Fight the good fight (part 2)

Tony Payne continues his essay (from Briefing #353) on Christian disagreement.

Under what circumstances, and in what manner, should we critique the views of others?

That was the question we embarked upon in part 1 of this essay, and so far we have talked mainly about the first half of it—about when to pick a fight, and when to let it go. We saw that the Bible warns and exhorts us in both directions. There is a time for contending for the truth, and for rebuking those who are in error; and there is a time for avoiding quarrels altogether.

In his related article in Briefing #353, Mark Thompson added to our understanding by showing that where the Scriptures clearly address a matter—whether touching on doctrine or a principle of Christian living—we are not at liberty to declare the issue unimportant or a ‘matter of indifference’. We see Paul being very flexible in his practice, Mark argued, but never flexible in his principles.

Mark went on to say that the Bible itself allows for matters of freedom or indifference—either by not addressing the issue or by explicitly declaring it a matter of freedom—and to quarrel or divide over these issues is disastrous and disobedient. It goes against the numerous commands about fruitless speculations, controversies and dissensions (e.g. 1 Tim 6:3-5; Titus 3:9-11).

However, you may well ask, if we avoid speculative and unimportant arguments, allow freedom on matters of indifference, and confine ourselves only to those in-principle issues about which the Bible speaks, doesn’t that still leave a fairly large number of issues we might potentially disagree about? Must we be in full agreement about all these? What happens when (inevitably) we are not? How do we deal with these disagreements? And what are the implications of continued disagreement about these issues?

I will attempt to answer these questions in this second part of the essay, and in so doing discuss the manner in which critique or disagreement should be conducted—for how we conduct a critique or dispute depends to a significant extent on how weighty and important the matter is.

All truth is God’s truth, and in love we should prayerfully aim for agreement in everything through careful study and dialogue. But there is a spectrum of doctrinal importance that will determine how we deal with different matters, and what the consequences of continuing disagreement will be.

Then again, perhaps ‘spectrum’ is not quite the right word—because that would suggest that there are no hard lines or boundaries, just a gradation of different issues with blurry distinctions between them. Perhaps we would do better to talk about a core of non-negotiable truth, surrounded by concentric circles of diminishing importance. It might look like this:

In suggesting this way of looking at it, I am resisting the common idea that there are just two categories of biblical issues—essentials and non-essentials, the former about which we must be unified, and the latter about which we are free to do what is right in our own eyes. (You may have heard the expression: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity’.) This simply binary division is too blunt an instrument, it seems to me, to deal with the complexities of Christian doctrine and life. Of course there are some things we should go to the stake for, and some things we should be content to disagree about good-naturedly—but these are not the only options. Some issues are very important, are worthy of serious debate and critique, and may ultimately affect our fellowship with each other, even though they are not strictly ‘essentials’ as far as salvation is concerned.1

Let me illustrate by looking firstly at a range of core issues.

1. In the core

One of the Apostle Paul’s major ongoing fights was over justification by faith, and in particular the persistent question of whether Gentile Christians ought to be compelled to be circumcised and take on the law of Moses. We see this being played out in Acts (with the Jerusalem Council) and with great force in Galatians.

The issue would pop up in different ways in different places—slightly different in Galatians, for example, than in Colossians—but in each case Paul could see that it was a make-or-break challenge that went to the heart of his gospel. Any form of legalism—including the requirement that certain religious works are necessary to salvation—was poisonous to the gospel of God’s grace, by which we are freely justified through faith alone.

As a result, Paul didn’t regard the legalism-justification question as a matter for debate, toleration, breadth of opinion or compromise. This was a time for drawing lines, and consigning those on the other side of the line to emasculation and hell (Gal 5:12, 1:9).

No doubt with sinking hearts, the Reformers saw that there were similar lines to be drawn in their day with respect to Rome’s teaching about salvation and justification. For them, as for Paul, it was a church-splitting, fellowship-sundering issue, for which they were ready to die. And interestingly, just as circumcision was the seemingly secondary issue which brought the matter to a head, so in the English Reformation the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Mass was the presenting question that brought the central doctrinal question of justification and grace to the surface.

