Handling Theological Controversy
Theological controversies have always plagued the Church, and before that, in Judaism. Controversies within the Church have at times mistakenly been called “interpretive issues.” True, we must often rely on Bible translation to convey the accurate interpretation of the original text. There are, to be sure, interpretive issues within Scripture in which even the most astute theologians will disagree. Often, however, these matters of controversy have nothing to do with the interpretation of text. More often than not, interpretive issues spring from humanity wishing to adjust scripture to conform to its own set of beliefs and values. These controversies may deal with such matters as homosexuality, election vs. free will, ecumenical authority, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and numerous others. More often we see scripture being twisted or “interpreted” to conform to human or Church tradition, feelings, reason, experience, and societal norms. In every case, the authority of scripture must always be the basis for any accurate revelation of God’s message.
The Apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy, “Keep reminding them (believers) of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”. 2 Timothy 2:14-15. Paul also admonished Timothy in this way, “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” 1 Timothy 6:3-5. Then again Paul charges Timothy with these words, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith.” 1 Timothy 6:20-21. These passages reveal the absolute necessity of adhering to and correctly handling the Word of God. Correct interpretation of scripture must begin with a humble heart in submission to God’s authority through his scripture. A false understanding of the gospel message, or denying it altogether often leads to miss-interpretation of other passages of scripture. Paul had to confront Peter over the matter concerning circumcision. Peter was allowing peer pressure and a false gospel to lead him astray. Paul used the basic truth of the gospel to confront Peter. The matter was laid to rest. A false view of God can lead us in the wrong direction. We often want God to conform to our image of him rather than the other way around. When we allow these other elements such as human and Church traditions, feelings, reasoning, experience, or societal norms to supersede scripture, serious consequences occur.
Another tendency by believers is to try and fill in the empty spaces, so to speak, of scripture with our own rational explanations. For instance, we often want to know what happens to infants when they die. Or perhaps we try to explain why someone who says he received Christ but shows no fruit in his life by adjusting the salvation experience to include “a second work of grace”. Before attempting to answer that question, the better question might be, “do you really need to know that?”, or is it that you simply “want to know that?” The passage of scripture does not fit our rational thought so we dig into scripture, and when we don’t find what we consider a rational explaination, we try and “fill in the blanks.” In many cases, the Lord is asking us to trust him. Is he faithful? Yes. Is he loving? Yes. Is he sovereign? Yes. In Deuteronomy 29:29, the passage reads, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Rather than allowing such questions to become divisive and troublesome, we would do well to simply trust God with the unanswered questions. Rest in the knowledge that God is merciful, loving, and just. Hold fast to his revelations which he knows you need to know, not necessarily want to know.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2-4 “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, or do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” It is not difficult to recognize this truth as it pertains to those who are “perishing”. Believers must guard against those individuals who clothe themselves in a cloak of Christianity, but inwardly wish only to devour and destroy the faith of others. (see Matt. 7:15-16.) We would do well to follow the example of the Bereans who “were more noble than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11.
Finally, if and when these controversial theologies suddenly occur in conversations with others, we must remember this admonition from Paul to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25. Consider Jesus, who possessed all knowledge and understanding. Others incessantly threw controversial theological issues at him. As he ministered to others, he never became boisterous or argumentative. He was respectful. He was empathetic. It is true that he spoke and acted with authority, but not in a proud, demonstrative manner. He was meek which means he was powerful but self-controlled. He “spoke the truth in love.” (see Ephesians 4:15). In the fourth chapter of Ephesians Paul explains that once we obtain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” Ephesians 4:14-15. If we are to grow up in truth, it will only occur under the authority of Christ. Paul associated this with unity of the body of believers. (Eph. 4:13) When will controversial issues cease? When we fall under the authority of Christ and are fully built up in Him.
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