My wife and I were sitting in a local coffee shop this week getting some work done. I noticed a particularly boisterous man talking to what appeared to be a friend at a nearby table. I couldn’t hear everything, but I regularly heard him drop words like “evangelism” and “ministry.” Working in an evangelistic ministry, my curiosity was piqued.
Soon, he noticed my hat. My hat had my alma mater’s logo on it. His son is playing football there this year. So, a conversation started. My wife and I shared our experiences there. I told the man that my wife and I met at a Bible study there and he put his hands together as if praying for the same for his son. He asked where we attended church in the area. As we shared some of our experience of finding a local church, we mentioned to him where we had been attending recently.
He blew a raspberry. He was completely dismissive of the ministry of the church.
A little flabbergasted, I mentioned that we had not completely settled on it but it had been a good experience so far then changed the subject.
Throughout the day my interaction with the man troubled me. It took me several hours to fully process why.
He’s an archetype of a type of theological superiority that eliminates charity for and appreciation of a church or teacher with whom one does not agree on a majority of subjects. It’s a type of Christianity that diminishes the goodness of diversity, overlooks vast amounts of the history of the church and theology in favor of relatively recent understandings of faith, and elevates the bar of what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus way beyond the Bible’s actual, literal descriptions of what it means to have faith in Jesus.
Regardless of our theological tradition, Christians hold a variety of opinions on matters of faith and practice. A Southern Baptist thinks one way about the mode of baptism while Methodists think another. Anglicans have a particular set of things in mind when they think about structuring a worship service that is completely different than your common Assembly of God worship service.
It’s perfectly ok to have a preference on matters of practice or even to think you are right on a doctrinal matter. When we were looking for churches after we moved last year we started with a list of things we knew we were not and did not believe. That allowed us to whittle down the potential list quite significantly.
Differences become problematic when we elevate secondary, tertiary, or even further down the list to foundational truths. I believe the mode of baptism to be important. But if you were baptized in a manner other than the one I believe the Bible prescribes it does not mean that your baptism is necessarily invalid. It especially doesn’t mean that your church is dangerous, invalid, or qualitatively worse than mine.
What matters is the core of the Gospel message and what is proclaimed as our response to it.
Take This Literally
Thankfully, the new Testament doesn’t leave us guessing at how to answer the question of what our core message is or what our response ought to be.
1 Corinthians 15:8 outlines 4 central truths about the Gospel. Paul even started this section of his letter by writing, “I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, and on which you take your stand.” (1 Cor 15:1). Sounds important!
- Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (v. 3)
- He really died. Buried and everything (v. 4)
- He was resurrected (v. 4)
- He was seen by a bunch of people (v. 5-8)
The content of the Gospel message is all about Jesus’ death and resurrection. A “plain, literal” reading of this passage spells out that the a true Gospel message isn’t about anything other than Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, the Gospel informs our understanding of a whole host of other things. But those other things do not equal the Gospel. They flow from it.
What do we do with that message? The New Testament is replete with examples, but Acts 2 and Romans 10:9-10 give us pretty thorough models of our response. After telling the crowd that witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit about how Jesus came, was crucified for their sins and then resurrected (see above), Paul declared to those gathered that they should “Repent and be baptized…” (Acts 2:38).
Paul opened Romans 10 expressing his desire that his fellow Israelites would be saved. What does it mean to come to be saved? Verses 9-10 outline it: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Rom 10:9-10).
If you’re keeping score at home, the core of Christianity’s message, according to a “plain, literal” reading of the New Testament is:
- All about Jesus: the reality of his atoning death (but not necessarily how his death atones) and his literal, physical resurrection.
- Our response: repent, believe, confess, be baptized (though we can argue that one can be saved without being baptized, but after being saved one ought to be baptized. Think the thief on the cross.)
Being Charitable With Those With Whom We Disagree
Outside of those core truths is a lot of room. That room makes some people uncomfortable. In my campus ministry context one of the discussion points that often comes up with students is a lamenting of the fact that there are so many different denominations and such lack of unanimity on so many doctrinal points.
I like to flip that point on its head. I share that I’m glad there are so many. Students are often flabbergasted. Why in the world would I be glad that there was so much seeming division within the church?
In turn, I point out that disagreement doesn’t have to equal division. I can disagree with an individual on any number of things and still consider them to be a friend. My wife and I don’t always agree and we seem to have made things work for a while!
I also highlight how our understandings change over time. How a truly infinite, all-knowing, all-wise God is unlikely to fit neatly into any of our boxes, no matter how thoroughly constructed. I point out that things that I care about and how I understand Scripture are shaped by my experiences. That doesn’t mean that I elevate experience over Scripture. But it is difficult for me to understand propositions for which I have no frame of reference. I might be (and have been!) completely blind to some! What else might I be missing?
I conclude by noting that all these different churches with all these different understandings of secondary, tertiary, etc. doctrines and with varieties of methodologies are good because it allows the Church to reach an incredibly diverse array of people across history, geography, and time.
I may meet a Christian with whom I disagree on 90% of the finer points of doctrine. If we’re actually friends, I’ll probably rib them about how wrong I think they are. But I’ll never question the authenticity of their faith or the validity of their church as long as Jesus is at the center of the message and repentance and faith in Him are proclaimed as our response.
We need one another to accomplish the work that the Lord has given us. Loving people with whom we disagree is a tremendous testimony to the validity and power of our faith to those who do not believe.
After all, it is not by the superiority of our doctrine that people will know we belong to Jesus. It’s by our love.