As a growing Christian I held on to certain beliefs because that is what I was taught. I had no reasons to doubt. I trusted my teachers and pastors. Besides the Bible, I took their recommendations of books and resources without question. As I grew, in age and matured in the faith, whatever that means, I questioned more. Not because I was being argumentative or looking for a fight. I enquired a little more because I wanted to understand better.
I remember warnings about some preachers and authors. This advice, in itself, was and still is sound. The New Testament has many warnings against false teachers, prophets and such. Here are a few samples:
So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. — 2 Peter 2:1
‘Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.’ – 1 John 2:6
‘Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. ‘ – 1 John 4:1
These unmistakable warnings are exactly that-warnings. We can’t be flippant about them. Ignoring them would be perilous. We know we are to discern teachings, prophesies and such. We know that false teachers and teachings are real. We know we ought not to listen to them. Neither should their teachings find root in our minds and lives.
Very few things can be more polarising like the debate on who the false teachers are. ‘False teachings’ is as subjective–on the same level. Every generation of Christ followers had differences in understanding and interpretation of Scriptures. Denominations are careful to protect, nurture and refute particular doctrine(s). Good teaching, when nurtured and shared to the next generation is important. Bad theology, when incubated and propagated, can be damaging in profound ways.
On What We Believe And How It Shapes Our World
What we believe shapes how we live and shape the world around us. It shapes our view of God and what and how tell the world about Him. It determines how we treat other people. This means ‘fellow’ believers. Those who don’t share what we call “Christian values and beliefs” are also included.
I recently watched Come Sunday on Netflix. As I watched I started wrestling with how we treat fellow believers who believe differently. Based on actual events, it is a story about Carlton Pearson. A pastor from Tulsa, Oklahoma who had lead an emerging church until a pronouncement he made. What he said was a deviation from what was generally accepted in his congregation. Not only that it was a notable shift from beliefs held and taught by the/his wider Christian community.
I’m not going into the detail on the statement(s) that saw him alienated. Whether I share Pearson’s articulated views or not, isn’t what I want to focus on.
Pearson’s story, told in a compelling way, broke my heart. It wasn’t what he believed or did not but the treatment he received. It is normal to expect some pain when you lose your leadership team and congregation. It is definitely not easy to have your mentor and other notable voices speak against you. Painful.
The movie told Pearson’s story. Sympathetic to Pearson. Even with this knowledge, it made me wonder about how we treat those we don’t agree with. Pearson was called a heretic. Whether he is / was or not isn’t the focus of this post.
After watching the movie, I searched the Internet for Pearson. Some of the things said about him were worse than the movie.
There are unwritten rules on how to treat or deal with those who are ‘outside the faith’. Because, well, “We know where they stand.” Right? When it comes to brothers and sisters, “Who should know better”, it’s a different story. Christ followers can be vicious. Leaders, who are often great communicators can issue scathing statements and tomes.
Equally Opposing Convictions or Beliefs
Pearson, in the movie, and I’m sure in real life also, expressed deep conviction. This made me also think: what happens when two (or more) believers hold opposing views. Not a benign, “Difference of opinions”.
What happens when both believers hold to their divergent views with equal conviction? History is not short of examples and lessons. Some differing views gave birth to movements and some denominations resulted. The expression of some differences can be consequential. Seismic as their effects shake foundations of history and shape posterity. The Reformation is one of the best examples of all time.
Differences of opinions, understanding and expression will always exist. The central premise of this post is, “How do we deal with them?” Of equal importance, “How do we treat those who don’t share our convictions?”
Clues Or Guidance From The Early Church
One of the places we get our cues from is the early Church and leaders. One of the most notable disagreements of the Early church was the question of the Gentiles. “Could they be filled with the Holy Spirit? Was God be extending the same grace he had given His chosen people? Could you be ‘saved’ without circumcision as per Moses’ custom?”
Robust, Rigorous Engagement
It is easy to read the account of Acts 15:1-35 without giving it the weight it deserves. It is easy to read the deliberations as a sanitised conversation.
