Theology

How To Disagree About Theology Without Kicking Each Other Out of the Church

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Humans are tribal.

This is not a new insight. We’ve been splitting ourselves into groups based on any and every available characteristic for millennia.

In her important new work, Political TribesYale’s Amy Chua writes:

We crave bonds and attachments which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family.

But though this inbuilt tribalism pushes us toward positive engagement and creation of community, it has its dark side, too. Chua notes:

[T]he tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.

Christianity does not erase our tribalism. But it should transform it—recreate it into something useful in service to God and others. At its best, our tribal instinct can help motivate us to love our neighbors well, to put down roots, and serve our communities in love.

Following Jesus means expanding our natural concept of tribe, as Paul writes in the soaring language of Ephesians 2, for we were all once “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Yet now, we “who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

God in Jesus has brought reconciliation to those both near and far, killing our hostility and “creat[ing] in himself one new humanity.”

Christianity does not erase our tribalism. But it should transform it. Maybe like this... Click To Tweet

Should We Alert the Heresy Police?

Yet our tribal instinct is not always at its best. Even inside the Church, it is often at its worst.

Instead of seeing ourselves as one body of Christ—varying in theology, culture, and giftings, but united by our focus on Jesus—we default to that instinct to divide and exclude.

We like to police the margins, and we can all too easily escalate any disagreement into a declaration of heresy.

But heresy “is not located in one’s beliefs about baptism, the continuation of certain spiritual gifts, women in ministry, or political issues,” explains Justin S. Holcomb, author of Know the Heretics, a history of the major heresies encountered by the early church. Rather,

[Heresy] is a specific and direct denial of any of the central beliefs of the Christian church about the deity and identity of the triune God and about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

“There are those who think that heresy is anything that does not agree with their own interpretation of Holy Scripture,” Holcomb continues. And though “such impulses can be well-intentioned, the church of the New Testament walked the line between holding fast to some convictions and being flexible about others.”

A Way Forward: Concentric Circles of Theology

Learning to distinguish between those categories is vital if we are to disagree without hostility, without letting our differences get in the way of serving a hurting world and sharing the good news.

In pursuit of that perspective, I’ve found useful a system introduced to me by Greg Boyd, a pastor and theologian where I live in Minnesota. This model has restructured my own thinking about theology, forcing me to examine the weight I place on any given debate and to check my impulse to imagine the Church in my own image. It demands a balance of humility and trust, pairing a defining allegiance to Christ with an irenic approach to intra-church debates.

Picture concentric circles. In the middle, in the smallest circle, is Jesus. He’s the heart of our faith—and this isn’t just our belief that he exists and is God, but the actual person of Jesus Christ, who shows us what God is like. Jesus is the nonnegotiable anchor of our faith.

But then there’s the next circle, which is a little bigger. In this circle are what we might call dogmas, a very limited set of beliefs about God and what it means to be a Christian. A good summary of Christian dogma might be the Apostles’ Creed, believed to be the oldest extant extra-biblical statement of faith. The creed is not very detailed, and because it leaves out so much, its content can be universally accepted among orthodox Christians.

Still, those missing details matter, too. Those go in the next concentric circle, which contains what we can call doctrine. These are the sorts of issues, like baptism or predestination, that divide denominations.

The last and biggest circle holds opinions, where differences of belief can peacefully coexist within the same denomination or even congregation. This could be questions like the age of the earth or the destiny of the unevangelized.

We Belong to a Bigger Tribe

The concentric circle scheme helps, I think, because it finds a middle ground between insisting my version of faith is Christianity, on the one hand, and making our faith totally open to everyone’s individual interpretation, on the other. It offers that balance Holcomb describes of holding fast to some convictions (our commitment to Jesus and affirmation of basic dogma) and being flexible about others (doctrines and opinions) in the sense of not crying “heresy!” whenever fellow Christians disagree.

None of this is to say theological differences don’t matter, or that any and all options of faith and practice are equally correct.

It is not a devaluation of truth for the sake of milquetoast ecumenism.

Rather, it is a route to understanding, appreciating, and even learning from the diversity within orthodoxy. It is a check on the negative aspect of our tribalism, a reminder that though many of our fellow Christians do not look, think, worship, or pray like we do, they are nevertheless part of our tribe.

None of this is to say theological differences don’t matter, or that any and all options of faith and practice are equally correct... it’s a check on the negative aspects of our tribalism. Click To Tweet

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, they are nevertheless “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”


Portions of this article are adapted from the book, A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, by Bonnie Kristian. Copyright (c) Bonnie Kristian by Faithwords.  Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY.  All rights reserved.

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