When engaging with other Christians, when should doctrine divide, and when should unity prevail? This is a question that each of us must grapple with, and settle on an answer, otherwise, we could find ourselves at either end of a scale. Either too divisive and condemnatory of our brothers and sisters, or too welcoming of harmful or shallow theology. There is a safe middle ground, but to stand there requires some discernment.
A high view of God’s word
It’s important that the foundation of our theology is that Scripture is infallible and inspired by God. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (verse 16). Any theological viewpoint which downplays the authority or the legitimacy of scripture is to be rejected. An example of one such viewpoint is the virgin birth. Although the virgin birth isn’t central to the gospel message, Scripture is very clear that Mary was a virgin and that she bore the Messiah by the Spirit’s working (Luke 1: 31-35). This is something that is explicitly stated in each of the gospel accounts. Therefore, if we are to be faithful to scripture we should not entertain any viewpoints which deny or downplay its legitimacy.
That’s just one example, but I hope you see the point being made. Even though someone’s view may not explicitly deny the gospel message, ask yourself if it respects scripture as completely true and accurate.
Where we can agree to disagree
There are many areas in our theology where we can differ from one another, and still lovingly embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. These are often referred to as secondary or tertiary issues. For example, infant or adult baptism? Premillennialism or amillennialism? Young earth or old earth? Christians often passionately disagree with each other and debate about these topics, but all of these viewpoints can be reached by sincerely studying scripture, with every intention of being faithful to it. You will find good arguments to support all of these positions, and none of them compromises the gospel message.
Gavin Ortlund in his book in this topic says the following:
“Within the body of Christ, we need each other – and often we especially need those Christians who lean in different directions than we do.” (Finding The Right Hills To Die On, Page 36)
I have learned a lot of valuable things from Christians I’ve disagreed and debated with, it’s healthy to have these discussions and learn from others in the body of Christ. For example, it was through a secondary doctrinal disagreement with another believer that I became convinced of reformed theology. Looking back I can see how God used that situation to teach and shape me.
So while we can accept and embrace secondary issues, in contrast we must put our foot down when it comes to primary issues. Primary issues are those doctrines which are necessary for a right understanding of God’s character and ultimately the gospel message. In 1 Timothy 6, Paul warns the reader to avoid a false teacher who “teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (verse 3) This shows us that there is absolutely no room for doctrine which distorts the words of Jesus.
Defend the Gospel
What we must seek to defend at all costs is the gospel message. The Apostle Paul stresses the importance of this in his letter to the Galatian Christians. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” – Galatians 1:8-9
Notice how strong Paul’s language is here, he calls for anyone preaching a false gospel to be “accursed” – this highlights the seriousness of the offence. We must take this very seriously.
A different message is becoming more and more prevalent around us and being labelled as “Christian”, one of prosperity and based on merit. The ultimate hill that all of us should be prepared to die on, is that we are made righteous by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It is our responsibility as Christians to defend this message, and not only to defend it but to passionately proclaim it.
I pray that we would grow in wisdom to discern, and courage to die on, the hills that we ought to.
For more on this topic, listen to the latest episode of The Pulse Podcast