Most pastors have received an email like the one I recently found in my inbox. Someone was looking for a new church. They had explored our website and even attended a few times. They were impressed, but….
“Can you explain why you have female elders when the Bible explicitly states that leaders should be men?” The implication was clear: if women lead, I’ll leave.
We do that in church. I’ve done it. So have you. We attack and condemn each other over doctrines like hell, evolution or sexual orientation. We break community or split churches over charismatic gifts, worship styles and MB distinctives.
The issues vary, but the issue is always the same: if you don’t believe and behave like me, I won’t be part of you.
The tragic result is that our passion to protect the “true church” is what ultimately destroys it. When Paul says, “If all you have is an eye, then you don’t actually have a body” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21–27), he seems to suggest that if everyone in the community is exactly the same in how they believe, behave, look, act, talk, worship, practise and live, then the community isn’t actually a church.
In the New Testament, “church” is a Jesus-loving community of racially, culturally, socio-economically, religiously and theologically diverse people living with each other in unshakeable unity. That’s church. And that’s hard.
Two kinds of truth
So, how do we do it? How do we live in unity with each other despite the radical diversity the Bible assumes, even demands?
One key is Romans 14:1: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters” (emphasis mine). This would suggest that, according to Paul, some truth is indisputable. We have to agree on that stuff.
But other truth is “disputable” – a matter of perspective, opinion and taste. Two kinds of truth, but only one worth fighting about.
So, which is which? And how do we decide?
My modest proposal would be to fixate only on the gospel. Here’s the test: does the doorway of faith for my seeking friends hinge on this specific issue? For example, is it essential to the gospel that there’s a loving God who created a good world? Of course.
Does the gospel hinge on the age of the earth? In my opinion, that’s debatable. So I won’t quarrel over disputable matters.
Now, don’t misread Paul. He’s not saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about issues like evolution, hell, sexual orientation or anything else that lights up the blogosphere. Romans 14 is clear that we “should be fully convinced” of what we believe (14:5) and that we should live consistently with those beliefs (14:23). We have to know what we believe and to live like it.
An end to debates and eye rolls
However, Paul does forbid two behaviours tragically common in the church. First: no arguing to convince others to agree with us. No debating to prove we’re right and they’re wrong. No browbeating others into agreement. To the contrary, on these matters, God commands us to keep our opinions to ourselves (Romans 14:22). No arguing over disputable matters.
Second: no judging those who disagree with us (14:2–4). No belittling, no rolling our eyes or shaking our heads at the immaturity of someone who believes or behaves differently than we do. No questioning the authenticity, legitimacy or sincerity of their faith. They don’t answer to you, but to Christ. They’re not accountable to you, but to him.
And, if they’ve accepted him, he’s accepted them, just as he has accepted you: warts, mistakes, misinterpretations, ignorance and all.
The bottom line is always love. The first and last word in this text is “accept.” We must embrace each other and love each other with the love of Christ, the love of the cross.
It’s the kind of love that humbly decides to consider everyone else more important than ourselves. The kind of love that sacrifices ourselves, our agenda, our status, our ego, our need to be right, so the love of God might flow through us into them. That’s church. And that’s hard.
The Thirty Years War was among the longest and bloodiest periods of European history. At its root was an ostensibly religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, fighting over land. It was in the throes of this conflict that theologian Rupertus Meldenius wrote: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
May we learn to love in Christ those who are radically different from us. May we learn to be the church.
—Michael Krause is the teaching pastor at Southridge Community Church in St. Cathrines, Ont.
Michael, your article is a good start, but surely not the end of discussion. I have a few questions for you:
(1) What if someone disagrees with your assessment of whether a specific issue significantly impacts “the gospel”? Will you decline to discuss/debate that with them?
(2) Since you a church leader, could your stated position be interpreted by some as nothing more than a cover for your determination to suppress dissent from your own views on various issues? How would you allay such a possible suspicion?
