Scholarship and Christian Charity

Yesterday I was reminded again by a good brother of how important it is to speak with love and humility towards those with whom we disagree. This has me thinking today about Christians and scholarly engagement with one another’s differing theological stances. Of course, I’m also reminded of this because of the continuing debate about Calvinism within my own denomination. The following is not really an argument for anything or a set position on what it means to have charity in Christian scholarship, just a few thoughts about the subject.

First, as I think about this issue, I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the church, the body of Christ, is unified in Christ. When we engage other brothers and sisters on matters in which we disagree, our first thought ought not to be how I can win the argument but how I can love and be unified with my co-heir in Christ. I’ve encountered the statement elsewhere that “unity is accomplished through the truth,” and while I understand this on one level – the church MUST guard against false teaching – I do not in many cases think this is the best approach. On second and third level issues, where the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” is not at stake, such as Calvinism, I doubt that the way to unity is continued argument until one side capitulates. When we engage fellow believers on these types of issues we certainly ought to do so with conviction, but shouldn’t that also be coupled with a strong dose of humility? I know that I am not right about everything, nor will I ever be, and so the idea that I can only be united in fellowship or missional cooperation with my brother if he “comes to the truth” (i.e. agrees with me) about a certain matter seems to me to be the exact opposite of humble. The idea that everything is a first order issue – that if you don’t agree with me then we are of a different faith altogether – seems to me to fall under this category.

Second, I have heard writers, speakers, theologians, and preachers mention Luther (or some other such person) and his tone towards those with which he disagreed as evidence that a certain invective tone is permissible in theological argumentation. Again, this seems wrong headed to me for a few reasons. No one theologian is ever correct about everything, and this includes the tone they use. I’m not so sure that Luther, giant as he is, ought to be commended for the vindictive way in which he speaks of his opponents at times. Further, our culture is 500 years separated from his, and while I abhor some of the ways in which “political correctness” has permeated our speech, we do not swim in the exact same linguistic, cultural, or emotional waters as the Reformers. Then there’s the fact that none of us is Luther, or any of the Reformers for that matter.

Finally, I also have noticed an increasing amount of people, whether Baptist or Anglican or Methodist, Calvinist or Arminian, egalitarian or complementarian, liberal or conservative, who seem to be waiting for someone, usually a “celebrity” pastor or theologian, to say something upon which they can pounce. Why do we do this? Part of the answer, I think, is that controversy is what draws people to books, blogs, websites, tv shows, and even churches and pastors. And so, in our American sub-conscious desire to rise up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and get rich and famous, we stir the pot. We nitpick at each other.

This all bothers me. And it bothers me that I am so easily ensnared in it. I do all of this and more, and so I am not in any way trying to pull out anyone else’s speck while ignoring my plank. But I hope that we, as the body of Christ, bought by his blood and raised to new life by his Spirit, can treat each other with more Christian charity and humility than I have seen of late.

Ephesians 4 and the SBC

Yesterday in Sunday school I walked with my class through Ephesians 4, which includes the following from Paul:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

In our study of Ephesians we’ve talked about Paul’s emphasis on the unity of the body and specifically about the racial unity of the church. Paul is keen on showing how Gentiles have been grafted into the people of God and urges his readers to live as “one new man” in Christ (2:15). In this section we talked a bit about racial unity, but we also talked about what it means to be unified around God (one Spirit…one Lord…one God and Father of us all) and the gospel (one body…one hope…one faith, one baptism). Even though I didn’t use the language of “theological triage,” I think it’s a helpful way to think about cooperation among Christians and we talked about how a) all Christians around the globe are part of Christ’s one body but that b) denominations exist because we understand certain things differently, especially baptism and church polity, and that c) local congregations and even denominations should not let “tertiary” doctrines or practices divide us.

Therefore it was all the more disturbing, after having studied this passage, to learn of some different events in the last two weeks in churches around the SBC.

First, a friend of mine, who is not white, is being forced out of his church because of his skin color. Obviously, this is in direct contradiction to Paul’s point in Ephesians. This is actually the most disturbing one for me, but I don’t know many of the details and don’t want to share them anyway for his privacy’s sake so I’ll just leave it at that.

