Monday, August 22, 2022

Dealing with Theological Differences

 


Why are there so many different kinds of churches? Why all these denominations? Why is it the case that so many people drive past several church buildings every Sunday until they get to their preferred one? There are probably several answers to these questions. But I know one reason is this: theological differences.

In this article I want to talk about theological differences. And in doing so, I’d like to introduce you to someone. His name is Photius (pronounced “foe-tea-us”). Photius lived an exciting life. He was a very important person in politics and religion back in the 9th century.

Photius is best remembered as the Patriarch of Constantinople, a very influential position in the church. During Medieval times, there was only one universal church. There were house churches and organized groups of Christians all over the place, but there was no such thing as denominations; Protestants and Catholics; or evangelicals and liberal churches. There was one church, and the one church was led by the Pope. The church had a clear hierarchy – priests were at the bottom, doing the day-in-day-out work of leading parishes. Bishops oversaw the priests and archbishops were responsible for the bishops, and so on up to the Pope. Photius was near the top of this hierarchy.

Photius was dealing with growing tensions between churches and leaders in the Eastern part of the world and those in the Western part of the world. Local congregations were living in different political climates, under different empires, speaking different languages, and facing different threats. And Photius sat in the middle of all that tension, acting as a mediator while reporting to the Pope.

One day, news came across Photius’ desk that would forever alter the future of the church. Strangely, the news could be summarized in one word. And some church historians believe that this word was the straw that broke the camel’s back on the unified, catholic church. This one word would lead to the most chaotic schism of the church known to date, and would lead to the division of “The Eastern Church” and “The Western Church.” To this day, we still have two distinct church groups – the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church – and the division of these two groups arguably originated because of this single word that flashed across Photius’ desk.[1]

What was this one word, you say? Filioque. This word set off a domino effect that rattled the universal church and split it into the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. And you’ve probably never heard of it until now.

Early in the church’s history, a council was called to determine some foundational beliefs of Christianity. Heresies were sprouting up and nobody had really gotten all the church leaders together to officially nail down some core doctrine, particularly doctrine of the Trinity. That council met and decided on language to describe the Godhead – the Nicean Creed, later called the Creed of Constantinople – which churches all over this planet still recite.

After explaining whom God the Father is, and Jesus Christ the Son of God, the creed talks about God the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified...

Let me read this again with the addition I told you about, the word Filioque.

We believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and from the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified...

Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and from the Son”. When Photius saw that churches in the West had added a word to the creed, he called foul. They are promoting heresy by adding to orthodox doctrine! I’ll spare you the decades of disputes that followed. But here’s the bottom line: controversy over this one word caused a stack of dominoes to fall, creating multiple other fights between the East and West. And on June 16, AD 1054, the pope sent a cardinal to a cathedral in modern-day Istanbul. A patriarch named Michael was in the middle of preparing communion. And during the service, the cardinal walked up to the high altar, held up a sentence directly from the pope, and declared that Patriarch Michael was deemed a heretic. All who followed him would be excommunicated from the church. Then he shook the dust off his feet and set out to Rome.[2] That is the day the Catholic Church split into the East and West.

I realize this is an important issue. I’m not trying to make light of it. But here’s my two cents on the topic. If someone had had the guts to stand up and say “You know what? The original creed is good. It’s true. And if I teach my congregation that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, I’m not violating the creed. Maybe we shouldn’t insist that the creed be changed to add this one word in every parish. Maybe this isn’t that big a deal.” If someone had said that, maybe we would have a more unified church today. There were more issues going on between the East and West, don’t get me wrong, but this whole controversy could have been avoided if the Medieval Church had adopted this mantra:

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.


When I say “core,” I’m referring to the doctrines or set of beliefs that we share as Christians. Core beliefs are those which are essential for us to believe. There are a lot of doctrines that we have, but there is only a small list of things that you have to believe or else you aren’t “with” us, you aren’t one of us. Every doctrine we Christians affirm has a core, but there are aspects of that doctrine that expand into grey areas. And the further you get from the core, the less dogmatic you should be, and the less you should argue.
 

