Gentle Theology?

Another chat with a Christian brother, who is a pastoral candidate, some musing, and here we have a new thought path concerning the nuances in our application of theology to interactions within the family of believers. Actually, this thread had already been percolating in the background after reading “A Kinder, Gentler Calvinism” by James N. McGuire (RTS Reformed Quarterly, Summer 2000, 14-16). The present conversation stimulated the process.

The real crux here is how much slack should one cut (and by implication does the Lord allow, since we represent Him indirectly in our dealings with one another) others in the discussion of theological issues? When to stand one’s ground, when to go along or when (like Nikita Khrushchev, in that famous scene years ago at the United Nations) to take off your shoe and pound in on the table.

The question divides into two types of theology – one which I will term preferential theology (that is, small issues of preference that do not reflect the basic tenents of belief), and one of foundational theology (representing crucial issues of faith and Salvation). Though there might be debate on where some issues fall, most seem to fall in one category or the other.

On preferential issues, I have always proposed that these were issues for friendly discussion among the family of believers around the dinner table, so to speak. Though we may be variously convicted of our positions of these issues, and even hold to them tenaciously for our own reasons, they should not be divisive or disrupt our fellowship. In other words, although we might present our case on one issue or another to our brothers and sisters, we should also cut them a lot of slack, even (or especially) when we think that we are correct. This is a question of attitude and demeanor as much as anything. In some ways it is reminiscent of previous articles on the need for tolerance within in the fellowship of believers that facilitates the grow of each individual (Sanctification – Expectations and Behaviour). We all need space to grow within the family, and this includes growing on theological issues. Not only that, but in the case of preferencial issues, the right and wrong is critical to Salvation. As such, discussion is important, but the we can certainly agree to disagree within the family.

On foundational issues, the water becomes more murky. As a Christian friend said to me some years ago, while commenting upon certain denominational beliefs, “The Lord honours intent”. By that he implied that though someone’s variant understanding of an issue might seem incorrect to us, their conviction of a particular interpretation of Scripture would be honoured by the Lord. They were covered by appropriate Grace, and the issue itself became moot. There are clearly limits on this application of Grace, but it does seem to fall within the scope of the Grace extended to all of us as believers. Both the Christian brother in the present conversation, as well as the McGuire article cited above, extend this to imply a flexible approach in the discussion of more seminal issues of the faith, irrespective of our view or level of conviction. The assumption is that taking a more aggressive approach does not accomplish anything, and in fact may be counter productive in meaningful interaction, or if appropriate, correction. This does not mean that ideas are not to be stated firmly and with conviction, just not divisively. Division removes the possibility of further productive discussion. A Calvinist could not dissagree with this in theory, since the Lord’s plan is covering all that is occuring. From that point of reference there is no unexpected. Yet, on fundamental matters the temptation to be more strident can be great and the seeming need to correct an situation of error may seem required.

The concept of a univerally flexible approach that is non-confrontational makes sense, but at the same time it leaves me with considerable unease. Surely if the issue is significant it can not simply pass, with silence or ambivalence possibly taken as agreement or support for a position of error. To what degree is one responsible to debate when the issue is theologically significant? Some would say it doesn’t matter and that optimal fellowship is the over-riding concern. With that approach, when would issues be corrected? Surely it does matters and correction is important. If that is true, then to what degree should one articulate the truth? Admittedly, by way of personality, I tend towards the “take no prisoners” school in areas of foundational importance, but I can appreciate an alternate argument. Fellowship is very important. Therein is the dilemma.

If a church is composed of very like minded believers, with very close views of the paradigms of Salvation and their application in the church, there is less likelyhood of ‘issues’. However, as church growth becomes an ever high priority (see also the Church Size series in Life in the Body), increasing numbers of congregants appear, and there are ofter limited resources available for church orientation, the likelyhood of dramatically different belief sets becomes much more likely. As that occurs, and demographically it seems very likely, the foundational basics can quickly and quietly become diluted.

When should one object on theological, church doctrine or other issues? Does it matter? This is, of course, said tongue in check since it clearly does matter, but many, by apparent ambivalence, do not seem to care . When it does not matter or ambivalence rules the day, does the church then start an insidious slide into being a place of entertainment and everyday fellowship rather than Christ, His message and precepts? Again, this sounds severe, but below the surface that is the slope. Is that required basic theology related only to the observed, limited congregational knowledge of what their church stands for (in it’s general statement of beliefs)? If so, and since there may be a large variation in the beliefs held within the group, does this indicate that the church is being built without a firm foundations on any common foundational set of biblical standards? I think that it does…

This is a difficult post. There are lots of questions, with no obvious answers…

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