Here’s a difficult question. Why would two people saved by the same death of the same Jesus, indwelled by the same Holy Spirit reading the same Bible come up with such different opinions on so many issues?
This quandary is used as evidence against the authority or the efficacy of Scripture as a moral and spiritual guide. “Even Christians don’t agree what the Bible says about so many things, how can we act as if it is some kind of authoritative word from God?”
It is not a question we should easily dismiss. The simple fact is that there is only a small amount of doctrine on which all Christians agree, and even on those, there are cults and sects that claim to be Christian but deny fundamental truths such as the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement of Christ or salvation by grace through faith alone. Even if we agree on the Brick Wall Doctrines we do not, by definition, agree as believers on the Picket Fence and Dinner Table Doctrines. Baptism. Church polity. Calvinism. Eschatology. It is hard to describe thechurchofJesus Christas united on many issues.
And when it comes to Personal Space Issues, lifestyle choices such as are discussing here, it is impossible to get Christians to agree.
Is it okay for a Christian to have a glass of wine with dinner? Some go into the Word and argue that there is a clear biblical teaching that prohibits any alcohol consumption at all and that when the Bible speaks of consuming wine it means unfermented grape juice. There are others who pick up the same Bible and come to the clear position that the Bible authorizes the moderate use of alcohol, that Jesus turned water into real wine and consumed it himself. All agree that drunkenness is sin, but there is sometimes great hostility between Christ-redeemed, Bible-believing Christians who agree on key doctrines but disagree on this lifestyle issue.
Back when I was a kid, most Baptists were convinced that dancing was a sin (and playing cards, shooting pool, and “mixed bathing” – boys and girls swimming together). My son and daughter went through high school doing “show choir” and not a single person ever questioned me about why the Baptist preacher’s kids were dancing publicly. In my younger days, it was pretty much considered a sin to work on Sundays and women wearing pants to church was just not done. Times change. Opinions change. If the Word of God is eternal, why do the opinions of people who preach that Word change so dramatically?
Perspectives on Our Disagreements
I would give several perspectives on this, though I cannot claim to have all the answers. First of all, we are all in different places on the journey toward Christlikeness. Some are young Christians, others have been in the faith for decades. I have been a Christian for over 45 years now. Can I expect a newborn babe in Christ to understand all that I understand or to have the same convictions I do? We are not all at the same place in the process of spiritual growth. If it took God’s Spirit 30 years to show me something, maybe I shouldn’t go out there and try to force Christians toddlers to see everything just as I do.
And, we start at very different places on the path to Christlikeness. I was raised in a solid Christian home, but many others were saved out of deep dysfunction and sin. Every one of us likes to claim that all of our views are simply derived from scripture, but we are all shaped and formed by our experiences and upbringing.
There was a man in our church in the early 70s who had been saved out of drug addiction – especially LSD. There were certain songs that triggered flashbacks in him, songs he listened to as he did the drugs. So, for him, those songs were a no-no. But, I never did drugs and the same songs had no such effect on me. He started his Christian life in one place and I started in another. So, there were areas in which we saw the world differently.
Often there are subtle and emotional reasons why people hold to certain beliefs or practices. I remember a lady in my church inCedar Rapids who got very emotional every time I preached on eternal security. I knew when she joined that she came from a more Arminian background, but what I could not understand was the force of her passion for the doctrine. Why did she get so upset when I preached that our salvation is secure in Christ? Finally, after many discussions, I figured her out. Her “Christian” husband had left her many years before for a younger woman, and then some years later he died. It was very important to her to believe that her husband who had hurt her so badly had in the process lost his salvation. She could not face the idea that he might actually be in heaven. She was reading scripture emotionally, not exegetically. Eternal security is not a Personal Space issue, but the process that she went through would account for a lot of our disagreements on issues. If my dad was a hopeless drunk or if someone I love was killed by a drunk driver, that will likely color my views of alcohol.
We come from different traditions, heritages and life-experiences, and as much as we would like to deny it, these things shape our views. It is easy for me to believe that you have allowed your doctrine and convictions to be shaped by experience, heritage and emotions, but I do not like to admit that I have done the same. Unfortunately, all of us are shaped by many forces, not just the rational and objective exegesis of biblical texts as we would like to assert.
And, let’s face it. We are sinful people with sinful hearts and sinful minds, and even though the Spirit illumines us as we study God’s Word, our sinful understanding will always fail to fully grasp truth until our minds are glorified and perfected in Christ.
And this explains, at least in part, why we are not in full agreement on all issues of doctrine and conviction. The Bible is not confused, nor does it speak with a bewildered voice, but our understanding is still imperfect. We are on the journey, but we are not at the destination.
In the meantime, we do the best we can to be biblical in all things. We follow God’s Word, as we understand it, and we listen to our consciences under the Lordship of Christ. We accept the fact that other believers are headed for the same destination – we are being conformed to the image of Christ. But we are not all at the same place on the journey. We remain passionate about obedience to Christ, but also remain patient with other believers who are at different places on the journey.
This is not to say the church has no standards. Where the Bible speaks clearly, the church can speak clearly. Idolatry, adultery, gossip, dishonesty – on these issues the Bible speaks with a clear voice. But there are other issues not so clear. On those issues, on issues the Bible does not speak to clearly, we allow each Christian to make a decision under the Lordship of Christ.
The Teachings of Romans 14
Here are what I believe are the clear and unequivocal teachings of Romans 14.
