September 23, 2020

Letters to a Friend: Divisions

volunteerpx_2.jpgLetters to a Friend is a series of posts responding to some recent comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates.

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.


Michael Spencer


  1. Cardinal Levada’s ‘clarification’ affirms the Catholic belief that the Church is essentially sacramental and episcopal. Since Protestants have rejected a sacramental priesthood and the bishops as successors to the Apostles, they are in Catholic terms a lay renewal movement.

    It would be interesting to compare the language used in Lumen Gentium to refer to Protestant denominations with internal language used to refer to lay leaders… for example, lay Catholic movements are ‘ecclesial movements’ (the term ecclesial recognizes elements of the Church, while at the same time indicates that these movements of themselves lack the totality of the Church). And there’s also resistance to using the terms minister and pastor to refer to lay persons, despite increased service and pastoral roles.

  2. One must also remember that debate, disagreement and conflict arises in many areas of human thought, not just doctrinal matters.

    The scientific community is actually praised for the way in which debate and conjecture are encoruaged. Why should this same standard not be applied to the church?

    I personally think that “debate” has been so removed from normal church life (General Question: when was the last time there was a dsicussino or debate during your sunday service?) that we have not developed a forum and process for humble debate in church communities, where the scientific community has (of sorts – peer review etc..). Most of the theological/ doctrinal debate has been left in the seminaries where the lay-person cannot access the dicsussion. Hence the often volatile debate that spills on to the internet.

    I think church communities should ambrace active debate as a regular part of their activities. Becasue I think we can get the method down in a humble and polite manner if only we give it a try.

    So I’ve got no beef with doctrinal debate per se. But I do have a probelm with it being carried out in a hostile manner.

    I think if Christians can be seen to be thoughtful, active debaters (esp when dicsussing doctrinal issues amongst themselves) who are also humble and polite this will go a long way towards restoring some credit at least.

  3. Fremen_Warrior66 says

    We had a recent discussion about this on the G2G boards.

  4. jmanning says

    I think the whole idea of God being “above” doctrine that your friend expressed is interesting.

    For doctrine to be untrue, 1 of 3 things has happened. Either the source material we draw it from is wrong (the Bible), either the deductions we draw from it are wrong (our doctrines don’t make sense of the full biblical data in a harmonious way), or the ability to deduce is feeble (logic is not capable of conveying truth from the biblical subject matter)

    It seems your friend is either in camp 1 (the Bible is an inaccurate document) or in camp 3 (logic is unable to guide us)

    I’m guessing this because of his statements. I have found that those two ways of looking at theology are ways to punch at you while not allowing you to punch back. I think you responded as if your friend is in camp 2….maybe the quote you have at the front from him is not fully representative, but it seems he is not thinking of subject matter, but of epistemology.

    If God is “obviously” above theology, how would he know that we can’t know what God thinks about theology. If there is some barrier between God’s mind and our minds that cannot be crossed even in a minor way, we ought to pack up the shop and go home. I hate the way people apply the term “theology” like it is something alien to Christianity that Greeks chained the Bible to. The idea of God is theology. The Bible is full of theological deductions and applications.

    Now doctrinal infighting does hurt the church. But it also helps the church. I think of J.I. Packer’s claim that he was almost suicidal over his sin and trying to achieve perfection, until he read John Owen’s “Mortification of Sin”. That book was a polemical against the Catholic doctrine of sanctification. Doctrinal infighting might turn off religious spectators, but people fighting for their own soul are benefited immensely by truth defended and proclaimed. 2 Ti 2:24-25 “The man of God must not be quarrelsome…correcting his opponents with gentleness…” Fight, but fight the way God says to. “…God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”

  5. I haven’t responded to the “God above theology” comment. That’s a couple more posts down the road, after I discuss the wrong concept of infallibility that’s at work here.

    But certainly God is “above” us in every way. The question is not God’s “aboveness,” but revelation. Does it occur, in what way, and does it result in true theological statements.

    My friend has heard me do my talk on Using John 3:16 as a summary of the entire Bible. He/She is aware that the Bible does make theological statements and he/she accepts them as true.

