28th June 2018
Virtually every important Christian teaching has been controversial at some point. We may wish that this wasn’t the case, but it has been. The Trinity, the person of Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the gifts of the Spirit, the Church … If a doctrine is important, it gets challenged. Learning how to handle theological controversy, then, is an important part of a pastor’s job description. John Piper is right:
Are there any significant biblical teachings that have not been controversial? I cannot think of even one, let alone the number we all need for the daily nurture of faith. If this is true, then we have no choice but to seek our food in the markets of controversy ... We do not have the luxury of living in a world where the most nourishing truths are unopposed. If we think we can suspend judgment on all that is controversial and feed our souls only on what is left, we are living in a dreamworld. There is nothing left. The reason any of us thinks that we can stand alone on truths that are non-controversial is because we do not know our history or the diversity of the professing church. Besides that, would we really want to give the devil the right to determine our spiritual menu by refusing to eat any teaching over which he can cause controversy?
When faced with a topic that has recently become controversial, many of us find the landscape pretty intimidating to navigate. How do we know who is right? With intelligent, plausible-sounding people on both sides of the debate—and there usually are—how are we supposed to sift the wheat from the chaff?
Although each debate is different, there are four postures that can serve as anchors for us in the storms. All four of them, appropriately enough, involve a posture of humility: a characteristic that is absolutely crucial to finding our way forward theologically, but is not always the first thing you would notice watching people discuss theology! I think four types of humility in particular can help us.
Humility towards orthodoxy. There is a profound humility to operating on the assumption that Christians over the last two thousand years have been right, rather than wrong. As such, the bar for affirming something the Church has always (or almost always) rejected should be extremely high (and vice versa). This doesn’t mean that the Church has always been entirely right, of course—but it does mean that the stronger her consensus has been on a subject, the stronger our argument needs to be that she was wrong.
Humility towards catholicity. This is the same principle applied to the global Church today. We should be aware of how widespread or weird our views are, and set higher bars for minority views than majority ones. If a particular doctrine has only taken hold in some cultures (prosperity theology, progressive sexual ethics, or whatever), and has otherwise been rejected by the global Church, there are good reasons for being suspicious of it.
Humility towards scholarship. Reading commentaries is a great way of finding out whether what you think a text means is what most experts think it means. You don’t always have to agree with the experts (who don’t always agree with each other), but it’s a good idea to assume a scholarly consensus is right until proven otherwise. You would be surprised how often the consensus of scholars today lines up almost exactly with the consensus of the historic Church (as in #1).
Humility towards eldership. Most people in most local churches don’t read much biblical scholarship, and many are not especially aware of what is orthodox (historically) or catholic (globally). But Paul charges local church overseers and elders with teaching the church carefully, soundly, skillfully and in continuity with the apostolic faith. Elders are loving guardians of the flock – men with sticks, on patrol, whom the Holy Spirit has put in place – and therefore we trust them and defer to them on controversial matters of doctrine. (For those of us who are elders ourselves, this may serve as a provocation! But we have equivalents of our own—apostolic ministry, confessions, statements of faith, and so on—to help us.)
Occasionally, of course, these will clash (as they did in the Reformation). But you’d be astonished by how often they don’t. And even when they do, having a posture of humility—towards those who have gone before us, those who are from other cultures, those who spend their lives studying these things, and those who are given by God to watch over us—will serve as anchors for us, no matter what theological storms we may face.
Andrew Wilson is the Teaching Pastor and is responsible for much of the preaching and teaching at King's. Andrew has a PhD in theology, has written numerous books and regularly blogs at thinktheology.co.uk.
Steve Tibbert is on sabbatical and will return in September.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham and Lee. Over the past fifteen years the church has seen continued growth, both in size and diversity. Steve is also involved in Newfrontiers and regularly coaches other lead elders. His book, Good to Grow, was published in July 2011. He is married to Deb, and they have three sons.