In my last article, I asked the readers to stop and give consideration to the practice of somewhat blindly following our internet inspired Christian leaders. It is my sincere hope that the heart of that article was to suggest that we need a well-rounded, biblical perspective as we follow what appear to be biblical brethren who promote theologies we ascribe to. It can be far too easy to believe such persons do not need to be questioned when they make certain statements, professions, or proclamations. As we fall into the trap of thinking they cannot do anything wrong, we can easily promote division in the body of Christ as we grow suspicious of others camps of Christians who do not agree with us. As such, it is our obligation to take step back and be willing to examine our social media stars through the lens of Scripture. Even though they may be right, and even well intended, on many issues, no one is above examination and accountability.
One of the points I briefly touched on in that article is that we Christians have a duty to learn and understand biblical doctrine. When we study doctrine, we are studying the beliefs that define Christianity. Those beliefs are found solely in the Scriptures and nowhere else. The study of those beliefs is essential in helping understand the character and nature of God. We cannot rightly know, worship, and obey a God whom we have never taken the time to learn about or from. Therefore, if we claim to be followers of God through His Son, Jesus Christ, then we must take the time to diligently study His revealed Word.
The more we study the Scriptures, the better versed we become in doctrine. The more doctrine we learn, the more our lives are impacted to the point we become more obedient to God. In other words, the more we learn rightly, the more we live rightly. We are in serious error if we think we can truly be honoring to God through our own efforts if we have no idea whether or not those efforts are even biblical.
All one has to do to prove this is to look at the state of Evangelicalism in America today. So-called churches have rejected sound biblical exegesis in order to teach self-help mantras to the masses. While the pews are certainly being filled, those in the seats are no more Christians than a Hindu, a Muslim, or an atheist. They have not been taught the truth of God’s law, sin, righteousness, condemnation, the cross, salvation, or justification. While salvation is a free gift given by God alone, it cannot be appropriated but by repentance (which requires knowledge of sin in order to turn from it) and faith (which comes from understanding of why Christ died on the cross). A person cannot be saved outside knowledge of the gospel. While that knowledge may be rudimentary or deeply complex, if one does not comprehend a biblical gospel, one cannot rightly submit to Christ in repentance and faith.
The tragic result of this is that there are many professing churches that are devoid of the gospel. In turn, while they claim many adherents in their rolls, few, if any, are truly converted as followers of Christ. And where the gospel is absent, sound biblical doctrine is completely lost. You cannot have true theological instruction that is absent the gospel. All matters of doctrine have the gospel at their center. Outside the gospel, the best you can accomplish is to give people commands and moralisms to live by. These teachings do nothing to draw a person closer to God nor do they lead to holy lives. Sinful creatures cannot please God and they cannot become holy when all their efforts are tainted by the stain of sin. The legacy of such gospel-less churches has been a plethora of professing “Christians” who lack a saving relationship with Christ and who have unchanged hearts. Still dead in their sins, they live just as rebelliously as before, but now are convinced God accepts their sinfulness and does not judge them.
Thus, a true church is one in which the theologies and doctrines of Scripture are not given mere lip service. It is a place where the word of God is delved into deeply, where the Word is rightly exposited, and where the sheep are fed and grow. True Christians not only desire the Word of God, but they long for spiritual growth than can only come from learning more about the Savior that redeemed them. Theology and doctrine, therefore, are more than simple learning exercises; they are the spiritual food that provides nourishment in the lives of growing believers.
That said, when you are discussing doctrine with creatures who, while made new creations in Christ, still exist in fallen flesh, there are bound to be differences of understanding. None of us were endowed with perfect theological knowledge the day we were born again. All of us are growing in knowledge and understanding as the days pass. Because of that, very few of us are going to be in perfect agreement on doctrinal matters. Our level of personal study, the teachers under whom we have learned, the books we have read (or fail to read), and the brethren with whom we associate all play a part in our understanding of doctrine. Because of that, we will often encounter Christians who submit to certain theological stances that we do not agree with. How we handle those encounters can mean the difference in expressing genuine Christian love and outright sinful behavior.
It is my hope in this article to address a few guidelines that will help us navigate the choppy waters of Christian theological debates, especially in the arena of digital social media. While all Christians should desire to see there brethren grow in the genuine knowledge of Christ, we must take care not to transition from loving correction to prideful biblical beatings. In the first, we honor God by reflecting His character and nature, in the latter, we only promote ourselves and our understanding of doctrine as supreme. The line between these two can be crossed far too easily if we do not give consideration to what we are saying and doing.
Correction begins in the local church
Prior to the advent of the internet, we did not have nearly the ability that we do today to reach out and touch like-minded brethren around the world. We didn’t exactly live in isolated little bubbles, but we spent far more time interacting in our local communities and churches. With the introduction of the World Wide Web, and especially social media, we found the new ability to seek out and find connections with people who think and agree with us. Many a social observer has lamented over the death of interpersonal interaction thanks to digital technology. Similarly, as Christians, we must remember that God created and gave us the local church as a means of personal, spiritual growth in our walk.
