August 12, 2020

iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (part 1)


Note from CM: Letters to a Friend is a series of posts from 2007 that Michael Spencer wrote, responding to some comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. This is part one.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend: Some of the general sense of what you say strikes me as true in a way that I can affirm. I believe it is important to do what Thomas Merton suggested: attempt to create in ourselves the kind of unity that will heal divisions in the body of Christ.

I am also often deeply disturbed by the doctrinal divisions among Christians. Because I work with many non-Christians, I am aware of how these divisions discredit the gospel, and it is a matter of shame.

I also believe we need a broad view of how every Christian tradition is right and wrong in various ways. I believe we need a large “humility” zone in our theological teaching, writing and, most certainly, debate.

When I look at the specifics of what you are saying, however, I find myself wanting to respond in some detail. I hope you’ll bear with me as I look at parts of what you are saying and give some alternative points of view.

It has always seemed to me that Christians disagreeing with other Christians about doctrine was a subject that resisted generalizations. We should be careful and cautious about exactly what we’re saying. For example, we want scientists and politicians to debate. We assume it’s good for the process, but when Christians debate, we have some guilt and discomfort, as if it’s always wrong.

Certainly we fall tremendously short of what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and the various kinds of division among Christians have made a mockery of Jesus’ words, especially those over race, nationality, between rich and poor and other ridiculous divisions. Though I can’t think of many instances of Christians committing acts of violence against other Christians these days for doctrinal reasons (political reasons are a different story,) it has occurred in history.

I think, however, if we compared Christian unity with, for example, what we see among Muslims or New Agers, we would have to admit that Christians have actually achieved a remarkable amount of unity on various levels, even though they still fall short of Christ’s command. Muslims are car bombing each other over doctrine, and the New Age movement is so individualistic that each person is almost their own religion.

Christians have an entire heritage of “ecumenical theology” that we can read in the early creeds of the churches, such as the Nicene Creed. Virtually all Christians are united in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. Even churches who don’t know these creeds exist generally assume the kind of beliefs those creeds proclaim. I would urge you to not overlook all the work of the early centuries of the church in achieving confessional unity at the most basic levels.

I hate to use percentages, but I’d say that out of a total collection of Christian beliefs, at least 75% of those beliefs are affirmed by the vast majority of Christians. This is no small thing. In fact, there is so much unity at the level of essential Christian beliefs, that you could not distinguish one Christian from another if you asked a group of them foundational questions.

This amount of unity is such a given that it’s easy to overlook. For example, the debates we have about the nature of the Lord’s Supper can make it appear that Christians are in complete disagreement when, in fact, all of us agree about many- most?- things related to the Lord’s Supper. Our disagreements are severe and painful, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that if you took the essential elements of the Supper and the words of scripture about the Supper, we’d have tremendous common ground. Our disagreements begin when other issues and more theologizing takes place.

The “other 25%” of total Christian beliefs are full of the conflicts and controversies you are disturbed by, but I want to make some points about these as well. Let’s use the believer’s baptism versus infant baptism debate as the example to keep in mind.

For example, being aware of these controversies depends on where you are “standing.” In many contexts, Christians can work together, worship together and minister together with no conflict over the baptism issue at all. But if you went to the right places on the internet, or to the right seminary classroom or into the right fundamentalist church at the right time, the issue would be real and alive.

Because the baptism issue is “raging” on an internet discussion board may be a problem if atheists or unbelievers go to that board and read the discussion. But I’m pretty skeptical of the motives of someone who goes right to the place where conflict is happening. It’s not hard to find Christians standing together against abortion, feeding the hungry, providing charity to the poor or teaching kids in a mountain school. Ignoring those examples of unity and focusing on how a few Lutherans and a few Baptists argue on the internet is simply being microscopic.

In fact, those same Lutherans and Baptists, placed in churches in the same community, will not have a war or a public argument. Whatever conflict they have will be virtually invisible unless you go looking for it. They may cooperate and affirm one another far more than they disagree.

So, without disagreeing with your observation that Christian doctrinal conflict is a serious failure, I do want to say that I’m more impressed with the remarkable unity and cooperation that happens among Christians who differ doctrinally. Mark Noll has observed that there is more Catholic-Protestant unity today than there was 30 years ago because of common ground on social, political and cultural issues. Doctrine hasn’t kept Catholics and Protestants apart when it comes to working for causes they both affirm, such as pro-life.

I can’t keep from thinking about Pope Benedict’s recent statements that the Catholic church is the true church and all Protestants are part of deficient churches. While many Protestant bloggers noted the significance of the statement, its safe to say that the reaction of the average Catholic and Protestant in the average workplace or community was a big yawn. Such statements, which emphasize division, are largely irrelevant “on the ground.”