    But the trouble comes when, for example, someone writes an 800 page book of Systematics. That’s theology of another kind, and it’s often defended as if it is scripture and authoritative. There is a distinction there that we need to make. No man’s theology = scripture, though any man’s theology may be drawn from scripture and accurately present scripture.

  6. “Such statements, which emphasize division, are largely irrelevant ‘on the ground.'”


    Great post! I couldn’t agree more what you write here about Pope Benedict’s recent statement on how Catholics understand Church. I do think it important to note that while, in this age of instant global communication, this document was released generally, it’s intended audience was neither the average Catholic of Protestant. It was directed to those in the Catholic Church who are engaged in ecumenism. Believe it or not, it is intended to foster to ecumenism, just as was Dominus Iesus, issued a few years back that was intended for ecumenists and those engaged in inter-religious dialogue.

    The good news is that the underlying assumption is that the Catholic Church engages in ecumenism and is committed to working to bring about authentic unity among all baptized Christians- the Catholic Church does recognize the validity of Christian baptisms that take place out side the Catholic Church. Baptism is the basis of our fellowship, over and above our differences However, if authentic union (dare we hope communion?) is ever to be achieved, we have to up-front about where we are and what honest differences exist. Just to pick one point that Catholic ecclesiology emphasizes, apostolic succession, Protestant churches do not claim it nor see even see it as all that important, except maybe some Anglicans.

    So, again, you’re right on that average Christians don’t care, nor should they. These division are painful and they do compromise our witness, but, as with the document you mentioned, which here in our Catholic parish we used as the basis for adult formation in understanding Eucharist, there are signs of hope. Here’s to having more such convergences.

  7. I full-heartedly agree. Those deductions can be useful, but not binding in the same sense that Scripture is binding.

    I think the problem is when we take verses like “the Lord repented he made Saul king” and “the Lord is not like a man that he should repent” and we say that a theological position that affirms “one or the other” is just as good as a position that affirms both and blends them by deductions. I’d say if we must use logic to make sense of two “seemingly” contradictory Scriptures, that logic is part of God’s revelation. We supply the connection intended by the author, we don’t supply the inspired status by our logic. I’ve heard and somewhat agree that logic is thinking God’s thoughts after Him. (I just think God’s thoughts represent higher logic, not a lack of logic)

    If we take the “one or the other” position on two contradictory verses, we are calling God true in one verse and a liar in the other basically. Either that or attacking the veracity of the subject matter. Or either we are just saying God’s ways don’t have to hold to logic or reason. I think those are dangerous…but that’s my deduction.

  8. Thank you for your evenhanded, gracious response. If we could simply focus on essentials, we’d surely have more unity amongst ourselves. And, more than that, if we’d peddle love more than we’d peddle our own pet theologies, we’d have more unity as well.

    What’s bothered me over the past few weeks has been this strange polarization of Christians who believe anything that smacks of postmodernism is evil. I’m frustrated that we can’t just sit around a table and rationally discuss things. Even the Christian media seems to hype people up about this issue, causing folks to fear. And when they fear (like an animal who’s been shot), they bite back.

    I wrote about this over at The Master’s Artist. Here’s the link:

    And, recently, if you read Christianity Today, check out the August issue, page 52. David Aikman’s article “Attack Dogs of Christendom” clearly articulates the problem. They don’t have an online link yet, or I’d add it here.

    Mary E DeMuth

  9. Our pastor spoke on John 17 yesterday and at the end I still wasn’t sure what “unity” is supposed to look like. I knew how others had gotten it wrong but that was about it. Now, after reading your post, I’m still not sure(and I know you weren’t specifically trying to address the subject). So, is unity simply being civil to one another and affirming what we all agree on? Does it mean we should be able to worship together? Work together? Grit our teeth and nod when we pass in the buffet line at Sizzler? Exactly how much unity is necessary so that “the world may know that you sent me”.?

    And what about the “one in Christ” part? Are we not united in Christ even when we fuss and fight? These are real questions and as you might can tell it’s a subject that has confounded me for a while. But I’m fairly simple-minded.

    Thanks for letting me go on. 🙂