I have had two conversations recently that revealed a similar concept, that if two Christians disagree on some theological or lifestyle issue, one or both of them is “in sin” and should repent. Is that really true? Are differences in doctrine rooted in sin? Must disagreements be settled by repentance?
Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary created some controversy a few years ago at the height of the Baptist Identity debate among Southern Baptists. We believe that baptism is meant to be performed after conversion by immersion – that’s why we are called Baptists. We understand that many fine Christians disagree on this issue – people who love Jesus, trust God’s Word and study it carefully, but come to a different conclusion about this subject.
In an blogpost, Yarnell said this:
My conscience will not allow me to seek an ecclesial coalition “together for the gospel” with the Presbyterians (or the Methodists), because these errant believers directly disobey our Lord Jesus Christ with regard to baptism.
Yarnell sees those who practice paedobaptism as “errant believers.” I agree with that. I believe that the Bible teaches baptism of believers by immersion. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a Baptist. But then he crosses a line I am not comfortable crossing. He says that paedobaptists, “directly disobey our Lord Jesus.” He does not just see paedobaptism as disagreement, but as disobedience.
In a lengthy (and productive) exchange with David Rogers, Yarnell defends that position and makes clear that he believes those who diverge from established Baptist doctrine as being in sinful disobedience.
In the ninth letter of that series, Yarnell makes this conclusion:
There is often hesitation on the part of one group of sincere Christians in direct opposition to the faithfulness of another group. This does not always cast doubt upon their salvation (though it might) but may reflect incomplete fidelity to Christ in discipleship.
For instance, Presbyterians refuse to obey Jesus Christ in an orderly manner and “baptize” (actually, just bathe) their babies. Paedobaptists may be sincere Christians but they doubt Christ’s command and hesitate to institute it correctly, thereby deceiving their own children. Again, Pentecostals and some Charismatics may refuse to judge their profound experiences according to the clear teaching of God’s Word by hesitating to reject unbiblical doctrines. Yet again, many ecumenists typically refuse to discern the body of Christ and out of well-meant but misplaced sentimentality doubt they should discipline Christians who institute practices not in accord with Scripture.
He sees Baptists (those who follow that doctrine which he defines as true Baptist doctrine) as faithful and sees divergence from that doctrine as infidelity to Christ. He does not question their salvation but does categorize them as in a state of disobedience and sin. He gives three examples of this idea – Presbyterians for their paedobaptism, Pentecostals and Charismatics for their failure to judge their experiences by scripture and ecumenists for their failure to practice discernment.
I agree with Yarnell’s theology in whole (though I think he adds some extra-biblical conditions on baptism – that’s a debate for another day). I am committed to believer’s baptism. I am not charismatic, though much less offended by those practices than many Baptists. And, as I have said in this series, I think that ecumenism has to stop at the Brick Wall.
But I disagree with Yarnell’s conclusion, and that of others I have talked to, that theological disagreement is inherently sinful. That is only true is one accepts the finality of a certain doctrinal position, creed or confession. Some in the Reformed camp are convinced that truth is found in the historic confessions and creeds and view any disagreement with those as heresy. I have know of charismatics who believed that anyone who did not practice “the gifts” were either not saved or practicing a seriously defective Christianity. And there are many Baptists who accept the “Baptist is biblical” credo and hence can assert that any divergence from established Baptist doctrine is sinful disobedience.
I would present another scenario. Each of us is saved not only out of sin but out of a world sown with the lies of Satan. “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the truth” (2 Corinthians 4:4). “Satan is a liar and the father of lies and when he lies, he speaks his native tongue” (John 8:44). We are all born into a world of lies and enslaved by those lies. Then, we receive the gospel of Jesus Christ and are passed from death unto life. In addition to everything else that happens, our minds are opened by the Spirit of God and we have the ability to receive the truth.
As we study God’s Word, the Spirit guides us in the process of replacing the lies of Satan with the truth of God. This is a continual, lifelong process. In a sense, it is sin that causes our limited understanding of the full revelation of God in scripture. But that does not mean that we must condemn those who disagree with us as disobedient and unfaithful. We are all in a process of being conformed to the image of Christ and having our minds reprogrammed to exhibit the mind of Christ. In the meantime, we are not all going to be at the same place spiritually or theologically.
While I am becoming more like Christ I cannot assume that I am the gold standard by which all Christians should be judged. I am imperfect. And while my mind is becoming more the mind of Christ, I should not assume that I have all wisdom and knowledge. I believe what I believe, but I must accept my brothers and sisters who have not yet come to same conclusion I have on Picket Fence issues.
The purpose of the Picket Fence concept is allow us to follow our convictions and believe what we believe without bringing under condemnation those who disagree.
