In the age of the Internet and Facebook, along with other social media platforms, we as Christians have an opportunity unlike anytime before to discuss and debate our theological differences. In many ways it’s been a positive thing, encouraging us in the study of God’s Word and challenging us in theological truth and defense of our faith. It’s not always a good thing though. It’s easy to lose sight of our purpose and be motivated by the wrong things.
The Theology Gals podcast has started a new series titled “What do they believe?” We often receive questions about theological traditions, what they believe and how they differ from Reformed theology. These episodes will not be debates. The series will primarily focus on explaining each specific theological framework, how it is different from confessional Reformed theology and what we are unified in. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk about the why and how of theological discussion and debate.
The Purpose of Debate
While I was arranging the first episode in the series, on Lutheranism, with Pastor Brian Thomas, Pastor Brian suggested that we also discuss, “how Christians from differing traditions can, and should, discuss and debate our differences in a generous, kind and honest fashion while recognizing we all belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” One thing he said on the episode was, “Remember the point of theological debate is unity”
I don’t think people often think of unity as a reason for discussion of opposing views, especially when it so often seems to cause disunity. I’ve seen some of the most ugly, unkind, ungracious behavior in theological debate, surely not something that looks like unity. Even in our disagreements we must be mindful of what unifies us, particularly on essentials as we are united in Christ. Our discussions should be for the purpose of edification, growth in the faith and knowledge of the Lord through His Word. This is not unity at the expense of truth, but rather a reminder of the foundation of it, our common faith in Christ and the Word of God as our basis for truth.
Ephesians 4:13 says, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
John Calvin explains in his commentary on this passage that we will not have perfect unity before glory, but that we should still aspire to it:
“In the unity of the faith. But ought not the unity of the faith to reign among us from the very commencement? It does reign, I acknowledge, among the sons of God, but not so perfectly as to make them come together. Such is the weakness of our nature, that it is enough if every day brings some nearer to others, and all nearer to Christ. The expression, coming together, denotes that closest union to which we still aspire, and which we shall never reach, until this garment of the flesh, which is always accompanied by some remains of ignorance and weakness, shall have been laid aside.”
Calvin is right that such is the weakness of our nature that our unity is not perfect. One way we can aspire to unity is to be mindful of the way we discuss and debate these things and of our purpose. When we discuss our differences, remembering that we agree on the essentials, that we are united in our faith in Christ should encourage us in wisdom in the way we do this, remembering we are all part of the same body, the same holy, catholic and apostolic church.
“Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.”
One of pastor Brian’s encouragements in theological debate is, “Be respectful and kind. Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.” Because of strong feelings about our theological views it’s easy to let our emotions play a part in these debates. It can be difficult to accept and make sense of a disagreement with someone who claims the same foundation for an opposing belief, specifically God’s Word. Discussions are far more fruitful when the parties are kind and respectful of one another. If you are mean and attack someone in theological discussion, it puts them on the defensive and they may not really listen to what you’re saying. It can also cause disunity.
“Be clear on both sides and major on the majors. Understand what it is we disagree about.” This is another great encouragement from Pastor Brian’s list on how to debate our differences. I think there are many debates which would be avoided if each side understood what it is they’re disagreeing about. In fact, there are times where the people debating aren’t really as far apart in their views as they assume. Not understanding the opposing view can lead to unnecessary contentious debate, as can making mountains out of molehills on theological topics. When we’re discussing our differences, our vigor should match the size of the hill, especially if it’s one we’re choosing to die on.
Because of our common faith in Christ, we are united together in the Church, the body of Christ. Love for Christ includes love for His Church and the truth of His Word. As believers, we’re called to unity and peace with one another. (See 1 Corinthians 10:10 and Philippians 2:2.) When differences arise on secondary issues we must stand firm, but not neglect the many things we’re exhorted to in our interactions with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Colossians 3:8 tells us that “those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…” We must remember these things even in our disagreements.
Theology Gals is on the Bible Thumping Wingnut Network with many who hold different theological views from one another. We’re aware of our differences. Ultimately it’s our common faith in Christ which unites us. I have witnessed a great example of brothers discussing differences well for over 25 years on the White Horse Inn radio show. For many of those years, Reformed, Lutheran and Reformed Baptist brothers would discuss a topic focusing on the essentials they agree on, but not neglecting to recognize where they disagree and why. They do this with kindness and respect.
We should discuss our differences out of love, encouraging one another in theological truth through the study of Scripture. There are benefits to discussing our differences when done well. It should challenge us to know what we believe and why, and how to defend it, although not to the point of drawing blood from our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s easy to focus on our differences and forget that we agree on far more than we disagree on. Hence, we must be mindful of seeking unity in our common faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of His Word and obedience to it.
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