Gospel, Doctrine and The New Unity Movement

Ryan Goodwin




          One of the most common falsehoods of the modern religious world is the idea that there is a difference between “gospel” and “doctrine.” In other words, the soul is saved by the Gospel, or justified, and is expected by God to conform to doctrine, or what is termed sanctified. No doctrine can be made a test of fellowship because it is not based on salvation. Some would argue, and justifiably to an extent, that we are not saved by obedience to the doctrine of the New Testament, but through obeying and believing in the Gospel event. The application, of course, is that anybody who believes the story of Jesus is a Christian, and all other doctrinal discrepancies have nothing to do with his or her status in the eyes of God. In the end, this idea allows us to have spiritual fellowship with anybody who believes what some call “core” Gospel ideals. Those who make other doctrinal issues a test of fellowship are “legalists” and Pharisees and are, in fact, the ones in the wrong.

          This theory is not just a denominational one, either. We attribute these sorts of false doctrines to people of the world, but do not always realize that it is becoming more and more pervasive in our own ranks, amongst even those members of the Lord’s body who call themselves “conservative,” a title that actually has little practical meaning. What this all boils down to is whether or not there is a difference between “Gospel” and “doctrine” – is there a set of core facts that must be believed, and then an inferior set of doctrines that are open to interpretation and debate? Can fellowship be established based only on these core facts? Are we justified by the Gospel in the eyes of God and saved, and then made perfect, or sanctified, by obedience to New Testament laws? What I would like to do in this lesson is examine some of the arguments who believe in such an idea and the motivation behind them. In the end, this is just one more scheme that has been concocted by the minds of worldly people for the purpose of allowing fellowship with those who teach, preach, and practice sin. By those who adhere to it, it is affectionately dubbed the “New Unity Movement.”


Another Gospel?


          “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9). This is the text to which one would go for a solid argument against fellowship with those teaching or practicing falsehoods. But this verse, as seemingly conclusive as it is, has come under fire lately by those who wish to reverse its effect on the Lord’s church. In a call for unity with believers of the world, a number of preachers over the last few decades have advocated a “New Unity Movement.” They argue that it is our duty as Saints to maintain clear and friendly union with everybody who believes the Gospel, regardless of “minor” doctrinal differences. According to them, it is a travesty for us to so boldly refute those who disagree with us. Much to the dismay of Christ, they assert, we are tearing asunder His body by forcing Pharisaical precepts on those who honestly think otherwise. Instead of skewering the church with daggers of contention, we ought instead to be mending the wounds of division and presenting the church of Christ to the world as a unified, if not doctrinally consistent, organization. In order to establish this, preachers who argue for this kind of unity must come to grips with the ramifications of New Testament verses that teach the exact opposite of doctrinal inconsistency. In response to Galatians 1:6-9, Carl Ketcherside once wrote, “What is the gospel? Before one can designate a thing as ‘another gospel’ he must be able to identify the original gospel. The gospel, by etymology, is good news. It is not a system of doctrine, a philosophy of life or code of ethics. It is good news about a person and what that person has done for us in our helpless, hapless and hopeless condition…” (Ketcherside, “Another Gospel,” Twisted Scriptures, Mission Messenger Pub., 1965, p. 4).

          The Gospel, according to Ketcherside, is not all of the New Testament. It is simply the books Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and also other verses throughout the Bible that deal exclusively with the story about the life of Christ. To preach something contrary to the message of Paul or Peter, therefore, is not going against the Gospel, but against doctrine. The reason for this distinction is made clear by the fact that the word “Gospel” does not mean “doctrine.” Gospel is the message of salvation given to sinners. Jesus preached it, Paul preached it, we preach it today. It is the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and our opportunity to respond to it. Because Gospel essentially comes from the word euangelion (euangelion), which means to evangelize, and because one cannot “evangelize” saved people (Christians, or those who believe in the story of Jesus and have responded to it), the Gospel is not a message directed at Christians. Gospel is not doctrine, because doctrine is what Christians study and believe and apply to themselves. The Gospel is for the unsaved, and the New Testament doctrine is for the saved. “It is sadly amiss to talk about preaching the gospel to the church unless the church is composed of those who have never come to Christ, that is, have never obeyed the gospel” (Ketcherside, p. 4).

          What it all boils down to, according to some brethren, is that Galatians 1:6-9 is not talking about teaching false doctrines, such as can be associated with the resurrection, the Second Coming, or the use of the Lord’s treasury for worldly activities, but about misconceptions regarding the story of Jesus Christ. Ketcherside argues that we cannot use this scripture to defend our position on withdrawing fellowship from those who disagree with us doctrinally.

