I was recently asked how I started teaching theology basics to lay people.
I think the interviewer expected to hear something about being a master’s student in theology or that I was a church intern. Instead, I told the story of a hobby blog begun fourteen years ago; the awkward breakdowns of biblical passages (over 2,000 words long!); an overt focus on sexuality in a time when Christian sexuality blogs weren’t a thing. What began as my testimony and a desire to share the gospel’s freedom slowly led to a greater need: to explain why we can trust the gospel at all. Between my religion degree and years of independent study I asked the hard questions for myself, and eventually for others: Why believe what God says about sexuality? What authority does He have? Does the Bible address it? Can we even trust the Bible?
It was a reverse domino effect. Today, people would call it a “deconstruction” of my beliefs about sex. At the time I was simply recording what I’d learned when researching the “why” of the Bible’s sexual ethic. That required more than just writing about sex – it required Christian theology, history, and the intersection of the two. (Spoiler alert: I came away fully convinced of the Bible’s inerrancy, infallibility, and ability to guide my moral decisions.)
I tell this story because time has escalated my work to a place I never expected. I did not expect to endorse books for people I’ve long read and admired. I did not expect to see my name next to Christian leaders whose age and spiritual maturity far outpace mine. It is a terrifying and humbling place to be at thirty-one years old, and I show up to it with great reverence for what Christ has done. And as a community leader (I still have yet to determine what I “am” in this space) how I teach is just as important as what I teach, because disciples are impacted by tone as much as they are guided by content. Since my words apparently bear some weight, I must also consider where I am directing the people who read them – to unity, or to division? Which brings us to the problem of unity in 2021.
Francis Schaeffer is credited with saying, “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.” There is something monstrous about a gospel obscured with condescension. There is a bitter aftertaste to cancel-culture Christianity. And yet… how do we know when something should genuinely be rejected as heretical or heterodox? There are guiding principles to Christianity, truths defended and held for thousands of years. These are not to be lightly taken. Can we hold to biblical orthodoxy (which just means “sound teaching”) without dividing from the family of God?
I believe we can. But to do so requires picking up a cross many western Christians won’t carry.
Majoring in the Majors
Albert Mohler’s theological triage has become a guiding principle for my discernment classes and has helped many in my community understand the difference between core doctrinal issues and those of secondary and third level importance. This is of enormous value in today’s society, where Christians regularly elevate third tier issues to the level of the resurrection, virgin birth, or sexual ethic. In other words: we need to know how to major in the majors, not in the minors. To sum up Mohler’s point:
- First tier issues are, as Chesterton puts it, “the creeds, and the historical conduct of those who held to such a creed”. This includes the core doctrines of such things as the Trinity, nature of Jesus (divine and human), original sin, necessity of atonement, crucifixion, resurrection, and the lifestyle of believers as outlined in Acts 15 (sanctify of life, sanctity of worship, sanctity of sex).
- Second tier issues are what I like to call the “how” questions. Baptism is an essential practice put in place by Jesus; but HOW that works out is a secondary issue. Some people will baptize infants and use Scripture to support it; some will baptize adult believers and do the same. These issues are big enough that your stance on them will determine what church you join, and most people who disagree on secondary issues with a specific church won’t attend it. (Ex: gender roles in church leadership, practice of communion, baptism practices, view of Israel/the church)
- Third tier issues are those things that Christians may disagree about but don’t directly impact church fellowship. You can attend the same church and hold differing views on the topic (perhaps even with the church itself). Things like end times views, how to practice modesty, whether to homeschool or public school your kids, whether or not to drink alcohol – mostly Spirit-led convictions.
All of these issues matter and are worth studying; we should know where we stand on them. But when we misconstrue the essentialism of these doctrines, we are in danger of unnecessarily dividing the Church. Your stance on alcohol consumption is not a factor in salvation. But does it matter, and should you think and pray about it? Undoubtedly, yes!
I’m openly pro-denomination (insofar as denominations adhere to orthodoxy) and I will die on the hill of unity around first tier issues. This is no time to banter about whether or not someone’s stance on women in the church determines their salvation. There are bigger battles being fought – namely, for people who need the gospel and lived discipleship! Our pastors are fighting this fight every day in their churches. I’m fighting it in online spaces. The distraction caused by lack of grace for secondary differences is a disgusting stain on Christianity in 2021.
The Suffering Lamb v. Postmodern Pursuit of Rights
I recently watched an interview on eschatology and Revelation with Nathan Finochio and David Campbell, a Revelation scholar – mind-blowing in many ways and particularly helpful as I work on a bible study about Revelation. During the interview, Campbell mentioned the primary motif of Revelation is the victory of the suffering Lamb. The book of Revelation was designed to give comfort to a persecuted church. The Lamb in Revelation is crowned with seven horns: the number seven signifying completion and the horns symbolizing power. Why would a slain lamb represent the fullness of power?
Because it is through suffering that Christian victory comes. Christianity is not and has never been about the power of the conquering. Jesus’ victory was unexpected in the time He came because it was a victory of sacrifice – and this remains unexpected to this day.
