How to deal with theological differences

Christians are divided over many issues, which is the (at least original) reason behind different denominations within the Evangelical confession.

Often these differences become exacerbated and lead to actual divisions of fellowship and an overall loss of the love that should characterise relationships between Christians. Reacting to this, (usually a generation or so afterwards), some Christians try to “break down the barriers” between denominations, especially in para-church ministries. The idea that is often to “put aside those things that divide us and focus on the things we agree upon”.

What follow are some thoughts on the issue.

1. It is important to distinguish between major and minor differences. Is there a division over a major doctrine (e.g. the nature of God, nature of Christ, biblical attributes, Trinity, gospel, atonement etc.) or a minor, “secondary” doctrine (e.g. church polity, service content, eschatological details, Church/State relationships etc.)? In the first case, there is a biblical mandate to separate fellowship (Rom. 16:17; Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Thes. 3:6, 14; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9-11). But this does not extend to difference of opinions that are, as far as their proponents can see, biblically sound.

2. Minor differences may reflect differences in greater doctrines. For example, although we might think of ammilenianism and premillenianism as a minor difference, they often originate from very different views concerning the relationship of national Israel and the Church.

3. One way of addressing theological differences is to avoid/deny/minimise them altogether. But this  approach is short-lived benefits because it only allows for shallow, “restricted” fellowship. Sooner or later, differences will crop up again and again in practice, prayer, and teaching emphasis. This is unavoidable because healthy Christian fellowship requires the full extent of biblical truth.

4. The best way to deal with theological differences is to openly clarify them and humbly debate them. This has the multiple effects of

  • a) informing believers of a particular denomination what they actually believe and why; this leads to more biblically-critical thinking and less unqualified emotion – more light, less heat
  • b) informing believers of a particular denomination what “the other side” actually believes and why
  • c) promoting in-depth searching of the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:11)
  • d) edifying one another (1 Thes. 5:11)
  • e) often casting the differences into their real light as either major or minor, or even as different angles on the same view.

Justice

As the news of Osama bin Laden’s death sweep across the world, Christians are faced with a bit of a conundrum. Is it justice? Is it murder? How should we feel/respond?

For anyone interested, these are my thoughts so far on the whole thing. I hope they might help.

  1. Justice, like everything else in a fallen world, is always incomplete. As Christians, we understand that better than anyone – if God pursued instant and complete justice, none of us would be here now.
  2. The Bible has something to say about social justice alongside with mercy. It tells us that it is instituted by God (Rom. 13:1-4). Should we then not rejoice when a smidgen of God-instituted social justice, although vastly incomplete, is upheld?
  3. I would wish with all my heart that the headlines this morning were “BIN LADEN CONFESSES CHRIST AS SAVIOUR – TURNS HIMSELF IN”. But they weren’t, nor will they ever be. And we cannot deny that God, in His sovereignty and providence, must have something to do with that.
  4. The take-home message for us Christians who long for fulfilled and perfected “broader” justice, is to:
  • i) hope even more for the full restoration that God has promised us and live accordingly
  • ii) remember that we have received mercy and not justice and behave accordingly
  • iii) pray even more earnestly for the penetration of the gospel into countries and cultures where religious beliefs lead to tremendous oppression, social injustice, and waste of human life.

Apologetics for the heart

From an email I sent

The ultimate purpose of apologetics is to overcome intellectual obstacles to the gospel so that people can actually hear the gospel. Like every other Christian ministry, apologetics is completely and utterly useless by itself. No-one ever came or ever will come to Christ through mere intellectual agreement; it is God who opens peoples’ hearts and eyes and minds to receive the good news (John 6:44; Acts 16:14). It is good to remember that when we are halfway through esteemed Professor Schwischwarffkopf’s 6,000-page treatise on the Ontological Argument und Adam’s Navel. And yes, I made that up. Don’t go Googling it.

But here’s a thought: Are apologetics only for non-believers? Are Christians immune to doubts, unanswered questions and bewildering problems? Of course not. In fact, we often suffer the worse because that’s not something Christians readily admit.

So what happens is, we readily engage the latest assault of village atheism with unmatched zeal, but meanwhile our personal walk with Christ has slowed to a trudge. We educate unbelievers on why the Bible is historically, textually and scientifically reliable, but that seems to have very little impact anymore on the way we read it – if we do.

My point is, apologetics should be levelled first at ourselves before we start wielding those five arguments for the existence of God. Why? Because we still need to grow. We are still vulnerable. But we are supposed to be constantly transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) and that goes beyond mere intellectual agreement.

With that in mind, I recommend Timothy Keller‘s sermons, which you can find here. Keller has become known for the relevant and biblically uncompromising way he does apologetics. These aren’t dry lectures – they are passionate and deeply insightful answers to some really tough questions. But it goes beyond that: Keller speaks to Christians and addresses some of the things that constantly harrow us. It’s the kind of thing you want to take notes on.