Healthy Theology 9: Disagreeing Well
In 1555, at the end of Broad street just outside the gates of Balliol College, Oxford, three leaders in the Church of England were burned at the stake. 300 years later, the city of Oxford offered a rather public apology when they constructed a monument “in grateful commemoration” of the three martyrs for “bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors” by the majority in their own day. It is not inconsequential that, during the intervening years, the official religion in the land changed from the one that condemned the martyrs, to one that embraced them.
Learning not to burn someone with whom you disagree is what we call “progress.” But it raises an interesting question: given that we often change our positions, how should we disagree with one another?
A Healthy Desire For Constant Renewal: Where Independence Has An Important Place
While uniformity has its strengths, it also has its weaknesses. If you value independence, question the motivations, judgment, or methodology of church leaders, or worry that there are no limits (in theory) to where one draws the line between essential teachings of Scripture and pet theories about Scripture, you may share some of the convictions that led to “renewal movements” throughout history, such as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is perhaps the most famous leader in this regard, nailing his 95 theses to the front doors of a local church (at least, as the legend goes)–condemning authoritative church teachings and practices which he believed were not consistent with the teachings of Scripture. According to leaders of these various renewal movements, those early writers who spoke of “catholic” teaching as that which all Christians have always, everywhere, believed, would be greatly surprised and dismayed at particular teachings and practices associated at the time with Roman Catholicism (Luther specifically named the selling of indulgences and problems with the Papacy). Over time, others began to protest more teachings, such as veneration of the saints, the immaculate conception of Mary, the “no marriage” rule for priests, and so on.
But the protesting did not stop there. Even those among Protestant groups could not agree on what other inherited doctrines ought to cease. Does the bread and wine turn into the body of Christ? Should babies be baptized? You name a topic–and, chances are, you’ll find a group who arose specifically to criticize (or champion) that very thing. On a charitable reading, what all these groups had in common was a central criticism: the Church of their day seemed less “catholic” (universal) than it should be, and thus needed reform. Some (like Erasmus) chose to fight from within the system, acting as Roman Catholic reformers. But others felt the need to separate themselves and “begin afresh.” Thus the Protestant Reformation spawned numerous dissenting groups–debating among themselves what standard or mechanism could provide the proper litmus test for correcting or retaining the doctrines and practices they had each inherited.
Fast forward three centuries. In America, one manifestation of renewal among the separatist approach became known as the “American Restoration Movement.” Barton W. Stone, one of the early leaders of this segment, saw trouble on both sides of the aisle. On the one hand, he saw problems with Protestant movements, since they tended to create even more division, with each church separating themselves based on their own interpretations of Scripture (codified in their own separate creeds). On the other hand, he noted that all Christians cannot unite under the banner of Roman Catholicism, since (he believed) that group had become an entity like the others, separated from other Christians with peculiar doctrines not found in the Bible. His solution, shared by others of a similar mindset, was to drop all creeds of Christendom, and simply unite on the Bible. In the beautifully written Last will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, he and others wrote that “we will, that this body die, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large”, accepting no required tests of faith, no creedal commitments, other than what is found in the New Testament. Here are two of my favorite passages from this powerful letter:
We will, that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.
We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.
This is the heritage into which I was born. My family has been associated with the American Restoration Movement for at least 5 generations, and I continue to minister and practice discipleship within this beautiful heritage that emphasizes the Bible as our highest standard and a life of mutual love and prayer our noble calling. There is an inherent value within this tradition, shared by others as well, that the church is semper reformanda–always reforming–and the the Bible serves as the gold standard, while the Spirit serves as a refiner’s fire.
Really Hearing Each Other: Scripture as Final but Evaluative
Perhaps you come from a similar “free church” tradition. I would like to suggest that one can affirm this language without intending that we renounce any lenses, categories, or priorities which church tradition had rightly gleaned from Scripture. Consider the fact that it is possible that a call to abandon the various “creeds of Christendom” (such as each particular handbook defining what separates one Protestant group from another) and accept only what is found in Scripture is consistent with the teaching of the early church, including those who held firmly to the Nicene Creed as a faithful expression of the rule of faith. As Christian teachers have suggested throughout the centuries, the creeds are useful only insofar as they accurately reflect what Scripture affirms, and all Christians believe. The problems reformation and restoration leaders were addressing did not concern creedal affirmations such as “I believe in Jesus Christ” or that there is only one church; in that sense, one can affirm the strengths of this movement without abandoning orthodoxy, or denying Christian belief statements which have always defined Christianity.
