On Theological Pugilism, Christian Maturity and Humility
Hmm, it seems it is time for me to vent a little and share some concerns that I have. Not that I have not written on this before – I have done it often, even too often. But since these issues keep arising, I guess I need to keep speaking to it. And I realise that my past pleas on this matter have usually fallen on many deaf ears, so that will likely be the case again here.
It is said that religion and politics should not be discussed in polite society. That is because more often than not, there is more heat generated than light in such discussions. A lot of folks get very heated indeed as they push their pet beliefs, or see their fav ideas being challenged. They want to fight.
This sure is true when it comes to theology. There are so many theological jihadists out there, ever ready to go on the warpath. They just cannot stand it when another Christian dares to have a differing point of view on some things. They are so very easily theologically triggered, and their theological hot buttons are so very easily pressed.
They see theological red flags everywhere, and they feel compelled to go on search and destroy missions, “correcting” every viewpoint that does not fully align with their own. And it is not just the heresy hunters who do this regularly. Some Christians have their pet doctrines and theologies which they must defend at all costs – even if it means breaking Christian fellowship to remain theologically “pure”.
Now at this point it should be pointed out that I of course believe that truth matters, and that theology matters. If I didn’t, I would not have over a thousand articles on theology on this site! Core Christian truths must be defended, but secondary matters can be treated more lightly.
And on many complex theological issues good Christians can disagree. That does not make them heretics, it just means they have a different understanding of some of these issues. But I find all the time on this website and on the social media the Christian theology police who have decided that they must “correct” the “errors” of all Christians, wherever they are found.
I repeat: theology matters. But so too does Christian maturity. And guess what: those folks who feel compelled to launch theological attacks every time they see something they dislike are usually not acting out of Christian maturity. Often it is just the opposite. They are immature.
And they lack humility as well, another vital Christian character trait. The simple truth is, we see through a glass darkly, as Paul said. We all have blinders on, and we all can get things wrong. None of us have all the truth. And often – even on important theological issues – there can be some room to move.
The Calvinism-Arminianism battles is a case in point. Neither side has all the truth. Both have some pros and cons. For what it is worth, I lean toward the Reformed side of things, but I am no doctrinaire Five-Pointer, for those in the know.
But I have learned over the years to go a bit more cautiously here. In my early days as a believer – when I clearly did lack Christian maturity and humility – I was always being theologically triggered and always ready to go on the attack when I detected even a sniff of bad teaching or questionable theology!
Now I have learned that there is a time to engage and a time to stay silent. Some issues do require an immediate and firm response. But often we can just zip the lip and show a bit of Christian grace and charity. Are we really willing to break countless Christian friendships over some theological matters?
Again, if a friend pushes clear heretical doctrines (eg,, denying the deity of Christ and rejecting the Trinity), that is one thing. But other issues we can learn to have respectful disagreements on. The fact of the matter is this: I have plenty of gung-ho Calvinist friends. I also have plenty of gung-ho Arminian friends.
To the extent that I can get along with those in both camps and live somewhat peacefully, I am happy. But some folks just do not want that. They prefer theological conflict over – where possible – Christian unity. That sure can make my life difficult.
I can have some hardcore Calvinists hating on me for not being Calvinist enough. And I can also have some hardcore Arminians hating on me for not being Arminian enough. You can’t please everybody. But I will keep trying to get that biblical balance right of seeking unity and seeking truth.
Sure, it is a hard balance to maintain, but we must nonetheless work and pray for both. See more on this here: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/16/on-truth-and-unity-part-one/
A few related beefs if I may. One thing that really bugs me is when someone comes along to an article here, or a social media post, and seeks to wage theological war, even though the article or post in question was not directly on a theological topic. Too often these theological hotheads will go on the war path and hijack a thread. That bugs me to be honest.
Sure, if I posted something like this then I would expect such reactions: “All Calvinists are heretics and Christians can only be Arminians.” If I said something that stupid and that rash, then of course, I would fully expect people to come out swinging – and well they should!
But when a post is NOT on a specific theological matter – or at best, only indirectly on one – it really bothers me that some folks will come along and derail the discussion as they push their pet peeves. They simply have too many theological bees in their bonnets, and they need to learn to show some restraint – and some humility.
They need to grow up. And related to this is the fact that some of these folks refuse to let things go when I politely ask them to. If I say that their comments are really off track and it may be best to save them for a more appropriate post, I really do expect Christians to show me a modicum of grace and respect.
Yet some of these folks just keep coming back. They cannot respect my wishes. They must keep arguing. So then I employ my “three strikes and you’re out” rule. If they refuse to abide by my wishes, even though I keep asking them to do so, then I have no choice but to let them go.
It is always sad when that happens. But the truth is, Satan can use overzealous Christians to cause damage to the Body of Christ just as much as he can use pagans. And they may be well-intentioned, and think they are being theologically sound. But they also need to learn some humility and Christian maturity.
