They will know us by our theological arrogance

I’ve been saying it for years. Those in the evangelical tradition who are perceived to be either liberal or conservative are not that different from one another.

An endless cycle of theological skirmishes and personal attacks between authors, pastors and denominational leaders is indicative of a larger problem: a declining church (whether conservative or liberal) is struggling for control, power and orthodoxy – none of which are values of the kingdom.

I’m through with the book wars and trendy conferences. But how can a Christian move past all the drama of theological posturing and preening? How can we as Christ’s disciples be known by our “love for one another” (John 13:35) rather than by the number of doctrinal arguments we win? Here are four ideas.

1. Read broadly. 

The most popular book – often marketed through sensationalistic means – is not necessarily the best. To read only from one set of authors reinforces what one already believes. Find books and articles you don’t agree with, ideas and perspectives you haven’t been exposed to. Be open to learning something new.

My former professor Delbert Wiens recently discussed his own struggle with a difficult and controversial passage of Scripture. He admitted, “I had to be willing to learn what I didn’t want to learn.” This posture of humility and openness is an antidote to theological arrogance.

2. Learn about traditions outside your own.  

The history of the church includes different periods, styles and practices of Christian faith. For example, Richard Foster identifies six historical traditions in Streams of Living Water: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational influences of spirituality. Exposure to other traditions leads to gracious embrace of those who are theologically dissimilar.

Occasionally, I attend an evening vespers service at a nearby convent where worshipping with a small group of Roman Catholic sisters has taught me the importance of quiet reflection in the presence of Christ. We pray, read Scripture and sing with a serene reverence that ministers to the core of my busy soul. I’ve had similar experiences of prayer and worship at a Greek Orthodox monastery located in the mountains an hour from where I live.

I don’t always understand the observances or agree completely with the theology of these communities, but I’m deeply challenged by the piety of their worship.

3. Talk to Christians from other cultures. 

Cultural awareness is critical. Western theological arrogance has resulted in imperialism and colonization around the world. In the new global village, the powerful must become learners.

I have been deeply moved by Latin American theologian René Padilla and his call to integral mission (a holistic embrace of both proclamation and demonstration of the gospel as practised in poor Latin American countries). Equally, Native American pastor Richard Twiss’s challenge toward reconciliation, especially among and on behalf of First Nations people, has shaped my understanding of forgiveness and oppression.

Believers in Africa, Asia and South America have much to teach North American Christians about faith. We should be listening.

4. Don’t discuss theology without doing ministry.

Context matters. Without practice, theory is devoid of meaning. Theology will always inform actions, but theology will also evolve as a result of what is learned through doing.

I annually take trips to inner-city Los Angeles with college students. I tell my students that our goal is not to help people on skid row but to learn from them. My understanding of Scripture, especially the prophets, has changed as I come alongside those who have suffered injustice. When I befriend people who are homeless, work with those who are addicted, or listen to the fears and concerns of undocumented immigrants, I am changed, and the biblical text comes alive.

“Doing” always transforms “being.” Arguing theology without engaging in its practice leads to abstract compartmentalization of doctrine. In a sense, the absolute worst place to study the Bible might be the confines of four church walls on Sunday morning.

As I contemplate recent arguing and posturing between Christian leaders, I’m reminded of how much respect I have for those who do theology on the run, modelling Jesus’ practice of ministry and service as a lifestyle.

Within our own faith family, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) demonstrates what it looks like to share God’s love by meeting basic human needs in the name of Christ. Choosing not to advocate a specific partisan ideology (allowing them to assist those who might be considered “enemies”), MCC ministers to people regardless of cultural, political or economic differences.

At a time when we are pressured to identify ourselves positionally (i.e., “I am for/against an issue”) the church has a wonderful opportunity to be an alternate community, not content to live on either end of a spectrum.

I pray that those outside the church will begin to know us not for our arrogance but rather for our intellectual and theological humility as it is lived out in gracious communities of love, dialogue and service. That is a posture – like that of Jesus in the first century – truly different from the status quo.

—Tim Neufeld is associate professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno (Cal.) Pacific University. He and his family routinely participate in neighbourhood ministry together. A version of this article first appeared on Tim’s blog Occasio (timneufeld.blogs.com), Oct. 23, 2013. He tweets at @TimothyNeufeld.