However, some Christians today think that affirming the rule of faith–the central teachings of the early church, later expressed in things such as the Apostles’ Creed–is placing church authority over Scripture. As I explained in an earlier post, I believe that if we think of church history as an extended conversation among people searching for the same goal–a witness to the triumphs and tragedies of seeking to know the meaning of Scripture–we begin to appreciate the concept of shared values and healthy tradition. In short, we find the healthiest approach to Christianity not through constant splitting–but through truly hearing one another.
The Bible was never meant to be read in isolation from the larger body of Christ; it was intended to be read in community. “As iron sharpens iron,” says the Proverb, “so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). When Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he knows that the audience will hear his message collectively as it is read aloud in the community. So in chapter 3, he prays that his readers will be able to grasp “with all the Lord’s holy people” the depth of the love of Christ, which “surpasses knowledge.” Why would Paul pray that people come to comprehend what is incomprehensible? The clue is found in the plural pronouns. His prayer is that you all will come to know what is higher and deeper than any one person’s experience, “so that you (plural) may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
In short, we need to hear and know each other if we ever wish to hear and know God in all his fullness. I would like us to imagine that our “Christian communal witness” is larger than we often assume. It is wider than ourselves or our local churches—extending to all Christians on the planet; it is longer than our own lifetime—extending back to the earliest disciples. And, finally, it is deeper than our own reflections and experiences—extending to proper instruction handed down throughout the centuries.
This is what the Reformers had in mind when they spoke of Scripture as our sole or final authority. Those who wished to remove particular instances of non-biblical or unorthodox traditions never meant to produce an environment in which “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Instead, Scriptural teaching is the “litmus test” used to evaluate creedal statements and church tradition. The claim “Scripture alone” does not abandon the value of church traditions; it provides a solid ground for understanding, evaluating, and appreciating them. This is why if you wish to advocate for or critique some belief or practice, you can find allies and voices to challenge you both within the Christian tradition.
A Tradition of Unhealthy Theology
Healthy teaching starts with central truths about who God is and what He has done; it prioritizes what is at the heart of the gospel, laying a true and vibrant foundation for building your understanding of Christianity. Healthy teaching reveals the heart of God, and helps keep us from developing flat and jaundiced views of Scripture and God’s requirements. It is characterized by a peaceful and gentle spirit, one that seeks to grow in grace and knowledge, rather than unnecessary fights about pointless controversies.
This helps us identify unhealthy teaching. A clear sign that you are embracing an unhealthy view of God and his will (“theology”) is when, disregarding the “weightier matters” and failing to discern “central truths” of Christian teaching, you narrow in and give undue emphasis on one particular teaching (even a core one), while excluding or relativizing all other teachings. In the history of Christianity, this has been the usual scenario: a religious group (called church “A”) will be practicing certain things. Some members will notice some very important teaching from Scripture that is missing, or some new practice with which they disagree. When all their efforts to reform that church fails, they will leave and start Church “B,” known far and wide for emphasizing the Bible teaching that their former church neglected. Over time, members from that group will arise noticing either some other important Bible teaching that is missing or some new practice with which they disagree. After their efforts to reform that church fails, they will start Church “C” in order to teach what they consider to be true and balanced teaching that embraces all the Biblical truth they can see and excluding innovations they despise. [Believe it or not, I’ve painted a rather rosy scenario, since many divisions in history are due not to honest difference in doctrine, but to politics, power, preferences, pressure, and emotional pain.] This scenario then continues indefinitely.
What seems to follow from this is a set of “identity markers.” We know who we are because of who we are not; we define ourselves in terms of those with whom we disagree. That is unhealthy. Our identity is found in Jesus Christ, not our pet theories about any one particular doctrine. This can lead to a failure to discern between primary and secondary teachings. We end up starting with whatever doctrines seem important to us, and then compare all people by our own developed standard–or by ourselves. This failure to discern primary and secondary teachings, or central and non-central things concerning those teachings, are two examples of unhealthy theology. And, most interesting of all, this is the very thing the rule of faith and the early Christian creeds were designed to avoid! “There can be no room for doubt, challenge, growth, or new ideas. Fear of disagreement, and a spirit of intolerance become requirements in order to feel any sense of safety and assurance.”
“There can be no room for doubt, challenge, growth, or new ideas. Fear of disagreement, and a spirit of intolerance become requirements in order to feel any sense of safety and assurance.”
