Chapter 1: Speaking the Truth in Love
I was reading one of the discernment blogs recently – the kind of blog that catalogs the heresies prevalent in the Christian world today. I scanned through the listing of articles and saw one that addressed the theological errors of a well-known charismatic pastor, Francis Frangipane. Here’s the thing. This man is a friend of mine – a man I love and have tremendous respect for. I lived in the same city with him for many years and we were in a pastors’ prayer group together. I a lot of time on my knees with Francis (figuratively, anyway – Francis likes to walk while he prays). Yes, there is much of his theology that I disagree with, but I also know the man. He loves Jesus Christ and the Word of God. No question in my mind about that. He is a man of integrity and passion for the things of God. So, it was an odd moment to read a theological blog with which I agree strongly criticize a man whom I deeply respect.
My Two Worlds
I live in two different worlds, worlds that seem to collide and conflict – squeezing me in the middle. On the one hand, I live in a theological world with theological friends, who value biblical doctrine – the meat of God’s word. In a world sown with Satan’s lies, they say, God’s Word is our standard of truth. It is an anchor that holds us steady, a rudder to guide us, a lamp to light the way. If we abandon sound doctrine, we will be easily fooled and led astray by the enemy’s deception. When the pulpit proclaims the deep things of God’s Word and the people are firmly grounded in His truth, Christians will grow strong, discern truth from error, and will understand God’s will. For the church to function properly, they say, it must maintain doctrinal purity. And I agree with them!
I also live in a diverse Christian world with friends for whom the highest value is the unity of the body of Christ. Jesus died to redeem one body, they say, not many. On the night before he died, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one. Schism in the body of Christ grieves the heart of God and is a personal affront to the blood Christ shed for the church. Besides, they point out, many of the doctrines we divide over really don’t matter that much. They are molehills out of which we are all too quick to build mountains. Why should the church be fractured over petty doctrinal differences? God wants a unified church. And I agree with them!
When I lived in Cedar Rapids, I was only marginally involved in Southern Baptist national affairs. But soon after I moved to Sioux City in 2005 I got involved in blogging. Lo and behold, the same kind of conflict was going on in the Baptist World. There were some who emphasized the importance of Baptist doctrine – they believe that what we believe about baptism and church polity is theologically important. And I agree with them. I am a committed and convictional Baptist. On the other hand, there are Baptists who proclaim the need for unity with other believers and cooperation with them in the cause of Christ. We are not the only ship in the sea and we need to remember that. And I agree with them.
And that is why I am torn. I live in two different worlds that stand in conflict. I love to study the Word of God in depth and detail, but I also believe that division in the Body dishonors Christ. The problem comes when you try to satisfy both sides in this debate. Doctrine divides people: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist; Calvinists and Arminians; Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal; Premillennial, Amillennial. While these issues are important, they tend to separate us into camps. The unity of the Body of Christ matters. But if I abandon doctrine in the name of unity, I dim God’s “lamp to my feet and light for my path.”
I believe both sides have a noble goal. Scripture makes it clear that we cannot abandon either pursuit without doing damage to the Body of Christ. We must seek both sound doctrine and unity. I must seek to understand the deep things of God’s Word, but I must also honor those in Christ’s body whose interpretations of scripture differ from my own. Somehow, we must learn to balance these two goals.
Taking Unity to the Extreme
It is easy to take these noble goals to dangerous extremes. There are Christians who have abandoned doctrine in the name of unity. To them, doctrine is a problem – it divides us into denominations and causes schism in the Body of Christ. Others prize their doctrine with little regard to the bigger Body of Christ. They arrogantly assume that their personal creed is absolutely correct and question the sincerity (or sanity) of those who disagree with their doctrinal stands. Both extremes are damaging and must be avoided.
Those who refuse to exercise doctrinal discernment swim in shark-infested waters with open wounds. They invite on themselves and their churches the deception of Satan and the excesses of human emotion and impulsiveness. Without an anchor to hold it, without a rudder to guide it, the church is cast about by every wind of deceit that blows. God’s Word is that anchor, that rudder, which helps us navigate through the lies Satan has sown in this world.
A friend of my wife’s, a dear Christian lady, asked her why our church spent so much time in Bible study. We have the Holy Spirit to lead us, she said, why study the Bible so hard? What a dangerous idea. Scripture is the foundation upon which the leading of the Spirit is built – He uses the Word to guide us. If we are not grounded in the truth of Scripture, Christians can think that every impulse or idea we have is a word from God and the result is often aberrant belief and behavior in the church. There is no one more easily misled than someone who professes to be led by the Spirit but is not grounded in the Word of God. Who knows what spirit really leads him?
