The doctrines you read about in textbooks are not necessarily the same doctrines that people believe on the street or in the church. This shouldn’t have to be the case, but is primarily due to the long “boring” definitions of God that most people can’t understand.
In practice, a church member may describe the Trinity as being like “three grapes in a bunch” or like “ice, water and steam.” I have heard both of these analogies used to describe the Godhead by Trinitarian Christians – because these are the kind of explanations taught in Sunday Schools. What is interesting is that the first analogy is Trinitarian, while the second definition is Modalist. As you may recall from the last blog, Trinitarians view God in three persons, while Modalists view the Father and Son as different expressions of the same person. Usually Trinitarians view Modalism as a heresy, and Modalists view Trinitarianism as a heresy.
Differences exist within Oneness beliefs as well, teaching different variations of Modalism. For example, one Apostolic church has posted the following description of the Godhead on the internet, under the “what we believe” portion of their website:
“We believe in One God, the creator and sustainer of all things, who manifest Himself as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Ghost (indwelling Spirit) in the New Testament church.” ~ http://eaglebendapostolic.org/about/what-we-believe/
In contrast to this, a discussion thread on an internet forum at www.goodnewscafe.net calls the Apostolic doctrine identified above as ‘false’ or ‘successive’ Modalism, as it confines God so that he “cannot exist in more than one mode of being at a time.” William Branham often said, “God is not one like your finger” (Sermon: Lord, Show us the Father, Sept 7, 1953) – probably because this is what he was hearing among the people at the time, even though this is not the official UPC definition of the Oneness doctrine (the UPC is the largest Oneness-believing denomination).
As another example, a friend of mine had a conversation with a person who, excited by the fact that he believed that God was here, now, reached the conclusion that God could not be in heaven at the same time. Although this person did not believe he was Oneness, he was in fact much more Modalist than most Oneness-professing believers.
In other words, the complicated definitions of the Godhead are not what most people actually believe. Rather, people will only understand a simple God.
Finally, the biggest problem with saying “I believe God is in three persons” or “I believe in Oneness” is that these doctrines relate to significant denominations, and may change over time – just like the meaning of the word “person” has changed since the third century A.D. The Bible, however, will not change. As a result of this, I believe that the most essential elements in maintaining correct doctrine is access to an accurate translation of the Bible, prayer, and fellowship (not wars to exterminate the opposition, or theologians to do our thinking for us).
Godhead and Kindness
So how should Christians treat other Christians who have different views of the Godhead?
I believe that it is appropriate to discuss differences, pray, learn from the scriptures with each other, and let those differences be known without inciting hatred or slander. If you look back in history, dominant denominations have routinely persecuted heretics (“heretic” is a term that can loosely be applied to anyone who doesn’t agree with you on a particular religious topic). The treatment of the Cathars at the hands of the Catholics, most notably in the massacre in Beziers in 1209, is a historic example of this persecution.
Persecuting heretics is like stoning the Good Samaritan. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapter 1 about people who hold the truth in unrighteousness. He describes in this chapter people who understand the Godhead correctly, but still choose to live a life of corruption. Paul’s final description of these individuals is translated into English as ‘unmerciful’, which is an apt description of Arnaud-Amaury, the Catholic ambassador to the Cathars of Bezier, who declared “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own.”
“…hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” ~ Matthew 23:27-28.
Jesus’ zeal for the condition of the heart was matched only by his zeal for the Temple of God, driving out the moneychangers and saying, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:13) The temple was a place designed by God for worship, and is a symbol of Jesus Christ – through whom we have access by one Spirit unto the Father.