DISAGREEING WITHOUT DIVIDING
"There are doctrines that are absolutely essential to the Christians position. There are others which we believe to be right, but which we cannot say are essential. And I am only concerned about those bare essentials."
~ Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones ~
Let me preface this conversation with a little bit about my theological journey.
To begin, every bit of my exposure to the church during my childhood was in an extremely charismatic church in Rockwall, Texas. In fact, I believe my walk with Christ truly began at a different charismatic church when I was about sixteen years old in a small town called Quitman, Texas. I had previously been exposed to the concept of salvation, but it wasn't until then that I began to follow Jesus. So, the charismatic church has played a significant role in my faith. After a couple of years of interning at this same church, I assumed the role of student pastor and served for two years while also working full-time in financial industry. While serving as the student pastor, I felt led to pursue a theological studies degree from a Baptist University. Shortly after getting married, I stepped out of student ministry for a season and continued in the financial industry full-time while also remaining in school. I am thankful for my time in these churches and I care deeply about those who led me for several years as I was learning to walk in the way of Jesus.
When my wife Christie and I moved to Austin for work, we joined a church that aesthetically felt similar to what we were used to, though doctrinally they were on the other side of the fence, as they were highly reformed. We enjoyed the expositional preaching and the emphasis on doctrine that they offered. So…all at once I was: leaving a borderline Pentecostal church, going to moderately reformed university, and attending a bible church of a more Calvinist persuasion. As I continued to pursue my degree (and serve in a reformed church) I began to question some (not all) aspects of my charismatic/Pentecostal roots. During our time at this bible church, Christie and I went through a lot of difficulties in marriage, health, and overall direction. The leaders of this church discipled, instructed, invested, and cared for us back to spiritual, familial, emotional, and marital health. So, the reformed church has played a significant role in my faith as well. I am thankful for my time at this church and I care deeply about the people who led my family for three years as we learned to walk in the way of Jesus.
All of that to say this: my theological convictions have gone from as Arminian as you can get to as reformed as Calvin himself (maybe even more so). Throughout the last several years of study, prayer, serving, and life experience... I do not claim any theological tribe exclusively, though my inclinations may lean more one way on certain positions. I still wrestle with the tensions of biblical revelation, but I consistently come back to the truth that the secret things belong to the Lord (Deut. 29:29). I affirm and embrace the mystery of God’s ways and simply try to live in the way of Jesus through faithful obedience to the great command and the great commission. I am more than willing to get into the specifics of my doctrinal convictions in another discussion, but the point here is this: I have been on (and an advocate of) both sides at different times, and the Lord used faithful people of each theological persuasion to teach, lead, grow, and challenge me to become more like Jesus. I agree and disagree with certain positions on both sides, but I need those brothers and sisters in my life who disagree with me. My journey thus far has taught me how to disagree and love well rather than disagree and divide.
So far here is what I have learned and am still learning:
- No theological persuasion is perfect in its explanation of Scripture, including my own.
- For every verse used in favor of Calvinism, I can most likely find one in favor of Arminianism… and vice versa. I believe that each tribe accuses the other of taking the text out of its original context and on some points each are probably right, and on other points each are probably wrong. I enjoy the discussions between folks like Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. James White; Dr. Greg Boyd and Dr. Paul Eddy; or Dr. Grant Osborne and Dr. Randall Gleason, as these men typically model love and humility, without weakening their positions and they all recognize the holes (which are often called mysteries) in their positions. There are holes/mysteries in each theological system, and the humble believer should admit to this, which leads to number two.
- It is better to concede to mystery than to commit heresy.
- Dr. Norman Geisler taught me this little truth through some of his writings and it has been very helpful when I think that I know it all. There are some theological hills that I am not willing to die on. For example, the relationship between predestination and human responsibility. Both are biblical regardless of how we interpret certain passages, one thing we cannot do is ignore either one.. The disciples didn’t argue with each other about the tensions found here (that we are aware of) and it seems they viewed both to be (somehow…mysteriously) in harmony with one another…not at odds. The ancient Hebrews also placed high view on both God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. These dizzying doctrines are not divided, but seem to be united as friends. As Charles Spurgeon once said… “...I never reconcile two friends.”
- My theology can do without apathy, aggression, and arrogance.
- Ironically, when those things are present in our theological presentation, we are living out bad theology. Even if I am right….I can be right in the wrong way….which is still wrong. Sometime we are apathetic towards those who don’t share our convictions. It is important to remember that all people arrived at their convictions on a journey, and it would be wise and caring of us to first learn about how they arrived at such convictions in order to better understand them. Other times we can be aggressive with our theology, which exposes our own insecurity with our doctrinal convictions. When our beliefs are challenged, it is easy to become offended and offensive. Author and pastor Scott Sauls once said that Christians should be the least offended and least offensive people in the world. I agree with him. If we are honest, sometimes we like to be offended because we then feel justified in our aggression and feel at liberty to offend. Finally, our arrogance often reveals that we might idolize our doctrine…which is very possible…just ask the Pharisees.
- My heart should be discussion oriented not debate driven.
- There is a time and place for a debate…literally…they are usually scheduled in advanced. When it comes to our one-on-one conversations with people who share different convictions, we must remember that 1) there is usually no moderator, which means it will be really difficult to get a word in when the conversation becomes too heated… and 2) you must assume that the person you are talking with is not going to be as tactful as he or she could/should be, therefore you must be, which means listening more than speaking and keeping the volume low (even if the other person is getting a little excited). The posture and tone of a conversation often determines the outcome. Keep this in mind as you also write and post things on social media.
- I shouldn’t assume that I fully know the other person’s position or its implications, even if I believe that I do.
- A best practice when you find yourself disagreeing with someone is to pause and give him or her your undivided attention for a moment, as mentioned above. Let your conversational partner define and describe his or her own position. Then, repeat or summarize back to them what you heard for clarification so that they know you heard them. You would be surprised how disarming this can be, as it shows you cared enough to listen. Then, after they affirm that you accurately understand their positions, you are in a better position to tactfully and respectfully disagree or critique (not criticize). In the counseling world this called active listening…and it’s quite biblical (James 1:19-20).
These are just a few things that have helped me along the way. If you notice, the key to disagreeing without dividing is evaluating our own hearts and inclinations before we engage the other person’s persuasions. John Wesley stated it well when he said, “We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.” I still struggle with a lot of this, but when I apply these things, I quickly find that I am able to disagree, yet maintain a friendship as we seek to fulfill the mission that God has given us.
One final thing…
There are certainly times when division is necessary, and that is when the foundational theological positions that all orthodox Christian’s should hold to (see the Apostles/Nicene Creed for an overview) are contradicted or flat out rejected. But, one thing I have noticed on each side of the theological spectrum is that we can be too quick to throw out the words heresy or false teaching, when in actuality, it simply boils down the non-essentials that Martin Lloyd-Jones refers to.
Perhaps the next discussion we have will be one on the theological and historical positions of what defines heresy…
I hope this leads to some fruitful conversations.