acts 15, baptism, cessationism, Christian sabbath, continuationism, debate, denominations, dialogue, ethnicity, jerusalem council, modesty, normative principle, regulative principle, theonomy, third use of the Law, worship
Recently, there has been some attention given to the recent book by Austin Fischer entitled Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. There have been numerous responses of the book around the blogosphere, including commentary by some Reformed individuals such as James White (here and here) and Kevin DeYoung (seen here). I don’t have any new commentary concerning the book itself (since I haven’t read it), but I want to discuss a matter of equal and more general importance. It appears that every time there is a theological debate of importance within the Church, there are always some Christians who feel that Christians shouldn’t debate each other. There are others who seem to believe that the existence of theological debates within the Church is a sign of dissension and division in the Church. Consider some of the comments from Kevin DeYoung’s review of the book
Is being a Calvinist more important than being a christian and loving God and just doing his will? Are we not building the same thing we are asking the Roman catholics to stop?
Though I believe what we believe steers our faith and convictions, I also know that we serve a sovereign God and he has commissioned us to go and make disciples. I love theology/doctrine, but not at the cost of losing a soul for the Kingdom. Bottom line, we can flush out a lot of our Calvinist beliefs and Reformed beliefs by believing in the doctrines that are essential to the Christian Faith.
While I sympathize with those who hold such a view, I think it’s time that we analyze this view in a serious manner. Should Christians engage each other in debates over matters of doctrine? Does God approve of such behavior? I think there are clear answers to this question biblically and historically.
Biblically, the passage that immediately comes to my mind is Acts 15. At the counsel held in Jerusalem, a very important question came up for consideration: Do Gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be legitimate Christians and full members of the Church? First, it’s important to note that this is not a discussion between Christians and non-Christians. This was a legitimate debate between groups of believers because this was an issue that had not been discussed by all of the apostles. By implication, this is also a question that deals with Jewish-Gentile relations in the Church and the proper understanding of the Old Testament in the life of the Church. Needless to say that this is a very important question to ask! If the same logic used today concerning legitimate debates were used during the Jerusalem council, there would people who would say “Is this argument on circumcision more important than loving God and doing His will?” or “Your argument on circumcision is divisive because it’s dividing the Church.” No apostle or elder in Jerusalem held this view because they understood this debate helps to define what a Christian is.
Second, it’s also important to note how an unanimous consensus developed. Peter stood up after there has been much debate (cf. Acts 15:6-7). Luke does not give the impression that these debates were contrary to the will of God. Both sides understood that this was an important question and both sides used OT scripture to form their arguments. It was after considerable debate on both sides that Peter began to speak on this matter. Peter did not come with a word from the Holy Spirit to give a definitive conclusion on the matter; rather Peter gave a reasoned argument based on the work of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. Although Peter’s words enabled the party of the Pharisees to listen to Paul and Barnabas, a definitive conclusion did not come until after James spoke (cf. Acts 15:13-21).
Therefore, we would say that the argument of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James won on the occasion and convinced the whole church on this matter. This was a very heated debate, but the council’s letter to the Gentile believers attributes the answer to this debate to the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15:23-30.
“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
In the minds of the elders and apostles, their heated debate was led and guided by the Holy Spirit and thus they were confident that the conclusion of their debates was also guided by the Holy Spirit. The debate among believers did not divide the Church; rather it helped to define the Church. From this point on, any person who preaches that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be justified before God and fully included into the Church is a false teacher (consider the harshness of Paul’s words in Galatians). The apostles and early elders understood that sincere, godly debate is one means in which the will of God may be discerned (cf. Romans 12:2).
Historically, we see that sincere debates among believers have served to clarify the beliefs of the Church and to identify false teachers and heretics within the Church. For example, let’s consider the various controversies surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity. It was through creedal statements, such as the Athanasian creed, that various teachings such as Sabellianism, Arianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism were denounced as heresies. It was through the formal debates between Augustine and Pelagius that the doctrine of original sin was more clearly understood. It was through the ecumenical councils that orthodox Christology was more clearly defined and various other teaches, like apollinarism and docetism, were denounced as heresies. As in Acts 15, the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s acts of providence have guided the Church through these controversies and we have benefited from the discourse and debate of previous generations.
So, in my view, I believe that there is a proper place for genuine godly debate because we are called to contend earnestly for the truth that has been handed down to us (cf. Jude 3). I don’t believe the argument that those who debate other Christians are dividing the Church or the either-or fallacy that says that you can either evangelize or debate matters of doctrine. I think that this mentality communicates a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and a lack of understanding on how we come to understand doctrinal truth within the Church. In the broader evangelical spectrum, there are numerous debates that need to be discussed and debated much more openly and honestly. Achieving the unity of the faith does not come by simply closing our eyes to our doctrinal differences that have eternal consequences; rather the unity of the faith comes as the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all areas of truth. So my running list of topics that should be discussed would include
- The Christian sabbath: Has God instituted a Sabbath for the Church? What are the implications of this concept for the life of the Church?
- Regulative vs. normative principle: Has God given us sufficient guidance in the Scripture to regulate our corporate worship or are we free to use our wisdom in deciding what elements of worship are proper? Does the regulative principle apply only for the Church or does it apply for all of life? What type of music should be brought into the Church?
- Credobaptism vs. paedobaptism: Is the historic practice of paedobaptism supported by Scripture? Is the covenant theology that support paedobaptism the most clear way to understood biblical theology? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Baptistic covenant theology (also called 1689 federalism)?
- Cessationism vs. continuationism: This topic was initiated in a formal manner during the Strange Fire debate. What is the proper orthodox view of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church? Is there a distinction between sign, revelatory gifts and permanent gifts? What is the scriptural and historical evidence for each position?
- Christians and the Law: What is the distinction between Law and Gospel? Is the moral law binding to the conscience of Christians? What are the implications of the third use of the law for the life of Church and the life of individual Christians? Is antinomianism biblical? Are the civil regulations of the Mosaic law still binding to Christians and the society at large?
- Christians and the Culture: How should Christians interact with the culture? What is a proper view of worldliness? What should Christians learn from the fundamentalist movement and the modern day anabaptist movement? Are all cultures morally neutral?
- Christianity and Ethnicity: What is the biblical view of ethnicity? Why is ethnicity important in the life of the Church? Is there a “biblical sociology” by which we can understand ethnicity? Should local churches strive for the goal of being multi-ethnic and multi-cultural? Is there a difference between two? Is it appropriate to have a mono-ethnic and mono-cultural church?
- Modesty: What is the biblical view of modesty? Is there an objective way to define modesty or is modesty culturally dependent? What authority does a local church have over these matters? Should church discipline be extended towards individuals who refuse to be immodest?
- Denominations: Why do denominations exist? Are the existence of denominations inherently unbiblical? Is the modern trend towards non-denominational churches a healthy trend?
These are some of the questions that I ponder about on a fairly regular basis and hopefully, these questions can stir godly debate among Christians and Christian leaders in the future.