Discussing Our Differences

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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3 Comments
  1. Rev Derek Smith 8 months ago

    “Be clear on both sides and major on the majors. Understand what it is we disagree about.”
    This is great advice. Too often women tend to major on the minors and insist that a particularly narrow view or application of scripture is the best or the only way. Understanding that there are often several valid expressions on a variety of topics and allowing women the freedom to hold those views without being bullied or attacked is so vital. Glad to see this being promoted among the women.

  2. Brad 3 months ago

    Derek, I also agree that all too often women tend to major on the minors and insist that a particularly narrow view or application of scripture is the best or the only way. My wife has participated in womens facebook groups that were just awful. There was a very specific view of the reformed faith that was held by the moderators, and anyone who didn’t agree with them was forced out of the group. The unfortunate part of it was that the women would gang up on dissenters and then claim the person with the minority view was the one with poor “tone”. I watched it happen in several groups. Coleen should be vigilant about guarding against this in her group, if she’s not watching out for it.

    • Author
      Coleen Sharp 3 months ago

      I’m not sure if you’re referring to my group with your story. Really, that accusation could be made, the “very specific view of the Reformed faith.” I have to wonder by your comment, on a five month old blog post. I couldn’t tell if your comment was just to make a basic point, or was meant to passive aggressive about my group. I don’t mean that disrespectfully.

      In my group for instance, it’s a Reformed group, using specifically the historic definition of Reformed. We list the confessions in our group guidelines, the areas of agreement in the Westminster Standards, the three forms of Unity and the Baptist catechism & confession, and since we aren’t a “debate group”, while we don’t require agreement, we ask for views contrary to those areas of agreement, not be promoted. We’d rather not become a debate group. While we do allow discussion of some dissenting views, like those held by Calvinistic Baptists (non confessional) and Calvinistic dispensationalists, it’s possible that a woman could feel that we only allow certain things. It’s true in my group and there’s a reason for it.

      Having said that, we are as diligent as we are able to enforce our rule of being gracious. I say “as we are able” because I think some women expect the admins to be omnipresent in the group. With three thousand women in the group, and countless posts and conversations a day, we do miss things. As the women in the group know, if there is an issue we’re not seeing, they can tag or message us. As some women have told us, they’ve never been in a group this well watched, the admins being on top of things. But I also get an occasional complaint, I sometimes find out later there was an issue and I was never aware of the situation at all.

      Really, we don’t have a lot of contentious situations, thankfully. We have done things like removing women who tend to gang up on others. But we’ve also had situations where there’s a complaint that is simply not fair or accurate. One gal said, “People in the group believe you have to be Reformed to be saved” I asked her where that was said, that I don’t allow such things. She pointed me to three memes, which didn’t even imply such a thing. One gal complained of being ganged up on. I read the conversations through several times. Literally two gals disagreed with her, and tried to do so graciously. It happened twice with the same woman on two different posts, but the gal who complained kept bringing up the same thing in multiple posts. I’ve heard accusations before which I was completely unaware of. Like I said, we don’t get a lot, but it’s simply impossible to keep everyone happy. I try to do the best I can, and with wisdom and discernment. The other thing is when a couple women say something or behave a certain way and consider that an over general representation of the group as a whole.

      I’ve actually had good experiences in a few women’s Facebook groups.

      In Theology Gals, posts must be approved. We deny approximately 1/4 of the posts a day. Reasons posts may be denied:

      They’re gossipy, talk negatively about a friend, a church, a family member even if person is not named, we don’t allow it.

      A post talks negatively about a woman’s husband. If it reflects negatively on her husband in any way, we will not approve.

      It’s a topic which leads to contentious debate, or it’s already been discussed a lot.

      It’s something which should be discussed with a woman’s pastor and elders and not in a Facebook group.

      We do the best we can, and are always reevaluating.

      I’m a little perplexed by the accusation that it’s women specifically who major on minors. Have you been in mixed Facebook groups? I could point you to two Pastors who have told me, men are equally guilty of such. I don’t like generalizations like that without specifics. You could argue some women tend to get more emotional in discussions and take things more personally.

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