To do this is going to require the critical examination of some very popular and deeply entrenched theological positions—and doing so is always rife with contention. This is the part of my work and ministry that I truly dislike. I dread most Mondays because I know that I will inevitably receive ugly responses to something I wrote. It's not that I resent the disagreement—I don't. What grieves me is when the disagreement becomes personal and condemning as if I am an enemy of Christ.
Our human tendency is to build theological fortresses and lob shells over the wall toward anyone who may challenge our presuppositions and beliefs. This is never helpful, always divisive, and in the end, we avoid testing the spirits and may, unwittingly, remain on the wrong side of the truth. That is a place I personally do not want to be.
Because I recognize the limitations that my sin nature imposes on me, I am willing to explore beyond the limits of my understanding and listen to the whole church. Of course, if we subscribe to the "fortress" mentality then we may think the "whole church" exists exclusively within our walls. If this is your inclination, please resist this impulse and hear the Lord who prayed that we be one (see John 17) and assume the character of this unity that is described in 1 Corinthians 13:7. Even when we disagree, we are to do so in a spirit of love and charity with a hope that is rooted in a faith that Jesus' promise of peace is sure. If we lived this way, we would be far less inclined to hurt those with whom we disagree, and be much more charitable to those who, in fact, may be wrong. If we truly desire to correct, then certainly grace and charity will go much further than a combative approach.
Recall Apollos, a man "competent in the Scriptures" who "taught accurately the things of Jesus." And yet Apollos' understanding of the gospel wasn't accurate because he knew "only the baptism of John." Despite his error on this point, the Bible doesn't condemn Apollos. Quite the contrary: Apollos is praised as a man "fervent in the spirit" who taught "diligently the things of the Lord" (see Acts 18:24-28). So, here is a man esteemed by God despite his mistaken understanding. So when I say that the majority of Christians have embraced and teach a truncated version of the gospel, this in no way suggests that those who do so are false or unfaithful Christians. Neither does this suggest that they are biblically ignorant or insincere in their desire to grow in their knowledge and understanding of the Lord. The fact is, most of us were raised on this truncated and privatized version of the gospel. We have taught it and lovingly shared it with others, and many of us received salvation upon hearing these simple words. It is, as are we, a product of the times in which we live.
Nevertheless, these facts do not necessarily validate that gospel—divorced from the kingdom—as being the complete and true representation of what Jesus taught and preached. It is not our understanding or our decision that secures our faith in Jesus Christ, but the Holy Spirit acting on our behalf and in opposition to our sinful will (see Romans 9:16). Regardless of whether we are vibrant or lukewarm, faithful or not, God's will continues to come forth (see Daniel 4:35). My only desire is to lead an exploration of the gospel of the kingdom over and against the reductionist version so that as we pursue discipleship, we arrive at Christ and his mission, not a lesser, culturalized version of Christian faith.
You may think I am overemphasizing the process and should just get on with the subject. However, the manner in which we engage these questions is as much a part of Christian discipleship as the theological and doctrinal issues themselves. The very act of peaceful disagreement—loving those with whom we disagree—within the body bears witness to the power and presence of Christ. Conversely, the uncharitable display of rancor and dissention tells the world in the loudest possible terms: Jesus is not real! Again, John 17 gives the most powerful argument affirming that our life together—our relationships with each other—serve as an indispensible testimony to the triune God.
Beginning in John 17:20, Jesus prays, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us…." Jesus then gives the purpose for this unity when he says, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (ESV emphasis mine). This point is so important that Jesus repeats it in vv. 22-23. Think about what Jesus is saying here.
The object of Jesus' prayer is the body of Christ throughout the ages (all who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit) and the subject is a visible relational unity that communicates to the world that God is real and Jesus is his son!
So my challenge (myself included) is that we approach the questions raised in the weeks ahead with the same attitude as Apollos, who humbly received instruction and, being pleased, God sent him out to help "those who through grace had believed … showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus" (Acts 18:27, 28 ESV). May we seek to avoid rancor and dissention as we move forward, desiring to know Christ more completely and walking in a manner that pleases him.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org