(3) Instead of stifling dissent (which is the direction your article may appear to be headed in), why not rather encourage full-blooded, well-informed discussions and even (formal) debates? Within Christian parameters, of course: respect for persons holding opposing views, equal treatment of the two (or more) sides, making it clear that biblical truth (not egos) is what matters. This sort of thing could be beneficial in terms of (a) diffusing tension; (b) showing that leadership is open to ideas other than their own; (c) encouraging individuals to gain better understanding of the strengths/weaknesses of their own position and of opposing views; (d) providing information to other church participants; (e) modeling wise handling of theological disagreement; (f) requiring thinking and concerned individuals to deal directly with each other (rather than possibly leaving in despair/disgust); (g) getting people excited about church and Scripture! (Debates intrigue people’s interest, and can help them see that biblical doctrine is important!)
(4) In Romans 14, Paul forbids quarreling, but not thoughtful, concerned discussion/debate. Would you disagree with that?
(5) Did you answer that email about women elders? If not, why not? What is really wrong with such a question? (An “implication,” you say? Why not just deal with the question as presented?)
(6) There is a difference between (a) a “weak” believer who happens to believe wrongly and arranges his personal life accordingly (such should be accepted, according to Romans 14), and (b) someone who believes wrongly and wants to influence the whole church to stray from biblical truth — such as Paul encountered when he denounced the Judaizers, and those who claimed the resurrection had already come, etc. Would you agree?
Hi Richard, it’s hard to finish the discussion in 750 words. :)
Let me (briefly) address your specific concerns in order:
1) Surely, the issue of what is essential could become an issue that produces debate. Described here is my position. If someone disagreed with me, I would hear out their rationale and respond so long as the interchange was productive and positive. As soon as it turned into a debate, or an attempt to convince someone else that either position must be adopted to be orthodox, the conversation would be over.
2) I would suggest that this position does the opposite of suppressing opinion. It encourages and nurtures divergent views on non-essential issues as equally legitimate. To me, suppression is far more prevalent in communities where you have to agree with the pastor/leader in order to be accepted.
3) I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written here. The concern in the text is the judgmentalism that accompanies someone’s disagreement, the position that you are not truly orthodox (perhaps, just barely saved) if you don’t agree with me. It’s concern is the attempt to coerce, which is definitely different than a dialogue to discern, which is what you’ve described.
4) I think this has been adequately covered, especially in 1 and 3.
5) We did answer the question and the questioner, sadly, in my opinion, decided that this was reason to part company with our church. To me, that’s the tragedy of the story: I can only be in community with you, if you fully agree with me.
6) Absolutely there is and faulty doctrine should be addressed. That’s part of Paul’s point, that a individual’s personal doctrinal opinion should never be coercively foisted on the community. In the example of Judaizing, you are talking about a Gospel issue, as Paul makes amply clear in Galatians 1.
Thanks for your feedback, Michael! I appreciate it. With your permission, I’d like to pursue a few of the points you made.
(1) “I would suggest that this position does the opposite of suppressing opinion. It encourages and nurtures divergent views on non-essential issues as equally legitimate.” I don’t see that the writer of Romans 14 would quite agree with that last statement. After all, he labels one person as “weak,” indicating that some growth in faith and understanding is called for (though this should never be pushed for in a judgmental way). For Paul it seems the opposing views described in Romans 14 are to be equally tolerated, but he is not really saying they are equally legitimate. As for “suppressing opinion,” it seems to me that a practice of labeling various views on a particular issue as “equally legitimate” does tend to stifle discussion of which view may be more in line with Scripture. Your described approach would seem to rule such a discussion out of court. (May I suggest that it might also be taken as condescending or patronizing by someone who regards a particular issue as a significant part of biblical teaching.)
(2) “Surely, the issue of what is essential could become an issue that produces debate. Described here is my position. If someone disagreed with me, I would hear out their rationale and respond so long as the interchange was productive and positive.” OK. Your stated position is that “essential” means essential to the gospel: “… does the doorway of faith for my seeking friends hinge on this specific issue?” Now, an absolute minimalist view of what is essential for coming to faith would include only that God is real, and is a rewarder of those who seek him, and that Jesus died by crucifixion and was raised from the dead for my salvation from sin. Is anything more than that required (essential) for me to become a believer? At the “doorway of faith” one doesn’t have to hold any particular view on baptism, or the deity of the Holy Spirit, or hell, or heaven, or the church, or evolution, or the return of Christ, or homosexuality, or adultery, or pornography, or … (you get my drift!). But if “essential” is taken rather to mean “biblically important for the church’s health,” then all of those topics are worth dealing with, and discussing, and defending Scriptural teaching over, no? To go at it another way, several of the topics you mentioned would seem to be quite entangled with the gospel. (a) Hell is real: it’s where you go if you reject Jesus and his forgiveness of your sins. It’s just as real and as eternal as heaven is! (b) The creation and fall explain where the sin came from, that I now need Christ’s salvation to deliver me from. (And evolution, since it logically undermines the Genesis account of the origin of sin, and of our interconnectedness as a human species, also undermines the gospel.)