1) Jesus died and rose again for the right to be the absolute Lord of our lives.
2) Christians will often come to different convictions on issues of conscience – disputable matters over which we disagree.
3) If someone believes something is okay which you believe is not okay, you are prohibited by scripture from judging or condemning him. It is sin to judge and condemn a brother for holding a more lenient view on a disputable matter than you do.
4) If someone believes something is wrong which you believe to be perfectly okay, you are prohibited by scripture from disdaining him (holding him in low view for his lack of understanding of our freedom in Christ). It is sin to disdain one who has a stricter view on a disputable matter than you do.
5) MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS! This may be the clearest teaching in Romans 14. I belong to and serve Jesus. As do you. I am not your Lord and you are not mine. There is a Holy Spirit whose job it is to convict and guide Christians. I am not the Holy Spirit and neither are you. We should live by our own consciences and then just shut up and let others live by their consciences.
6) People are more important than pleasure. If my exercise of freedom will in any way harm another or lead them astray, I should willingly limit my freedom for the good of the other. I am not a slave to others opinions, but I am a servant of Christ and that means serving others by limiting my freedom at times.
Live as your Spirit-empowered conscience dictates, remembering that you will give account to Jesus, the righteous Judge, and allow other Christians the same privilege.
Two Words to Leave Behind
In the process of developing unity over Personal Space issues, there are two labels which we would do well to drop from our vocabulary. Yessies, who emphasize our freedom in Christ on issues of conscience often apply the term “Legalist” to No-noes. No-noes, who emphasize our need for standards of behavior, often label those who do not share their convictions as an “Antinomian.” In this debate, neither term is accurately used or fair.
Legalism is the idea that you attain favor with God by following the Jewish Law. Essentially, legalism is salvation by works. Even the strictest of fundamental Baptists does not believe that we attain salvation by the works of the law. We have come to use the term to describe anyone who makes a personal conviction into a universal demand, but that is not really a correct use of the term.
Antinomianism has a more varied and nuanced history as a theological term. But Paul, who taught salvation by grace apart from the law, addressed abuses of his doctrine in Romans 6 and 7. Some seemed to be saying that salvation by grace freed us to live however we pleased. There were even some who twisted grace to advocate that the more we sinned, the greater God’s grace. Basically, antinomianism is a rejection of the law, both ceremonial and moral – essentially a Christianity without standards. The charge of antinomianism has been frequently leveled by stricter Christians against those who disagree with their interpretations.
Neither word is fair or helpful. We should not try to paint those with whom we disagree in the negative extreme. In both political and biblical discussions today, this sort of denial-by-the-extreme argument is in common vogue. It needs to stop for the sake of Christ and the unity of his body. If someone does not drink, that does not make him a legalist. If someone takes a drink, they do not thereby become antinomian. We would do well in discussing Personal Space Issues to leave these terms behind.
Brick Walls and Picket Fences: Links to Previous Posts
- In the first post, I introduced the topic. I have had deep experiences in two very different Christian camps – the theological and the experiential – which often seem to be in direct conflict. One desires theological correctness and the other prizes unity over doctrine which divides. I have seen much good in both and desire to find a way to bring them together.
- In the second post, I identified the four levels of biblical truth and the appropriate unity response at each level. Level 1 is the “Brick Wall” – doctrine which is essential to the Christian faith and over which we cannot compromise. We must build a brick wall of separation around these fundamental doctrinal truths. Level 2 is “Picket Fence” doctrine. Some disagreements do not require division but separation. By separating into churches and denominations we can practice our beliefs without arguing. We recognize, at this point, that those who disagree with us are genuine Christians even though we disagree with them. Level 3 is “Dinner Table Doctrine” – truths which we can disagree on even within the same church or denomination. Level 4 is “Personal Space” truth – in which each of us can have our own convictions and not disdain or condemn those who disagree. The key is to learn to properly categorize doctrine.
- In the third post, I introduced “Brick Wall Doctrine” – truths that are essential to the gospel and cannot be compromised in the church.
- In the fourth post, I started listing what I believe are Brick Wall truths, beginning with the perfection of the Word of God.
- In the fifth post, I identified two more Brick Wall doctrines – the nature of God and the sinful nature of mankind.
- In the sixth post, I finished up my discussion of Brick Wall doctrines – examining the nature of Jesus, the gospel and the Second Coming of Christ.
- In a supplemental post, I addressed a few sticky questions about specific groups (open theism, Catholics, etc) and asked whether they are inside or outside of the Brick Wall.
- In the seventh post, I introduced the concept of the Picket Fence, a friendly boundary that provides private space for local churches by allows them to be good neighbors with other churches.
- In the eighth post, I ask the question “Is it a sin to disagree?” and then define four categories of Picket Fence doctrine.
- In the ninth post, I discussed three key steps to maintaining a friendly picket fence.
- In the tenth post, I discuss “Picket Fence Ecclesiology” – a view of the threefold nature of the church that helps with the picket fence process.
- In the eleventh post, I turn the discussion toward “Dinner Table Issues” – truths which may be important but are not worth dividing over in any way.
- In the twelfth post, I begin to examine “Personal Space Issues” – issues of conscience on which Christians may disagree and on which we should not attempt to force our convictions on one another.
- In the thirteenth post, I examine Romans 14 and demonstrate that each believer answers only to the Lord who died for us, and that it is wrong to attempt to exercise Lordship over on another.