Writing fifty years ago, Francis Schaeffer made a plea for Christians to watch out for the danger of settling into habits which were formed in times of controversy. At the time, Schaeffer was caught up in the middle of the controversy of his day, which he discusses in his book, The Church Before the Watching World. He looks backwards into Church history to consider how the habits learned in controversy might endanger our Christian fellowship.

Love without holiness turns out to be compromise … Holiness without love is hard and lacks beauty.

—Francis Schaeffer

We will do well to listen to his warning—whether we find ourselves presently in dispute, or whether we have managed to avoid it so far (a temporary situation, given history and human sinfulness). Schaeffer argues that

… we discourage our [sisters and] brothers in Christ, unless consciously and prayerfully ahead of time, we are prepared for the situation—ready with a simultaneous, clear doctrinal stand and an exhibition of real, observable love among true Christians. This must be consciously thought about and prayed about and written about, for it does not come automatically. In the moment itself, tensions run high and there is little time for working on our attitudes then.” (pp68-69, emphasis original)

It can be hard to step back from the heat of battle to reflect on what habits we might be learning, but we ought to try and do it for the sake of displaying the twin goals that Schaeffer discusses:

… to show forth the love of God and the holiness of God simultaneously. (p54).

People observing the visible Church should be able to see it bear witness to both (i) the holiness of God (through its purity), and (ii) the love of God (through the way its members treat each other).

If we show either of these without the other, we exhibit not the character, but a caricature of God for the world to see. If we stress the love of God without the holiness of God, it turns out to be compromise. But if we stress the holiness of God without the love of God, we practice something that is hard and lacks beauty. (p54)

Two Bad Habits

Here we see the two unhelpful habits learned in controversy. Some, who seek to stay-on despite controversy in a denomination or church, can form a habit of compromise in the name of love. As they make allowances to preserve unity, they become acclimatised to making compromises.

Those who choose to leave a church or denomination face a different danger. As they seek to preserve purity, they risk developing a habit of absolutism. They work so hard to stand firm on the issue of the day that they get into the pattern of fighting everyone on every issue.

Schaeffer plays out the future of each of these as a form of warning about the habits being formed in controversy. If our approach is to pursue displaying love (to the cost of displaying the purity and holiness of God) we can give so much ground and share too much leadership with those who are wandering from the truth: we fail to do the work of discipline.

The better response is to:

… call for the appropriate discipline of those who take a position which is not according to Scripture. But at the same time we must visibly love them as people as we speak and write about them. (p60)

The important thing here is honouring the truth once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).

If we only ever worry about purity, we risk seeing every difference as a hill to die on.

In the other bad habit, we pursue holiness and purity (at least purity of doctrine) at the cost of displaying the love of God. Schaeffer warns that if we only ever worry about the purity of the visible Church, we risk seeing every difference as a hill to die on.

One must realise that there is a great difference between believing in absolutes and having an absolutist mentality about everything. They tend to lose their Christian love for those true Christians who do not come out [of the erring denomination]. (p66, emphasis original)

The better response is to draw on the resources of the gospel, especially God’s love for sinners, to continue to visibly love others, even when we disagree with them—and also to consider carefully whether a habit of fighting for the truth has begun to give us an absolutist mentality about everything.

The Value of Difference

It is the very gathering of diversity in the body of Christ which helps us here. Operating together with difference, we can become alerted to tendencies that we might not see if we only associate with people exactly like us:

There is, therefore, a danger for those who come out [of the erring denomination] and those who stay in. And in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must face these dangers in order to help each other. (p66)

Schaeffer doesn’t mean that there is no place for breaking fellowship. Where the difference amounts to a rejection of the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of Scripture, there is no basis for unity:

The real chasm is between those who have bowed to the living God and … the Scriptures, and those who have not. (p70)

And yet, the “world is on fire” (pp79,81), and Schaeffer insists that this emergency requires us to work with our brothers and sisters. Different churches with differing distinctives really do need each other.  

The urgency of displaying both the holiness of God and the love of God to world can move us to self-reflection and honest conversation. Whether we are in a time of controversy or preparing for when it comes, we can watch for the habits that are forming. And we can pursue the example of Christ, who loved his disciples with a visible love and called them to be holy, as God is holy.