I remember an argument I once had with a close friend over Matthew 13:33. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” Yeast is an interesting substance. Put a little bit of yeast into even a large lump of dough and pretty soon the whole thing begins to change, to expand, to grow bigger. A little yeast affects a lot of dough. This illustration is used throughout Scripture. Most of the time, it is clear that the point is negative. A little bit of sin works through everything and then grows and expands and creates spiritual decay. “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus warned. The context of the use of this word makes it clear that it is a negative illustration about the effects of sin almost every time it is used.
Almost. But in Matthew 13:33 it is clear to me that almost is not every. In this instance, the illustration seems to be positive. Like with the mustard seed of faith (which immediately precedes this parable), God uses weak and small people such as we are to accomplish great things. We are God’s yeast in this world to raise the moral and spiritual level of everything around it. It seems absolutely clear to me that this is a positive reference here. Even though we are not the majority, we can, like yeast, affect this world in the power of Christ.
But my friend disagreed. If yeast is negative every other time it appears, he argued, it must be a negative teaching here, a warning that contrary to the mustard seed of faith, a little sin could hinder the work of the kingdom. So, we sat there that day and argued about this. Both of us being stubborn and convinced of our rightness in the argument, the “discussion” grew sort of intense. We both left the discussion a little bit frustrated with the inability of the other to see what must be clear to all.
And then you know what we did? We went on like nothing had happened. We continued to be close friends until the day I left that church to come toSioux City. He visited me here a couple of times and we hung out together when I went back toCedar Rapids. And then I officiated at his wedding last year. To this day, I still think my interpretation of that passage was correct. I still think that his view is wrong. I assume that he still thinks he is right. I long for heaven when he will see my point. (Just kidding, Ray.) But we remained close friends and ministry partners. He was one of the key leaders in theCedar Rapidschurch and that did not change.
Two men who both believe the Bible came to a sharp disagreement over a minor interpretation of a passage of scripture. We both believe the essentials of the faith – no Brick Wall is needed. We are in almost complete agreement on every other significant issue. We have a similar view of Scripture. We have a similar doctrinal outlook, a common philosophy of the church and unity on most other issues. We don’t even need a Picket Fence between us. But still, we found something to disagree on. He did not leaveNorthbrookto form “The First Church of the Negative Yeast.” We did not excommunicate him for his disagreement with the pastor on the issue.
That’s what families do, what friends do. We sit around the dinner table and we talk about issues. Those issues do not divide us, do not cause us to go our separate ways. We just sit around the table and hammer them out. Because we are a family. Churches do not have to be uniform in doctrine or outlook.
Are There Doctrines that Do Not Matter?
The most common criticism I have heard of doctrinal triage is that it designates some doctrines as unimportant. People do not like to hear doctrines described as tertiary of that means that they do not matter. And I completely agree there. The purpose of doctrinal triage is not to judge a doctrine as important or unimportant, but to establish what one must do in response to disagreements over those doctrines. Some doctrine is fundamental to the faith and must not be compromised. When there is disagreement over such doctrine, a Brick Wall of separation is necessary to maintain the purity of the gospel. Some doctrine does not touch the gospel but does fundamentally affect the way a church operates, or establishes denominational distinctives. On those doctrines, a friendly Pickeat Fence is all that is needed. We can maintain friendly relationships and even partner at some level of community ministry, while we maintain our own homes and live by our own convictions. But there is some doctrine that just does not even need to divide within a church. My friend and I were able to continue in unhindered fellowship in the leadership of our church.
Bart Barber had a recent article about this subject, called, “Tertiary Does Not Mean Unimportant.” This article said very well what I wish to say here. All doctrine is important.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” We believe that all of the Bible is God’s Word and is important for our lives. Not a single word, sentence, verse, paragraph, chapter or book of the Bible is unimportant. On the other hand, we must admit something that we do not like to admit. Not all scripture is equally important. Romans 8, which soars to the highest mountains of truth, probably has a higher value to our lives than Leviticus 13-15 which discusses infectious skin diseases and mildew and such things.
There is doctrine worth fighting over. If someone undercuts one of these fundamental doctrines, we need to stand, to contend and to be unyielding in our fidelity. There are other doctrines over which fighting might not be the right response. Maybe just separating into our homes while being good neighbors is enough. And some will not like to hear this, but there is some doctrine we should not fight or divide over. It might be worth a passionate discussion, but not a fight. Doctrine that is fundamental to our salvation requires a brick wall of separation and protection. Doctrines that affect the functioning of church may require friendly picket fences. But there is some doctrine that we don’t need to fight about and certainly do not need to divide over.
