Seven things to understand when discussing religion

If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth…. (I Timothy 6:3ff).

Some people debating religion are this way, Paul.  Conceited and ignorant, rabble-rousers and mean-spirited.  I’ve sat across the table from them more than once.  It’s no fun, as you know.

But some are sincere and faithful brethren trying to get this right.

Help us, Lord.

If you are a Southern Baptist, as I am, you may find yourself having a problem with the theology of some people whom you happen to like and respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.  You respect them and would like to be closer friends, but this “thing” they believe and teach stands between you. So…

You ask if the two of you can discuss those differences.  Not a debate, you insist, and certainly not an argument.

Some would say you’re being naïve for thinking you can have such a discussion without emotions entering into it, and the rhetoric heating up.  But you decide to see if you can.  The prize is worth the effort.

Understand going in that…

One.  People don’t just believe doctrines; they have a whole belief system.  And that system usually results in them flocking with others of similar beliefs, so that ends up becoming their culture, their entire world.  And when you question their beliefs, in their mind you are undermining their entire set up. So, they quickly become defensive, as though you had attacked their mother.

A Mormon–someone belonging to the LDS faith (or system)–doesn’t just believe some things about Joseph Smith and some other things about the Scripture, which, if you can refute you have dislodged them from their errant beliefs (as you believe).  They are part of an entire set-up.  All their friends are in that system.  So, for them to consider dropping their religion because they learned it was in error is also asking them to drop their friends and change their entire lives.  So, helping someone transition out of that system becomes a huge process.

Lord, help us to be patient with each other. 

Two. Some scripture is hard. Good and faithful people will disagree on certain parts of it.

The Scripture is not one neat little system whose doctrines and teachings fit conveniently into any one denomination’s pigeonholes.  It is the history of God’s dealings with His people over many hundreds of years, written in various countries in several languages, and has a lot of things which you do not believe.  (Assuming you do not believe we should bash the heads of our opponents’ infants against the wall!  That would be Psalm 137:9.)

We should never lose sight of 2 Peter 3:14ff.  “….just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction….”

Among our lasting debt to the Apostle Peter is this affirmation of something we already knew: Some of Paul’s writings are hard!  Good people will disagree on some, while others–the untaught and unstable!–will distort and twist and abuse.

Lord, help us to be faithful interpreters of Thy Word.

Three.  No theological position is easy, simple, and not to be questioned or examined. 

If you think what you believe Scripture teaches cannot be attacked and questioned by sincere and outspoken people who also call themselves followers of Jesus, you are headed for a rude awakening.  For instance….

I will sometimes post an article on the doctrine we call “security of the believer,” familiarly called “once saved, always saved” (or “once saved, always safe”).   I grew up in an Arminian church which did not believe this doctrine.  But a study of Scripture and a firm decision to believe the words of the Lord Jesus Christ over anything else made a believer of me (the words of our Lord in John 10:28-29, for instance).  This is a rock-solid foundational principle in my understanding of God’s salvation.  And yet….

There are a few scriptures which are cited by those who believe otherwise for which I have no satisfactory answer.  Hebrews 6:4-6, for instance, speaks of people who have experienced salvation and then have “fallen away.”  It is impossible for them to be saved again, the passage says, as that would require the Lord to return to the cross.  I have no problem with that; what I have difficulty with is them falling away and evidently losing their salvation in the first place.  So, what do we do with that?  My personal answer is to leave it as an open-ended question, one for which I have no answer today, but may be given one tomorrow.

And no, I do not believe Scripture contradicts itself.  I do believe it speaks of a reality far beyond the ability of mortal words to fully describe.  I believe our understanding is pitifully weak and limited.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high; I cannot attain to it” (Psalm 139:6) sort of says it for me.

By the way.  These passages that seem to contradict one another–at least on the surface–are one more reason for believing in the divine inspiration of Scripture and not, as some have attacked, the concoction of some church council.  Had bishops conspired to write this book, a ridiculous idea which only the ignorant and lazy believe—they would surely have cleaned it up and removed all the problems.  They didn’t because it wasn’t their writing to toy with.  This is from God.