I’ll close with a wonderful discovery I made a few weeks ago. While reading David Wright on Baptism, I discovered that an ecumenical group of Christians had produced a document on Baptism and the Eucharist that demonstrates the remarkable unity that is possible among Christians when they sit down, talk, listen and work to articulate themselves clearly and generously. Without watering down differences, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry is a remarkable expression of unity at the level of serious scholarship. Not everyone is demonstrating the kind of contentious spirit you’ve seen and find distasteful and discouraging.

Next time I write, I’d like to talk about the concept of “infallibility,” and how it is used by various groups of Christians. It’s a place where I think we have to be very clear what the term means and how it is used. I think if we understand this term, we can correct the impression you have that all Christian groups are claiming to be infallibly right.




  1. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > But I’m pretty skeptical of the motives of someone who goes right to the place
    > where conflict is happening

    Ditto. And this applies not just to religious/theological issues but to societal and political issues as well. I’m probably beyond “pretty skeptical”, I see many people using conflict and disagreement [you can always find it if you look far enough out] to dismiss discussion and opt-out, or worse – put on an i-am-above-the-fray airs [in religious circles this is being “spiritual”]. This neglects that there are enormous areas of general consensus in just about every intellectual arena; focusing on the rabble wrestling around the edges of those areas is dishonest. Our mediums seem optimized for highlighting disagreement and discontent, but it is also a choice of the observer not to exercise discernment.

    > there is more Catholic-Protestant unity today than there was 30 years ago


    > Because the baptism issue is “raging” on an internet discussion board

    It is almost comical to even think about! 🙂

    > Muslims are car bombing each other over doctrine

    Sorry, !!!NO!!!, I do not accept that this statement is true. This is an issue of thin-identity, and as the article points out – it depends on where you are standing. They are car bombing each other over tribal, national, and political differences – and that is justified using religious rhetoric which is accepted because of long historical [and current – political] grievances. Not that long ago Christians here in the south were blowing up churches – and not due to religious differences but political reasons and historical grievances. Only now explosives and other weapons are easier to come by, cheaper, and better [technology!]. Imagine the civil rights movement if it was fought TODAY in the wealthy American cities. Neither Kosvo/Bosnia was not is the middle-east today an essentially religious conflict; insisting that it is only obfuscates any possible resolutions.

    • I must respectfully disagree. (Emphasis on “respect” 😉 ). There are certainly political and ethnic roots to the current troubles in the Middle east, but to dismiss the Sunni-Shia aspect of the conflict not only skews the depth of the issues at stake, it ignores the stated motivations of most of the parties involved. To put it bluntly, if someone says they want to kill me for religious reasons, I’m going to take them seriously until overwhelming evidence to the contrary appears.

      Now, back to the OP – I keep harping on this book, but only because it has always gotten the silent treatment. I cannot recommend John Frame’s *Evangelical Reunion* highly enough. Please Google it and download it (my phone is not cooperating WRT pasting the link…)

      • Robert F says

        What you see happening in much of the Muslim world is a conscious rejection of religious pluralism, and an attempt to create nationwide airtight religious ghettos that allow the minimum amount of religious cognitive dissonance possible. In such a social climate, the idea of denominations is implicitly rejected, just as pluralism is explicitly rejected, and the tolerance of religious plurality that modernism demanded in the West, and that was embodied in denominationalism, is intentionally scuttled. Religious radicalism has become institutionalized in many places in the Muslim world, and religious pluralism and tolerance have been explicitly and politically rejected. To apply the historical developments in the West to what is happening there, as if they are merely a reflection of us at an earlier stage, is a kind of historical imperialism, and in fact one of the things that particularly infuriates some of their more articulate and insightful spokesmen (yes, they are almost exclusively male, and that’s why I used the gender specific word.)

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        but to dismiss the Sunni-Shia aspect of the conflict not only skews the depth of the issues at stake, it ignores the stated motivations of most of the parties involved.

        I’m afraid this might be a misunderstanding on your part. The Sunni-Shia divide also lies across politico-ethnic boundaries. This makes sense, given that Islam is a “political” religion, as well as the tribalism in which Islam took root in the Middle East. ITIOFD, this is not my opinion; I was a Muslim Studies student, and this is a pretty general consensus among historians, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