(3) “To me, that’s the tragedy of the story: I can only be in community with you, if you fully agree with me.” Instead of pointing to either “you” or “me,” shouldn’t we always focus the discussion on what the Bible actually teaches? If we can both agree on that focus, and put our egos and personalities aside (along with our ecclesiastical and denominational traditions!?), then we can perhaps make progress in seeing exactly where Scripture would guide us. Did the emailer offer any argumentation? If so, did you offer a serious response to it? If not, did you solicit any argumentation from him in order to work through his issues? I would suggest that it’s not enough to exhort everyone to peace and community without proceeding to take seriously the issues that an individual might raise based on his desire to honour the Bible.
Good comments all, Richard. And beautifully modeling exactly the point I was hoping to make in my article: that several divergent views don’t have to lead to division or disunity in relationship.
To your points:
1) Your word is definitely the better one. I suppose by “legitimate” I merely meant exactly what you said, tolerable for faith. We seem to live in a church culture, perhaps most recently under the influence of the neo-Reformed movement (which is really a neo-Puritan movement) where theological non-agreement is absolutely intolerable. I don’t think Paul would be on board with that agenda, especially as it often plays itself out in the blogosphere.
With regards to stifling discussion, I think that I’ve adequately demonstrated in my engagement with you that I am not opposed to lively discussion and believe in its health for the church. I, with Paul, am only eager to stop having our ability to fellowship dependent on our ability to agree.
2) Obviously, the meaning of the word “essential” is the central discussion. I don’t believe that it can mean “biblically important for the church’s health,” at least in this context. For Paul, unity is biblically important for the church’s health, and not any specific answer with regards to what faithfulness to Christ looks like in terms of food and Sabbath. Yet, he regards these as important enough issues to the health of the Galatian church to devote a whole letter to addressing issues exactly like these. Why not just let them believe their weaker position in that case? Because of the two things he is opposing in Romans: It’s a Gospel issue, i.e. they are abandoning the Gospel by making faithfulness an issue of faithfulness to Torah (Gal 1) and it is an issue of coercion, where some Jews have compelled the Gentiles to adopt their opinions about Torah.
So, how does all this play itself out in terms of beliefs like hell and evolution and sexual orientation? Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 14 seems to suggest that, though he’d rather the “weak” adopt the beliefs of the “strong,” he’s not prepared to force them against their conscience. So, while I have particular beliefs about hell, evolution and sexual orientation, and believe they are biblical and wish for others to consider them, my starting point is this: can someone hold their particular views on these issues and simultaneously love Jesus with all their heart and soul, etc. and love others as themselves? If so, then, while I’d rather they adopt mine, and we can dialogue in a loving way towards that end, but I will not force them to adopt my position or judge them for disagreeing with me.
While I agree that some of the issues you’ve brought up CAN become entangled with the Gospel, I would argue that they don’t have to be. In the case of hell, for example, I would want to focus the conversation on the larger issue of God’s judgment: do we both agree that judgment of evil is a part of the Gospel? Of course. Do we need to agree on the specifics of how that works out? Of course not. That seems to be Paul’s implied strategy in Romans 14. Does he imagine worship and right living to be issues that matter to someone’s faithful Gospel response? If you read the rest of Romans, the answer is clearly: yes. Does he imagine that that HAS to mean certain beliefs with regards to food and days? No (though, he acknowledges superior and inferior beliefs). It is that spirit that I’d want to try to navigate those discussions.
3) The problem with the idea of “focusing on what the Bible actually teaches” is that none of us is able to read the Bible with an objective pair of eyes. Each of us only sees what we can see, based on our experience, culture, worldview, etc. So, the only way to get at what “the Bible actually teaches” is to foster dialogue among people of various viewpoints. Exactly the kind of interchange that you’ve suggested. (You seem inordinately concerned that I am opposed to theological dialogue. I assure you that, to a fault, I am not!)
