Glad you asked. These thoughts sprouted from pondering what seems to be a conundrum within the modern kingdom of God. I often see professed Christians at each other’s throats in the name of orthodox theology. Having Christians ripping into one another is not an unusual sight, neither in this day nor at any other time in history.
What makes it a conundrum is the very plain and obvious statements in the Bible — the wellspring from which we draw any good theology — which say that Christians are supposed to love one another and strive for the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Granted, it would be one thing if “loving one another” was just some micro-doctrine a first-century mystic came up with by loosely interpreting the vowel pointing of an obscure Hebrew word found tucked away in an arcane Qumran text. But the command that God’s people love one another — and show mercy, grace, patience, forgiveness, kindness, generosity and gentleness to one another — is stated more bountifully and clearly than 95% of the doctrines we use to smite one another.
I don’t want this to be too drawn out, so let me get to the point. We tend to have the habit of being defenders of gospel theology without really understanding gospel sacrifice. Admit it; there is no discussion of gospel theology without eventually having to deal with the sacrifice of Christ for his people. We tend to fudge a bit, though, when we come to the part about our sacrifice for our brothers and sisters.
What got me thinking about doctrine and sacrifice was looking at 1 Corinthians 8. It’s a pretty humdrum passage as far as confrontational theology goes. There’s nothing of predestination for the Calvinists. There’s no signs and wonders for the Charismatics. There’s no rapture references for the dispensationalists and no timing statements for the preterists.
In it, Paul writes about two groups in the church: the Strong and the Weak. Granted, Paul does not use the term “strong” in the passage, but I use the application from a parallel passage in Romans 15:1. Moving on…
The Strong are those who “have knowledge,” that singular element that that can make one strong, but also be a breeding ground for arrogance. So perhaps we ought to take note: the Garden of Knowledge is not without its weeds. Don’t be deluded into thinking that one can plant plentifully in the Garden of Knowledge and still leave it unattended. The best fruit can be choked if the weeds of arrogance are left to grow.
Paul, in addressing the issue of meat offered to idols, notes that there are two different theologies to address the concern. The Strong don’t believe that there’s anything to that idol. They don’t believe that there’s any demonic presence there. They hold to the oneness and sovereignty of God in his world. They have the “right” theology. They have the orthodox view that should be backed by denominational headquarters.
The Weak have a theology on the subject, also. Their theology sees demons behind the piece of stone. It sees the sacrificial meat as defiled. They wouldn’t dare eat any of it. They would be shocked to see a fellow-believer eat it. The meat leaves their conscience vulnerable to damage. It is immature theology. It is wrong theology.
Now if Paul dealt with that situation in the same manner the modern church deals with it, it would go something like this: After a time of sustained debate, argument, mockery, anathemas, ridicule, contempt, name-calling and scorn, the Strong would write out the “right” doctrine in confessional form, present it as the truly Christian doctrine and then compel the Weak to sign a statement of agreement if they wanted to remain in good standing with the church.
Silly Paul! He really missed a chance to strike a blow against the forces of heresy. Instead, Paul takes several very unorthodox steps. First, — and this one is baffling to most of Christendom today — he doesn’t blast the Weak for their immature doctrine. In fact, he’s exasperatingly tolerant of bad doctrine.
Second, he calls the Strong together and puts the burden of responsibility upon them. What? Isn’t it up to the Strong to sit the Weak down and inform them of their error? Well, he doesn’t, not at this point anyway. He sits the Strong Christians down and says, “Brethren, in order to maintain a loving atmosphere for our weaker brothers and sisters to grow, let’s keep a close watch on our eating practices. I know, I know; we’re free to eat what we want. But when you‘re with our weaker brethren for whom Christ died, say ‘no‘ to meat in their presence.”
Paul saves the strongest words for . . . the Strong! “By sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (8:12, 13). So, who’s the strongest in the congregation: The one with the best theological arguments or the one with the most grace and love for the brethren?
Much of our theolo-tudes are based on a premise contrary to the gospel of grace. We unconsciously believe that, the better our doctrine might be, the more righteous and more loved we are in the sight of God. We attitudinally believe that we are saved by the exegetical righteousness imputed by (fill in here your favorite theological system or non-system or doctrinal shibboleth). The gospel is no longer salvation by faith, but by dogma.
I suppose the foundation for a theology of theology is this: Good theology is designed to make us more gracious, not more righteous. Got that; Christ makes us righteous, doctrine makes us gracious.
Maybe we don’t take love and unity seriously because the study and debate of abstract theology is far less challenging to our lives than living a life of sacrificial love for people, many of whom (let’s face it) we may not even like. Maybe we need to come to grips with one of the facts of life: There is no amount of orthodox doctrine or heretical beliefs that will fill you with the love you need to sacrifice for those that may doctrinally repulse you.
Sometimes good theology means we shut our doctrine-hole and just love the brother or sister.
Grand Junction, Colorado