There are other biblical issues where clear lines are drawn. For example, Paul’s gospel also faced a challenge from licentiousness—the idea that since we are freely justified and forgiven, we are also free to keep on sinning. In numerous places Paul denounces this distortion, either by direct refutation (e.g. Rom 6:1, 15), or by strong warnings against those who teach such things. Don’t let anyone fool you, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 9-10).

Don’t be deceived, says Paul. Licentiousness attacks the core of the gospel. Do not associate with such people (Eph 5:7).

This seems harsh to us—refusing to meet with people, not associating with them, avoiding them. It conjures up images of Amish-style ‘shunning’ and censoriousness. But in our age where debate, discussion and dialogue are viewed as ends in themselves, we need to take note of the apostolic approach to people who peddle a different doctrine—silence them (Titus 1:11), have nothing to do with them (Eph 5:7), avoid them (2 Tim 3:5). Debate and dialogue is not always healthy, especially for the sake of the flock. [This, incidentally, is why those bishops who have declined to attend the Lambeth Conference this year have done a profoundly biblical thing, for which they have of course been roundly criticized. They have refused to associate with supposed Christian brothers who openly teach a modern form of licentiousness—that men having sex with each other is not sin.]

There are other hard-edged issues in the New Testament which we haven’t time to go into. For example: the “first importance” doctrines of 1 Corinthians 15, concerning Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins; the divine nature of Christ himself (1 John 4); and the authority of the apostle’s teachings (also in 1 John 4).

2. Moving out from the core

Needless to say, not every issue of principle is in the fellowship-shattering, take-no-prisoners gospel core. Given our own imperfect knowledge and nature this side of glory, we are bound to disagree about some things. And while we may discuss and debate, and seek to persuade each other of our points of view, perfect agreement will never be possible.

The New Testament itself recognizes that Christians will not always be of one mind. It urges them to work for this unity, and maintain it, but it is by no means automatic or permanent (cf. Phil 2:1-3, 4:2; Eph 4:1-3). We all make mistakes, and have our blindspots (Jas 3:1-2). As Paul says: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil 3:15).

What sort of issues will be in the circles outside the core? Here’s a quick and not at all exhaustive list of the sorts of things I mean:

  • When and how should we baptize people?
  • Have the miraculous gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 ceased?
  • Is there some sort of ‘second blessing’ for Christians (the baptism in the Spirit)?
  • How should a church be organized and governed?
  • What is the ‘millennium’ and how does it relate to the return of Christ?
  • What does the Lord’s Supper really mean and how should we practise it?
  • Is the atonement limited/particular or universal in its scope?
  • Does Romans 7 address Christians or non-Christians?
  • What are the chief methods and aims of Christian ministry?
  • Should Christians smoke?
  • Does God predestine or only foreknow?
  • Should church meetings be formal and liturgical, or breezy and informal?

No doubt you could add your own favourites. The point about these sorts of issues is that they are of differing levels of importance, and they touch upon Christian thought and life with varying degrees of seriousness. However, holding different views on these questions would not usually place one outside the kingdom—that is, outside some of those clear-cut lines that the New Testament draws in different places, and which we explored briefly above.

However, it would also be wrong to say that these issues don’t matter, or don’t have potentially serious implications—some more so than others. For example, John Wesley and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones each believed in some form of a second blessing for Christians. Like many, I think that this is mistaken, and that second-blessing teaching can have seriously unhelpful consequences for Christian discipleship. If someone started touting second-blessing-ism at the church I go to, I would definitely feel the need to say something. I would put this issue in the first circle outside the core, because it has such potentially serious implications for Christian life and unity. But I wouldn’t for one minute say that this renders Wesley or Lloyd-Jones beyond the pale!

What about different views on baptism? Again, it’s not a gospel deal-breaker, but it is not trivial either. Holding different views on baptism may well result in some hindrance to our fellowship, because your view may prevent me from becoming a full member of your church (hardly surprisingly, since baptism is hard to separate from Christian initiation and membership). So evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists may share wonderful gospel fellowship on everything that matters, and engage in gospel causes together, and yet still feel the need to belong to different congregations. On these kinds of issues which stubbornly divide congregations and denominations, JC Ryle once wisely commented that we should “keep the walls low, and shake hands over them often”.

