Tag Archives: division

Dissecting the body of Christ over errant doctrines

Recently a friend and fellow house church enthusiast alerted me to a division within the fellowship he is a member of. The division centered on doctrine, with one member apparently upset that the rest of the group did not appreciate the reformed doctrine he ascribed to.

Without addressing the doctrines in question, I wanted to encourage this group to seek to function like a family. Here is my letter to the group in question as well as our regular group.

I’ve yet to meet as child who holds nothing but right beliefs. I’ve yet to meet an adult who holds nothing but right beliefs for that matter either. In fact, I’m pretty sure, as Greg Koukl has said, that I hold wrong beliefs as well. The trouble is that we don’t know what those wrong beliefs are unless someone loves us enough to patiently expose them through persuasive arguments based on solid evidence (which includes the Bible).

Thankfully, the biblical standard for admittance into heaven is not our score on some sort of cosmic theology test.

It’s true that doctrine is important. And I would agree that many problems faced by the modern church are due to a severe lack of biblical training. However intellectual development only takes us so far. The other half of Biblical maturity is our actions, particularly our love for one another. Practically this means there is absolutely no Biblical justification for breaking fellowship with another member in the body of Christ outside of habitual participation in unconfessed sin.

Paul wrote Ephesians to a group of people far more divided than we could hope to be. In a city where rampant immorality was praised, and at a time when being Jewish still meant something. Yet Paul thought it was possible for them to live together in harmony. Not only that, but to build each other up (chapter 4) in preparation for the coming battle (chapter 6) with ungodly forces.

We need to prepare in every way for battle. We need to strengthen our minds through diligent study of doctrines like open theism and the tenants of Calvinism. But if we don’t, at the same time, have an equally forceful commitment to loving each other and seeking each other’s growth, being right doesn’t really matter, does it? (1 Cor 13)

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More on handling theological differences between brothers in Christ

In a recent conversation via Google Buzz between a couple of Reformed brethren and myself I was told the following:

Nathan White – Wes-
I don’t see Calvinism starting with philosophy because it starts with what scripture explicitly says, that we were chosen, predestined, and even that God created vessels of wrath and mercy for His specific purposes, and then moves on from there and forms compatibalism based upon statements of God’s love, and inferences that God holds men accountable for their actions. Molinism cannot exegete a text in context and form a doctrine, and let that doctrine help interpret other tough passages, but Calvinists can easily do so with the explicit statements of Romans 9.

Scripture says that God is sovereign completely, and that man is held responsible for his and Adam’s sin. Those are two seeming contradictions, but not so in the mind of God. Molinism, at the end of the day, leaves sovereignty in the hands of man…completely.

Aaron Sauer – Only the Holy Spirit will open Wes’ eyes to the deep truths of scripture. Lord willing, one day he will realize that salvation is 100% of the Lord

Here’s my reply:

Aaron, come now. Please don’t be so disingenuous as to place foreign words into my mouth. I have never said that salvation is not 100% from the Lord nor will I. As Nathan has rightly stated, our differences lie not necessarily in our commitment to Christ or the truth of Scripture but in philosophy.

Nathan, I don’t see how you can claim philosophical immunity for your theological system and I don’t see how quoting Scripture we both agree is Holy and inspired helps your case any.

Molinism is built (as the Calvinist Alvin Plantinga states) on the twin notions of sovereignty and the limited free will of humans. I know it is popular to claim that Calvinism holds to a higher view of sovereignty than any other theological system (including Molinism) however I ask that you do Molinists like myself the charity of not redefining our words for us and simply accept it when we say that we in fact do hold to God’s complete soverignty over all of His creation.

Again, the issue here is in how we define sovereignty and what philosophical presuppositions we bring to bear on the texts. You seem to think (along with most Calvinists) that Romans 9 is wholly unanswerable from anything short of a hard causally deterministic view. I believe men like Geisler and Yarnell have done an excellent job of pointing out how, while the Bible does teach and confirm the doctrine of election, Romans 9 is not an apt text to use for God’s willful violation or robotic control of mankind’s will (which was given to him by God as beings created in His image).

I think a helpful place for us to start from would be to acknowledge and accept that Calvinism is built on a particular (no pun intended) philosophy (which I would argue is closely related to the Stoicism that Calvin wrote his doctoral dissertation on).

The question then is how well the underlying philosophy which guides the exegesis from a Calvinistic point of view answers all the questions raised by Scripture vs competing theological systems such as Molinism. The question is not, however, which one is “based on philosophy” vs “based on scripture” as the notion of a theological system devoid of philosophical input is simply incoherent.