And the end result is both obvious and tragic. If I believe that every Bible teaching is on the same level as every other Bible teaching, then I am forced to think that any disagreement you and I have over any Bible matter is of equal importance. Even though the Bible itself distinguishes “more important” matters, and even though you and I never have a perfect grasp on all Bible teachings, we will inevitably pick a starting place from which to judge all views and other people. In the history of Christianity, it is clear that we usually pick our experience–the “kind” of religious expression with which we are most familiar–as the litmus test. This approach, alone, would be bad enough–where we just assume that we know all basic truth (and everyone who disagrees with us have nothing to teach us and everything to learn from us). But when we go further and assume whatever I think about any particular issue is the “true” and “right” view–and all Bible matters are equally important–then I have no choice but to circle the wagons excluding all others every time we disagree.
It gets worse. Not only do we end up excluding others by our own peculiar teachings; we face great crisis when we dare to change our minds ourselves! There can be no room for growth, challenge, doubt, or openness to new ideas. Fear of disagreement, and a spirit of intolerance become requirements in order to feel any sense of safety and assurance. This level of group-think is unhealthy, and has led to the constant divisions throughout church history. And when we find ourselves caught in this mess, all the passages about healthy teaching–and the ability to disagree without being disagreeable–start to sound foreign to our experience.
To guard against this historical trend, in which group after group split over every issue that might arise, it is imperative that we consider again the value of orthodoxy, while leaving room for critical independent reflection which becomes necessary when our Christian fellowship fails to remain orthodox. A love for the central, foundational truths that have served to define Christianity throughout the centuries appears to me to be a helpful starting place when compared to any one group’s claim to have the true handle on the Word of God. Truth is not determined by numbers, but there is wisdom in listening to the community of faith–which stretches back far beyond our own time.
To sum up: God never meant for churches to be so independent as to believe whatever they wished; and history shows that there continues to be no internal mechanism which creates united beliefs when people abandon these early Christian summaries of central doctrine. As long as they accurately reflect (1) what Scripture affirms, and (2) what Christians in all places through the centuries have believed, I believe it right and helpful to hold these summaries as proper teaching for church practice.
Where To Stand For Healthy Disagreement
Let me suggest three things to help us disagree well:
1. Know your history. Understand where your religious movement came from. Be able to name the major players and the circumstances that led them to break away from, or try to reform, the religious system into which they were born. Those who do not know their history–or worse, assume they have no history–are doomed to repeat it. So ask yourself this question: “Is this issue or position tied to my particular religious heritage? If so, how have I been conditioned to see and treat this issue as a matter of priority?” Self-examination, and historical reflection, can greatly aid any discussion. “What a gift the giver [gives] us,” writes Burns, “to see ourselves as others see us.”
2. Affirm the big rocks. Believe in and appreciate the central truths that have always served as the standard test of Christian faith. You don’t have to know every false doctrine or peculiar teaching in order to avoid unnecessary quarrels. As someone once said, “all pianos, tuned to the same fork, will necessarily be tuned to one another.” Don’t worry about knowing every counterfeit bill–just know what a real one looks like as best as you can. In so doing, acknowledge the value of those who also affirm the big rocks. This will change our posture in conversations.
Do you deny that God is Father, Son, and Spirit? Do you believe there is an alternative remedy for sin other than the death of Jesus Christ? Does your worldview include rival Gods, uncreated and equal in power to the One God revealed in Scripture? If so, you are reading the Bible with improper lenses, failing to discern truths at the core of the Christian faith. When someone asks who you are, in religious terms, and what your group believes, does your answer contradict these central truths? Does your sense of self-identity center on a different list of lesser importance? This might be an indication that pebbles are taking priority over the big rocks. So, ask yourself these two questions: “Is this issue something that has always been considered a central teaching of the Christian faith? If not, am I arguing with someone who accepts the central teachings of the Christian faith?” How we stand in relation to one another determines the way we will speak to one another. It truly makes a difference.
3. Grow gracefully. Realize that Christian life and worship is always a process of reforming–starting with yourself. Even when the big rocks are in place, the Christian seeker will desire to grow in grace and knowledge of all revealed truth. This means we will constantly be in the process of asking questions, exploring ideas, and challenging ourselves and the church around us. Be willing to listen. Be willing to grow. Adopt a posture of good-will that assumes others are seeking truth as well. I may be right; I may be wrong. But I accept the challenge to refine my heart and life on a daily basis. So ask yourself this final question: “how can we (you and I who disagree) grow gracefully toward the truth from where we stand?”
Article: Joel Miller, “Why Apostolic Tradition Matters”, written by a contemporary evangelical
Article: Keith Stanglin, “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?”: Shows the importance of shared foundations over an individualistic determination of what is “central” and what is not.
Videos: Keith Stanglin, “Restorationism and Church History: Strange Bedfellows?”: Parts one and two.
Articles: Randy Harris, “Will Churches of Christ Survive the Twenty-First Century?” Parts one, two, and three.
(photo: “Humanoids arguing.” credit: Vic)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.