Friday, March 25, 2011

Unity, Liberty, and Love: Dealing with Doctrinal Differences

At the start of last week's Blog Talk Radio (BTR) with Jocelyn Andersen, I highlighted something very important that I've spelled out on this website many times before. It deserves repeating every once in awhile.

Traditional, conservative Christians want to conform to that which is written in the Bible as opposed to “cherry picking” only doctrines that they like so that they can plug them into their own construct. We want to have the “right opinion” about what is actually written in the Bible, and we study it so that we can have the most informed opinion possible. The word “orthodox” means “right opinion” in it's original form in the Greek language.  After the last official apostle passed on to that unseen country, it took our early church fathers some time to clarify exactly what “right opinion” meant, partly because they spent most of their time averting persecution. But eventually, they constructed the creeds so that we could affirm and establish that right opinion.

Things get a bit more complicated, however. The Bible is sometimes very explicit, clearly telling us how all of the dots connect about a certain topic. There is very little “wiggle room” on interpretation based upon what is written. But that Bible is a thick book, and some topics and related teachings are implicit or less clear. We know certain things about those topics, but we don't know everything because the Bible does not spell them out. Part of that owes to our unfamiliarity with the culture and language used, as we are looking back a rough 2000 years in order to understand and at a language that is not only foreign, it is no longer used by people for their common means of communication.

The central message of Christianity is the message of the Gospel: Believe in Jesus the Messiah in your heart and confess that faith. By grace, through faith, God then gives those who believe in Him salvation from their sins. This gift is something that cannot be merited through human effort or works and is God's free gift to us. Any doctrines or teachings that add any extras to that central, core message are not a part of the Gospel (though the Creeds of the Church clarify the specifics). Certainly, Christianity discusses many other important topics, but they are not the central topic. Those doctrines (including things like gender concerns, eschatology, etc.) also tend to be less specific or are implicit. For the ease of discussion, those who came before us defined this central message of the Gospel as “essential doctrine,” and those implicit, peripheral things as “non-essential doctrine.” (Another term used interchangeably with “non-essential” is “intramural.”)

I've also mentioned Augustine's commentary on how we should approach those less specific doctrines on this blog in the past, but it also deserves repeating:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, love.

As Christians, our unity in the central message of Christ and our love for one another that flows from it should call us to show liberty and tolerance to those who interpret those peripheral doctrines differently than we do. I mentioned John R. Rice as an example on the radio, someone who held defended his gender views without love and liberty in many cases. His lack, however, does not exempt me from showing him tolerance and love. 

The late John Rice was straight and true on the central and essential doctrine, and I affirm that fact, despite any differences we would have had about the non-essentials. I don't have any problem extending respect and tolerance to those who do not share my interpretations about gender. The commandment of Jesus for us to show our love for one another and Paul's many admonishments to stay focused on the central message of Christ and Him crucified must take precedence, demanding liberty, no matter how uncomfortable showing liberty's tolerance to others might be for me. And, I admire those who defend what they believe.

Ideas for further reading:

More important thoughts about unity:

Contrary to popular belief, denominationalism is not the root cause of disunity; it is sectarianism or fundamentalism.  And the evangelical church is not immune to this disease.  Some Christians have in the past and up to now sown a sectarian attitude, believing that unity means conformity to all their views and “refusing to allow for diversity in others.”  
They have broadened Christian orthodoxy by breaking fellowship with any other Christian who disagrees with them on non-essential doctrines, which is fuelled by their belief that the Holy Spirit illumines their minds to understand everything written in the Bible.  There is, however, a subtle danger that all of us must face in our effort for unity.  We must be aware that when we apply principles of interpretation, we are approaching Scripture with our presuppositions, influenced by our environment and theological traditions   (pg. 10,“Preserving Evangelical Unity:  Welcoming Diversity in Non-Essentials” by Meiring,  emphasis mine).