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.


Have you ever ran into a “filioque” situation?

This seems like a pretty farfetched example of controversy, doesn’t it? One word of doctrine set off a butterfly effect that led to the splitting of the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches. That seems a bit extreme, especially since I’m still not sure who was right!

But I would venture to say that every one of you reading this article has seen something like this happen. Some of you have seen churches split over minor points of doctrine. Others have seen people leave your church because of one single sermon. Many of you have been stuck in the middle of two people duking out theology that doesn’t seem to have any relevance to real life. Voices were raised, words were said, and friendships were dismantled because of a stance that wasn’t even essential.

Perhaps it was over the timing of Prophecy. Maybe you or someone you knew was trying to take the Bible very seriously. One person says, “This is the times of the Gentiles and later we’ll be in the day of the Lord. That’s when the antichrist and his crazy bugs come up out of the earth.” But then someone else says “Oh come on. The flying bugs are allegorical. That’s figurative.” And they get angry with one another about bugs in from some obscure text. Instead of agreeing to disagree, it becomes explosive.

Have you ever been caught in the middle of a theological debate like this?

Have you ever argued strongly with someone over theology, and then looked back and thought that really wasn’t worth the controversy years later?

There are certain things that we have to agree on to be Christians. I’ll even say that there are certain things we have to agree on in order to be part of the same church. However, that list of doctrine needs to stay a small list. When we insist on things that we don’t need to insist on, we end up causing unnecessary division, controversy, quarrels, and problems. When we keep our list of essentials small, we open the door for unity, collaboration, and accomplishing great things together. That small list of essential doctrines you must believe is what I call “The Core”.


If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.


Let’s see how Paul describes this in Titus 3

Throughout the Pastoral Epistles (those are the letters in our Bible that the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus), this admonition comes up over and over again: Stop arguing about minute points of doctrine! Here’s the text we’ll look at in this article:

This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. Titus 3:8–10 (NIV)

The writer has been trying to explain that two different categories of theology: Sound doctrine and secondary doctrine. Throughout the Pastoral Epistles, Paul brings up over and over this idea of “sound doctrine” or “sound teaching” or being “sound in faith.” What he means is healthy teaching.[3] Sound doctrine is what we ought to agree on and focus on. This doctrine is the core of what we believe as Christians. And when we agree on the core, we can do a lot of good together.

Now there is a lot more to our faith and our beliefs than just the core. All of us should believe in the stuff that falls under Sound Doctrine. But we also have our opinions about this next category: Secondary doctrine. Secondary Doctrine is all the other doctrine I believe in, but (1) it’s not as clear what is correct and what is incorrect and (2) it’s not as important to get right. I’ll come back to this, but for now look at how the text breaks this down:

Sound Doctrine
Titus 3:8 - Those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Secondary Doctrine
Titus 3:9 - But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

Sound doctrine leads to good works, it’s excellent, and it’s profitable for everyone. But sometimes we can get into the weeds. We can start bickering about doctrine that isn’t as clear in the Bible and isn’t as important to affirm as CORE doctrine. This leads to arguing and quarrelling. Secondary doctrine can become controversial, unprofitable, and useless.

Simple enough, right? Unfortunately we have a major problem. Doctrine and theology do not fit neatly into these categories! In fact, if I asked any two Christians to make a chart with all the “sound doctrine” in one column and the “secondary doctrine” in another column, they would disagree somewhere along the way.

Truth be told, doctrine isn’t this simple. It isn’t this black and white, wet and dry.
Let me show you a visual to help you see how this really works:


This is a black dot. As you can see, the middle of the dot is completely filled in. It’s completely black. Likewise, the edges are completely white, not black at all. Most of the visual is this mixture of black and white; there is a lot of grey space.

