My problem with the greater part of contemporary theological publications is that the issues are typically presented in straw-man-like soundbites, diluted to reductionistic dichromatism, in order to pander to the rigidity of their respective constituencies. Thiselton describes this entrenched division as a “dualistic chasm.” He bemoans the fact that “too often, biblical specialists and systematic theologians tend to ‘talk past’ each other on the basis of a different agenda.” Frame concludes that, “Sometimes our divisions of theology and practice are differences of perspective, of balance, rather than differences over the essentials of faith.” We only fuel this burgeoning tribalism when we arm the masses with trite, sardonic quips of thesis and antithesis, thereby fractioning the people of God further through dissension and division.
To be sure, I am not elevating ecumenism over and against biblical fidelity. There are issues that will (and should) divide us (e.g. Trinity—one God, of one essence, who exists in three, coequal, coeternal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the full deity and humanity of Jesus; Christ’s bodily resurrection; justification by faith). I applaud Mohler’s push for processing subjects through a theological triage: categorizing doctrine as first, second, and third-order issues. My prayer is that this step toward Christian maturity (cf. Rom 12:18; Heb 12:14) will assist us in viewing denominations not as rifts in God’s kingdom, but as a means to guard the consciences of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Like C.S. Lewis, and Richard Baxter before him, I desire a Mere Christianity. I have always been fond of Lewis’ description of Christianity as a great hallway with many doors leading to different rooms (denominations). He explains that fires and chairs and meals happen in the rooms, and not the hall—the hallway is a place to test out various doors. Lewis proposes some helpful questions one ought to reflect on before choosing a room:
[Y]ou must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?”
Upon choosing a room, Lewis offers the guest one final instruction, the one rule common to the whole house: “Be kind to those who have chosen different doors, and to those who are still in the hall.”
As I said, I relish Lewis’ allegory, and yet it has never fully satisfied me. While I agree that fires, chairs, and meals do not belong in the hall, and that they can happen in the rooms, I do not believe they are restricted to the rooms. Why should we sequester ourselves from those residing in other rooms, limiting our interactions to only those who are “likeminded”?
Lewis’ words paint a picture of Christendom as a castle (cf. Jn 14:2). I should like to think that this castle has more than halls with rooms! I imagine an enormous dining room furnished with a sprawling table, adorned with a feast fit for kings and queens. Can we not dine together?
Teaching in a house filled to capacity, the crowd informs Jesus that his family is outside looking for him. In a ground-shattering reply—especially considering the high-priority of family in Semitic cultures—Jesus redefines familial relationships in light of the gospel. He answers them, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34–35; cf. Jn 19:26). Paul also refers to church as “God’s household” (1 Tim 3:15). Elsewhere he encourages Timothy to treat older men as fathers, “younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters” (1 Tim 5:1–2). All those who are united with Christ constitute a spiritual family, one that transcends bloodlines, class distinctions, gender, ethnicity, race, age, and even theological differences. The church (universal) must think of itself as a family, and healthy families dine together.
As one family living under the same roof, sharing commonality in first-order issues, there are far more things that unite us than divide us. Presuming to be peacemakers, we often try to avoid conflict whenever possible. Yet fear of disagreement should not deter us from dining together. In fact, failing to debate certain subjects might convey that the issues are inconsequential. As Chesterton famously quipped, we must argue! He writes:
If I think the universe is triangular, and you think it is square, there cannot be room for two universes. We may argue politely, we may argue humanely, we may argue with great mutual benefit; but, obviously, we must argue.
James Montgomery Boice relays a story about Donald Grey Barnhouse organizing a lunch with five ministers from differing denominations. He devised a rule that they should only discuss points of agreement during the meal. Afterwards, they could speak about their differences if they wished. Boice reports:
They began to talk about Jesus Christ and what he meant to each of them. The tension abated, and there was a measure of joy as each confessed that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he came to die for our sins, and that he rose again bodily. Each acknowledged Jesus Christ as Lord. Each agreed that Jesus was now in heaven at the right hand of God the Father praying for his church. They confessed that he had sent his Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that the Lord was living in each of his children by means of the Holy Spirit. They acknowledged the reality of the new birth and that they were looking forward to the return of Jesus Christ, after which they would be spending eternity together.
After the meal, when they turned to their differences, they realized that the issues felt secondary—“not unimportant but secondary.” Realizing that they would not agree on some of these issues, they agreed to disagree without denying the fact that they were all members of Christ’s body (cf. Eph 4:5).
What if, after perceiving lines of demarcation between us and those in the other rooms, we fought our instinct to construct walls to protect (read isolate) ourselves? One way to do this is to deconstruct the common narrative that depicts fellow Christians as “good guys” or “bad guys.” True, sound doctrine is essential (Titus 2:1–3:11). And true, there may be some among us who are not of us (1 Jn 2:19). Therefore, we must be vigilant, for wolves sometimes reside with the sheep (Mt 7:15). However, in the name of “maintaining biblical orthodoxy” or “fending off wolves” some God-fearing men and women have been ostracized for holding varied theological opinions on open-handed issues. It is possible to maintain that a particular position is wrong while simultaneously recognizing that it is biblically tenable (e.g. age of the earth, sequence of eschatological events).
God has revealed himself to us in his Word and in his world. At present, we cannot know him exhaustively (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), but we can know him truly. So far as it is possible, we should strive to think God’s thoughts after him in humility; not forgetting Calvin’s lesson that the finite cannot possess the infinite. In the opening pages of his long-awaited systematic theology, Thiselton acknowledges that “Human beings, even philosophers, are finite and even sinful, and they cannot grasp the whole of the infinite. They cannot view reality ‘eternally or theocentrically,’ even granted revelation from God.” Barth also understood that theology has limits. He demonstrated this by using angels to ironically mock himself and his critics. He writes:
The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume, and each is thicker than the previous ones. As they laugh, they say to one another, ‘Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!’—and they laugh about the persons who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.
Martin Luther supposedly said that “human nature is like a drunkard trying to ride a horse. He gets on and falls off on the left side. He resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling off on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.” I recognize my naïveté, and accept that I will likely be dismounted—either to the right (fundamentalism) or to the left (relativism). For, as Arthur Conan Doyle has observed, “horses [are] dangerous on both ends and crafty in the middle.” And yet, I refuse to give up trying to find balance on this fickle saddle. I want to create as much room as biblically possible to accommodate a potpourri of dissimilar views. I want a munificent yet mature orthodoxy.
When the people of God across denominational lines suspend their differences on tertiary issues and strive to labor together in love—seeking to see his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven—we answer Jesus’ prayer that we would be one (Jn 17:21–22). I am not insinuating that we should pursue unity through conformity (nor artificial uniformity). As Lewis once remarked, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” On the contrary, the unity of the church, which displays the manifold wisdom of God, shines most brilliantly in volitional diversity (cf. Eph 3:10). Furthermore, no one lives in the hall, nor does one sleep in the dining room (cf. 1 Cor 11:21–22). After meals, it is perfectly acceptable (and expected!) for everyone to return to his or her room. To reject the invitation to come and eat (cf. Is 55:1), however, is not only unacceptable, but insubordinate (cf. Phil 1:27; Eph 4:3).
Alas, perhaps I am too Hegelian…