What do we as Christians do when we don’t see eye to eye with one another on theological issues? This is a challenging question with which Christians everywhere have wrestled for nearly 2,000 years.
What follows lays some groundwork for a properly Christian approach to doctrinal dispute.
A framework of doctrinal priority
Not all doctrines are created equal. Most Christians recognize this. Some are vital to Christian faith, whereas others can be the subject of polite disagreement. One popular way to sort through these levels of doctrinal importance is to establish a three-tiered framework.
Primary issues are those doctrines essential to Christianity. These include the Trinity, the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, salvation being the undeserved and unearned gift of God, biblical authority and others. Christians cannot disagree on these. Disagreement here marks the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.
Secondary issues are areas where Christians may disagree lovingly, but such disagreement will pose some barriers to fellowship and cooperation. These include women in ministry, infant baptism, church governance, among others. This might be called the realm of denominational distinctives.
Tertiary issues allow for a wide diversity of opinion and disagreement. Christians who attend and perhaps even lead the same local church together can respectfully disagree here. These issues include the age of the earth, the nature of the millennium in Revelation, etc.
Without a clear framework like this in place, navigating theological disagreement in a constructive and Christlike manner is nearly impossible.
Although it might make some modern American Christians uncomfortable, there are situations when it is both necessary and right to condemn heresy openly and refuse fellowship with those who teach it (Galatians 1:8; 2 John 1:7-11). Those who lead others astray face God’s condemnation (2 Peter 3:16; Matthew 7:15-20).
There are many Christians today––especially in the West––who need to hear this. There are nonnegotiable theological boundaries to authentic Christian faith, and we cannot just “agree to disagree” on everything. But many Christians––myself included––have encountered others who have the opposite problem.
There are some Christians who make virtually everything a primary issue. Disagree about women in ministry? You’re not just wrong; you’re a dangerous false teacher. Disagree about the age of the earth? There’s a special spot in hell just for you.
The issues I’ve mentioned above are relatively important. They are worth discussion and debate. Unfortunately, skewed priorities and hateful rhetoric often undermine what otherwise would be fruitful dialogue. This is problematic especially in congregational and denominational contexts, where unity and relationships can be damaged severely.
A way forward
“The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26, NASB).
We should note here that Paul isn’t simply talking about disagreements over secondary or tertiary issues; there clearly are some primary issues in view. Some assume our immediate response to false teaching should be scorched-earth. We should promptly and fiercely condemn any heresy we encounter. But that’s not what Paul says.
Paul advocates an approach that starts with calm, gentle correction. We sit down, Bible in hand, with those who adhere to false doctrines and teach them the truth. Bad theology is a problem, but it only becomes damnable when those holding it persistently refuse to change.
If Paul advocates this approach on primary issues, what does that mean for secondary and tertiary issues? If condemnation and excommunication are a last resort only for dealing with disagreement on essential doctrines, how much more gracious should we be in addressing doctrines that are not essential?
I’m a Baptist in Texas. If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance you are, too. We don’t need a reminder about how doctrinal disagreement can go horrifically wrong. Some Christians––including those outside Texas––even now are enduring such horrible conflict.
Something making this especially difficult is the reality that doctrinal disputes rarely are just about doctrine. Power and money usually are at play, even if we don’t want to admit it. There are egos and careers at risk, as well. Behind-the-scenes personal problems also can play a role.
Over the past several years, another factor also has come into play––social media. I’ve become convinced that social media rarely can serve as a platform for critical and constructive dialogue about anything, let alone Christian theology. There may be exceptions, but they are rare.
I think face-to-face conversations and confrontations are the ideal. That’s the primary way God designed us to communicate, so that’s the best way for us to address our theological differences.
But this approach requires something more from us than does social media, gossip or blogging. It requires patience and a willingness to let others have their turn to speak. It requires vulnerability; you can’t hide behind a screen.
If we want our disagreements to bear fruit instead of thorns, we must take this approach. Our current cultural climate of fragmentation and hostility bears witness to what happens when we don’t.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.