Questions of doctrine and lifestyle can overwhelm sincere Christians. When good men with great minds arrive at very different conclusions, it is hard to know what to believe. In any serious Christian bookstore, one can find titles that begin “4 Perspectives on…” or “5 Views on…” written by pastors with PhDs. How is the average person supposed to sort through these conflicting ideas?
Some have thrown up their hands in exasperation, concluding that Christendom is too divided to stand. Others have settled for a reductionistic faith, insisting that we have made things unnecessarily complicated when all that matters is whether we love Jesus. Still others live in a fog of confusion, convinced that they’ll just never know. And a few decide to ignore other views and ride their convictions with dogmatic fervor. What is a Christian to do?
Celebrate the Clarity of Scripture in Essential Matters
Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church insisted that only the clergy could understand and interpret the Bible. The Reformers reclaimed the “perspicuity” or “clarity” of Scripture, and worked to place a Bible in the hands of every plough boy in England. They believed that it was the right of every Christian to search the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11). After all, the Israelites were to talk with their children about the Scriptures from morning to night (Deut. 6:6-9). The Bible is clear enough in matters of salvation for even a young boy or girl to understand and be saved.
While sharp disagreements may exist within the true church, we are united in matters where Scripture is unambiguous. Consider the Apostle’s Creed, which has been affirmed by over a billion Christians across the centuries. The explicit teachings (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus) as well as the implicit ones (e.g. the Trinity) set Christianity apart from every other belief system in the world. We must be careful not to spend so much time on our differences that we forget the unifying matters of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Don’t Settle for Soundbite Answers
On the other hand, the Bible says something about the things we disagree on. We do not honor God or his word by ignoring less clear teachings. The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century promoted unity around the essentials, but sidelined important matters to avoid controversy.
If the last word on every matter is that we “agree to disagree,” we stop talking about important things, and everyone is worse off.
In Peter’s second epistle, he acknowledged that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Christians should take comfort in this acknowledgement by the great Apostle. But Peter’s main point is that false teachers manipulate these less clear teachings to advance a destructive agenda. This is all the more reason for faithful Christians to talk about them. The differing perspectives of faithful Christians may seem detrimental; rather, they represent an acceptable range of orthodox interpretations to the exclusion of those who would come along and distort the text until it is unrecognizable.
False teachings always simplify complex Biblical mysteries. God’s revealed truths are sometimes above (although never contrary to) reason, and must be acknowledged to be deep as God is deep. We shouldn’t expect a deep God to inspire a book with only simple, straightforward truths. When we approach the Trinity, for example, which is about God’s deepest self, it is juvenile to expect a Tweet-length explanation. When we say, “I wish God had spelled it all out” or “I wish God had made it easier to understand,” we do not know what we ask. Oversimplification obscures the complex beauty and peculiar glory of divine realities. We should not reduce the Christian faith to a few soundbite doctrines.
Embrace the Journey
The Bible was written for lifelong study and exploration. God uses our questions, discussion, and even frustration to help us grow. Although it may be painful, the process of wrestling with the truth is more sanctifying than the passive acceptance of simplistic solutions. Satisfying answers are out there, if only we will invest the necessary time, patience, and prayerful study.
When we dive deep into the historical perspectives on various Christian teachings and lifestyle standards, we can begin to appreciate the conversation more than we dread the conflict. The various positions in Christendom are points in a circle of discussion that has been going on for centuries. Perspectives are refined or left behind as they face loving scrutiny by faithful brothers. Every one of us needs the rest of the body to look over his or her shoulder and ask, “Do you really think that is what the text says?”
The various positions in Christendom are points in a circle of discussion that has been going on for centuries.
As we learn and grow, we should expect to find answers and take positions. To never take a position on anything that is controversial is not humble or charitable; it is weak and crippling to the body. If the last word on every matter is that we “agree to disagree,” we stop talking about important things, and everyone is worse off. But we must also be quick to admit that we do not have everything figured out. Worldly wisdom pressures us to take a quick and firm stand on matters about which we are undecided. It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” We are all on a journey, and that’s okay.