But what surprised me most was the impact of this motif. “It is in direct contradiction to the postmodernist demand for rights,” Campbell explained. “Christianity does not demand its rights.” Christianity is a faith community based on self-sacrifice.
Clearly this sacrifice does not include abandoning one’s convictions; the martyrs were killed because of their convictions. What’s different about the suffering-conqueror reading of Revelation (and the Bible as a whole) is the focus of such convictions. Western Christianity has a lot of convictions about a lot of non-gospel things. But when asked to explain the gospel grounding, and historical premise for such convictions, many cannot do so. Their Bible is a collection of passages used to support whatever second- and third-tier issue they find persuasive with far less thought to the unifying big picture (particularly when it comes to politics).
In other words: we’ve made things “core doctrine” to which the Bible does not speak, or on which it speaks rarely.
The hot debates we see online, while sometimes very necessary as we wrestle with those “how’s” of theological practice, should not be granted power to divide the church. I say “granted” because they do not inherently possess that power. Christians give it to them. It is actually possible to unite with a fellow believer with whom you disagree on important – but secondary – issues. (The existence of denominations is not evidence of division but of the pursuit of orthodoxy – denomination is from the Latin “to name”, and simply means “Christian by another name”. Denominations have often united around first tier doctrines while disagreeing on secondary ones.) Unfortunately, to the degree western Christians place higher value on their right to opinion and expression than on the gospel, we will continue to see division grow.
Back to the Christian v. postmodern ethical divide: postmodernism in religion is the idea that truth is not absolute, but relative, and cultural context dictates what is right. Postmodernism centers on the individual and his experience. This in mind, I find myself wondering if what started as gratitude for “free speech” among Christians has actually become an idolatry of personal expression. Conservatives quickly point this out in postmodernism, but the same trait has emerged in our own theological debates. I see two groups of (often politicized) Christian thought. This is a massive generalization, but bear with me for sake of illustration:
- The progressive group, who reduces the Bible to a moralistic theory hollowed of its history, context, and strength under the guise of loving Christianity; and
- The conservative group, who voices hatred for postmodernism but exhibits a postmodern demand for personal rights (primarily expression and opinion) instead of the sacrificial Christian life.
Neither of these exemplify the unwaveringly orthodox, self-sacrificial heart of the Church. Both err in their own ways. And both deem themselves innocent of error, pointing at the other as “the real problem”.
What would happen if we bravely united around the historical, affirmed, council-defended, vision of the church? What would happen if we gave grace for the “how” questions – how baptism is practiced (paedo v. credo), how spiritual gifts are practiced (cessation v. continuation), how women serve in the church (complementarian v. egalitarian) or even how Christianity should pan out in politics? Are we wise and discerning enough to reject the “slippery slope” fallacy – because it is a fallacy – and act in accordance with Holy Spirit’s leading and sanctifying power?
We must know core doctrine to know the non-negotiables of Christianity, and there can be no bandying-about with those. But church history tells us that, on some other things, there has been a diversity of practice over the course of centuries. When it comes to the details of HOW to walk out church structure, how to practice the sacraments, how to live the ethic of generosity and chastity and peace in our world, churches have practiced these with great freedom and individuality for two thousand years. The gospel has gone forth, in part, because of that freedom. They majored in the majors.
I say again: secondary issues matter immensely. Study them, know where you stand, walk them out! But when it comes to confidence in the gospel, let us not mix up the gospel with our stance on spiritual gifts (et al). They are not the same thing. And someone else’s stance on secondary issues is not grounds to question their salvation. It’s a starting point for gracious conversation.
Orthodoxy and Grace Are Not At Odds
We CAN and SHOULD hold to biblical orthodoxy and biblical compassion at the same time. Not only is it possible, it is exemplified in the person of Christ. This idea that hard truth is the best truth, prooftexted from the few times Jesus cleansed the Temple and confronted the Pharisees, ignores the myriad times Jesus ministered from a place of compassionate orthodoxy. Never once did Christ sacrifice the authority of the Scriptures, the entirety of which He upheld (Matthew 5:17-20, Mark 10, Luke 11:51). This ministry of compassion and truth carried over to the young church in Acts, who – with an influx of Gentiles – was responsible to educate an enormous congregation in the life of a Christ-follower. Acts 15 shows us the apostles gathering together, making a plan to educate these people in the moral implications of gospel living. They started with the core doctrines. They majored in the majors. The rest could be learned along the Way.
Which leads me to the cross many Christians won’t carry: the laying down of tightly-held opinions about secondary issues. We would rather win the argument than give the grace. We’ve believed the lie that disagreement on secondary issues constitutes apostasy; that a church structure different than ours is an inevitable slide into progressivism. We refuse to probe deeper with good intent, to find out if, indeed, our sisters who differ are walking by the Spirit. We start with doubt, not the benefit of it. We focus on what that disagreement says about us than what it says about the gospel in a human life. We focus on the behavior, the walking-out, the “how”, without stopping to ask: Does this person know the life-transforming truth of Christ? If they do – unite around it. Remember your family loyalty. This is your sister.
If they don’t know the truth of Christ, debating about women preachers is the last thing they need – and the gospel is the first.