A Time and Place for Theological Battles

Theology matters, but so does wisdom and right timing:

As I have said a few million times now, anyone who has actually read some of what is found on this site will know that I am a major proponent of sound teaching and solid theology. The theology section itself contains nearly 1500 articles. So yes, I do believe that theology matters.

However, as I have also said so often, there are other things that matter as well. Just as some believers are all about being nice and loving, but lack even the slightest understanding of biblical doctrine, so too some believers are armed to the teeth with good theology, but they can treat people like dirt and they seem to know nothing of Christ and his grace and love. Getting the biblical balance right is crucial here.

And even affirming good theology needs to be done wisely: it should be done with care, discernment, and love. There is a time and a place in other words, for when we should take a strong theological stance. Sometimes it is wisest and most Christlike to just let some things go. We need the Spirit’s direction to know if and when we should speak out.

Sadly some believers feel it is ALWAYS time to go on the attack, challenging, confronting and condemning anyone and everyone who dares to believe even slightly differently than they do. They are theological pugilists who love to fight. They seem to have no peace unless they are going on the attack. See more on them here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/17/on-theological-pugilism-christian-maturity-and-humility/

And then there are all the heresy hunters who exist to correct everyone, and to point out how heretical everyone is who dares to have a somewhat different take on all sorts of theological issues. They believe they are fully right while they think everyone else is wrong. They too I have discussed often. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/

As I have also said, while core theological issues are important and need to be championed, secondary issues can be held to more loosely, and we need not start WWIII over them every time. Of course discerning which is which can at time be a bit tricky. See more here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/03/11/choosing-our-battles/

I should pause here and say the obvious: many believers who take doctrine seriously and who do engage in promoting sound theology are not pugilists nor heresy hunters. But some are sadly. However, all of them need to keep humble and on their faces before God as they seek to defend biblical truth.

But there is also a place to support and defend other believers, even when we may differ with them on various theological issues. In the increasingly hostile and anti-Christian West, we are seeing more and more attacks on those who are in the Christian camp. They might be actual physical attacks, as in the recent case of the Sydney Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, or it might take other forms.

There is a place for some co-belligerence here in other words. We should seek to support such people when and where possible. But too many Christians are so utterly tribal in their particular theology, that they will want nothing to do with most others, even when they are coming under heavy assault.

A clear case in point happened some years ago when Israel Folau was booted out of a rugby team for daring to hold to biblical beliefs about things like homosexuality. But because he did not have everything theologically correct, some Christians wanted nothing to do with him, and were happy to see him thrown under the bus.

The same is happening now of course with the above-mentioned Assyrian Bishop who first came here from Iraq. Some Christians seem to think we should have nothing to do with the guy, and not give a rip about this ugly jihadist attack because his theological views in some respects differ from theirs.

A number of these folks have taken to the social media, or my site, or elsewhere to point out their dislike of the Bishop because of where he might be coming from theologically. My reply to these sorts of folks would go as follows:

I am of course an evangelical Protestant and I do know a bit about theology. Thus I am quite aware of the various differences I might have with all sorts of folks, including this Bishop. But those who read my two articles on him will see I clearly had three main aims in mind:

-To point out the Islamist war against Christianity. What this jihadist tried to do to him will happen to others – even to you or me.
-To show how under-protected ordinary citizens are in places like Australia.
-To encourage people to pray for the Bishop and his attacker.

The point of these pieces was NOT to engage in yet more theological warfare and sectarian debates. There is a place for that, but that was not my intent here.

My fear is that some believers are so intent on defending to the death their various theological views – often quite good ones I might add – that they miss the forest for the trees. The truth is, soon enough all believers of all stripes might be rounded up and herded into concentration camps or re-education camps.

But some of these folks will be blissfully unaware of this, being so concerned to defend Christianity from ‘heretics’ and the like. In this regard I always come back to the words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller as he opposed Hitler and the Nazis. His “First They Came” writing is well-known to many. It goes like this:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

I often think it needs to be slightly rewritten for today, in light of what I have just been talking about. Let me take a stab at such a modern-day revision:

First they came for the Roman Catholics
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Roman Catholic
Then they came for the Eastern Orthodox
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Eastern Orthodox
Then they came for the Presbyterians
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Presbyterian
Then they came for the Anglicans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Anglican
Then they came for the Baptists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Baptist
Then they came for the Pentecostals
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Pentecostal
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

I think you get the drift. These folks are so fully into their own theological camp, that they are happy to see everyone else go to hell – perhaps even literally. They have no clue that the war against faith is very real here in the West, and all forms of Christianity are coming under sustained attack.

Some of these folks will never lift a finger to come to the aid of some of their persecuted brethren. Indeed, many would claim they are NOT even their brethren. Yeah well, the time will come soon enough when they too will come under the heavy hand of the hardcore misotheists. But by then they and their few followers will be the only ones left.

I happen to think religious freedom is important, and that it should be extended as much as possible to others. I may have plenty of disagreements with my Roman Catholic friends or my Eastern Orthodox friends, but I do not want them to be silenced by the authorities. If they are silenced today, I will be silenced tomorrow.

