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5 Ground Rules for Doctrinal Debate

Have you ever noticed that Christians sometimes disagree? What a shocker, right?

A recent kerfuffle amongst Christians over hell and universalism, or the chosen vs. the choosers you could say if you wanted to be imprecise, has me thinking about our priorities, the impact of our disagreements, and some ways we can take positive steps forward. In fact, for all of the hand wringing and such, I’m a bit hopeful. Why? Let me take you through my reasons:

1. Our Loyalty

Christians are loyal to a Person. Our beliefs (or doctrines) help us understand that Person. The emphasis is essential here. We are loyal to a relational deity who wants us to love and obey him. If we get the love and obey part, we’ll figure out that God wants us to relate to one another with the same charity, seeking out the best for others. We hold to our beliefs because they are important, but we don’t defend our beliefs as a matter of first importance.

The recent conflict smells of prioritizing beliefs over the Person. Is an accusatory blog post the best way to restore a pastor if he really is in error? If a blogger really thinks a fellow brother was in error, the Bible tells us how to proceed.

HINT: A combative blog post that generates lots of traffic and comments wouldn’t leave me feeling, “Wow, that guy really wants me to be restored from my heresy! How nice of him. Look at all of the traffic his criticism of my beliefs generated. I guess I should agree with him.”

2. The Significance
If we are loyal to our beliefs ahead of our relationship with God, we may view other Christian perspectives as threats. If we encounter a view that borders on heresy, we risk making things worse because we’re seeking to protect doctrines instead of people.

We aren’t here to defend the Gospel. We’re here to let God change how we live and speak through the Gospel.

The Gospel is here to lead us to God, and we need to live it with clarity and truth. However, if someone steps away from a faithful biblical proclamation of the Gospel, we should be rushing to help the person not to attack his/her beliefs.

3. The Goal: Restoration, not Isolation
When we disagree and fear that a fellow Christian may be teaching false doctrines, I think there are two possible ways forward. On the one hand, we should certainly engage the beliefs of that person and discuss them fairly with all of the information. I have no qualms with someone fairly critiquing my take on Jesus if I have made an error.

However, I would also hope that no one would attack me personally right off the bat, isolating me from the body of Christ. You see, we can isolate others, creating chasms where we say, “Our side has the truth; your side has the error. Come over to our side if you want to be a true Christian.”

A public attack like this only pushes us further away from one another. If someone really is in error, then attacking the person may only tempt him/her to dig in and fight back. Isolation does not lead to restoration.

There may be times that we’ll have to isolate someone, but that is only a last resort, not an opening salvo. We begin with an appeal out of love for the other person and only cut that person off if there is no other resort.

Defending a doctrine ahead of a Person saves us from all of the trouble that love requires.

4. Does the Response Make Things Worse?
I’m actually more concerned about how we respond to this kerfuffle than I am that we had a kerfuffle in the first place. I have a lot of reformed friends, and I know a lot of folks who are probably suspicious of many emergent pastors. We should reach out to others personally, out of love. Why would we want to create divisions where they are unnecessary?

The first and second shots have been fired, but we don’t need to keep firing back. We also don’t need to wring our hands too much. There are lots of Christians who are rolling their eyes right now. The trick is to avoid attacking back. We’ll only make things worse. The body of Christ can drown in its own self-righteousness just as well as it can in its squabbles. We can be combative in how we point out the combativeness of others.

5. What I Can’t Say:
Recently, I almost tweeted something like this: “Fictional story: Christians charitable when disagreeing over what only God knows.

I couldn’t do it. I knew it wasn’t true, and it made my day. I know quite a few Christians who are very humble and kind, even when we disagree. I have hundreds of Christian friends who are open-minded, who would hear someone out before reacting, and who would charitably work toward restoration of someone in error. Many of these friends dig Reformed theology.

Charitable Christians are not fictional. We are legion. We just don’t attract the same attention because we aren’t lightning rods for negativity and controversy that drive human-interest stories on blogs and news sites.

Rather than lament that a pastor asked some vague questions and a blogger made some harsh critiques before reading the whole story, let’s celebrate the fact that such an approach is unacceptable to many believers. There are folks who disagree with both sides, and these folks are praying for God’s best for them—praying that we are all restored to unity in Spirit and in truth.