On the face of it, if you are being guided by the Holy Spirit, and I am being guided by the Holy Spirit, we really ought to agree on all the important questions. If you don't agree with me, clearly you are not really being led by the Holy Spirit. You are probably in a state of sin, and possibly not even a true Christian.
You think I am joking? All right - I don't believe that. But look at almost any serious argument between Christians, and you are likely to find precisely this argument being used as soon as one of the parties looses their temper.
I first noticed this when reading about an argument between two groups of Brethren in the 19th century. These two groups agreed about almost everything you can imagine, except one obscure point of eschatology - something that was going to happen or not happen before Jesus comes back. But because you could make a theological link between this detail and the doctrine of Jesus' divinity, one group said the other group were denying the Divinity of Jesus, and therefore were not really Christians at all.
Since then, I have noticed this form of argument more times than I care to recall. One basic problem seems to be that - as evangelicals - we have no room in our theology for honest, sincere, genuine disagreement. We either agree with each other and fight together against error, or we disagree and fight each other.
There has to be a better way.
Before we start to look at the useful aspects, let us quickly put aside a few approaches which do not help us resolve this problem.
"You can only work with me if you agree with my theology. In every detail."
This was the position adopted by my home church - the one I grew up in. It effectively taught that you have to be perfect. Your theology must be absolutely correct before God can use you.
People who believe this often conclude that anything being done by people who are not entirely sound cannot have God's blessing, so anything that appears to be God working through such ministries is actually Satan trying to confuse us and lead us into error. "He can appear as an angel of light, you know."
The consequences of adopting this position are fairly clear - if you have to be entirely sound, only me and my small group can be used by God, and everyone else in the world is being led by Satan. They are all out to get us!
"It doesn't matter what we believe as long as we love each other."
This is very close to the position of the other church I grew up in. After all, how can we be absolutely certain what is true? Choose almost any subject and you will find Christians who disagree about it, so why be dogmatic? And why be arrogant enough to think that you are right?
Of course, if you go far enough down this line, you discover that truth itself becomes completely unimportant. It is a position, but not one you can hold as an evangelical.
I suggest that any Christian theology of disagreement needs to include the following elements.
The Bible distinguishes between precept - the doctrines we are taught to believe - and preference. As I first heard from Gerald Coates:
|God allows us our preferences, but not our prejudices.|
From all His disciples, Jesus chose twelve. From the twelve, three were especially close to Him - Peter, James and John. And of the three, John was the disciple that Jesus loved. Jesus preferred to be with some people, but that preference did not get in the way of Him loving everyone, or interfere with His mission.
We are allowed our preferences - we enjoy certain types of food, we go to watch certain types of film, read certain types of book, spend time with certain types of people, listen to certain types of music. But this freedom must also extend to our value system.
We all rank the different aspects of our lives according to a set of priorities. We believe that (or, at least, we act as if) some things are more important than others. This is sometimes mistakenly confused with the question of how strongly we believe something to be true.
For example, I believe very strongly that we (that is, all humans) have a responsibility to care for ecology, to protect the natural world. But for me, this is not a high priority. Not because I think ecology is unimportant, but because I believe other issues are more important.
I am very pleased that some Christians are working to protect the environment. I pray for them, and encourage them when I can. Similarly, I try to encourage Christians involved in social action, or shaping the policies of political parties, or education or health care. I want them to be effective, but they are doing things that God has not called me to do. [But see note] I hope they have the same attitude towards me.
So often, people use the argument: this is important, therefore you should get involved. No! This is important, but so are many other things. I have to decide how to live with my set of values, and they will be different from your set of values.
Of course, I am open to the possibility of God changing my values. This has happened several times in the past, through Bible study, wise advice and direct revelation. But I firmly believe that it is right for different Christians to maintain and live according to different sets of values.
For example, in the New Testament, Paul believed that it was important to reach both Jews and Gentiles for Christ. Presumably, so did Peter. But God wanted one to be an apostle to the Jews, and one an apostle to the Gentiles. Different priorities, different values, but the same overall goal.