I was in a citywide prayer meeting years ago and was stunned to hear a pastor ask God for forgiveness for “our doctrine.” Mind you, he was not repenting for some false doctrine he had taught. He was asking God to forgive us for having any doctrine at all. Doctrine is not a sin. It is essential to the life and health of the church.
It is essential that every Christian study the Bible in depth and be grounded in its teachings. They are our light, our food, our anchor. Doctrine is good.
Taking Doctrine to the Extreme
But, among those who love doctrine and theology, there is another danger. We, the “doctrinal” folks, can easily develop an attitude of superiority or a petty, critical nature. I have friends who drop the h-bomb on anyone who does not agree with any point of their cherished creed or doctrinal system. ‘He’s a heretic!” They look with a suspicious eye at anyone who questions the teachings of R. C. Sproul or John MacArthur, or some other theological hero. The Baptist Identity group claims that “Baptist is biblical” and that those who do not agree with Baptist views of baptism are in active rebellion against God’s Word.
I have a family member who has come to hate the word “truth.” She was in a church that proclaimed its “truth” with a superiority of attitude and disdain for anyone who did not agree with their views. Rather than feeding people with the truth, they beat people over the head with it, using it as a club to enforce conformity. Because of their doctrinal haughtiness, she has come to hate a word that ought to be precious to a believer. “The truth shall set you free,” said Jesus. It is not a tool to beat up those who disagree.
We “doctrinal” folks are often guilty of the kind of schismatic behavior that Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 11. We treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with disdain or ridicule just because they disagree on any doctrinal issue. When we do this, the Spirit of God is grieved.
This is the quandary. Is there a way to both honor sound doctrine and maintain unity in the Body of Christ? It does not seem to me that we ought to have to choose between loving the Body of Christ and loving the Word He inspired.
I have spent most of my Christian life in the second group. I have devoted my life to studying and preaching the Word of God. I read Grudem’s Systematic Theology for fun. Unfortunately, with my theological interest also came a disdainful attitude toward those who did not see scripture the same way I did.
I had a special distaste for Charismatics and Pentecostals. Everything they did was strange to me. I did not agree with their doctrines and I was put off by many of their practices. As I preached through the Word, I delighted in pointing out what I considered to be the errors and excesses of the charismatic movement. I fell into a very common pattern in the evangelical camp. I looked at the extremes of the charismatic movement and I judged the whole movement on the basis of those crazies. That is never fair. I am Baptist, but I do not want people to compare me to Fred Phelps and his hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church group.
Over the course of a decade, God changed my heart about my charismatic brethren. I still do not practice the so-called “gifts” that many of them prize. I still disagree with much of their theology. None of that has really changed. But my heart changed.
In 1991, I moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to pastor Northbrook Baptist Church. Not far from me was River of Life, where Francis Frangipane was the pastor. It was a large and active charismatic church. I assumed that a charismatic church must be a den of lunatics and heretics and I rejoiced whenever I heard anything bad about them. A friend of mine had been involved in the singles group at River of Life and told me one day about the problems that were going on there. I sat in smug glee and rejoiced to hear that they were having turmoil. Their suffering brought joy to me
In September of 1993, God did a work of personal revival in me, changing my heart. My doctrine stayed the same, but my attitudes changed. I began to realize how narrow my ministry focus had been, caring only about Northbrook with no regard for the larger kingdom of God. In January of 1994, I was invited to attend the Linn County Association of Evangelicals meeting and I sensed that it was something I was supposed to do. The meeting was nothing special, but someone made an announcement about the pastors’ prayer group that was meeting every Thursday. One of the results of my personal revival had been an increased commitment to prayer, so I decided to give the group a try.
I began praying with other pastors every week. Francis Frangipane was the group’s leader. As I prayed with him, and with the other pastors, things began to change. A few months earlier I had rejoiced as someone regaled me with stories of struggles in that fellowship. Now, I was seeing his heart. I was getting to know the man. He was no longer just the pastor of the big church a couple of miles down the road. He was now my friend.
In the spring of 1994, things went sour at my church. It seemed as though every evil thing in the hearts of people in that church rose to the surface. During this rocky time, guess who prayed with me and sustained me? Francis Frangipane. Larry Sohn from the First Assembly of God. Barry Foster, pastor of a Foursquare church. Bob Brown from the Alliance church. Mark Larson from a Baptist church of a different denomination. This group of men stood by me in one of the most difficult years I have ever had – men I had scorned, ridiculed and excluded from my life. I had disdained them and now God was using them to sustain me in the darkest year in my 30 years of ministry.