The bottom line is that we really have to learn how to disagree and fight strenuously but fairly if we want to see the broken body of Christ healed in a real and meaningful sense.

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Handbook for explosive subjects

explosionRecently our small church decided to take on the controversial topic of homosexuality. Not in spite of the controversy, but because of it.

Now I realize that many of you will read that and think that we are intentionally trying to be divisive and unloving but the reality is that our goals are quite the opposite.  Our aim in discussing this topic is to learn how to handle conflict in a more Christlike manner. How to maintain unity in the midst of sharp differences without compromising our deeply held beliefs but, at the same time, while still loving each other and maintaining a humble and teachable spirit.

Why risk the hurt, pain, sorrow, division, etc.?

I’ve been party to a number of debates that have gone sour. Many that have gone past the point of not only wounding feelings and damaging long-held relationships to outright hatred. I’ve been party to some debates that have ended up putting a wedge in otherwise deep and intimate relationships (or so I thought) to the point where I haven’t talked to them in years (except for the occasional sniping).

I share that to let you know that I take very seriously the risks and dangers inherent in what I’m proposing. I understand that we are playing with fire and that some will get burned. However, as Augustine mentions in his famous “City of God” in reference to those who don’t wish to examine Christianity for fear of being converted (and I’ll paraphrase): Standing far off from the sun not only keeps you from getting sunburned, but it also prevents you from enjoying it’s warmth.

Intimacy comes with risks.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are content to remain at a superficial level or if we want to risk going deeper and get to know each other in a more meaningful sense.

This is a serious question and a scary proposition for many people because it also means that, while we get to know others we are likely to find out they are far more broken than we have bargained for.

We will also find out that we are far less saintly than we like to imagine.

Love is messy.

How do we plan on accomplishing this?

If our chief concern were mere unity and superficial agreement, then we certainly would not take this path. However our goal is truth, whom we also believe to be a person in the form of Jesus Christ.1

In this respect, I believe that our only hope of surviving, and indeed thriving, is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on three main truths found in Scripture when it comes to controversy.

Mind the logs in our eyes

Jesus told us that before we take on the responsibility2 of correcting others we ought to first examine ourselves. Likewise we are told by James that our own evil desires are the source of the divisions among us (not the topic!) and that accordingly our tongues are among the greatest weapons of mass destruction known to man.

In our quest for truth we have to keep our finiteness in mind and remain teachable, no matter how convinced we are that we are right.

One seminary professor put it to his students this way: What would it take to convince you to walk away from the faith? If you answer is nothing then you should reexamine Scripture because yours is not the faith of the Bible.

Put simply, people who can never be persuaded or shown wrong are incapable of intimacy and do not value truth.

Stick to the facts

Since we are not omniscient we have no insight into the intentions of others and, as such, all of our arguments must be constrained to the realm of facts, reason, and evidence.

Not having either a theological degree or a computer science degree (my other love) I’ve learned to rely on facts and well formed arguments when making my case. Since I can’t use the “well this is how I was taught to do it in/by …” approach (which I’ve also found doesn’t work even if you insert the most prestigious names), I have to essentially rely upon tactics that are meant to persuade, as opposed to force, the other person to convince them of my position on any given topic. What I’ve also found using this approach is that quite often the other person will have something I hadn’t considered to bring to the table which, while derailing me from my original point for a time, adds to both of our understandings rather than subtracting from it.

So if we are to have any hope of getting to and understanding the truth (which is what we should be seeking after as of paramount importance)  we need to exhaustively study any subject we hope to engage in3 and we need to limit our comments and questions to the subject at hand4.

Above all else, love

This is far easier said than done, of course, but our whole goal of intentionally discussing such a controversial issue is to strengthen and expand the free-flow of communication between us. After all, if we claim to be the members of the same body we should understand that our head, that is Christ, was extremely divisive in his day when it came to the ruling religious majority but yet he managed to do so in a spirit of truth and love. Consequently, Ephesians 4:15 tells us that we should “speak the truth in love”.

Coupled with the description in 1 Corinthians 13 of what love is, and using the example Jesus himself set, we should weigh our comments and arguments against what we know of those we are talking with. This has the dual benefit of also helping us more effectively engage the world around us (that is, people in the world around us) by teaching us to temper the truth we are convicted of from our diligent study.

The road marked out ahead of us is not going to be easy, and we covet any and all prayers on our behalf as we walk through this minefield. However we also know the pearl we hope to gain, that is real and genuine community centered on the truth with a  willingness and ability to engage each other and grow spiritually, is certainly worth the cost.

Ultimately the charge to pick up our crosses and engage in explosive (and often hurtful) subjects can be stated this way:

Jesus didn’t leave us where he found us, so the least we can do for our brethren is not to leave them the where we find them.