          Leroy Garrett makes the same argument for his case, saying, “This passage is abused in our day in such a manner that the effect is as much a perversion as it was with the Judaizers in Galatia. One is preaching ‘another gospel,’ we are told, if he holds some doctrinal error… One is not a true gospel preacher if he believes in Sunday school or if he uses a plurality of cups at the Supper… If that doesn’t out-Judaize the Judaizers of Galatia, it turns a close second” (Leroy Garrett, “The Word Abused,” Restoration Review, XVII: No. 3, pp. 42-46). He goes on to say that we have forced the gospel to embrace all of our “deductions, interpretations, and inferences” and judge all others to be bringing another gospel. But, from that point, Garrett lets himself slip into the hole of argumentation that so often defeats those in error. “One is left to conclude that such folk do not know what the gospel is, If the gospel includes all these doctrinal deductions, then it follows that no one truly preaches a complete gospel except those in one particular little sect. Not only would true gospel preachers be confined to the Church, but to only one faction within the group.” Does this mean he is admitting that he only preaches an incomplete gospel? Is he admitting that he has sins or errors in his own preaching and wants them dismissed? What bothers me about this argument is that it seeks to excuse error on the basis that we all have some of it. We are all wrong about something, so why even try to convince the world that any one of us has the truth? And yet it seems that all respect is lost for a religious group that claims inconsistency. If one wanted to become a Christian, and after being taught the message of Jesus, he is told by the preacher that the church he is about to join has numerous doctrinal errors and no confidence in its beliefs, how would that affect his decision? Beyond that, where in the Bible does it say truth is based on numeric superiority? It seems, instead, that the keepers of truth will always be the minority (Matthew 7:13-14).


Separating Believers


          “Men must not make things which God does not make conditions of salvation tests of fellowship, because in so doing they reject those whom God receives, and makes divisions in the church over trifles. To separate believers from unbelievers is right, but to separate believers from other believers is wrong. Blessed is the Christian who keeps all things in proper proportion. False concepts of dependence upon law keeping blinds us to the possibility we might be the one that is wrong and not always the other fellow. One so conceiving of the gospel must forever refuse to admit any wrong or else his only hope is gone” (Arnold Hardin, The Persuader, “What Is The Gospel # 5”). While this quote very successfully shoots daggers of criticism in the direction of those who stand for truth, it fails to realize some simple Biblical concepts.

          Is it really wrong to separate believers one from another because of doctrine? How many instances can we find in the New Testament of Christians breaking fellowship with other Christians over concepts not found in the list of “core” gospel beliefs? In Galatians 2:11, Paul makes it clear that Peter stood condemned for his falsehoods, as did the other Jewish Christians who made circumcision a requirement of Christ. Was it okay for this to continue? Were Peter and Paul just brethren on other sides of the doctrinal debate? Or was one right and the other wrong? Peter was in sin because of his blatant falsehood, as were the other Jewish Christians. And yet it is interesting to note that circumcision is has nothing to do with the “core” gospel facts. In fact, Jesus barely said a word about circumcision in the Gospels. So how can something so obviously “doctrinal” be made a test of fellowship? Jesus never spoke at length on subjects such as sexual abstinence and food, but there are some pretty harsh words written about those who preached such blatantly doctrinal matters in error (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Is doctrinal error no big deal? “In doctrinal matters there can be and will be diversity of opinion and interpretation. It was so with the apostles themselves. But this is good, for we stretch each other’s minds and help each other to grow in knowledge in our mutual search for truth” (Garrett). But according to the Bible, growth is not found in accepting and exploring false doctrine, but in steadfastness of doctrine. In fact, it is despicable to argue that the apostles had doctrinal diversity. Notice a few things about 2 Peter 3:16-18. First, Peter did not consider Paul’s letters as his opinion, or a diverse thought, but viewed them as authoritative and weighty (he calls them “scriptures”). Those who misinterpret or abuse Paul’s letters do so to their own destruction. Furthermore, exploring error and indulging in false doctrine is not a noble activity, but is viewed as being “carried away by unprincipled men,” and falling from steadfastness.

          If it is not acceptable to God to “separate” believers because of non-core gospel concepts, then all of the apostles, and even Jesus Himself are guilty of this problem. Paul separated Christians (baptized believers) because of abuses during the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11), misuse of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14), misconceptions about the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) and the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:8), circumcision (Galatians), marriage-divorce-remarriage difficulties (1 Corinthians 7, Romans 7:1-6), and other topics that are not even mentioned in the four Gospels. Was it okay for Paul to separate Christians because of these things, but not okay for us to separate Christians today because of blatant abuses of the Lord’s treasury, differences on accepting adulterous couples, or worshipping God in ways that are not commanded by Him?


Are there “core” gospel beliefs?


          Are there really a set of “core” gospel facts that must be believed and acted upon for salvation? Because the New Unity Movement either stands or falls based upon the veracity of this assertion. Ketcherside’s argument is that there seven explicit facts in the Gospels that are fixed and cannot be argued against. They are unquestionably the hallmark beliefs of Christianity, and with these there should be complete agreement amongst the Christians of the world. If one believes in these “core” facts, he or she is a Christian, irrevocably so in spite of doctrinal stances. But if we consider the Bible, we will see that New Unity advocates are basing their argument on a faulty premise! Leroy Garrett said, “It means that the gospel itself, not our doctrinal instructions, is the basis of our being one in Christ and in fellowship with each other.”