5 Comments on “They will know us by our theological arrogance

  1. Is it possible that being “more-open-minded-than-thou” might be just one more form of “theological arrogance”? After reading this article, I suspect so!

    I do agree that “control” and “power” are definitely not kingdom values. But “orthodoxy” (in the sense of wanting to conform to God’s Biblical truth) is very much a value of the kingdom.

    Jude wrote his epistle to “urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

    So upset was Paul by wrong teaching (about circumcision) that he wrote regarding “those agitators” that “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12).

    Jesus did not “graciously embrace” the “theologically dissimilar” Pharisees; he roundly condemned them — for example, throughout the entire chapter of Matthew 23.

    Tim Neufeld does make several worthwhile points — such as, we should be well-informed, and we should scale back on ad hominem invective. But the article seems to ignore or downplay the reality that there is a variety of important ongoing issues that do need to be clearly and firmly addressed.

    To uphold Scriptural truth that is being actively challenged by those who oppose it, is a key duty of the church of Jesus Christ. “Love” for one another includes concern that my brothers and sisters not be misled and damaged by false teaching (as in Revelation 2:15, 20).

    • I think you are missing the point about those references you cited (both the Paul and the Jesus reference…) You are forgetting that what Jesus was condemning was what was considered orthodox at that time, the same goes with the Paul reference.

      • There’s nothing wrong with condemning something that is merely “considered orthodox” — that is, something that is regarded by some people as religiously correct but which does not actually conform to the truth of Scripture. Such false “orthodoxy” (or “orthopraxy”) is eminently worthy of opposition and condemnation.

        But true orthodoxy (i.e., Biblical truth) is, as I stated, a kingdom value, and is to be upheld. That is clearly Jude’s point, while Paul and Jesus likewise evidence their concern for God’s truth by condemning the false Judaizing doctrines and Pharisaic practices, respectively. Such principled upholding of Scriptural teaching should never be caricatured as “theological posturing” (Tim Neufeld’s phrase). Some “doctrinal arguments” (Neufeld again) are urgently necessary to wage. One’s own attitude in conflict must, of course, constantly be monitored.

  2. Vigorously defending your own “orthodoxy” and attempting to “correct” the theology of others is the ultimate form of arrogance because you are presuming that what you believe is correct and that believing otherwise is “wrong”.

    Given the extremes to which our opinion of what is “orthodox” is informed by the context from which we come, I would be wary of anybody who can be 100% sure that they know what is true and that what others believe is false. There are times when we can be reasonably certain that somebody else has perverted or is ignoring what the bible has to say, but setting ourselves up as the adjudicator or what is “real” Christianity and what is not is not a position that we are called upon to hold.

    Jesus was the correct authority to judge what was true and what was not, not us. One need only go back through the history of the Church to see just how often what was once “orthodox” was later rejected, even by those who remained within the mainstream church (meaning the Catholic Church, as that was what was mainstream at that time). I challenge any believer to show how their modern beliefs are coincident with what was historically orthodox. If you cannot, then how can you proclaim that what you believe now is in anyway historically “orthodox”.

    It is only orthodox when compared to what you, and the people who taught you, believe.

    I am not saying that all beliefs are equally valid, and it is true that there are many strains of theology that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with what the Bible says. This article does not say that one should glibly swallow everything that other people believe, nor does it say that we should affirm that what they say is true, but rather, the author simply states that we can all learn from how other believers practice their faith. Nobody has a monopoly on Christ or on the truth.

    The main point the author is trying to make, if I read him correctly, is that it is through the practice of the teachings of Christ that we can more fully realize the message he brought to the world. You don’t understand compassion by reading about it but by practising it. You don’t learn forgiveness by intellectualizing, you learn it by forgiving, and by seeking forgiveness. And how can you expect to learn about the teachings of Jesus if you only study the words of a select group of ministers. Different people come to the word by different paths, through different life experiences, and as such can communicate the teachings of Christ in different ways. This does not mean that everybody who claims to be teaching the Word is correct, but it does mean that there are different ways of communicating the same things, and we each understand things in a different way.

    I would be wary of anybody who claims that their orthodoxy is the correct orthodoxy. The only thing that can be said to be the truth is what is actually written in the bible.

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