Do you agree with your spouse about everything? Your kids? Your parents? People who live together and love each other can have strong disagreements. They sit around the dinner table, talk about all sorts of things, disagree and keep on going. They remain a family. The same thing is going to happen in the church family. You are never going to find anyone with whom you agree about everything.
There was just no need for my friend and I to go our separate ways because we disagreed over the interpretation of that one verse. No one would recommend that. We could agree to disagree and continue our shared ministry without interruption. Neither the gospel nor the fellowship of the church was affected (unless we behaved like jerks – and that would be a different issue). It was just a dinner table discussion between members of a church family.
Dinner Table Doctrine
What are those doctrines? If a doctrine affects neither the fundamentals of the faith or the fellowship of the body of Christ, it is dinner table doctrine. Discuss it (pleasantly), disagree about it, and continue to walk in full and uninterrupted fellowship.
The most obvious example of Dinner Table doctrine is eschatology. Our church has dispensational premillennial pretribulationists (wow – that’s a mouthful), historic premillennialists, and Amillennialists. Who knows, maybe there is a postmillennialist or a partial preterist hiding behind a pew somewhere. I am more in the dispensationalist camp. One of my associate pastors is historic premil. Another isn’t really sure what he believes on the issue. We work together and disagreement on this issue does not hinder our fellowship or our service to Christ.
Please hear me. I think eschatology is an important issue. It matters what you think about how the world will end, because what you think about the future affects your attitudes and actions today. To call a doctrine tertiary or to call it a Dinner Table doctrine is not to say that it doesn’t matter. It just should not be a point of fellowship or division. It requires a different response than doctrines which surround the gospel or define the fellowship of the church. If you want to annoy me, call yourself a “panmillennialist.” They are people who believe “it will all pan out in the end.” To me, that is an excuse for biblical laziness. Studying the end times may be difficult and confusing, but each of us should faithfully seek to understand what the Bible says about the last days. Then, once we decide, we should walk in love with those who come to a different conclusion.
There are other doctrines that would fall into this category. I mentioned that Calvinism and Arminism divide denominations and are one of the categories of Picket Fence doctrine. But Calvinism (and I’m sure Arminism as well) is not so much a single set of doctrines but a range of them. I may be more Calvinist than you but less so than someone else. It might be hard for a church to combine Calvinism and Arminianism into one fellowship – the doctrines diverge too far. But there is no reason that those who hold disagreements over the extent of the atonement or struggle with different views of what election entails cannot fellowship together.
One More Thing
The most divisive thing in churches today is often music and musical style. Our culture has experienced a rapid and unparalleled transformation in the last hundred years. A church of 1895 might have been different from a church of 1825, but the differences would not have been nearly as dramatic as those between an average Baptist church in 1975 and one today. Times have changed and things have changed. My dad told me he feels like he is going into someplace foreign when he walks into most churches today. There is nothing familiar to him. He doesn’t recognize the songs, the sermons, the style or the strategies of the modern churches.
Because of this rapid change, there has been a lot of conflict in churches as the traditional forms of worship and ministry have been replaced. This has become something of a picket fence issue, and I mentioned it in that chapter. However, I do not believe that it should be. Christian people who care most about the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel of Christ should find a way to unite over these issues and not to let them divide us. Paul did not permit the establishment of a Jewish church and a Gentile church inEphesus. He told them that Christ came to knock down the walls that divide them and to make the two into one.
I do not believe that stylistic differences should be require a picket fence. To the extent that we put the glory of God and the gospel of Christ ahead of our personal preferences, they will not be. We will find a way to unite as one despite those differences. To the extent that we prioritize our personal preferences, to that extent we will have to separate into separate services and separate churches over issues like this.
Too often, in today’s churches, young and old are not able to walk together. What should be a minor, dinner table issue is elevated to a point of separation (sometimes even a Brick Wall issue in extreme cases) when we refuse to yield our preferences. That is a shame and I believe, a reproach, when we cannot find a way to put these kinds of things aside to walk in unity.
The illustration I used to open this discussion involves a difference of interpretation of a single passage. Seldom would such a disagreement be anything other than a Dinner Table item. Who wrote the book of Hebrews? Is the North Galatian or South Galatian theory correct? These can be great discussions but should never cause divisions. It is worth studying and worth discussing. Refining doctrine is always a noble pursuit. But it is not worth fighting over.
If a doctrine affects salvation, erect a brick wall. If it affects the fellowship or functioning of the church, erect a friendly picket fence. But if the doctrine affects neither, then sit at the dinner table and talk about it, but never let it become a point of division.