I would put views of baptism in the next circle out—potentially significant, but not of great importance. However, here we need to note something very important about our diagram, and the way issues are arrayed upon it. . The New Testament classic here is circumcision. Of itself, it would be in the very outer circle. Circumcision is neither here nor there, as Paul says (1 Cor 7:19). But if someone were to come along and insist on circumcision as a prerequisite for salvation, then all of a sudden we have gone plummeting into the core, because the very basis of the gospel is at stake.

3. How to disagree

Hopefully some aspects of how we should disagree or critique others will already have become apparent. The basic shape of our response to any particular issue should be determined by how closely it sits to the core.

Put simply, the principle is this: the closer an issue touches upon the gospel and our response to it, and the clearer the teaching of the Bible is about it, the more seriously we must deal with it, and the more weighty are the consequences of disagreement. But that’s not all we need to say about ‘how’. Here are some other principles that should guide the manner of critique and disagreement:

  1. “Don’t be evil”, as Google’s motto used to put it. There are some obvious Scriptural principles of godliness that should guide any critique or dispute: be honest; always represent the other person’s views fairly and clearly; be quick to listen and slow to speak; even if the cheap shot is there to be taken, don’t take it; don’t play with straw men or other forms of underhanded rhetoric; and so on.
  2. Pray for the other person. Really pray for them. Pray for yourself as well, that God would shine light onto your blindspots, and help you see the issues clearly.
  3. Beware Matthew 18 paralysis. This famous passage, with its instructions from Jesus’ lips about what to do when a brother sins against you, sometimes so dominates our thinking in this area that we over-apply it. We need to note the context that Matthew 18 is addressing—when a brother has wronged or sinned against us in some way—and apply it in these situations, not in every situation. We don’t see Paul, for example, recommending to Titus that he follow a Matthew 18- style protocol in dealing with false doctrine in the Cretan church. The approach is different because the nature of the problem is different. It’s not a matter of sin between brothers; it’s a matter of doctrinal conflict and false teaching.
  4. This leads to a related point. When an issue arises in a congregational setting—a doctrinal issue or some other biblical principle—the how might be extremely simple for most people in the congregation: get your leaders to sort it out. This is a key function of leaders and elders and pastors in the New Testament church. In fact, in both 1 Timothy and Titus, the very reason that Paul was keen for wise, godly elders to be appointed was so that there would be a reliable people in place with appropriate knowledge and authority for dealing with doctrinal issues and false teaching. There is a world of instruction, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, for how elders, teachers and pastors should exercise this responsibility—ranging from the stinging “avoid such people” of 2 Timothy 3:5 to the gentler advice of 1 Timothy 5:1: “Do not rebuke an older man, but encourage him as you would a father”.
  5. What of disagreements or critiques that are not within a congregation—the broader issues and questions of the Christian world, whether between churches or denominations, or whether raised by influential teachers or movements? Here, it seems to me, that technology is our great friend and tempter. There was a time when this mode of critique and debate was carried on between authors of books, speakers at conferences, and within magazines or newspapers. The internet has now brought a thousand issues and debates within the reach of all, and allowed all to participate. It’s much easier to find out what’s going on, to gather information on the latest trends and doctrinal challenges, and to share ideas and debates with other Christians all over the globe. However, the internet has also seen an explosion in frivolous and fruitless argument about inanities. Intemperate and hasty responses are penned to important issues that in turn lead to a further heated wars of words. Conflict and bad blood is fostered. Rumours, half-truths and poor arguments abound. Bloggers beware: avoid fruitless controversy, and be quicker to listen and think than to blog.

I am painfully aware that, even after two parts, this essay has by no means answered all the questions regarding Christian argument, disagreement and critique. I hope it has charted a way forward. Do you agree?

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1 I am very grateful for Nick Duke’s very helpful analysis of this complex topic. For the text of Nick’s insightful paper, ‘“In Essentials Unity, In Non- Essentials Liberty, In All Things Clarity”: Develop a theological framework for assessing and responding to theological diversity’, go to:

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