As my new book begins to be circulated I can already hear echoes of what has become a common evangelical refrain. “We should stop all of these petty doctrinal debates and just focus on Jesus”. Or, “Christ would have us united and these sort of discussions are divisive.” Statements like these have never made much sense to me. I fully understand and even appreciate the spirit of such comments but in opposition to what they claim, they are in no way helpful to the cause of Christ. Sure, some debate can be distracting or even ungodly in the way it is carried on, but to draw a line somewhere and say, “this is where we will cease refining our understanding of Scripture” seems quite counter-productive.
To accompany the release of the book I started a website, CovenantalDivide.com. You can visit the site or Facebook page to learn more about why it is so named but for now let me just acknowledge the use of the word “divide” in the site name. With a book on Baptism, the Covenantal Divide website, and an opening blog about leaving my church of over 30 years – doesn’t all of this seem very divisive? This question I believe deserves a response. Perhaps the insights will be helpful beyond the specific topic at hand.
First of all, Christ would have us united. “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 all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6) The current disunity within the church is a result of our finite, imperfect, and sinful state as Christians. We should pursue unity.
But until the time at which the church worships in complete creedal unity, God is getting on with his plan in history despite our sin. Think about it. Each person, each church and even each denomination has their own strengths and weaknesses. God uses these strengths to work out his purpose in history. In addition, over time, negative consequences resulting from the weaknesses can be used to redirect and refine the church at large. In all of this there are positions taken and the engagement of healthy debate. An extended quote will be helpful here:
“The Bible is a complex book. It baffles the best and the brightest. Its message of salvation is clear enough for children to grasp, Jesus said repeatedly, but it is also sufficiently complex as to divide the greatest minds in the history of the Church.
The progress of the creeds…has also come at the expense of unity…In fact, the creeds have always come as a means of exclusion as well as inclusion. The writers have, in effect, drawn lines in the dirt and have announced: ‘Step across that line and you’re out of the game.’ Then the others draw their lines in the dirt and say the same thing. Millions upon millions of people have stepped across each other’s lines for about 2,000 years. If we were to take each other’s excommunications seriously, all of us are out of the game, and always have been.
Still and all, the lines in the dirt harden. Unlike lines in the dirt, these are more like lines in fresh cement. They get harder over time. No one ever goes back to erase them. They just move onto new ground and draw more lines in their own fresh cement. This is progress. It is high-priced progress, but it is progress. We might call it precision through division.”1
The church, made up of fallible and finite humans is able to become more precise in their understanding and application of Scripture not only in the midst of disagreement, but in part because of the very presence of it. Yet, in the midst of the “productive division” we can all be united covenantally through fellowship at the Lord’s table. Over and against just being a symbol of unity within the church, communion allows for the reality of this unity in history amidst the doctrinal division.
So understanding God’s ultimate intention of complete unity within the church and some of the ways in which he intends to bring it about in history, let’s get back to this idea of debate. In the introduction of Baptism is Not Enough I address how someone looking in from the outside of a debate benefits from the discussion. “It helps them evaluate and find holes in any given argument. In short, it aids in decision making, understanding, refining and solidifying ideas, and, ultimately, in gaining direction that manifests itself in the way they conduct themselves throughout life. In this way healthy debate becomes essential to progress in thinking and therefore everything else.”
There is no true progress or refinement in the absence of healthy debate. So why do we have such a negative view of it in our modern evangelical culture? Well, we have already identified one reason – we are out of touch with the function of debate. But there is another reason. We are just not good at it. From a practical standpoint, most of us were educated in public schools where the study of logic never entered the picture. We don’t construct good arguments and we are not skilled at finding holes in the arguments of others. From a functional standpoint this creates incredible inefficiency in our discussion (read “slow progress”).
We also need to understand something else very important. When we debate, we bring more than our ideas to the discussion. We bring our existing presuppositions as well as our vested interests. What do I mean by “vested interests”? Think about it. If I have not only espoused an idea but have proclaimed it and maybe even formally taught it for many years, I bring that experience to the table. Do you think that influences my commitment to the idea? From what we know about human nature would you say that it would be difficult for me to acknowledge that I have not only possessed an errant idea but have lived my life in terms of it for many years? Of course it would.
But, here is the good news. This increased investment results in additional passion and drive on the part of said person in the debate. They come to the table defending more than their ideas. With many, they perceive they are involved in a defense of themselves. Whereas this is not ideal for the biased individuals, it is good for the refinement of the ideas. Passionate, committed people will take the time to construct more formidable arguments. This in turn requires their opponent to do the same. In the end, the best, and in the case of the present discussion, the most scriptural ideas will win a majority of the time. This is progress.
Those that are already committed to a position rarely change their stance. This is understandable. Some firmly set in their ideas do change but these people are few. The older we get the less likely we are to change our ideological commitments. Part of this is by design. We couldn’t handle the rapid and drastic change associated with influential men and women constantly changing their positions anyway. It has a function of regulating the pace of change and holding society together at the seams.
Large doctrinal shifts are taxing. I can attest to such. Debate is for the fence sitters or those who have not really engaged the discussion yet or have experienced a shift in their presuppositions for whatever reason.
We must strive for the unity that God intends for the Church. We should pursue peace. We should edify one another. While calling for these things, we need not set up a false dichotomy by saying we should avoid entering into constructive, intermural debate. What we are talking about is a Lordship issue. We need to know more how our Lord intends for us to submit to and serve him. He has provided this instruction in scripture. We can’t discover this on our own. Discussion and debate on baptism and covenant may be uncomfortable for some but the implications for misunderstanding them are too far-reaching for us not to continue to engage. As for all of this being “divisive”, let’s take that off the table in light of the above and move on to beneficial discussion.
- Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for International(↩)