Otherwise they are being, as Paul put it, merely “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. They lack real Christian love in other words. They are more concerned about being “right” and having the last word than they are about showing the love and grace of God.
Once again, theology matters and there are times where we must fight for it. But there are also times where we must remain quiet. We do NOT need to “correct” every single person in the world – or at least on the internet – when we come across them. Sometimes we should, but often we need not.
Let me close by saying this. I often fail here. I often get it wrong. I often open my mouth when I should have kept it closed. And sometimes I stay silent when I should have spoken out! I often will unnecessarily pick a fight – theological or otherwise. But I want to get better in all this.
So I desperately covet your prayers. I need far more wisdom here. I need far more discernment here. I need far more grace here. I need far more love here. I have a very public role here, and that means I must be all the more careful and circumspect in what I say, when I say it, and how I say it.
So please, keep me in prayer. I really do want to represent my Lord properly, and not bring any harm to the cause of Christ. Thank you for keeping me in your prayers – I so much need them.
Let me say one more thing on this: some folks will get real mad at what they find in this article. They might think I am specifically picking on them. A few replies:
-As I said, there are plenty of folks who do this all the time, so I have no one in particular in mind – just a whole generic group of folks!
-Taking offense when none was intended is not a good Christian reaction.
-If you do find yourself getting upset at what was said here, it just might be because the Holy Spirit is bringing some conviction into your life! If so, the Christian thing to do is NOT shoot the messenger but to deal with what the Holy Spirit is trying to highlight in your life! Prayer, not anger, is the way to proceed. If repentance is needed, then go for it.
10 Replies to “On Theological Pugilism, Christian Maturity and Humility”
Thanks Bill, a helpful correction for all evangelical minded disciples. May I respectfully suggest too:
“Theology has become the arbiter of truth when it cannot be the guarantor of truth. The Lord’s measure is righteousness.”
Spot on Bill.
For some reason this whole topic of conflict resolution, being peacemakers and not peace-breakers – is missed.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s often far better to learn from the opposition by asking questions of them, than to try and push your point (Eg ‘how did you come to that conclusion?’ ‘What about this?’). It doesn’t come at the cost of the friendship, and, you actually learn things and grow in respect of where they are coming from. You might even change your mind a little.
Incidentally, you’re then in a better position to dismantle their argument, if you really need to – but as you say breaking peace is for serious issues.
Works will never save you! God’s free gift of grace, will! Performance is no indicator of salvation, as it’s all by faith alone in our wonderful Saviour Jesus Christ!
I thank God for James chapter 3 v.2 Bill:
“We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”
May not only we ourselves remember this and be as careful as possible, but may we remember NOT to take on board too much of what our critics say, because this verse is equally as applicable to them.
And may those same critics be made aware by the Holy Spirit that they ought to take on board this verse as much as we do.
Dear Bill, Firstly I do pray for you Bill and all who read this site. Unfortunately I only see & read what you put here as I only use a mobile phone as my ‘comunicator’ and am not on facebook. What I see here are many people from all over the world contributing to you voice. A voice as one crying in the wilderness. All support you Bill, and I know you may censor some out, but ten leppers were healed and only one came to give thanks.
You do way more good than harm.
I’m currently reading Monash: The outsider who won the war. By Roland Perry.
If Monash – a non practicing Jew and not a Christian – had held back or retired due to the criticism he endured, this book would never have been written and the University which bears his name would not exist.
These days for your work and diligence, Bill there will be no earthly thanks nor recognition. I picture the Twenty four elders holding those bowls full of incense with some prayers by and others inspired by Bill Muehlenberg amongst the millions of others.
Two Timothy four verse seven & eight
Keep looking up Mark Bryant
Like Mark, I only access your website and am not on Facebook… Your articles are informative and relate able… They guide me in the direction to which I should pray… You and your family are constantly in my prayers and I too pray for wisdom, discernment and grace daily… Please keep speaking life and truth… Blessings
Pastors, Theologians and anyone with years of study can be the worst when it comes to this. they feel the KNOW the truth and must correct anyone who thinks differently despite the issue being a secondary issue that the bible speaks little on. I have no problem with believing strongly in your position and being willing to defend it but when the bible speaks little on the subject, like what Heaven is like or the New Jerusalem, we must be willing to admit ours is just a opinion and as good as anyone else’s. so many times I have talked with people I wish they would admit that. We must remember we aren’t the ONLY ones with knowledge and we aren’t the ONLY ones who have studied an issue. We should never let our education make us the sole arbitrators of what people believe when bible itself says little. IT is the authority. Also if it isn’t a primary, fundamental, issue there is NO shame in agreeing to disagree. We might have fewer denominational splits if we had more grace to accept differing opinions when opinions are we have.
Thank you again Bill for your balanced wise and gracious words. As a relative newcomer to your site I just want you to know how much I enjoy your teachings and observations. It has become my ‘church’ during the week and really fills a gap in between Sunday fellowships. May GOD encourage and prosper you. GOD bless, Cheryl Ciccotosto
Many thanks Cheryl. Bless you.