Happy debating!

  1. Incidentally, even non-christians have noted the inconstancy and illogical way in which passages such as Titus 3:10 have frequently been used to quell “divisive people” rather than taking these as an opportunity for genuine growth. []
  2. Notice I said “before”, not “if”. One of the greatest misconceptions in the Christian community today is that we are not supposed to judge. Quite the opposite. We are to judge well according to John 7:24. []
  3. This also means we should have a broad range of subjects we can speak intelligently on if we hope to do anything more than remain silent in most conversations that happen around us. Being learned in several subjects also has the added benefit of making us better and more interesting conversationalists which, surprisingly, makes people more interested in talking with us. This is a large part of the answer to overcoming the common fear of sharing our faith with others. []
  4. The funny thing about rabbit trails is that they never, or very rarely, lead you anywhere productive. I think Paul would agree that an ordered meeting would include a clear discussion on one topic at a time so that everyone can keep up and participate. []
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Questioning the sermon

One of the greatest myths in modern Christianity, particularly in the South1, is that any attempts to discuss the sermon amounts to disapproval of either the pastor or his message, or both.

Quite often those who dare to raise the question “What did you think about the sermon?” expecting anything other than the pat and unhelpful response of “I thought it was great!” are seen as gossips spreading discord and division.

Unfortunately this has the effect of stunting too many Christians’ spiritual growth by blocking off what can otherwise be a very fruitful avenue of discourse and discovery. As much as a pastor would like, they simply can’t exhaust the subject (whatever it may be) in one hour on Sunday morning, or three if you grant him Sunday and Wednesday evenings.

A large part of real discipleship is asking questions, and since many sermons are forgotten the moment we walk out the doors, discussion and debate would at the very least serve as a memory aid to help us keep the message fresh in our minds.

Try taking a poll sometime of who remembers last week, or this morning’s, sermon. If they do remember the general topic, press them for what they specifically learned or about details. For kicks, ask them afterwards where they ate and with whom afterwards. My hunch is that many people will be able to tell you what their conversations were about during lunch more than they could tell you about the content of the sermon they heard only a few hours earlier.

But there’s more to it than that.

We are told in Scripture that the Bereans, among others, searched the Scriptures daily to see if what they were being taught was accurate or not2. While I’ve heard many pastors encourage this practice, I’ve heard fewer who also encourage real cross examination. Rather, most rush to add to their exhortation to search the Scriptures regarding their sermons to only ask them questions in private. However if we are to learn, examine, and grow we must be willing to talk publicly about what we’ve been taught. After all, if the pastor has slipped up, he should expect and encourage the correction of observant and loving brethren rather than, for the sake of false unity and a misguided and misapplied sense of authority, wish such falterings to remain in the dark.

I believe many churches would be radically transformed if the people in them would simply have the courage and conviction to question the sermons they hear in a loving and respectful manner.

  1. Ironically the south is also commonly referred to as the Bible belt. []
  2. Acts 17:10-12 []
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The unbiblical clergy/laity division

Daniel,
Thanks for taking the time to ask to clairify my words from earlier, and I trust that you understand that because my statement was made to the general clergy/laity split it was not directed at you personally. At the outset I want to acknowledge that there are clergy like yourself and Christ Wyatt who
There are three main reasons why I say that a clergy/laity split is unbiblical and harmful to the body of Christ.
1.) Jesus told his Disciples (the apostles) in Matthew 20:25 not to be like the rulers of this world and lord their positions over others. Even if clergy are very careful and use all the right self-deprecating language, I don’t see how they can escape the holier-than-thou impression. I also think the constant “we will be judged more harshly than you” is a misnomer because it doesn’t acknowledge the “unordained” masses of SS teachers, “parachurch” teachers, etc. that are all, well, teachers.
In short, the clergy/laity split inherently violates the “do not Lord it over” mentality taught by Jesus and followed by the Disciples. You might object by citing their leadership status but I would point out that their method of leading was not a top-down approach practiced by clergy today but a bottom-up serving which didn’t result in their being seen very much. Clergy are not like that at all.
2.) We are all priests according to the new covenant according to I Peter 2:9. What does this mean, if not that there is to be no more priest/commoner distinction? Was it a meaningless statement? In most prodestant churches we give lip service to this doctrine but rarely live it out. I think the reason for the suppression of this doctrine is the clergy/laity split in a manner not unlike the Roman Catholic Church’s desire to maintain control over it’s “subjects”.
You mentioned there were some who were paid for their ministry and that is true. However there were many, like Paul, who made a big deal of not accepting money from those they ministered to. Combined with the Jewish idea that rabbi’s ought to maintain a marketable skill and what you end up with are bi-vocational pastors at best.
No where do you see the modern pastor, that is a man who has all the responsibilities and duties expected of a modern pastor, described in the text. I believe that is because of…
3.) (I’m hurrying because I need to get going for work.) Every Christiain is said to be a member of the body of Christ and every member is said to be of equal value (except the head, which of course is Christ). How can every member be equal or function properly if there is a clergy/laity distinction in place?
How can we avoid the favoritism James preached against if we claim that missionaries (as wonderful as they are), clergy, children’s teachers, etc. are exalted as somehow more special than everyone else?
How can we avoid the command to not cause divisions (sects, parties, etc.) within the body if we exalt an entire group of people?
In short, every member ought to function as it was designed and ought to be respected and revered as much as all the other members without either thinking itself special or more lowly. The clergy/laity split fundamentally undermines this, placing unnatural burdon on one member (the clergy) and not expecting anything of other members (presumably because they are too stupid or unreliable or untrained).
There is much more to say on this subject, and I fully hope we have time to explore it even more. However I feel it necessary to close my letter on another note by saying that I hope you don’t take my words as a personal attack. I love you and respect the sacrifices you’ve made and the commitment you have to our Lord. I’m not sure what an amicable resolution would be to our present dilemma but I do hope you bear in mind the fact that we are brothers under the same Lord regardless of our ecclesiological differences.