Picket Fence Doctrine
So, what doctrines fall under the Picket Fence category? Any doctrine that does not compromise the fundamentals of the faith, but does affect the fellowship and functioning of the church is included. Picket Fence doctrines have two defining characteristics. First, they do not involve salvation or the basic truths of the faith. We cannot erect picket fences next to people who teach salvation by works or question the truth of God’s Word. That is Brick Wall time. But if we can disagree over something and still maintain our core belief in salvation by grace through faith, only a picket fence is required.
Second, the doctrine must affect the fellowship or functioning of the church in a systemic way. A church cannot be committed to both infant baptism and believer’s baptism. Some churches practice both, but only because their convictions on the subject are not particularly strong. A church cannot be both cessationist (tongues passed away in the 1st Century) and charismatic. So that we do not have to waste time fighting every issue to the mat, we separate into neighborhoods and houses with picket fences in between. We love one another, but live separately.
I have identified four general categories of Picket Fence doctrine. Of course, everyone will have a different idea about what category a particular doctrine or practice should be placed in. This is my categorization – currently. It changes a little from time to time. This is more art than science, I suppose.
Category 1: Church Organization and Denominational Convictions
What did the New Testament church look like and how should our churches be organized today? Should we baptize infants or only professing believers? Should a church have elders, deacons, or a ruling pastor, or some combination of these? Should denominational hierarchy rule a church, or should the elders, or is congregational rule correct? What roles should women play in the leadership of a church? Among those who love God’s Word and are devoted to the gospel, there are wide differences of opinion. So, we have a choice. We can spend the next century trying to hammer all this out to the satisfaction of everyone, or we can erect friendly picket fences and maintain fellowship in spite of our differences. We may not worship in the same house or in the same way, but we can be good neighbors in the City ofFaith.
I am Baptist by birth, but also by conviction. I believe the Bible teaches baptism by immersion of believers. But I can accept those who sprinkle babies and can partner with them in certain community ministries. But worshiping together in one church would be impractical. We would either have to hash out baptism until we come to an agreement or we would have to compromise doctrine we hold sincerely and passionately. So, the best solution is a picket fence. The Lutheran church (Missouri Synod) down the street can practice that which they believe but we can partner together in an Upward basketball ministry and bless one another. We won’t start churches together, but we can view each other as ministry partners and co-laborers for Christ. That is the essence of the Picket Fence.
Within Baptist circles, this concept of theological triage (Dr. Mohler’s similar and more widely known concept) has been criticized as a means to ecumenism, to the compromise of dearly held Baptist doctrine. That is simply not the case. In Mohler’s triage – more focused on the Baptist world – the first level (what I call Brick Wall doctrine) is that which is necessary to the Christian faith. Secondary doctrine (similar to my Picket Fence doctrine) is Baptist doctrine, that which is necessary to be a Baptist.
We are not saying that Picket fence doctrine is unimportant, we are just saying that one can be a faithful, God-loving, Christ-honoring, World-obeying Christian and disagree on these doctrines.
Denominations are not evil unless we allow them to be. They allow us to pursue truth and practice our dearly held convictions without disrespecting our brothers and sisters who see things differently.
Category 2: Church Philosophy and Style
Why does the church exist and how is it supposed to operate in its community? Once, there may have been a general agreement about this, but the last few years have seen the development of a multitude of new philosophical approaches to “doing church.” There are seekers churches, emergent churches, “gen-x” churches, cowboy churches, and myriad other iterations. It can get very confusing. These different philosophies are more than semantic. They represent significantly different ways of approaching the work of the church.
I believe in “believer’s church.” The church exists to strengthen believers who then go out into the world and do the work of the ministry. This puts me in substantial difference with many churches in my denomination which have taken the evangelistic approach to church. In that approach, we invite our friends and neighbors to church where the pastor preaches a gospel sermon and seeks to lead them to Christ. Is the church supposed to be the place where evangelistic ministry takes place, or is it where Christians gather to be encouraged and strengthened to go out into the world and do evangelism?
I am not enamored with the Seeker church model of ministry, but I realize that Bill Hybels has brought multiple thousands to Christ using this approach. Almost every point of philosophy about the church promoted by Pastor Hybels – I disagree with! It is just not the church I see in the New Testament.
I am nearing my fiftieth birthday and have to admit that I do not understand a lot of the emphases of the emergent churches. Some of the emergent leaders have clearly abandoned sound doctrine and embraced heresy. They have placed themselves outside the Brick wall. But others have adopted “culturally relevant” practices (some of which make me very uncomfortable) which holding on to the biblical gospel. Not my cup o’ tea, but it seems to bless some folks.
So, what do we do about it? We erect a friendly picket fence. At my church, I preach the Word of God expositionally and try to train believers to do ministry in this world. We do things our way and we permit every other church in town to do things as it sees fit. We do not operate as a Seeker church, or an Emergent, but neither do we condemn them. I might identify from scripture why I disagree with the approach taken by some of these men, but I do not need to question their sincerity or denigrate their character on stylistic bases. We rejoice when God blesses them and fellowship with them. I do not have to convince them I am right and I do not have to be threatened by their approach.