Then, in August of 1994, a genuine revival broke out at Northbrook Baptist Church. God revived us, restored us and renewed us. It was amazing. One of the most amazing aspects of this is how it happened. Francis had invited Claude King to be part of a conference at his church. Claude helped Henry Blackaby write the “Fresh Encounter” and “Experiencing God” studies. He also worked with T.W. Hunt to produce “The Mind of Christ.” It was the Fresh Encounter series that had led to my own personal revival in 1993, and so I was excited to hear that Claude was coming to town. I was even more excited when Francis asked me if we would be interested in having Claude speak at Northbrook on Sunday morning. I jumped at the opportunity. Claude preached the Word of God and at the end of the service, God brought a time of repentance and renewal. The church I pastured was radically changed that day. Why? Because a charismatic preacher I had scorned shared the ministry of Claude King with me.
During this time, we were getting ready to build a new home on an acre of land we had purchased just west of the church. We had to move out of our rental home in September and our new home wouldn’t be ready until January. I had no idea what we were going to do. What I did was ask my pastor friends to pray for my family and ask for God’s direction. Larry Sohn, the pastor of the large Assembly of God church in Cedar Rapids spoke up. There was an orthopedic surgeon in his church who had built a huge home not far from my church. They had built the basement as a two bedroom, two-bath apartment for missionaries and others in need to use. He told me he would talk to the surgeon and see if he was willing to let my family move in. From September of 1994 until we moved into our home in January of 2005, we lived in the basement of an Assembly of God home – rent free. God again used a part of the Body of Christ which I had treated badly to bless my family in a time of need.
These men were a great blessing to me, but they were also a source of consternation. I prayed with them and shared with them, and there were many times when I heard things that made my doctrinal bones quiver a little. One week, we were praying in my church’s sanctuary, and one of the men began to pray fervently that God would bless Northbrook with an outpouring of healing, tongues and other manifestations of the Spirit. That was not exactly one of the highest priorities of my ministry.
A few years later, the “Pensacola Blessing” came to Cedar Rapids and caused some consternation in our little group. Those who had experienced these manifestations (mostly being “slain in the Spirit”) were so excited that they wanted to share the blessing with the rest of us. One pastor laid hands on all of us during prayer one day and asked God to pour out the blessing on each of us. The problem was that I did not think that what was happening in Pensacola was a work of God and I did not want it to come to my church. It caused a little bit of upheaval in our group as some embraced the “Blessing” and others of us did not.
What was I to do? God had used these men to bless me, my family and my church. But now they were headed in a direction that I did not believe was right. I struggled with whether to continue to pray with them and participate in citywide ministries. How was I to balance the demands of truth with a desire for unity? How could I walk in unity with these men with so many doctrinal disagreements? I loved these men, but at what point did the need for sound doctrine trump the beauty of Christian fellowship? I struggled with this for years without getting any wisdom on it.
Then, in 1994 when I was on vacation with my family in Florida, an idea came to my mind. I lay no claim to authoritative inspiration. But I do believe that God showed me some wisdom that I could follow in balancing doctrinal standards and the unity of the Body of Christ. I was sitting in church and, frankly, daydreaming, and the idea formed in my mind.
In this series of posts, I will be proposing four levels of doctrinal truth. Each of those levels has a “unity response” that it demands. The study is called “Brick Walls and Picket Fences.” All doctrines are important, but they are not all equally important. Some doctrines require a brick wall of separation, while some only require a friendly picket fence between neighbors. I developed these principles, preached them, and published them online in 2004. It was picked up by several online newsletters and distributed widely – mostly in charismatic and Pentecostal circles. I decided to put the sermon series into book form and seek to share what I thought was a very important principle with the Christian world.
That is when Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, stepped in and wrecked everything~ A year or so after I developed this teaching, Dr. Mohler published an essay on “Theological Triage.” It shocked me how similar his triage system was to my “Brick Walls and Picket Fences”. He proposed three levels of truth, while I had four. But our first three levels were almost identical.
Dr. Mohler’s theological triage identifies three categories of truth. Level one is that truth which defines us as Christians. Level two is that doctrine which defines us as Baptists. Level three is doctrine on which we can disagree without affecting our fellowship in any way. I was in the process of writing this book when Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released a very similar concept, called “theological triage” – focused primarily on the Baptist world. In his system, there are three levels of truth. Level one is truth that defines us a Christian. Level two is that which defines us as Baptists. The third level is comprised of doctrines on which we can disagree without affecting either the gospel or Christian fellowship.
I am not sure that I can improve on Dr. Mohler’s theological triage, but I think that there is enough of a different focus between his system and mine that it is worth putting this out there for your perusal. I believe that the principle is important. My first instinct was to simply put my study on the shelf.
At the risk of sounding a little defensive, I want you to know that what I have written here is not taken from Dr. Mohler’s triage rubric. It is very similar, but I came to this independently.
In the next post, I will give an overview of the “Brick Walls and Picket Fences” system of doctrinal analysis. Then, we will look at each of the four levels of doctrine and the unity response that is required at each level. Of course, I welcome your analysis, even you criticism.