Godly men, called and equipped by the Holy Spirit, step up to the pulpit each week to dutifully exposit the Word of God especially for those Christians who have been placed under their care. It is those men to whom the Christian must first submit themselves in their learning of doctrine and theology. They know their congregations best and how they can most effectively serve them as they teach Scripture. Therefore, those of us outside those congregations need to be willing to step aside and allow the teachers God has called to be the primary source of theological instruction. If we assume that, because our theology is better, we should overrule these Spirit led elders, we demonstrate serious arrogance and pride before the Lord. If it were God’s intent for those Christians to be under our theological teaching, then we would be appointed to be their pastors.
This is not to say we have no right whatsoever to share what the Word says on a doctrinal matter with others. As I said above, we must be willing to learn and grow in all areas of theology. Therefore, talking with fellow Christians about God’s Word can be an effective tool to avoid becoming stagnant. It causes us to consider what we believe and sharpen our thinking. Still, the best we should ever consider ourselves is a secondary or even tertiary source of information for fellow Christians. We are not their spiritual leaders, we are brethren who, from a distance, are seeking to help edify and strengthen our family in Christ. Never should we seek to usurp the position of authority given to their church elders.
We are all on a path of sanctification
I wrote earlier that none of us were given perfect doctrinal knowledge on the day that Christ redeemed us. From the day we first heard the gospel until the day we are taken up in glory, we are on a path of sanctification. We are all slowly growing in faith, knowledge and the practice of becoming like our Savior. Therefore, we will all encounter brethren who are at various places along that path. Some will be stalwarts of the faith, aged and mature brethren whose command of the Bible is awe-inspiring. Others will be babes, barely comprehending the gospel that saved them. Many others will be strong in some areas, while barely able to crawl in others. We too are on that path, growing and maturing.
When we seek to discuss and debate doctrines of our common faith, we must remember that, where God has challenged and opened our eyes to these issues, others may be focusing on entirely different matters. We may find we are being taught the need to seriously and soberly contend for the faith; however, others may be learning that certain behaviors in their life are sinful and they are struggling just learning how to repent of those issues. This means that we will find fellow Christians who simply do not see the urgency in defending a doctrinal matter as we do. They may not feel the same conviction we do about certain theological teachings as we do because the Spirit is working in another area of their life. We must not be quick to question their commitment to the faith because of where they are on the path.
This is not to excuse theological laziness. It is quite true that some Christians will simply float along with the stream and never make any effort to grow in their knowledge. However, not all Christians fall into that category. It takes examination of heart and motivations to determine whether a Christian is slothful or otherwise focused elsewhere. Honest discussion can help us reveal whether it is one or the other. But, quick assumptions and knee jerk responses should never be the reaction we take when encountering Christians who disagree with us on doctrinal issues. We most definitely should desire to see our brethren progress on the path of sanctification, and help in that growth wherever we can. But we must remember that we are all on that same path and that disagreement does not necessarily mean our brethren have departed the path altogether.
Certain doctrines disagree, but still fall within orthodoxy
When we examine the Scriptures, we see that there are certain doctrinal positions that we must hold to in order to actually be Christian. The deity of Christ, the fact that He is God and Man, that He is the Second Person of triune God, that He is revealed in the Scriptures (which are infallible, inerrant and sufficient), and that He is the only means of salvation are absolutely essential in order to be Christian. These are doctrinal issues that cannot be denied by anyone and still be considered a Christian. Without them, the prospect of Christianity being a genuine faith that saves sinners is impossible. As such, any person who rejects these core doctrines (and these are not the only ones), either must be willing to submit to correction or they cannot ever call themselves a Christian.
Following these core doctrines of the faith are other very important, but non-salvific doctrines. Such doctrines as soteriology (how we are saved), eschatology (end times), ecclesiology (the study of the church), creation versus evolution, and more can fall into the “secondary” areas of theology. Let me be clear, there are no unimportant doctrinal issues. If it is found in the pages of the Bible, then it is indeed important. Every doctrinal issue reflects the character and nature of God quite simply because every doctrinal issue finds its source in the character and nature of God. Therefore, the study of these matters is very important in revealing to us the God we serve. However, because sinful men are working through the Scriptures to mine these gold filled theologies there are going to be differences in understanding. Presuppositions will taint how we understand certain passages and help draw us to different conclusions.
This does not mean that it does not matter who believes what, because none of us have it right. In fact, what it means is that every theological stripe must work all the more diligently as there are right answers in these doctrines, but due to our fallen character, we are prone to making incorrect assumptions. The only means by which we can come to a true understanding of doctrine is assuming we need to keep studying and refining what we believe and seek out correction if we are wrong on an issue.