In this specific case, the questioner was not open to discussion and was not interested in our input. In addition, he was a stranger to us, so not someone who had invited us into a discussion. So, we explained our position as succinctly as we could and he moved on.
Michael: Thanks for your compliment on the quality of my comments, also thanks for your detailed response and your irenic spirit. You make some good points.
I confess to a continuing feeling of uneasiness with your position. When Paul in Romans 14 speaks of disputable matters, he is dealing with individual practices that have some relation to the transitioning from Old Covenant to New Covenant. I don’t really see that one can simply transfer Paul’s argument there to matters of doctrine or practice regarding hell, evolution, homosexual behaviour, or female elders. The Bible does speak clear truth on these issues, even though (as you say) we are all hampered by our finiteness and our subjectivity.
One last question (or series thereof), for clarification: in Romans 14, Paul spoke of “weak” and “strong” positions on eating meat and on keeping days, even though adherents of both views are to tolerate fellow believers on the other side. You have been making a case for extending Paul’s logic to other ‘non-essential’ controversies within the church. Now, I understand that you and your church accept that women can be elders in the church. So. . . would you hold that having female elders is the “strong” position, while someone who subscribes to Paul’s own stated view that women are not to teach or exercise authority over men (in the church) is in the “weak” position? If so, how would you support that? Further, why have you seen fit to impose one view of eldership on your church as a whole rather than to allow everyone to remain in continuing dialogue? In doing that, have you not created the environment that led your emailer to have a problem with your church? And doesn’t this in fact demonstrate that not all viewpoints on ‘disputable’ matters can indefinitely be considered as ‘equally legitimate’? Eventually the church’s power structure (whatever form that takes) will be inclined to go one way or the other (in preaching and/or in practice), and that will end genuine discussion — at which point some will clam up and stay, while others (depending on various factors including how important they think the issue is) may move out.
Richard, I think that everyone who holds any position does so because they believe it to be “strong” and that all the other options are “weak”. They may be wrong in that assessment (as were those who observed Sabbaths and declined meat sacrificed to idols), but it is their assessment and they are entitled to hold it and obligated to live, in conscience, consistently with it. So, yes, of course, we believe that female equality in leadership is the “strong” position and that inequality in leadership is the “weak” position. But those who disagree believe the same about their position.
Paul was unafraid to refer to one position as “weak” and the other as “strong” (to take sides, as it were). Therefore, if the Roman church as a whole had to have a policy on matters of Sabbath and food sacrificed to idols, it would conform to his view and not the other because he believed (rightly) that his view had the better of it theologically. Now, that we are not Paul (which ought to be obvious), we don’t always get it right, even when we arrive at consensus as a leadership or membership. That’s why we continue to need all viewpoints at the table. We need people who disagree to continue to dialogue so that we don’t slip into ideology and so that we don’t start believing our viewpoint in a way that excludes other people.
Paul’s POINT is that none of this ought to terminate our ability to live in robust unity with each other. So, I assume that in such a church (ideally) no one would feel that “genuine discussion” had been terminated, that no one would “clam up” if they choose to stay and that none would feel the pressure to “move out” just because they disagreed. Not everyone, even on staff, agrees with our position of female leadership, but we experience robust unity and serve together happily, despite the fact that, if they were planting their own church, they’d do it differently. That’s one moment when we’ve experienced the power of this text.
I appreciate that this is a minority view in the Church at large. We’ve been groomed to fight for our theologies to the death (of community). But I believe that this is the genuine implication of this text. If this text is only for those transitional issues between Old and New Covenants (which, I agree, is its original referent) then it has no abiding purpose for the Church. Why would God preserve this text then, if not to force us to grapple with the reality that, in God’s heart, love trumps all? At least, that’s how I see it.
Thanks for pushing me with your questions, Richard.
I just want to thank Richard Peachey and Michael Krause for their above dialogue/discussion. I shared some of Richard’s concerns when I initially read Michael’s article. However with the ensuing discussion I feel better about the spirit that the article was written in, something I’m sure is not always easy to communicate within a 750 word limit. I think it is good and take a step back from our positions (always viewed as the right position of course) and ask ourselves if this is essential to the gospel. I especially appreciated going into a little more detail around what that would look like for issues like God’s creation, and God’s judgement.