Recently, I was asked by a friend of mine about my position on the common practice of dividing the body of Christ between two distinct classes (castes?) of members, namely the clergy and the laity1. Since this is one of the most notable differences between a simple church and a legacy church I felt it worthy of a somewhat detailed treatment here.

There are three main reasons why I say that a clergy/laity split is unbiblical and harmful to the body of Christ.

1.) Jesus told his Disciples (the apostles) in Matthew 20:25 not to be like the rulers of this world and lord their positions over others. Even if clergy are very careful and use all the right self-deprecating language, I don’t see how they can escape the holier-than-thou impression. I also think the constant “we will be judged more harshly than you” is a misnomer because it doesn’t acknowledge the “unordained” masses of SS teachers, “parachurch” teachers, etc. that are all, well, teachers.

In short, the clergy/laity split inherently violates the “do not Lord it over” mentality taught by Jesus and followed by the Disciples. You might object by citing their leadership status but I would point out that their method of leading was not a top-down approach practiced by clergy today but a bottom-up serving which didn’t result in their being seen very much. Clergy are not like that at all.

2.) We are all priests according to the new covenant according to I Peter 2:9. What does this mean, if not that there is to be no more priest/commoner distinction? Was it a meaningless statement? In most prodestant churches we give lip service to this doctrine but rarely live it out. I think the reason for the suppression of this doctrine is the clergy/laity split in a manner not unlike the Roman Catholic Church’s desire to maintain control over it’s “subjects”.

You mentioned there were some who were paid for their ministry and that is true. However there were many, like Paul, who made a big deal of not accepting money from those they ministered to. Combined with the Jewish idea that rabbi’s ought to maintain a marketable skill and what you end up with are bi-vocational pastors at best.

No where do you see the modern pastor, that is a man who has all the responsibilities and duties expected of a modern pastor, described in the text. I believe that is because of…

3.) Every Christiain is said to be a member of the body of Christ and every member is said to be of equal value (except the head, which of course is Christ). How can every member be equal or function properly if there is a clergy/laity distinction in place?

How can we avoid the favoritism James preached against if we claim that missionaries (as wonderful as they are), clergy, children’s teachers, etc. are exalted as somehow more special than everyone else?

How can we avoid the command to not cause divisions (sects, parties, etc.) within the body if we exalt an entire group of people?

In short, every member ought to function as it was designed and ought to be respected and revered as much as all the other members without either thinking itself special or more lowly. The clergy/laity split fundamentally undermines this, placing unnatural burdon on one member (the clergy) and not expecting anything of other members (presumably because they are too stupid or unreliable or untrained).

There is much more to say on this subject, and I fully hope we have time to explore it even more. However I feel it necessary to close this post on another note by saying that I hope pastors don’t take my words as a personal attack. I love you and respect the sacrifices you’ve made and the commitment you have to our Lord. I’m not sure what an amicable resolution would be to our present dilemma but I do hope you bear in mind the fact that we are brothers under the same Lord regardless of our ecclesiological differences.

For anyone seeking a more in-depth treatment of this subject I highly recommend and of Frank Viola‘s works, particularly Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church. Also, if you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to leave them below!

  1. Helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “anyone who is not in the clergy“ []
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