‘There is a time for war and a time for peace’ as we are told in Ecclesiastes 3:8. There is also a time for theological war, and theological peace. As I say, discerning when these times are is important. In this case, I am praying for the Bishop’s full recovery, and for his attacker. You should too.

Those who want to go to war over his various theological views (not all of which I agree with either) should consider this option: If you pray for folks like him as much as you publicly attack folks like him, I would be much more open to what you have to say. But why do I suspect that some of these critics may never have prayed for such folks at all? As the girl in the taco shell ad says, ‘why not try both?’

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12 Replies to “A Time and Place for Theological Battles”

  1. Hi Bill, thank you for a very challenging article. In my own circumstances, “theological differences” that I’ve had with folk from other Christian faiths, have forced me to re-examine, challenge, and review my own beliefs . I do this to constantly refine my own belief system. I also do this, because I’m not perfect, and I regularly get it wrong! This is also why I “eagerly devour” your DIFFICULT BIBLE PASSAGES articles when they’re published. Bill, maybe I am too simplistic in my reasoning, would we all be better off by showing our Love for all of our other Christian brothers & sisters in spite of our theological differences. (John, 13:35).
    As always Bill, KEEP DISHING IT OUT! Blessings, Kel.

  2. Very well said Bill, thank you. Yes there is a “time for everything” but sadly many of us choose the wrong time and place. Personally I’m tired of hearing many of our Brother and Sisters in Christ publicly criticising the Catholic part of the body. I’m part of the Anglican mob but as far back as I can trace my ancestors were all of the Catholic variety and I am forever thankful to them for bringing me and now my children to Christ. There are many issues of concern with the idol and Mary “worshipping” but in recent years there has developed many issues of concern within the Anglican church as well. Female ordination, LGBTetc acceptance etc etc. We all strive to be Christ like but none of us manage to achieve such. There are issues of concern within all the branches which need to be addressed but again as we are told and I believe as you have indicated, we need to pick the right time and place to do it. We need to lift each other up not drag each other down through public arguments.

  3. Thanks Bill.

    I enjoy defending scripture and having a healthy debate done in love, and normally, if it’s getting heated I know it’s time to wisely refrain.
    But then there are times you get drawn in, (got drawn in the calvinist vs arminian debate yesterday) and you know it, and yet keep going. Then I go away feeling angry o allowed myself to get dragged in that far, but also upset I didn’t remember to say this or that.
    But, in my experience, you can hardly win anyone over by arguing them into your belief.
    Would it be pride that makes us feel like that after those episodes?

  4. Indeed Bill.

    Jesus was clear that the Samaritans did not know how to worship God but we still have the parable of the good Samaritan.

    In battle it is very common to sow confusion and division in the enemy, even God used this technique successfully but it seems clear to me that many people have bits right but want to divide over other, less well understood and less important matters and this, of course, completely disempowers our combined ability to do good.

    None of us is immune from Satan’s divisive influence as the “get thee behind me Satan” text demonstrates. If Satan can use Peter’s emotion to derail his thinking (as he did with Eve) he can do it with any of us. We need to stick on track as Jesus did but how is that achieved? We are told Elijah comes before our Lord but also many false teachers, prophets and even false Christs.

    Clearly good teaching is essential but any teaching that serves to simply drag others down instead of enlightening them as Jesus did, is not from God. We even see Jesus attempting to save Pharisees and even successfully saving the most famous Pharisee; the Apostle Paul.

    We need to understand that every one of us will get things wrong. Even the greatest prophets such as Elijah, Moses and John the Baptist got things wrong.

    Yes we live in an age where it is prophesied that apostasy will abound but in the “abomination that causes desolation” scripture Jesus actually gives us authority to see what is happening.

  5. Well said Bill. I have been concerned when it seem there is even failure to love our own lot. So much for ,”by this will all men know.” In Malaysia I had a lady I had never met before pay for my lunch because I was there to share the gospel. Here some people worry about minute of beliefs. However I have also appreciated some who demonstrate Christian love.

  6. The Prophet Jonah had his theology challenged by God using a fast growing gourd – bearing vine, a hungry grub and the hot east wind.

    Thomas went from rationalist sceptic to taking the message of Jesus, his Lord and God as far as India via Syria.

  7. Isn’t it time to focus attention on the elephant in the room? That is the fact that almost all theology is a matter of opinion and therefore there isn’t much to argue about beyond the basic creed?

  8. Thanks Thomas, but…. In one sense EVERYTHING is a matter of opinion – including your comment. If that makes it of no value, then we not only ignore all theology, but we all ignore all commentary such as yours. And the creeds, as important as they are, were also opinion – they certainly were not inspired, infallible and inerrant. But in a fallen world where we are all finite creatures, we have to make do with what we have. Theology is simply the attempt to think God’s thoughts after him. That means we seek to understand Scripture as best we can, although we know we will never have full and final truth. So theology matters, and we all must seek to carefully and prayerfully represent God and Scripture aright – which is what good theology is all about.

  9. Thank you Bill once again for your insight and the responses from your readers.
    I also enjoy the challenge of understanding difficult scriptures which you so clearly explain.
    May Gods Blessings be with you all. Amen

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