          But the problem with the “seven facts” theory is that it is just as subjective as all of the “subjective” doctrinal problems Ketcherside and others complain about constantly. Are there really seven facts, or eight? Or two? Or maybe just one? Which do we put first, or second? In what order must they be believed? But there are more than seven facts in the gospels, and can any one of them be left out and still leave the Gospel intact? Here is a list of “core” facts from the Gospel, but there are more than seven:

·        Death.

·        Burial.

·        Resurrection (unless you do not believe in the physical resurrection).

·        Ascension.

·        Coronation (unless you are Premillenial).

·        Glorification.

·        Appearances (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).

·        Is the plan of salvation part of the gospel or just gospel-related? How can one obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8) if commands are not a part of it? Furthermore, is there complete agreement over the application of the deeds of obedience?

·        Condemnation of hypocrisy is part of the gospel (Galatians 2:5, 12-14).

·        Helping needy saints is part of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 9:13).

·        Your “manner of life” is striving for the Gospel (Philippians 1:27).

·        “Doctrine” is according to the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:9-11, and that includes condemning that which is contrary to sound doctrine – eleven things are included in the list there.

          That brings the total here to twenty-four “core” gospel facts to be believed and acted upon. Not seven. But is this even all there is? Where do you draw the line? Is there one of these facts that can be eliminated? How much of this list do you have to throw out in order for all the supposed Christians of the world to agree? Today, it is doubtful that most people who claim to be Christian do not even share two or three “core” facts and certainly few in our society act upon them. It is just as easy to unite over doctrine as it is over gospel. And even with only seven “core” facts, there will always be peculiar practices because of the implications of even more peculiar misinterpretations of those facts.

          Or perhaps the point is just to believe in the “Christ” event, that is, the story of the Gospel. But this argument falls as soon as one realizes that believing and not acting is just as bad as not believing at all. Even the demons believe in the power of Jesus, but does that save them from their fate (James 2:19)?

          One problem with the New Unity Movement’s list of seven facts is that it does not contain anything about baptism. “Let us remind you that advocates of broadened fellowship with sectarians on the basis of justification insist that such is possible because all can accept the ‘gospel’ while all cannot agree on doctrine. But this supposed list of seven facts nowhere contains baptism” (Tom Roberts, Neo-Calvinism In The Church Of Christ, 61). Is it a fact to be believed? No, and it certainly not a response to the seven core facts (life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, coronation, glorification) because none of those facts beg for a response. They are just facts to be considered. Here is the clincher: most of our brethren who want to advocate a “new unity” do so to establish fellowship with those on the outskirts of the churches of Christ doctrinally, not to establish fellowship with sectarians. Are we really prepared to accept the implications of the “seven facts” theory? If so, then we must extend fellowship to all people who believe them, Methodists, Catholics, and even non-church-goers who have read and believed the Gospel story. Our brethren who try to hold to the New Unity Movement and still teach the truth on baptism are like the man who has one foot on the shore and the other in the boat that is slowly drifting out to sea. Eventually, he will have to choose one or the other.


Bible Usage of “Gospel-Doctrine”


          In conclusion, are “gospel” and “doctrine” really mutually exclusive? Can you agree on the gospel, disagree on doctrine, and have no problems? Or these terms interchangeable in the Bible?

·        In 1 Timothy 1:8-11 the Gospel includes “sound teaching” and in 2 Timothy 3:16 doctrine includes gospel.

·        In John 18:19, the Jews ask Jesus of His teaching. Was it “gospel?”

·        The disciples enter the temple in Acts 5:21 and began teaching. Was this not the gospel being taught? But Ketcherside and others argue that one cannot teach the gospel, only preach it, and one cannot preach doctrine, only teach it! The bible makes them interchangeable.

·        Acts 5:42 – They both “preached” and “taught” Jesus as Christ (gospel).

·        Acts 13:12 – The proconsul believed the “teaching” of the Lord.

·        In Acts 17, the Athenians want to know more about the new “teaching” that was brought by Paul. But I though one could not “teach” unbelievers the Gospel, only preach to them!

·        Acts 15:35 – Preaching and teaching the word of the Lord.

·        Paul “preaches” to the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20:25.

·        In 1 Corinthians 11:26, we proclaim (preach) the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection every Sunday.

·        The Gospel was made known to the Corinthians, to whom it had already been preached (1 Corinthians 15:1-5).

·        2 Thessalonians 2:14-15 – Called through the Gospel… holding fast to the teaching.

·        2 Timothy 4:2 says to preach the word with all teaching.

·        That which prepares a Christian for service is called both “doctrine” (Matthew 28:20, Acts 2:42) and “gospel” (Ephesians 6:15, 1 Timothy 1:10-11).

          Also interesting to note is that sinners respond to the gospel through the faith (Romans 1:5, 16:28), the truth (Romans 2:8), the form of doctrine (Romans 6:17-18), and the gospel (Romans 10:16), yet Christians are established in the faith (Philippians 1:27), the truth (2 Peter 1:12), the doctrine (Acts 2:42), and the gospel (Romans 16:25). It’s the same message, friends, for all people. The Gospel has the power to teach us about Christ, tell us how to respond, and inform us about how to manage the church and operate it in this world.