    • William Martin says

      The church bombings in the south were from men who had made agreements with demons. It would be hard pressed for me to say there were Christians. Although I could see Jesus forgiving them and maybe they had invited Him into their life at one time but I highly doubt it. The middle east conflict has had the same kind of hate going on for thousands of years. I often wonder at what point the blinders come off of these persons and light reveals what a horrible mistake they have made. Always seems that evil loves to see us suffer and then say it had nothing to do with it. On another note, this morning I was reflecting that in these kind of forums how we turn and face each other but as we do that we face God. Then I realize how much some of us need this expression of ideas to further our relationship. I am new to this and already I have profited so much from the spirit flowing through this.
      I would agree with the atheist in seeing what he sees because he is not coming from a point of love in the spirit. It would seem the worst place to start. Yesterday’s post was a grounding and on time as always. How it blessed me. What a wonderful tool this is. I am not into the conflict of theological debate as much as I am always asking what do You want me to see. I listen to the Catholic radio station searching for gain in listening. How often do I hear things that unsettle me. Sometimes the only answer is to turn it off and try again later. I know deep down we are connected and have been side by side with all kinds of denominations at retreat and sang beside them getting a taste of what Heaven must be like. It was quite moving to my heart and soul. More times then not when looking at this world I can’t help but wonder what He sees in us and then the times of singing and what we really are capable of. Quite amazing. I will keep reading.

  2. Oswald Chambers said, “God’s life in us expresses itself as God’s life, not as human beings trying to be godly.”
    Seems like a good thought in this context.

  3. Michael was right in that relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics have thawed over the past few decades. As a child growing up in RC I once wanted to visit a Presbyterian Church some distant relatives attended and was told that I would be excommunicated if I set foot inside a Protestant church.

    That was in the 50’s and I’m happy to say it’s no longer that way. Perhaps Vatican II is finally kicking in and/or our mutual desire to defend the unborn or other social issues of mutual interest has brought us closer together. Or perhaps Rome has finally come to terms with the Reformation and the Protestants have agreed that the Pope is not the Antichrist. Or perhaps Rome has concluded that their loss of members–Hispanics, in particular, both here in the US and in Latin America–to Protestant churches will not be abated through condemnation of Protestants but by not taking Hispanics for granted. Whatever the case may be, it’s a welcomed change.

    I wish that Pope Francis would make kinder statements towards Protestants than his predecessor, Benedict, did and that he would acknowledge that we Protestants are not an aberration of Christianity but the real deal as well.

    PS: Anyone know where/how Michael arrived at the 75% agreement vs. 25% disagreement figure he mentioned?

  4. David Cornwell says

    Englewood Review of Books is highlighting a new release today “Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer” by Rowan Williams in which he discusses the four essentials for being Christian. I am anxious to read the book, and have in on order.

    • Danielle says

      You tempt me. Rowan Williams is great.

    • Rick Ro. says

      I must admit, when I see something like “the four essentials for being a Christian,” I cringe. Sounds like work. What if I’m only doing one or two of them? What if I’m doing all four, but only two of them really well? Am I less of a Christian?

      Maybe I’m being a bit too cynical. Sorry ’bout that.

      • Robert F says

        Somebody should phone our evangelical Friends, and our Salvation Army friends, and let them know that they’re missing two of the four essentials.

        Except that they’re not. Even though EF and the SA do not practice the sacraments in traditional ways, they nevertheless take baptism and communion seriously as indispensable facets of the Christian life. They do, however, understand both in ways that most of us sacrament orientated Christians consider overly spiritualized: We like our communions consumable, and our baptisms wet.

    • David Cornwell says

      Probably should wait to see what the book actually says before judging it. Almost anything leads to controversy among Christians these days.

  5. Faulty O-Ring says

    “Virtually all Christians are united in the foundational beliefs of Christianity. […] I hate to use percentages, but I’d say that out of a total collection of Christian beliefs, at least 75% of those beliefs are affirmed by the vast majority of Christians.”

    The Trinity is accepted because non-Trinitarian groups were suppressed in ancient times, making today’s Christian denominations the descendents of just one faction. The true monotheists remained within Judaism (and later died out) or eventually, became Muslims.

    But 75 %? What does this even mean? I could buy that there exists a body of Christian beliefs, each of whose items would attract 75 % or more agreement, but that’s not what Spencer’s saying–he talks about a “vast majority” which accepts 75 % of…some list of beliefs? How would that even work?

    1. The Trinity
    2. The Incarnation
    3. Foot-washing
    4. Snake-handling
    5. Bad to be gay
    6. Restorationism
    7. Salvation by Faith Alone
    8. Substitutionary Atonement
    9. The Assumption of Mary
    10. That Jesus really existed

    Obviously the percentage of agreemnt will depend on the list.

  6. Robert F says

    A strong argument could be made that the Enlightenment, as expressed in pluralistic modernity, is what has established peace between the formerly warring factions of Christianity, and not anything that Christendom would have achieved on its own and with only its own resources apart from the Enlightenment and modernity. If true, then Christianity itself could not really take credit for the relative unity and peace that exists currently among the various churches; these, rather, would be the result of a pluralistic modern polity that insists on keeping peace in the public square between different religious perspectives, perhaps because it remembers all too well how the wars of religion have violently torn societies apart.