There are reasons for this state of affairs, which we are able to discover as we examine what the Word of God teaches.
Reason No.1: No Infallible Pope, but God’s Infallible Word
First: the Lord, in His infinite wisdom, did not leave His people with an infallible pope to reign over them, but with His infallible Word.
It was not the Lord’s will to create a worldwide hierarchical structure, with one man ruling over it from the top. Nor was it His will for a group of men to do so either, like the board of directors of a company.
Before the New Testament was complete, the Lord Jesus Christ raised up the apostles to lead His Church during that period when the Scriptures were still being written. They, and the New Testament prophets, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, revealed the will of the Lord to His people. As it is written, “And they [i.e. the believers] continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). They were “built upon the [doctrinal] foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).
The apostles and prophets taught the churches by proclaiming the truths which they received from Christ Himself. And in the process of time their teaching came to be written down as the New Testament Scriptures. When, therefore, the apostles passed away and the apostolic age (the first century AD) came to a close, they left behind a complete body of teaching, which we call the New Testament Scriptures. The apostles’ teaching was now in written, permanent form, divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. “That which is perfect” had come (1 Cor. 13:8-12)!
This means that although apostles and prophets are no longer given, we still have the very same teaching which the early Christians had. It is contained in the pages of the New Testament. It is perfect, complete and sufficient (2 Tim. 3:15-17). And we are to continue in this apostolic doctrine, just as the early Church did (Acts 2:42).
The Lord, who knows what is best for His people, has given His Church His infallible Word and His infallible Holy Spirit. And no doubt He did it this way so that His people would not rely on a man, or on man’s fleshly wisdom, but solely upon the Holy Spirit to teach them through His Word, which is perfectly adequate (2 Tim. 3:16). Each Christian is to carefully and diligently search and study the Bible for himself (Jn. 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15). If the Church had been given some man as a pope, to rule from the top down and to declare what is true and what is false, there would be no need for any Christian to read and study for himself. But this would not be good for us. We need to search and study the Word ourselves, in order to grow spiritually (1 Pet. 2:2).
Reason No.2: Christians Growing All the Time
A second reason is that all Christians are growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ, and are at different stages of growth in spiritual matters. 2 Pet. 3:18 says, “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Just as a child grows in the knowledge of earthly, natural things, so a child of God grows in the knowledge of spiritual truth. He grows in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, His Gospel, and His will. 1 Jn. 2:12-14 says that some believers are “little children” in the faith, some are “young men”, and some are “fathers”. This has nothing to do with one’s age in years, but with spiritual maturity.
Within a local church there must of necessity be full agreement between the members. A local church simply cannot function properly without such unanimity. This agreement between the members is stated in 1 Cor.1:10: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” The same truth is taught throughout the New Testament. Full agreement between the members of a local church is essential to the peace of the church.
But there is a difference between full understanding of various doctrines, and the acceptance of them. When we say that there must be full agreement between the members of a local church, this is not to say that each and every member will understand all the doctrines of the faith to the same extent, for all are at different levels of growth and understanding. What may be very clear to one is not always as clear to another. Not every member will understand every doctrine to the same extent; but none should oppose them.
And since this is true even within a local church – that the members are at different stages of spiritual growth and understanding – it is certainly true when we compare believers between one church and another! The members of a local church all hear and learn the same things; they receive the same biblical instruction, week by week; yet even so they are all at different stages of growth. How, then, are we to expect all true churches, separated from one another, with their own pastors, backgrounds, etc., etc., to be precisely the same in all points of doctrine and practice?
Reason No.3: Imbibing False Teachings
There is a third reason why there are differences between churches. After the apostolic age, as time went by corrupt, false, counterfeit “churches” arose, holding to various false doctrines and practices; and some of these errors came to be held even by genuine Christians and churches. And because all believers are at different stages of growth, some make better progress at ridding themselves of these false doctrines and false practices than others do.
Reason No.4: Teaching Love and Patience
And there is a fourth reason. It is to teach all true believers to love all other true believers, and to be patient with them, even if they differ between themselves on some things. These are constant lessons we need to learn.
The Proper Balance
Obviously, then – since for the reasons given above, we are not to expect full agreement on every single point between all true churches – if there is going to be fellowship between true churches we have to tolerate in others, to some extent, what we would not tolerate in ourselves. We must never turn our backs on the truth which the Lord has made it known to us, but we must recognise that other Christians may not as yet understand all things precisely as we do. We are all learning and growing in the Lord. This is just the reality of it.
We must oppose all who teach damnable heresy, or whose conduct is ungodly, for they are not true brethren. But wherever we find a church which is, overall, doctrinally sound, whose members are striving to live godly in Christ and obey the commandments of the Lord, we must act according to the judgment of charity and treat it as a true church of Christ. We are certainly able to enjoy fellowship with them, recognising them joyfully as our brothers and sisters in Christ.