I know about theological disagreements. My 4-year-old son thinks heaven is in the clouds. I can’t convince him otherwise. He’s pretty set on this view, and he’s spreading his fabrications at preschool.
Since he won’t listen to me, I have decided to call him out online. I tweet about him regularly. I make sure his real views are exposed on his Wikipedia page, and I ask powerful people not to support him financially. He was recently caught in a video that made him look quite foolish, ranting about his heaven-is-really-in-the clouds view. I quickly posted the video so all my friends and colleagues could see his error, but his stubborn belief has gotten so bad recently that I’m looking at ways to remove him from our church.
Of course, I’m a committed Christian and I’m doing it all out of love.
There’s a reason the story above is ridiculous (and fictitious, by the way) and it’s not about my son’s age. Make my four-year-old 40 and the way I relate to him is still unacceptable. Because he is in my family I should respond to him with class, with unflinching care, and with the goal of defending him even when I think his beliefs are misguided. The fact that we are family makes the way we handle our disagreements different than how I handle issues with those outside my home.
Family is a huge idea in the Bible. The word adelphos— “brothers and sisters”—is used over 200 times to describe our relationship with one another once we commit to following Jesus, and this is central to our identity and future. The transformation of different kinds of people into one redeemed family is the central work of God in our world. Dallas Willard rightly argues that God created the universe for no other purpose than to make an all-inclusive community of renewed, joy producing, mutually dependent, self-sacrificial persons with Himself as the prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant (The Renovaré Study Bible).
Of course, we all begin in very different places upon conversion. It seems obvious that we should be gracious with one another as we learn slowly and thoroughly what it means to follow Christ over the course of our lifetime, yet in my experience, Christians regularly tear each other down for self-serving, unnecessary reasons. We love to point out the missteps of family members working out their salvation with fear and trembling. Collectively, we have not mastered the art of disagreeing in world-changing, iron-sharpening-iron ways. Our pursuit of “Truth” often turns into vicious, unreflective smears, and our all-too-public condescension gives evidence to doubters that Jesus is not Lord, that his Spirit is not at work, and that we remain a fractious clan.
This is unacceptable.
One of the steps many Christian traditions take backwards from their Jewish predecessors is how we initiate. The Jewish tradition elevates knowledge of the scriptures so the student might be able to probe and wrestle, whereas the Christian traditions elevates correct answers to problems thought out by someone else. In order to be part of the community of faith, the Jewish tradition requires investment, the Christian full affirmation. One feels like a family, one feels like a military unit.
The Bible however, does not shy away from cross-examining religious interpretations of the past or of the divine. 3,294 questions appear in the Scriptures—only slightly less than the word “God”. And these questions are not easy:
“Is the Lord among us?” (Exodus 17)
“Does God listen to cries when distress comes?” (Job 27)
“My God, why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22)
The Scriptures are not an answer book. Instead, when we read the truths and paradigmatic statements of the Bible, they invite even more questions and push our thinking harder. I affirm the creeds of orthodox Christianity, and I will confess that as one who believes God surrounds every person at every second, I do not know how to make sense of God’s hiddenness to so many. As one who believes the scriptures are inspired, I have no idea why God desires the systematic execution of Amalekite nine year olds (1 Sam 15). As one who believes Jesus taught non-violence, I have no idea how to respond civilly to the beheadings we have seen in recent years. As one who believes in the unity of the church, I have no idea how to respond to those “preaching a different Jesus.”
But sometimes having the ability to speak such questions honestly and without condemnation from others is what I need for my own sanctification. And any church that wants to embrace the variegated Body of Christ—which God seems to hold with high value—ought to create spaces for such wrestling as a matter of first importance.
Will foolish thinking about God and the ethical life potentially kill a human soul? Yes, they will. Are wise perspectives on doctrine, morality and truth health-promoting? Yes, of course. But disunifying with our adelphos over their honest attempts to internalize truth and wrestle with God’s priorities can be far more damaging.
It’s time to elevate mature dialogue in a culture whose rhetoric has been poisoned by cable news. When wrestling through questions with those who love me and disagree, I find their gracious treatment of me to be a space where I encounter God. Such encounters(example) have been more valuable than any “truth” I wished to defend or uncover. What a loss for those who prefer handing over their inquisitive kin to the Internet firing squad!
Should all moral and theological opinions—about hell, the role of the Spirit, warfare, politics, human sexuality, how the atonement works, the role of money in the good life, or who is welcome at the table—be acceptable in the church? How do we create community without a shared orthopraxy and clear interpretation of orthodox creeds?
These will be central questions for many of us in the decades to come. But how we talk about such issues matters. I find myself often asking how we can call ourselves kin when we disagree fiercely about so much? And there is one place I find hope. Our debates provide brilliant opportunities for us to boldly care even for those brothers and sisters we disagree with most—and perhaps God thinks such family-affirming love is more important than having a body of perfect philosophical agreement.
JEFF COOK lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes(Zondervan 2008) and the recently re-released Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell (Subversive 2015). He pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him at www.everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.