Second, another friend, one of my best friends, is being forced out of his church because of his theological stance on a certain issue (I’m sure it won’t take long for you to figure out what that stance is…but I’ll just leave it at that for now). This stance has never in the history of the Church been considered heretical or heterodox, and has strong roots in the history of the SBC. The situation is all the more disturbing because of how it has happened. Although I can’t share all the details, the relevant points are these:

  • My friend never taught, preached on, or publicly or privately alluded to or mentioned his convictions on this issue;
  • One church leader guessed at my friend’s convictions after a teaching series in which my friend used a prominent, non-SBC pastor’s book as a guide (the book had nothing to do with the issue at hand);
  • The church leader had read pejorative articles about this famous pastor in Baptist newspapers, and especially about this pastor’s particular beliefs on this issue;
  • This one leader forced the conflict after a long time of discussion on the issue with my friend. The church leadership decided that it just isn’t what the church believed, even though by their own admission they had never studied it.

Again, my friend was not forced out because he taught something contrary to Scripture, or to Baptist distinctives, or even because he taught anything at all on the issue. He was forced out for merely holding a particular theological stance on one particular issue, a theological stance that is well-grounded in biblical theology and the SBC’s history.

Third, an SBC pastor recently posted a letter on his church website in which he calls for designated giving around SBTS and SEBTS because of their “Calvinistic agenda.” First, I find it humorous that anyone would accuse SEBTS of having a Calvinistic agenda (I can’t speak for SBTS since I’ve never been there, but I seriously doubt their goal is to “make an ‘army’ of Calvinists,” which is what the pastor argues in the article). Second, here we have again dividing lines being drawn where they ought not to be drawn. Perhaps even more disturbing is another article by the same pastor, which argues against multiculturalism in the US. Again, dividing lines are being drawn in places where they shouldn’t be according to Scripture.

I’m writing this as a call to my SBC brothers and sisters: fight for unity. We are called to be unified as a body, and as a denomination when we divide over race and tertiary doctrinal issues, we are not testifying to Christ. We are testifying to our own sinful selfishness and divisiveness. Particularly, let’s fight for unity in two ways:

  • Fight for racial unity. We are clearly not past racism in some of our churches, and that is beyond abhorrent.
  • Fight for doctrinal unity, not on everything but especially on the “main” things, i.e. God and the gospel. Fight for doctrinal unity on Baptist distinctives (i.e. believer’s baptism, congregational polity, etc.). But don’t divide over tertiary issues. As has been stated numerous times by SBC leaders who are calling for unity, the BF&M 2000 is a big enough tent under which many diverse groups of Southern Baptists can unite for the sake of the gospel being proclaimed in all nations.
  • Obviously we can fight for this by proactively promoting and teaching the unity of the body to our people. But we can also fight for it through loving confrontation of those who are obviously not for unity but division (cf. Titus 3:9-11).

Goheen on Ecclesiology

I’m currently reading Michael Goheen’s new book, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story, for review. In the book Goheen attempts to lay out a biblical-theological foundation for the church’s mission. In chapter one, he notes how the church as deviated from that mission both in the story within which she places herself and in the images she chooses to use to convey her identity. It’s a great analysis, but one other important point Goheen made toward the beginning of the chapter struck me as well. He notes that historically when theologians talk about or study the doctrine of ecclesiology, they have

often occupied themselves with matters such as church order, sacraments, ministry and discipline. These concerns are important. But ecclesiology is first about identity and self-understanding, and only after these are established should the church consider what it is to do and how it is to organize itself to work out that calling (6).

In other words, according to Goheen our ecclesiology ought to be primarily concerned with the church’s ontology, and only when that is established should we move on to study polity and praxis. I think he’s exactly right on this point. As Oliver O’Donovan has continually stressed, our is-ness ought to define our ought-ness, or who we are defines what we do.

And yet, when I look through my local Christian bookstore or listen to conference messages or sermons about the church or peruse the ecclesiology section at the library, it seems to me that this is exactly what we haven’t done as theologians. Our books and messages and sermons seem to me to mostly be concerned with polity and praxis and not with ontology.


(NOTE: I am of course not arguing that polity and praxis are unimportant; they are vitally important. But they have a foundation that must be laid before any substantial work in the study of them can be done, and that foundation is the ontological makeup of the church.)