Have you ever noticed that Christians sometimes disagree? You have? Oh, man, what a shocker, right?
A recent kerfuffle amongst Christians, the chosen vs. the choosers you could say if you wanted to be imprecise, has me thinking about our priorities, the impact of our disagreements, and some ways we can take positive steps forward. In fact, for all of the hand-wringing and such, I’m a bit hopeful.
Defining the Situation
We need to get a brief handle on a few guidelines here for disagreements. There are disagreements among Christians over beliefs of different traditions and there are times when Christians disagree because one side is a heretic.
Our greatest mistake seems to be making a disagreement over beliefs within the faith into a heresy smack-down, with one side playing the part of the inquisition, turning Lewis’ great house of Christianity into a studio apartment—an apartment that John Calvin has crammed with his stuff in this particular case. I’ve also seen studio apartments for Catholics, Baptists, Arminians, etc. We all do this from time to time.
We have a pastor and blogger who disagree in this case. Is this a disagreement over universalism or different conceptions of hell and salvation that send us out of the Reformed library and into a drawing room of another denomination? We probably don’t know enough to say anything for sure at this point.
However, here are a few thoughts on how to handle our disagreements with one another regardless of whether this pastor is a universalist.
Christians are loyal to a person and our beliefs (or doctrines) help us understand that person. The emphasis is essential here. We are loyal to a relational deity who wants us to love and obey him.
If we get the love and obey part, we’ll figure out that God wants us to relate to one another with the same charity, seeking out the best for others. We hold to our beliefs because they are important, but we don’t defend our beliefs as a matter of first importance.
The response of the blogger to the pastor here smells of prioritizing beliefs over the person. Was an accusatory blog post the best way to restore the pastor if he really was in error? I don’t know the blogger’s motives, but if he really thought a fellow brother was in error, the Bible tells us how to proceed. His actions match those of someone far more concerned with defending a doctrine than restoring an individual—that is, if that pastor needs to be restored from something.
Hint: A combative blog post that generates lots of traffic and comments wouldn’t leave me feeling, “Wow, that guy really wants me to be restored from my heresy! How nice of him. Look at all of the traffic his criticism of my beliefs generated. I guess I should agree with him.” Just saying.
If we are loyal to our beliefs ahead of our relationship with God, we may view other Christian perspectives as threats. If we encounter a view that borders on heresy, we risk making things worse because we’re seeking to protect doctrines instead of people.
We aren’t here to defend the Gospel.
We’re here to let God change how we live and speak through the Gospel.
The Gospel is here to lead us to God and we need to live it with clarity and truth. However, if someone steps away from a faithful, biblical proclamation of the Gospel, we should be rushing to help the person, not to attack his/her beliefs.
The Goal: Restoration, not Isolation
When we disagree and fear that a fellow Christian may be teaching false doctrines, I think there are two possible ways forward. On the one hand, we should certainly engage the beliefs of that person and discuss them fairly with all of the information. I have no qualms with someone fairly critiquing my take on Jesus if I have made an error.
However, I would also hope that no one would attack me personally right off the bat, isolating me from the body of Christ. You see, we can isolate others, creating chasms where we say, “Our side has the truth, your side has the error. Come over to our side if you want to be a true Christian.”
A public attack like this only pushes us further away from one another. If someone really is in error, then attacking the person may only tempt him/her to dig in and fight back.
Isolation does not lead to restoration.
There may be times that we’ll have to isolate someone, but that is only a last resort, not an opening salvo. We begin with an appeal out of love for the other person, and only cut that person off if there is no other resort.
Defending a doctrine ahead of a person saves us from all of the trouble that love requires.
Does the Response Make Things Worse?
I’m actually more concerned about how we respond to this kerfuffle, than I am that we had a kerfuffle in the first place. I have a lot of reformed friends, and I know a lot of folks who are probably suspicious of this pastor.
Hey, his videos drive me nuts. I don’t agree with all that he teaches—that is, if I can get a handle on anything in his videos. I’m usually sitting there thinking to myself, “Common observation, touching story, emotional projection, probing question, suggestive answer. Common observation, touching story, emotional projection, probing question, probing question, suggestive answer.”
There clearly are more effective ways to be a heretic in my opinion, but I digress…
If this pastor really is a universalist, then I’d certainly think a minor kerfuffle is warranted—as in, someone should reach out to him personally out of love. However, I don’t want us to create divisions where they are unnecessary.
The first shots have been fired, but we don’t need to fire back. We also don’t need to wring our hands too much. There are lots of Christians who are rolling their eyes right now. The trick is to avoid attacking back. We’ll only make things worse.
The body of Christ can drown in its own self-righteousness just as well as it can in its squabbles. We can be combative in how we point out the combativeness of others.
What I Can’t Say
I almost tweeted something like this today: Fictional story: Christians charitable when disagreeing over what only God knows.
I couldn’t do it.
I knew it wasn’t true, and that made my day.
I know quite a few Christians who are very humble and kind, even when we disagree.
I have hundreds of Christian friends who are open-minded, who would hear someone out before reacting, and who would charitably work toward restoration of someone in error. Many of these friends dig Reformed theology.
Charitable Christians are not fictional. We are legion. We just don’t attract the same attention because we aren’t lightning rods for negativity and controversy that drive human interest stories on blogs and news sites.
Rather than lament that a pastor asked some vague questions and a blogger made some harsh critiques before reading the whole story, let’s celebrate the fact that such an approach is not acceptable to many believers. There are folks who disagree with the pastor and/or the blogger, and these folks are praying for God’s best for them—praying that we are all restored to unity in Spirit and in truth.