Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Romans 14:13
The divisions and separations which exist within Christianity in general, and within the form that the Christian church has taken in this country are fascinating in their history and development. Looking at the various doctrinal positions which developed as a result of the Protestant Reformation, and the way that people gathered into the various churches and groupings of churches is a fascinating study in both human behavior and history, as well as theology. It seems that there is nothing more complicated and tangled as the relationships between people in Christ’s church, and the finely tuned differences and nuances of belief and doctrine that serve not only to separate people into groups, but also to set them against each other to the point that most of them have a list of beliefs which they use to determine whether another church outside their own is genuinely part of the Kingdom of God or not.
The verse I quoted above comes from an entire passage in Romans 14 in which Paul deals with the subject of acceptance and judgment on the part of those in the church. There is a general recognition that some are weaker in the faith than others. The bottom line is faith in Christ’s saving grace, which is linked to having his atoning death on the cross applied to the sinful nature of our own lives in order to be reconciled to God. Once that boundary is crossed, there is an expectation that the influence of the church’s discipleship and nurture will lead to a maturity in the faith and a transformation of the soul that manifests itself in the outward behavior and lifestyle of the believer. But that is a process which happens over time. Those who are more mature in the faith, who have more experience, and who have spent more time studying and praying, are to help pave a path for those who come along afterward, not judging their behavior or doing things which cause them to stumble in their faith, but giving them every opportunity to grow in their faith.
“For the Kingdom of God is not a metter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” Romans 14:17-19, ESV
It is hard to see that Christians pursue this when they argue with each other over what Paul calls “disputable matters,” and separate themselves into groups that, in effect, excommunicate each other from the Kingdom in their own minds. Even within denominations, the doctrinal police are always on the prowl, waiting to condemn someone who doesn’t land on exactly the same interpretation of scripture that they do. And the bottom line is, what’s the point? Is salvation, reconciliation with God and a relationship with Jesus dependent on getting the doctrine right?
Several years ago, while working in Christian education, a friend of mine was pursuing an administrative position as principal of a medium sized Christian high school in the upper midwest. He had made it to a list of just three finalists for the position and was in the middle of a conference call phone interview with the board of trustees when the question came up regarding the school’s doctrinal statement. It was pretty standard for a fairly conservative, evangelical related educational institution, with the basic affirmations of the scriptures, the deity and humanity of Christ, his virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death and resurrection from the dead, the nature of God and the Holy Spirit, the church, and the other things most evangelicals hold in common. My friend stated that he could wholeheartedly affirm the statement. The next question probed deeper into his Baptist background. One of the trustees wanted to know what kind of Baptist he was, to which he replied that he was a member of a church in friendly cooperation with the SBC. He was then asked whether he was familiar with the doctrines of Reformed Christianity, and he replied that he was, though he did not consider himself a Calvinist, he thought he could work very well within the Calvinist-Reformed tradition. He was invited to an in-person interview.
He didn’t get the job. The board chairman told him that while he was almost point for point the best candidate they had, top down, the sticking point had been the fact that he wasn’t a member of a church that accepted Reformed theology. Everything else lined up exactly with the qualifications and parameters the board had set, but they couldn’t get past the fact that, though he had clearly expressed his feeling that working in the environment of a school operated by Reformed churches would not create any problems for him, and would be essentially a non-issue, they didn’t see it that way at all.
While I can see that there are problems when disagreements over belief and faith are related to points which may completely change the nature of the debate with regard to the essentials of the Christian faith, those things which are centered around Jesus as the Christ, it is very difficult for me to understand why those who clearly fall within the boundaries of what we would call Biblical orthodoxy, and for whom disagreement on doctrine is a matter of interpretation of points where there is not unanimous agreement on the interpretation of finer points of scripture, cannot work together and simply agree to disagree. Such disagreement and separation goes against the very principles of scripture set down by the apostles, especially Paul, which most of those involved in heated arguments claim to believe implicitly.
There’s a Starbucks on my way to work where I occasionally stop and enjoy a latte and a conversation with a group of “coffeehouse” friends. Generally, since they have discovered that I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister, the conversation always goes toward the religious side, and generally moves in the direction of some event in the world of conservative evangelicalism that has made news headlines for some reason. Though there is vast disagreement among us regarding the way we see scripture, and our beliefs, these conversations are far more amiable than many similar conversations I’ve had with fellow Christians on the same side of the evangelical spectrum. It seems far more likely that, in the course of disagreeing over a finite interpretation of a point about eschatology, a fellow believer will go off in an angry huff, or stop speaking to me altogether, than for anyone in my coffee club to do so. And I can point to numerous examples where a church staff member or even a pastor has put their job in jeopardy for their position on a particular interpretation of scripture which might not square up exactly with what an influential church member has decided is the only correct interpretation of the matter.
If what I read on some blogs and hear from some Christians is representative of the attitude and the face that we are turning to the world when it comes to disagreeing on disputable matters of doctrine, stuff that the scripture tells us we are only going to see through a glass darkly anyway, until we come into eternity, then it is no wonder we lack the kind of credibility we must now feel compelled to seek through the political system.