In every church with authoritarian leaders there are people that support them. Some are naive “yes men” that are oblivious to the danger that false teaching represents. There are usually enablers, people who know better but don’t object because they feel it is more important to “maintain the unity of the body.” This one of those phrases that sounds biblical but upon further investigation what the scriptures say isn’t the same as what is conveyed.
There really is no scripture that directs us to “maintain the unity of the body.”
In Ephesians 4 we see Paul mentioning unity of the Spirit and unity of the faith. In one passage we see a direct appeal to unity with other Christians. (Some others like Rom 14:19 speak of harmony.)
Rom 15:5 Now may the God of endurance and comfort give you unity with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus,
Rom 15:6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The word translated unity is phroneo. We see it translated in varying ways in the following passages:
TNIV : “the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had”
NASB : “be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus”
NLT : “live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus”
NRSV : “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus”
NIV : “a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus”
ESV : “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus”
There seems to be a little bit of variance in the translations telling me their is a range of meaning in phroneo. The gist is the same. Thayer’s lexicon suggests “have understanding”, “to feel” or “to think.” It sort of means going in the same direction.
A key in this verse is the part more literally translated “according to Jesus Christ.” Baker’s NT Commentary suggests it could be “in accordance to the will of Christ” or “in accordance with the teachings and example of Christ” or both. My guess would be both, or one would lead to the other. If you sought to know the will of Christ that would inevitably lead to his life and teachings and Christ’s life and teachings certainly lead us to seek His will. Which ever number you dial you get to the same place.
We also see that the source of this unity is God. Paul is praying that the God of endurance and comfort would provide this unity. It isn’t established through a structural hierarchy and organizational uniformity. It certainly isn’t arrived at through fear, coercion or manipulation.
It is necessary for unity to be in accordance to Christ. If someone starts bringing destructive false teaching that standard is not being met. Maintaining unity in a local church is not more important than living in accordance to Christ’s will and teaching.
We have some examples in scripture where Jesus is directly addressing churches that are tolerating false teaching.
Rev 2:14 But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality.
Rev 2:15 In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
Rev 2:16 Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth.
Rev 2:20 But I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and by her teaching deceives my servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
Rev 2:21 I have given her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality.
Rev 2:22 Look! I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness, and those who commit adultery with her into terrible suffering, unless they repent of her deeds.
Rev 2:23 Furthermore, I will strike her followers with a deadly disease, and then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts. I will repay each one of you what your deeds deserve.
There is something very ironic in this. Covering Theology teaches people put themselves in terrible danger when they fail to submit to authority but some of the sternest words of impending judgment in scripture are prescribed to false teachers. It seems to be far more dangerous to stay submitted to a false teacher than it is rebel against one.
We also find instruction in 2John.
2Jn 1:9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son.
2Jn 1:10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house and do not give him any greeting,
2Jn 1:11 because the person who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds.
Is covering theology as bad as the false teaching mentioned in Revelation 2 or 2John? Given Paul’s strident and emotional case for freedom as an inherent part of the gospel in Galatians my first thought would be yes. Christ came to give us freedom (Gal 5:1) and Covering Theology takes it away as well as makes idols out of church leaders.
It is hard to be sure because we aren’t certain what the doctrine of the Nicolatians was. We know that some false teaching lead to sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. The issue addressed in 2John was most likely gnosticism.
From a biblical perspective it would be hard to make a case for “maintaining unity” in church that has embraced false teaching. If we tolerate false teachers we become a “partner in their evil work” (2John 1:11 NLT). Maintaining harmony in the church is a strong theme in scripture. In Romans 14 Paul talks about this extensively. We are encouraged to accept people who hold to different positions on matters of personal conscience. We are also encouraged to be sensitive and considerate to those who might be offended by our actions. There is one issue for which Paul and others chose to be resolute and immovable: the gospel. You cannot add to this message, take away from this message or redefine this message.