Growing up in the Baptist tradition, I’ve heard my fair share of references to the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon. I’ve had the privilege to visit the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London and try to take in the impact this church was making 150 years ago. Though I’m not Calvinistic or Reformed, I’ve learned to greatly appreciate this man’s ministry and legacy.
Growing up as a dispensationalist, I have great respect for another group in England as well, the Plymouth Brethren. Two of these leading men were impactful in my own theological journey – John Darby and George Muller (Mueller). Darby is sometimes credited as the Father of Dispensationalism and Muller’s name is practically synonymous with “walking by faith.” His testimony of God’s provision for the orphans of London never cease to move me or amaze me.
Yet, these two men had a theological falling away, never reconciling. Muller (and Spurgeon as well) rejected the dispensational teachings of Darby. Here is how Muller described it:
My brother, I am a constant reader of my Bible, and I soon found out that what I was taught to believe (by Darby’s Doctrine) did not always agree with what my Bible said. I came to see that I must either part company with John Darby, or my precious Bible, and I chose to cling to my Bible and part from Mr. Darby.Jonas Alexis, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A History of Conflict, Vol 2. 2013, 200.
This type of contention is evident today not only in theology, but also politics. At times, it appears as if we are living in the Divided States of America, with the capital being located in the State of Confusion! How do we respond when people we respect take a different position over something we are passionate about? How can we “contend for the faith” without being “contentious?” Is it even possible anymore to politely disagree? Or, must we view anyone different from us as “the enemy?”
Granted, living in a world where everyone agreed about everything would rob of us creativity and perspective. That’s too high a price! So, let’s settle that differences will always be part of our world and focus instead on how believers handle theological disagreements.
Are we dealing with a Fundamental of the Faith?
This is an important question to settle. If someone disagrees with me and teaches that Jesus is less than God – that’s a major problem. It’s no longer a “family dispute” – it’s an attack on the faith once delivered. I’m non-charismatic, meaning that I believe the gift of speaking in tongues has ceased. Not every 21st century Christian agrees with my position. Yet, I can go to heaven without speaking in tongues; someone else can get there by believing they should speak in tongues. Yes, this is a doctrinal issue – but at a lesser level than the deity of Christ.
The issue of Bible translations falls into this category. Personally, I do not use Bibles that are based on a Nestles-Aland text, choosing instead to use what has come through the Received Text / Byzantine family, etc. Can someone be saved from a different Bible version? Sure! Is it important to decide on a trustworthy, accurate translation? Absolutely! But if someone comes to a different conclusion than me – their salvation isn’t in question!
So, step one: Identify the level of disagreement. Is this a fundamental doctrine – one essential to understanding the gospel and the Christian life? Or is this a secondary doctrine – important, but more of an in-house debate?
Are you dealing with Facts or Emotions (Traditions)?
In a dispute or disagreement (whether friendly or otherwise), it’s important to present facts for your position. Ridicule, mockery, or typing in all caps doesn’t make one’s position true. The level of accuracy isn’t determined by our volume, but by our representation of the facts.
In the case of Bible translations, sometimes the arguments aren’t always logical. From a personal perspective, I’ve taken heat from people who use the same Bible I use but I don’t accept their arguments for that position. If someone isn’t open to looking at facts and setting aside emotion temporarily, this affects how we handle our disagreement with them.
I have friends – genuine friends who would help me in a moment’s notice – who are not dispensationalists. We’ve spent much time over the years looking at a comparison and contrast between our two approaches. We’ve been passionate at times, but we’ve anchored our position in an argument from the biblical data and how we feel it should be interpreted. We’ve both looked at the same evidence, and drawn different conclusions. I cannot persuade them to change and they can’t persuade me to change…and we’re still brothers in Christ.
At this stage, we should start to see the wisdom of Augustine’s quote: “In necessariis unitas, in dubitas libertas, in omnibus caritas.” Translation: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
So, step 1: Identify the level of disagreement…is it a primary or secondary issue? (PS, we can’t make everything a primary issue!) Step 2: Use the evidence, the facts, to make a compelling case. If neither side is convinced by the other, we don’t have to resort to name-calling (heretic, liberal, etc). Instead, we can agree to disagree and live as the children of God.
Do you know who the Foe really is?
We’ve considered whether an issue is fundamental or not; we’ve challenged ourselves to look at the facts; now, we ask a question: Are we dealing with family or foe? If our dispute is with someone we believe is an enemy, we listen differently: How can I use what he has said to shred his position, etc? If someone is family, we listen to understand their perspective.
I’m afraid that we can give the impression that those who disagree with us are less intelligent (at best), or the theological enemies (at worst). If someone reads a different Bible than I do on a daily basis, I can at least be grateful that they have a hunger for God – they are not the enemy. If someone believes Covenant Theology is the only way to correctly understand Scripture, we disagree…but they are not the enemy.
Did you grow up with siblings? If so, I highly doubt that you saw every detail or decision eye-to-eye. But it didn’t cause you (at least, it should not have) to cast them out of the family! The ultimate foe is the devil. Let’s not forget that.
Three simple steps help us to approach a potentially contentious statement. Take a deep breath and ask three questions:
- Is this a fundamental doctrine
- Can I discuss the facts (or know them)
- Am I speaking to a member of God’s family or a foe
The longer I study the Bible, the more I am amazed by it. My convictions deepen, my understanding widens, and hopefully my living reflects its great truths. At the same time, the longer I am a Christian, the less I am enamored with the mentality that holds truth so rigidly that any disagreements are viewed as personal attacks and heretical. Finding the balance between “contending for the faith” and to “love the brotherhood” is a lifelong pursuit.
*The opening image “How to Navigate Theological Disagreements” is taken from the title of a course taught by Eric Oldenburg at Biola University.