The center of the dot is the core. It’s clearly black. There’s nothing to argue about here. The core is the color black. If you disagree, then you are wrong.

The outside is fringe. It’s clearly white; it’s not black at all. There is nothing to argue about here. The stuff on the fringe is not part of the core. If you want to say something dogmatic about the stuff way out there, there’s a good chance you are wrong or you’re making stuff up.

Nobody squabbles over the white and black parts. Nobody squabbles over the core and the fringe. It’s the stuff between the core and the fringe that cause confusion. And we could have some lively debates over whether it’s more black than white, or more white than black.


Let’s pick a doctrine, any doctrine!

To show you what I mean, let’s talk about prophecy or the end times. The following is the core doctrine of prophecy: Jesus is coming back. When he comes back he will judge those who died and those who are alive. Based on where you placed your faith, each of us will either spend eternity under punishment in Hell, or in Heaven with the Lord.

As we get further and further from the core, we run into things like the tribulation, the millennium, and the rapture. Now all these ideas are in the Bible, but nobody can say dogmatically how it will all pan out. Some say the rapture will happen before the tribulation followed by the millennium. Others say it will occur after. Some even think the millennium is a figurative idea to explain something else that’s going to happen.

As interesting as prophecy can be, there is only a small core that we must agree on. And practically speaking, all we have to do as believers is be ready and be busy making sure everyone around us is ready. And keep in mind - Jesus isn’t going to ask for your end times chart before he plans his return.

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.


Let’s look at another example, like Scripture. What is the Bible anyway? The core belief about scripture that we all must hold is this: The Bible is God’s word. It is inspired by God. It teaches us who God is, who we are, and how we can have a relationship with him and live godly lives.

Now let’s move just a little further from the core. There are different views of inspiration. Some say the actual words of the Bible are inspired; others believe the concepts of the Bible are inspired, but Paul and Moses and these guys wrote them in the their own wording. I have a pretty strong opinion that the words, not the ideas, of the Bible are inspired. But I would be wrong to treat that doctrine as if it were solid-black-core doctrine.

As we move farther from the core, we get into beliefs that hold very little practical importance. Some people insist that a certain translations of the Bible are inspired and others aren’t. We can disagree about this. We can disagree about how to apply the Old Testament in the New Testament. We can disagree on text criticism. It’s far from the core.

Take a look again at Titus 3:9. “Avoid foolish controversies… and quarrels about the law.” These people were insisting on something outside the core. They believed that the Old Covenant was inspired by God (Core doctrine!) and therefore we still need to follow all the commands given in the Old Covenant (Woah, that went too far!). Titus needs to tell these guys, “Look, if you want to practice circumcision within your family, and you want to abstain from certain kinds of meat, and you want to throw away all your polyester clothes, that’s fine. But you cannot take this strict stance and impose it on everyone else.”

Ok, one more case study: Hamartiology. Hamartiology is the doctrine of sin. At its core, we can dogmatically say that sin has entered the world through Adam. Sin has separated us from God. Sin can only be atoned for by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus. None of these points are debatable; this is the core of hamartiology.

As we move just inches away from the core we reach very important doctrines, but they cannot occupy the center of our diagram. There is a tinge of grey here. For instance, how does sin affect us? You may have heard terms like “total depravity” or “total inability”, or “semi-Pelagianism.” There is a distinction between these three terms, and it’s an important distinction. These terms are certainly worth grappling with. But your stance should not stand in the core.

Far from the core, firmly in the land of grey and mostly white, we see other beliefs about hamartiology. Is there such thing as an age of accountability? What is the sin against the Holy Ghost or the sin unto death? Do we have original sin, original guilt, or both? Are there categories for sin, like mortal sins and venial sins? Have conversations about these dogmas, but please do not cause division, disunity, and quarrelling over your opinions here.

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.


Why is this core so important? And why do we have to be so careful to ignore stuff here?