People sometimes try to tell me that all we have to do is faithfully follow God, and you don't have to decide which values are more important than others: you will always do His will, and that is all that counts. They are saying, in effect, that either Paul was right or Peter was: one of them got it right and followed God's will, the other did something which was good but not God's best.
Life is not that simple, not even the Christian life. In real life, values come into conflict. You have to choose between them. In some social situations, for example, ("What do you think of my new hat?") it may not be possible to avoid hurting someone and remain honest. So which do you do? Which of those values is more important to you?
Even when we share the same goals and values, we can still disagree. We know where we want to go, but what is the best way of getting there? Experience tells me that this is the best way, but maybe experience teaches you something different.
Different evangelistic strategies are often chosen for this kind of reason. I happen to have found Evangelism Explosion to be a superb tool in personal evangelism. Other Christians sometimes tell me that their experience teaches them that a structured message just does not work. I cannot argue with their experience (although I suspect that they are rejecting their idea of Evangelism Explosion, rather than the reality, in most cases). But I am glad that Christians are using a variety of tools and methods in their evangelism.
Far too often, we Christians behave as if the enemy we are fighting is our fellow believers. If we are one in Christ, we need to live out that unity by accepting that we are all working towards the same goal, even if we do disagree on how to get there.
But even when people are attacking us, seeking to destroy our work, break up the church, prevent people from following Jesus, the people who are causing these problems are not the enemy! The enemy is Satan: he uses people, but the people he uses are far more his victims than we are, no matter what damage he may succeed in inflicting.
We believe in the principle of 'progressive revelation' - there is a clear development of theological understanding as the Biblical story unfolds. Moses builds on Abraham; Isaiah builds on Moses; Jesus builds on Isaiah. Each new revelation does not invalidate the old, but it causes us to understand it differently. We still believe in circumcision, but we now understand that the circumcision which matters is circumcision of the heart, not of the flesh.
So, in saying that we no longer practice physical circumcision in the way God commanded in the Old Testament, we are not saying that the Old Testament prophets were wrong: they were right, as right as they could be, given the revelation granted to them by God at that time.
In the same way, when we disagree with our fellow believers, and one person says "God commands this, we must do it" but another says "No, it is not God's will," the problem may not be that one is right and the other wrong: it may be that each one is being faithful to the revelation they have received. The challenge for each one of us is to hold on faithfully to what God has revealed, while being open to fresh revelation which may cause us to walk in obedience down very different roads.
|All truth is important, but some truths are more important than others.|
Just as some values are more important to us than others, some truths are more important than others. The difficulty is, we don't have a simple list to tell us which are the more important truths. This is a point on which Christians can genuinely disagree. And, just as values can come into conflict with one another, so too can doctrines.
So, when you hear a Christian apparently denying some important Biblical truth, do ask yourself whether they are doing this in an attempt (misguided, perhaps) to affirm another Biblical truth.
|On the whole, our theology is sound in what we affirm, and unsound in what we deny.|
The biggest problem we have with theology is in trying to make it all tie together neatly. Almost every theological work says "This is true, therefore this is untrue." Some of the time what we deny in this way is an error we really must fight against, but quite often we find we are fighting against a Biblical truth which doesn't fit the system we have constructed.
The classic examples of this are the Calvinists who afffirm the Biblical truth of God's sovereignty (but deny human free will), and the Armenians who affirm the Biblical truth of man's free will (but deny God's sovereignty). We can also point to the people who affirm the unity of the Old and New Testaments (but effectively deny that the Old Covenant has been superceded), and the people who point to Jesus as the supreme revelation of God (but effectively forget about the whole of the Old Testament).
Note: Since writing this article, God has called me into Christian social action - so the example is now out of date, but the principle remains unchanged. And I continue to pray for those Christians who are involved with areas of social action that are not for me. At present!