That being said, as we debate theological streams, we must remember that our fellow Christians are not necessarily apostate because they believe in a doctrine with which we disagree. These “secondary” doctrines do not cause a person to be anathema in and of themselves. They are doctrines that still fall within orthodox Christianity because they do not rise to the level of affecting the salvation of professing believers. As such, when we seek to discuss, debate, correct and reprove our fellow Christians, we must remember we are not necessarily talking to heretical false teachers leading masses of people to Hell. In our discussions, someone is most definitely wrong, but that error is not going to condemn them to an eternity of hellfire. Therefore, patience is a must because, as noted above, some of us are further along the path of knowledge while others are still taking the first steps. We can actually allow Christians to be wrong in certain areas because they are still learning, growing and maturing, as we ourselves are doing.
Face-to-face conversation is better than public debate
When it comes to doctrinal debates, perhaps the worst forum for Christians to learn from and edify one and other is in the realm of social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter are great for allowing us to maintain contact with old friends, family, and even find new acquaintances. We can post anything we like and any conversation can be started by the simple click of a button. Unfortunately, the rapid pace at which social media moves often leaves little in the way of deep consideration of a particular subject matter. Posts and responses are immediate. There is little time to mull over an argument made by someone. We have become far too accustomed to fast, bullet point thinking. And the nature of sites like Twitter (limiting posts to 140 characters) does not allow us to make detailed responses. We must make our debates conform to the bumper sticker, sound bite mentality that has become social media.
Add to this the very public nature of these sites and you can have a recipe for disaster. Anyone in your friend list can see an evolving discussion and, since it is public, add their thoughts to the fray. Before long, you can have multiple people piling on to multiple streams of thought. Our ability to control the flow of the conversation is lost and emotions run high. The end result can be an uncontrolled argument where people who were once considered friends soon lose any reason to associate with one another. Obviously, this is a bit of a worst case scenario, but one that plays itself out on the internet far more often than we would like to admit.
Add to this the contentious nature of Christian theology and the situation can become quite a mess. Those among us who care about the need for sound theological teaching are already aware of the problems created by rejecting biblical doctrine. While watching questionable statements regarding the character and nature of God appear in our news feeds, we can feel the desperate need to jump in and correct poor thinking. Sadly, if we do not give heed to how we address it, the scenario described above can happen and allegations of apostasy and heresy soon follow. Therefore, it would be wise for the Christian to consider just how we should enter into these waters.
Given that we care about God and His word, as well as the spiritual growth of our brethren, we simply cannot refuse to engage theological debate. It is unwise and unbiblical to think that doctrine doesn’t matter and that unity at all costs is what we should strive for. But demonstrating grace and love for those who are truly our brethren is equally important. Therefore, it is necessary to consider that open and public rebuke or reproof may not be the proper way to engage brethren of different theological stripes. If we are honest, we will admit that when we talk to brethren face to face, we rarely, if ever, show the arrogance and bravado that we do behind the keyboard. That direct, interpersonal communication demands that we remember the person in front of us is a genuine human being, not just a set of 1’s and 0’s on the screen. Therefore, we speak with a certain level of love and kindness that is uncharacteristic of the social media world.
When we desire to enter into theological discussions, I suggest that we really should take them out of the public realm and enter into them privately. If face to face is unavailable, a phone call would be preferable. Barring those mediums, private messaging or email would be a good option. This allows us to speak to someone as an individual without the need to be concerned about everyone else watching. There is no outside distraction, no fanfare, no one jumping in to critique our arguments. We can have the undivided attention of our brother or sister on the other end. We can invite them to give us a detailed explanation of their beliefs and give honest consideration to what they say. We can respond to each of their statements with genuine love and compassion, seeking to honestly grow and edify them. This allows us to take time and consider what is being said and how best to respond. It takes us out of the rapid pace of the social media monster and gives us the ability to take rationally and intelligently. If we do this, we then will be a blessing to each other.
The point of it all
The intent of this article is not an attempt to end all Christian arguments. Nor is it a call to reject doctrinal disputes and unify under some sort of banner of Christian love. It is my hope that the readers will give consideration to the guidelines laid out here and apply them to their interactions with their brethren. Doctrinal distinctions and the debates surrounding them are necessary for our growth in Christ. They cause us to learn and refine what we believe. This changes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions. In other words, theology helps us grow in sanctification. So we should never shy away from discussing doctrine with each other. However, the intent behind those the discussions should be for the edification of our brethren and the glorification of God. If we cannot avoid unnecessary argument for argument’s sake, then we should not enter into the discussion. But, if we apply certain principles to our thinking, we may be able to restrain our tendency to turn discussions into beat downs. And that, I would argue, accomplishes what we are actually setting out to do to being with.
Chris Hohnholz owns and writes at Slave to the King.