January 5, 2020

How do we deal with Christians who believe differently than we do?

It’s not hard to find them…even in our own churches. There are so many ways in which Christians divide from one another. On one side, there are evangelical Christians, on another, mainline Protestants like ourselves, then Roman Catholics, Orthodox believers, and so on. But the divisions don’t stop there. While the outside world views evangelical Christians as one big lump, it’s not too surprising that when you look closer, there are plenty of divisions among evangelicals. Why? Because when you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell, and you believe that your destiny is determined by your faith, it’s pretty important to get your faith right.

In the book Routes and Radishes, Mark Russell writes:

“I grew up complementarian, but have slowly become more egalitarian as I grow older. I used to be Arminian but have moved away from that toward Calvinism. I was once premillennial, but now I lean more towards amillennialism. And I’ve always been a believer’s Baptist. So, after examining Scripture, I have settled on being an egalitarian Calvinist amillenial credobaptist. However, even if I meet a complementarian Arminian premillennial praedobaptist, I will call them an Evangelical if they agree on the essentials…”

What a mouthful! One wonders what Jesus, the disciples, or Paul would have replied to the question: are you a complementarian Arminian premillennial praedobaptist?

The fact is, Christians can fight for ages about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and for most controversies, you can find Scripture that supports either position. But when we allow a theological controversy to become more important than the Gospel itself, we are not only committing a rare but insidious idolatry—idolatry of doctrine—we are doing the devil’s work for him, quite frankly, by separating the church and distracting us from our mission. Listen to what Paul says:

Romans 14:1-3 NIV Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.

The controversy in Paul’s time probably revolved around whether Christians should keep kosher. Perhaps surprisingly, the “strong” Christians, according to Paul, are those who don’t keep kosher. The “weak” believers are those who do. Paul evidently believes himself that Christ’s sacrifice has eliminated the need to keep the ceremonial Mosaic law, and this includes the dietary restrictions of Leviticus. However, Paul thinks this is a matter on which believers can differ, and need to respect one another. In the Calvinist tradition, we actually have a term for matters of doctrine on which Christians can differ:

“Adiaphora”—matters indifferent—Beliefs and practices upon which committed Christians may differ, each having worthy reasons.

I am different from a lot of Christians in that I believe we should categorize a lot of things as adiaphora and focus on Christ. I long for a church in which Christians who disagree can worship side-by-side, really hear one another, recognizing that none of us, not one, has a full grasp of the truth. We have the Scriptures and the Spirit, but none of us is God, and so even our best interpretation, will, I believe, fall short of understanding the full heights and depths and beauty of the Holy One.

What’s interesting in Romans 14 is that Paul calls the believer “weak” who follows more rules, not less ones. Take heed, those of you who are more open-minded Christians: it’s to the more open-minded Christians of his own time that Paul primarily preaches. He calls us to use self-control and refrain from judgment and condemnation of others. 

So the next time you want to judge another believer because he believes whisky is the devil and you don’t, or because he believes in a literal six-day creation and you don’t, or because she thinks it’s a sin to throw a recyclable container in the trash and you don’t—before you judge remember, it is before her God that she stands and falls. 

Romans 14:3 “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.”

How can we be united with other believers different from ourselves? I suggest we adopt the attitude of the magi. 

Remember, the word magioi in the Bible comes from the same root as our word magician. It’s safe to assume that these wise men were not Jewish. They may not have known the Scriptures. They may even have been followers of other gods. But in the end, they saw the light, and it led them to Christ. That’s the attitude Paul calls us to have toward one another; humble seekers of light, humble seekers of Christ, who realize there is so much we do not yet know, yet want to find with all our hearts.

I heard a story that I’ve printed in your bulletin: In 1962, a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School asked Karl Barth, the renowned German theologian who had written 49 books, including a five-volume Systematic Theology, if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth allegedly said something like “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

As I investigated whether this story were really true, I came across a blog entitled, fittingly, “my evangelical Arminian theological musings,” by a guy named Roger Olson who has identified three eye witnesses and three separate times Barth gave this quote during a lecture tour in the States: at Union Seminary in Virginia, Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and the University of Chicago. From this data, some have mused that Barth actually planted a student in the crowd to ask this question. He wanted to convey among these learned theologians, who spent their whole lives studying the things of God, that this is what really matters: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Christ is our light. Let us humbly join with all those wise men and women who still seek them, and turn our gaze to Him and Him alone. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. It is in His light we see light, and in Him that all truth will be revealed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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