Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hard Doctrines and Agreeing to Disagree

These should perhaps be two separate posts, but feeling that the two often go hand in hand I've decided to cover them together. My first thought is this: Many doctrines taught in the Bible are very difficult to study. They are "hard doctrines" - either to understand or to accept. This will not be news to any consistent Bible reader and should not be a surprise to any of us because of the very nature of the Bible's divine origin and our fallen and earthly intellect. In many areas of theology, the Bible appears to hold or permit differing views. One of the most commonly known of these difficult areas is the matter of God's sovereignty and man's will. Other areas include the roles of faith and works in salvation, an understanding of the old and new covenants and Israel's role in history, the continuance of certain spiritual gifts, the "now and not yet" nature of the kingdom of God, and the future timeline of mankind and creation.

In my own life, I try to constantly be digging deeper into these areas - to read multiple and variant books on the topics and listen to deep, lengthy sermons discussing the relevant Scriptures. Often, I find myself further confused or "in over my head," but I believe it is a struggle worth making. I occasionally hear the comment, "Why do you keep going on that one topic? You'll never be able to fully understand it, so why keep studying?" Are they right? If there are certain doctrines I will never fully grasp, why shouldn't I just forget about it and "take it in faith?"

I have two concerns. Number one, as a minister of the gospel, a student of theology, a missionary to a lost world, and an instructor of pastors, I feel it is my duty to make every effort to understand clearly what the Bible teaches. Doctrinally, I believe that God is indeed black and white, that the Bible holds only one position on all matters, and that the Bible is sufficiently clear to communicate everything God wants us to know for life. Number two, even if I weren't a vocational minister, I believe it would still be necessary to make every effort as a lay person to equip myself with a correct understanding of God and His truth.

Now, the fact remains that some doctrines I will not understand until eternity, when my glorified body is separated from my fallen nature and I will know fully what I now know in part (1Co.13:12). In all our studies, we must be careful never to force our logic beyond what the Scripture explicitly states, for even our human reason is fallen and flawed and finite. We won't get the answer to every one of our questions. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, "The Bible is too short. It just didn't tell us everything we wanted to know." However, we cannot allow ourselves as Christians to retreat to "faith" as a cover for theological laziness. Too many times, I have been in discussion with another believer on a difficult doctrine over which we disagree and heard, "I can't explain why I believe that, I just take it in faith."

It is for this reason that I have really grown to dislike the phrase "agree to disagree." While I do respect that the intent of the message is to maintain unity amidst conflict, I feel that people too often rush there and hold it up as a shield. It seems to me a final resort to hold to an untenable position. It is the period to end a discussion without further pressing the matter.

This person will merely disagree - no further discussion is permitted and no passage of Scripture given to refute or defend. Or instead, they will dismiss - that's not really what the passage means or it doesn't really matter anyway. Occasionally, they will divide - suddenly you don't see them anymore or they relate to you only on surface issues. Or they will distract - the hard doctrine is avoided and the topic changed. Or they digress - well, this other person who agreed with your position also did this or said that. The correct response for the believer is to discuss and decide - bring up all relevant Scriptures, pray, study, seek counsel and wisdom from God and others, then take the more reliable position, allowing room for personal conviction.

Paul's exhortation to Timothy has grown to become one of my favorite passages as it refers to these matters. "Study! . . . to show yourself approved unto God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, *rightly dividing the word of truth*" (2Ti.2:15, emphasis mine). Study is required of us. Diligence is used in other translations. "Do your best." "Make every effort." All of these carry the same idea. It takes hard work in God's Word to understand hard doctrines. But we must do that work to be approved by God! Then we will be workers who don't need to be ashamed and we will be able to rightly - correctly - divide God's Word.

This is why I persist in study. It's not because I have to know everything or have to always be right. It's because I sense that there is more in the Word that I do not yet know. When I am unsettled on a matter and another minister I respect is settled on it, I want to hear from him why. Where his reasons are valid and biblical, I will take up his position as well. May we always be diligent to learn more about God, and in knowing Him more, to love Him more!

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