6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. — Acts 15:6–7 (ESV)
“…much debate…” suggests robust, vigorous discussion to me. Things had to have gotten heated. I imagine the elders and leaders feeling the gravitas of the moment. Whatever they were to decide would be consequential. Entrusted with leadership of the Church and its mission they couldn’t be flippant. The issue on the table could’ve broken God’s mission through the Church. If handled well, it would see greater impetus injected into the life of the Church.
Fortunately, there was resolution. They reached an agreement on God’s leading, wrote a letter and communicated it far and wide. That is one great example of an issue with a clear resolution. One of the clues to disagreeing as coming to the table to do it. Slander and sometimes, avoidable denominational result when we don’t talk first.
Creating space for debate challenges us to examine our beliefs. Are the foundations sound? How did we arrive at them? What are their implications put against history, and the totality of Scripture?
The Accountability Issue(s)
The counsel of elders and other leaders does not seem to carry the same weight it did in the early Church. I could be generalising because of what comes to the light in media. Naturally, those with large churches, platforms and influence have the spotlight on them. Despite this, we have to ask ourselves some questions.
Has our generation ‘honoured’ leaders to an extent that makes it difficult to correct them? Could the accountability of ‘senior leaders’ be lacking? Lacking in the sense that it is inadequate, ineffective. Is it powerless because of an unhealthy respect for some leaders? Are those whom pastors and other leaders should be accountable to, only ceremonial? Is it possible that leaders who might want to be accountable are short-changed?
Accountability is not about having a board. It goes beyond having people “speak into your life”. It also implies correction. It means no leader is above challenge. Submission to the Word and counsel is a critical.
When There’s No Resolution
The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 addressed a disagreement in theology. While there was resolution in that instance, it is not always the case. Sometimes no consensus reached. This is usually when churches or denominations split. Then the name-calling begins.
“Heretic” is one label of the most damaging labels any Christian leader or teachers can have put on them. Warnings issues against. Are we too quick or too slow to use this label?
So, what do we do when fellow believers’ convictions don’t align with what we believe to be right and true?
One of my favourite authors / bloggers, Joel J. Miller crafted a great phrase: “The Apologetics Of Reverence”. Miller proposes, “The baseline for all human interaction is reverence for the image of God in others. When we debate, we are not talking with a syllogism. Nor are not talking with any enemy.”
We must come to the table to engage there first. Quoting 1 Peter 3:15 he continues to propose that the defence of our stance must be apt. I agree with him. Before we fire off a tweet, vlog or blog post we must engage. We are our brothers’ keepers.
Often, we side line people before we’ve heard them out.
Love Must Remain
Love and pray for them. How do you speak about those you love? How do you treat those you love? How often do you pray for those you love? If Jesus encourages us to pray for our enemies, what more for our brothers and sisters?
Whether we agree with another Christian or not, we don’t have a choice when it comes to loving them. This means we wish them the best. We have no ill-feelings or intentions or desires on them. Loving them means keeps the door of restoration in relationship and beliefs open.
If you were the wrong one, and you discovered it, how easy would you want your path of restoration to be?
We Could Be Wrong
While we need to be clear on where we stand on some issue, we need to entertain the possibility that we could be the wrong.
If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. – 1 Corinthians 10:12
I have no doubt that the rabbis, Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ time were convinced they were right. We must never make the mistake of thinking we can never be wrong. It could be us. This means our walk, talk and engagement must always be in humility.
Teachers and leaders have an enormous responsibility when it comes to teaching the Word and leading Jesus’ church.
In The End – On How We Treat Fellow Christians Who Believe Differently
In the same way I believe my convictions and doctrine are true, I’m sure so are fellow Christians. We all must be careful. Especially in those times we’re sure of what we believe. We need to have reverence for God and each other. There is never a time we’re exempted for loving others. Especially when we disagree.
Now, I need to say this address any doubts: I’m in no way suggesting that we tolerate false teaching. I’m not suggesting that anyone can believe whatever they choose to believe as long as they have strong convictions.
What I am saying, is however we act or treat others with different views, let’s be mindful. While we deal differences in doctrine, let’s mind the people Jesus died for.