claim every loving person is a Christian. So what is wrong with this claim? By isolating this verse from its context, we alter the meaning.

John’s letter does not explain how to become a Christian nor how God identifies this people. Rather, it is a brief handbook for an ancient Christian community for sorting between two different communities within Christendom. Each possessed distinctive messages with resulting lifestyles.

John capitalized on these differences by identifying the attributes of those who had been born of God (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18). He was not outlining principles for becoming God’s children nor the basis by which God identifies his people. Thus, while loving all people without distinction should be an important characteristic of God’s people (Matthew 5:43-45), those far from God do not become God’s people by loving others.

Another false start includes identifying God’s people based upon a church’s historical continuity. Why? Churches can apostatize (Galatians 1:6-8; Revelation 2:5). Historical continuity, brick and mortar, repenting and expressing love are at most secondary characteristics.

Secondary characteristics do not provide identification. To explore every false start for identifying God’s people is not efficient. It is more helpful to examine those texts where God claims, these are my people and God reveals why they are his!



Barry Newton
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