Lord, give us hearts for Thee, and minds that hunger to know Thy Word. 

Four.  Beware of either of you wanting to punt.

You and your friend are discussing baptism or security of the believer or the inspiration of Scripture.  And one of you wants to hand the ball off (okay, I changed the metaphor here!) to a learned professor or someone who wrote the authoritative book on the subject.  Which is to say, one of you wants to sit on the sidelines and watch while the other friend and the learned professor duke it out.  Not a good idea.

This should be a discussion among friends.  Each of you may consult as many authorities as you like, but this little battle–let’s call it that–is not going to be between Martin Luther and Jacob Arminius; not between John MacArthur and Chuck Swindoll.  This is a friendly discussion between two followers of Jesus.

So, no fair punting.  We are each of us responsible for believing the truth, for seeking the Lord, for speaking the righteous Word.  We must make these decisions for ourselves.

Lord, help us to “study to show (ourselves) approved…”.

Five. At all times, love one another.

The ultimate test for followers of Christ is not doctrinal uniformity as I understand Scripture.  It’s love. John 13:34-35.

While my friend and I may agree to disagree–with each of us choosing to leave as open questions those scriptures that appear to counter something we believe–we should respect one another’s faith in Christ.

This is not to say I believe there are many roads to Heaven.  Jesus Christ alone is the way (John 14:6) and the door (John 10:7).

But Scripture uses numerous ways to describe the salvation event and how to attain it.  Behind all the words is the single reality of repenting and believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.  And so, personally, I will not be making an issue of someone saying they came into the Kingdom by way of the Roman Road, the sinner’s prayer, the mourner’s bench, or baptism–so long as the result was a new birth.  The Lord meets us where He chooses to meet us, and speaks to us in ways we ‘get.’  After all, as Scripture says, “neither is circumcision anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).

Lord, speak Thy Word to us and help us to recognize it when You do. 

Six.  We should all look for the Spirit of the message, not the letter of the law.

In our discussion of differing religious views, we should never ever lose sight of 2 Corinthians 3:6  “The letter (of the law) killeth, the Spirit giveth life.”  Anyone wishing to see the difference in these two approaches to the Word will want to read the gospels and see how Jesus put a new spin on texts that were familiar to His audiences.  “You have heard… but I say to you….”

Some denominations make a thing of saying, “We should speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent.”  Or, they will say, “Scripture says what it means and means what it says.”  Such principles are overly simplistic and insult the hearers.  The fact is Scripture is silent on a lot of things where we do speak:  church buildings, pews, air conditioning, assistant pastors and nursery workers.   And to say the Bible says what it means and means what it says ignores that in many cases we don’t know what it is saying.  An example…

I Timothy 3 says deacons should be the husbands of one wife.  Some have interpreted that to mean a deacon must be married.  That means single men and widowed men cannot be considered.  Others interpret it to mean “one wife at a time,” which would speak to polygamy.  Others say it forbids divorced men from the diaconate.  And others, as you surely know, say women also are eligible for deaconhood.

My point being, it’s lazy theology to say the Bible says what it means and means what it says, as though a six-year-old child should be able to come away with perfect understanding.

Seven. Let us be very careful about consigning anyone not agreeing with our scriptural interpretation to hell-fire, as some have done.  

The Shakespeare line should be required from all of us who deign to argue theology: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet).

We should leave room for God to be God.   He can do whatever He pleases, and does not require my permission.

Let no one tell the Lord what He can do, cannot do, or should never attempt.  “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”  (Psalm 115:3)

Lord, help us to love Thee in all things and to love one another as You have loved us.   Please guide us as we seek to understand Thy truth.  For Jesus’ sake, in Jesus’ name, by Jesus’ blood. Amen. 


One thought on “Seven things to understand when discussing religion

  1. It should not be treated like a fight to the death. Too often it becomes one as entrenched opinions can not even be discussed, and often there must be a winner and a loser.

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