There are various “camps” within Christianity today. People often ask “why so many denominations?” or “why can’t all Christians just get along?” To our shame we do not get along as well as we should. But where some would blame it on “doctrine”, I would say that most of the time it is not doctrine that divides us, it’s arrogance.
To start off I want to clarify that it’s not that doctrine never divides, because it sometimes does. In fact, when it comes down to essentials of the Christian faith it should! There is such a thing as truth and that is found in the Word of God. There are things that "Orthodox" and those should be non-negotiable. There may also come a time when a Christian doesn’t agree with their church or a ministry on some non-essential but important points of doctrine or other things and the best course is to move elsewhere. That happens. However the division I am talking about here is relational division. I have seen brothers go through relational division because of doctrine to the point where they no longer speak or have contact, but I have also seen two people disagree over doctrine and yet have no “division” in their relationship. Certainly it takes both parties to do this; if one party is humble but the other is critical and arrogant, relational intimacy is going to be very difficult, if not impossible. There are times when you may have to cut yourself off from that person (even if they might not have intended to bring division) (Titus 3:10).
Also in writing this I am rather keenly aware of the pride within my own heart, although still probably not as much as I should be. I have been far too defensive, often judged or looked down on others and avoided people because I disagreed with them. But I have experienced grace too. God has been patient with me. But also I have experienced love and friendship from others towards me even when I know they don’t agree with me. It is for these people that I have come to have the utmost respect, despite any doctrinal disagreements and I am forever grateful.
Does doctrine matter? Of course it does! Knowledge is essential for growth. In fact, John Piper writes “We are not safe from pride if we neglect serious thinking and turn away from knowledge. ‘My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’ (Hos 4:6).” Doctrine matters. But as Sam Storms writes, “Theological truth is not the problem. Arrogance is.” When it comes down to the more minor, non-essential points of theology it is not actually the doctrine that divides. In other words, it’s not just about precise theology, it’s about our attitude. As 1 Cor. 13:2 says, we can have “all knowledge” but if we do not have love, it’s nothing. We ought to love truth, but it ought to lead us into a deeper humility. Joshua Harris writes in his book Humble Orthodoxy, “The solution to arrogant orthodoxy is not less orthodoxy; it’s more. If we truly know and embrace orthodoxy, it should humble us… it doesn’t leave us boasting, it leaves us amazed. It doesn’t lead to a preoccupation with being right but to amazement that we have been rescued.” Does your doctrine humble you? Does it lead you to have a gracious attitude towards others? If not, you may need to re-examine your heart, and if you think you're not prideful, you very well may be in danger of it. (1 Cor. 10:12)
In our doctrine we all want to be on God’s side. But sometimes in claiming this we imply that the other person is not. This really is arrogant because we are only human; we don’t know everything. The truth is, we could be wrong! We can start off with good intentions of being on “God’s side”, but then we end up fighting for our own because “certainly I’m right on this point” so I have a "right" to be defensive and critical. Jesus said, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:36-37). In all things we are called to be humble, and to love our brother/sister. Our words are to bring grace and encouragement to those who hear, they should not be used for tearing down. In the end, how much of our theology is really about God, and how much of it is really about us being right?
No one likes to think they are divisive, but I think most of us are more so that we’d like to admit. Can you be a divisive person at times? Here are some questions that may help:
· Do you seek to have a high respect for over-all character of the person you disagree with?
· You seek to love them as a brother/sister?
· Do you speak negatively about them to others?
· Do you avoid them?
· Conversely, do you seek to maintain the friendship?
· Do you get defensive?
· Do you criticize them in a way that degrades (tears down) their reputation and character?
These questions are hard… they make me cringe, because I am guilty. But I also hope that I am learning. On that last question, criticism has become somewhat of a norm in Christianity today. Being critical of fine doctrinal points is something to be admired, we do want our doctrine to be “pure” after all. But do we realize how arrogant that is? Do you suppose that you have just a little more understanding (“smarts” we could say) or a little more of the Holy Spirit and you “know better” than someone else? I am so grieved at times at the critical spirit of so many Christians. They give some positives, but there’s always a “but” or a “however”. It’s like a disclaimer, “this was pretty good, but I don’t want to be known for totally agreeing with this… after all it doesn’t completely line up with exactly what I believe”. Why can’t we learn to be more gracious towards others, to praise the good we see and leave it at that? Must we always bring correction along with our praise? Is it really necessary and helpful?
One prayer I have for myself and for the church today is that we might learn to disagree with others more graciously, to let love cover a multitude of sins (or “misguided doctrine”), and learn to truly love others despite our disagreements that we might be the unified body Jesus prayed we would be (John 17).