I would like to address an issue here. One of the key “picket fence” issues of our time has become worship style. H.B. London has observed that music is the key issue for most people in choosing churches today. People do not choose churches based on denomination, or doctrine, or leadership style. They choose churches based on music. So, in reality, music is a picket fence issue. I am not listing it as such because I do not believe it should be. Our musical differences are not based in scriptural interpretation, but on personal preference. It is wrong for us to sanctify our personal preferences, and we should never divide over them. Where a spirit of true Christian love prevails, musical style will not be an issue that deserves even a picket fence division.
Unfortunately, musical style has become one of the most common Picket Fence issues. I do not believe it should be, but it is.
Category 3: Charismatic Practices
The question of tongues, healing and supernatural phenomena has been divisive within the church. The blame for the animosity can probably be equally divided between the opposing sides. Some who believe that tongues and the miraculous passed away have treated Pentecostals and charismatics like space aliens. Some who practice charismatic phenomena have acted as though those who do not are second-class Christians. We have both given ample reason for offense to the other side. And, to be frank, we are just different. Most charismatics find our worship dull and lifeless, and we find much of what goes on in charismatic churches strange and confusing. Evangelicals and charismatics are probably not going to come to unanimous opinions on these phenomena any time soon. So we have a choice. We can disdain each other, savage one another in words and erect walls of separation, or we can erect a small picket fence and maintain our fellowship.
I have been guilty of disparaging charismatics. I viewed their doctrines and practices as bizarre and suspect and wanted nothing to do with them. I have already recounted to you how God blessed my life as a result of friendships I formed with charismatic Christians. I haven’t changed any of my beliefs in the last couple of decades, but my attitude is completely different. I did not always agree with everything I heard, but I came to know these men – men who have a heart for Jesus, the same Jesus I serve. I do not have to be charismatic to accept charismatics as dear friends and brothers.
Category 4: Core Doctrinal Differences
Some doctrines affect the way we behave so deeply that they require picket fences. The most notable example of this is the question of God’s sovereignty in salvation, the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. This is one of the watershed doctrines that has divided the church throughout its history. Most of our denominational divisions trace back to it. Though I oppose Arminian doctrine, I know many who hold those views and have a passion for Christ equal or greater than my own. So what do we do? We stand at the picket fence and lovingly try to convince one another of our position. When the discussion is over, we shake hands and return to our homes where we worship with the folks who believe as we do.
Baptists are in a unique place here. We are generally on the Calvinist continuum, but at different places on that scale. Some hold only to depravity and eternal security. Others ascribe as well to the concept of God’s sovereign choice, and we have 5-point Calvinists among us as well, in growing numbers. It is still a point of debate as to whether we will be able to live together in the same denomination or if we will splinter into more and less Calvinistic fellowships. I believe that the disagreements among Baptists should not lead to division, but others are much more passionate and forceful in their convictions on this issue.
Picket Fence Perspectives
I hope the reader hears my heart on this one. I am not joining the “doctrine doesn’t matter” chorus. Doctrines do matter, they are crucial. Each of us must be diligent in seeking truth on all biblical issues. But we must also show humility. I must admit that it is possible for someone on the journey to having the mind of Christ to arrive at different positions on these issues than I do. If someone preaches universalism, I erect a brick wall. No fellowship. There can be no unity with wolves. But if someone disagrees with me on election or predestination, or on charismatic practices, or church organization, we can and must maintain a friendship over the picket fence.
Every Christian, every church, needs to make two solid commitments. First, we must be committed to the pursuit of truth through diligent study of God’s Word. Every doctrine matters. Does the Bible teach baptism by immersion of believers or sprinkling of children? What form of church government is closest to the New Testament ideal? What does the Bible say about tongues? We need to relentlessly pursue the real truth of scripture. Never abandon Bible Study because it makes unity harder.
Churches and denominations should believe what they believe and practice what they practice because of the Word of God, not because of tradition. This teaching is no excuse for people to get stuck in a rut and do things a certain way because “that’s the way we always did them.” Each denomination, each church, each individual should be constantly comparing our beliefs and practices against the Word to see what the Bible says.
But, while we pursue truth, we must also make a commitment to relentlessly pursue the unity of the body of Christ. I will not compromise my beliefs, but I will also not be a bad neighbor. Like Mr. Rodgers, I want every other resident to feel welcome in the neighborhood. We can pursue the truth in love and seek both doctrinal purity and the unity of believers.
One day, we will all agree on all things. Today is not that day. So, we hold firmly to Brick Wall truth and we follow our own convictions on Picket Fence issues, while maintaining friendly relationships with our neighbors in the Christian community.