The answer is found in verse 8.

I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. Titus 3:8 (NIV)

Paul writes that sound doctrine, the stuff in the core, has two benefits.

(1) Sound doctrine leads to good works.

As an example, let’s look at the doctrine of the Trinity. At the core of this doctrine, God is a Trinity. The Father sent the Son to die for our sins and He sent the HS to convict us of our sins and draw us to the Father. God is a sending God, and so we are to be sent people. This leads us to good things. We are sent!

But when we start arguing about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son, that causes unbelievable controversy! (Remember the filioque controversy?)

(2) Sound Doctrine is excellent and profitable

As an example, let’s look at the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. When I learn that Jesus will come to earth a second time, and that those who have died following him will be resurrected just as he was resurrected, that is profitable information.

But when we start busting out our apocalypse charts, and talking about gold heads and clay feet, that just gets confusing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take prophecy seriously. But if we start arguing about how my chart is better than your chart, that causes controversy!

The stuff away from the core leads to this: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.” (v.9) The further I move away from the core, the less dogmatic I should be.

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.

Steve Allen was the first host of the Tonight Show. He was very funny, and great at improv. He was famous for interacting with people in the audience, and stepping into the audience. He told a story once explaining why he stopped doing that. During his monologue one night, there was a woman in the audience who was not applauding. He became obsessed with this woman who was not clapping like everyone else. So he asked the crew to turn on the house lights, and he decided he would walk down into the audience and make fun of her. He walked right up to her and then noticed that she had both arms amputated and was not able to clap on live TV. He never did that again.[4]

Steve Allen hopefully learned two lessons that day:
(1) You can really embarrass yourself when you try to pick on people.
(2) There’s no reason to focus all your energy on those who don’t like your material.

Not everyone will like all your jokes. Not everyone will laugh. Not everyone will clap. And that’s OK. Likewise, not everyone will agree with you on your beliefs. And that’s OK. In order to follow Jesus, there are a handful of core doctrines we have to agree on. Otherwise we aren’t worshipping the same God. But the further we move away from that short list of core beliefs, the less we will agree on everything. And that’s OK.

What are your non-core issues that instinctively make you defensive?

You may be a parent and your son or daughter has been taking science classes at school. And they’ve become convinced that the earth is billions of year old, and that mankind evolved over time from primates. But you strongly believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and was created in 6 literal, twenty-four hour days. What I hope you hear is this: to be a Christian is to affirm that the Trinitatarian God created the universe and that He formed mankind in his image; that’s the core. In order to be Christian you must affirm this. But when it comes to our interpretation of how Genesis 1 happens, that has been a debate among Christians long before Darwin entered the scene.

Maybe it’s your neighbor who attends the Methodist church down the road. And they view baptism a little differently than you. They sprinkle, we immerse, and that’s caused debates.

Perhaps your defensive side swells when discussing spiritual sign gifts. We all believe that the Holy Spirit has given us spiritual gifts to use in the church and for our world. But there are a handful of spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament that some people believe have ceased and other believe continue to be used.

Titus 3:8-10 is calling us to build unity among fellow Christian on our core beliefs. What about the doctrines far from the core, you say? Study, discuss, and disagree respectfully. A famous quote from Rupertus Melenius (d. 1651) sums this up perfectly: “In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity."

This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. Titus 3:8–10 (NIV)

If it’s far from the CORE, it’s best to IGNORE.



[1] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 243.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 312–13.

[3] “In these Epistles, the metaphor of healthy teaching becomes a thoroughgoing polemic against the diseased false teachers. But the concern of the metaphor is not with the content of doctrine; rather, it is with behavior. Healthy teaching leads to proper Christian behavior, love and good works; the diseased teaching of the heretics leads to controversies, arrogance, abusiveness, and strife.” Gordon Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011).

[4] Illustration is from Seth Godin in Leap First: Creating Work that Matters.

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