Wednesday, May 25, 2011


We live in an age of Christian doctrinal diversity.  Whether you think that’s good, bad, or somewhere in between, it’s fact.  Even within the various Christian tribes (called denominations), there’s a tremendous diversity of belief: infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, free will vs. determinism, sacraments vs. ordinances, substitutionary atonement vs. christus victor atonement, grace vs. works, whatever vs. whatever.

It’s the “vs.” that gets me. 

For too long doctrinal debates have not really been debates at all, they’ve been battles pitting one follower of Christ versus another, one group of Christians opposed to some other group that believed differently.  And just as history is written by the winners (which is why you’ve never seen a “History of the United States” written by a Cherokee), so also is theology written by the winners, with the losers of these battles being relegated to the backwaters of Christian theology—or, worse, being declared heretics and no longer invited to sit at the Christian supper table.

These doctrinal battles are anachronistic; they belong to a different time, a different context, but with few exceptions have no place in modern Christianity. 

In the earliest days of Christianity these battles were perhaps worth fighting.  Christian beliefs weren’t at all settled, nor was the church, which at various times faced different levels of persecution, from mere misunderstanding to prejudice and bigotry all the way to physical violence and death.  In such a precarious state, diversity of belief, especially over matters that are still regarded as central to the faith, such as the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Trinity, was not a strength but represented a real and present danger to the existence of the church.  The church hasn’t lived in such a context in hundreds of years, however, maybe in more than a thousand years, but fighting—literally fighting over matters of doctrine continues.  The Protestant Reformation, even while it addressed some needed changes in the church, left us a legacy in which many Christians feel that they must fight to preserve and protect the faith.  The battles—and they were literally battles in which the losers lost their lives—that the various Christian sects fought against each other, really weren’t about protecting “The Faith” as much as they were about protecting that group’s version of the faith.  Lurking behind many of the battles in fact were other matters having little to do with doctrine.  The issue of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, for instance, is an interesting issue to discuss, and I have friends who are in traditions that practice infant baptism, but I wouldn’t kill any of them over it, and I’m not aware that any of them have proposed my demise because I practice believer’s baptism.  Yet the early 17th Century English separatist Thomas Helwys died in an English prison because of his belief in and practice of believer’s baptism.  What was the big deal?  Well, in a society in which there was no separation of church and state, and in which the religion of the monarchy was that of Christianity, a person wasn’t just baptized into the church, they were also baptized into the state.  Baptism granted citizenship, and so to reject that baptism was treasonous.   When John Smyth, who along with Helwys is considered to be our Baptist founder, came to believe in believer’s baptism, he obviously couldn’t get a pastor to re-baptize him so he had to baptize himself, rejecting therefore the church- and state-approved priesthood.  That’ll get you in trouble any day.

But we don’t live in such a time, and even if believer’s baptism goes back to the earliest days of the church, infant baptism goes back at least to the second century and is well-established in Christianity.  It ain’t going away, so we might as well accept that there are perfectly good Christians who were baptized as infants and don’t see the need, biblical or otherwise, of getting re-baptized.  Well, OK, this is how we do it, but I’m not going to fight you over it.  It’s a good discussion, but no one should go to prison over it. 

But I know Christians that will fight you over Substitutionary Atonement, or over the nature of the biblical inspiration, or premillenialism.  And I mean fight you, and consider you less of a Christian for not holding these doctrines—or not a Christian at all.

Even though it is read at almost every Christian wedding, the circumstances that led Paul to write 1 Corinthians 13 had nothing to do with marriage.  It was about Christian belief and practice.  The church at Corinth was fighting, Christian vs. Christian.  So Paul has to remind them that at the center of the Christian faith is love, and that anything that isn’t done out of love and with love is not Christian.  The only real Christian heresy is unlove.  You can believe all the correct doctrines, but if you don’t have love, you’re a heretic.  You can perform amazing  miracles in Jesus’ name, but without love it’s heresy i.e. it is outside the faith!

In John 13:34-35 Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This is the core of the Gospel, and if you get this, regardless of the rest of your doctrine, you get the Gospel.  And if you don’t get this, I don’t care how orthodox you are in the rest of your beliefs, you just don’t get It.

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