The second section of Wayne Grudem’s article Why, When, and For What, Should We Draw New Boundaries? is entitled “Why Should Christian Organizations Draw New Boundaries?” In this section, Grudem defends, I believe successfully, the idea that there are times when doctrinal statements of Christian organizations must be updated, not to reflect changes in truth (which stays the same down through the centuries), but rather to reflect changes in our understanding of Scripture, and especially in our application of Scripture to new situations and contexts that perhaps did not exist when the original doctrinal statement was written.
Grudem’s first point in this section is: False teaching changes, so old boundaries do not protect against new problems. Just as there are questions that were hotly debated in New Testament times (such as, whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be obligated to be circumcised) and in the Early Church (such as the divine-human nature of Christ), and are now pretty much non-issues, regarded by all orthodox believers to have already been resolved, there are new questions that arise that are just as relevant, and that require further reflection and definition in order to come to a God-honoring resolution. This is the crux of the phrase the Reformers used to describe the true church: semper reformanda.
I believe that Grudem has correctly identified several issues that have cropped up in recent history for which it has proven necessary for orthodox Christians in various organizations to make some sort of a pronouncement. These include such things as: annihilationism, universalist inclusivism, and homosexuality. During the last century, the whole question of the inerrancy of Scripture (though not previously uncommented) came to the forefront. During a period of time, it seemed as if inerrancy was a good “measuring stick” to determine who were, as Grudem describes them, “genuine evangelicals,” and who were not. However, the development of the concept of “open theism” among some who also claim to embrace inerrancy, has left many questioning the adequacy of inerrancy in this regard.
At this point, I will throw in my own agreement that inerrancy, in and of itself, is not a sufficient benchmark of doctrinal orthodoxy within Southern Baptist life. It is a very important, “watershed” issue. However, it is possible to assent to inerrancy, and at the same time, be woefully heretical, as the existence of groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses amply demonstrates. To say the Bible, in and of itself, is our sufficient guide is all well and good. But, if, by way of your interpretation and application of the Bible, you completely “butcher” its message, we suddenly find ourselves in need of some other standard of orthodoxy beyond just inerrancy.
Grudem’s next point is phrased by means of a question: Why does God in His sovereignty allow these various false teachings to come into the church in different ages? The answers Grudem proposes also seem to me to be relevant for us today as Southern Baptists.
First, Grudem states that God allows false teaching for the purification of the church. Although throughout history there have been periods of deep spiritual darkness and regression in understanding of the Bible and obedience to its message, I am in agreement with Grudem, when he states:
“The long-term pattern has not been 19 centuries of decline in the purity and doctrinal and ethical understanding of the Church, but rather a pattern of gradual and sometimes explosive increase in understanding and purity.”
I think it is especially significant for us what Grudem says next:
“But all of these advances have come through controversy. As the church struggled to define its own beliefs clearly in distinction from false doctrine, it grew in its understanding of the teachings of Scripture. So God has used controversy to purify his church.”
This is encouraging to me. It is true that we seem to be embroiled in a good deal of controversy at the present. And, by no means, is it a good thing to treat others poorly or have a combative spirit. However, if Grudem is right (and I believe he is), controversy, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It may well be a sign we are on the brink of one of the “explosive increases in understanding and purity” Grudem mentions earlier.
Grudem brings this right to home, when he says:
“Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity came to be understood much more fully and clearly through the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century. Similarly, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy came to be understood much more fully through the inerrancy controversies of the last part of the twentieth century. In our present time, controversies over the nature of spiritual gifts and over appropriate roles for men and women in the home and in the church are also resulting in much deeper understanding of the teachings of God’s Word on those subjects.”
It is because of this that I believe we should not shrink back from discussing controversial topics such as these. It is only as we have the courage to delve deep into what the Word of God teaches, and the openness and objectivity to consider the viewpoints of those with whom we may have traditionally disagreed, that God can lead us more and more into the discovery of his eternal, unchanging Truth.
A second reason Grudem points out for God allowing false teachings to have influence in the church is in order to test the faithfulness of His people. I think Grudem makes an important point when he says that not everyone who teaches false doctrine in a church or Christian organization is necessarily the equivalent of a “false prophet” in the Old Testament, or an unbeliever. There are definitely degrees of false teaching. That is the whole point behind the recent discussion on “theological triage.” This does not mean, though, that we should be careless in our approach to doctrine. Correct doctrine, even in matters of apparent detail, has its significance.
It matters whether or not we are completely faithful to our understanding of God’s Word. It is a question of integrity. It is a question of the state of our heart. If we are easily led to compromise and downplay the teaching of God’s Word, then our loyalty and devotion to the absolute Lordship of Christ can also be legitimately called into question.
“Believing the Bible is not always the easiest or most popular thing to defend. There are many things that God asks us to believe that are not really logical contradictions but are mysteries or paradoxes, matters that we cannot fully explain.”
In the current discussions in Southern Baptist life, I am encouraged by what I perceive as a sincere desire on the part of most of the participants to be faithful to biblical truth. Although I do think there are times all of us let our personal experiences and traditions blind us to what the Bible really says, I, for one, am not yet so cynical as to believe that very many at all in the current discussion are intentionally distorting the Word of God in the positions they defend.
And, I think this is especially helpful to keep in mind, as we come to Grudem’s last reason why God sometimes allows false teaching in the church: in order to test our attitude toward false teachers. This does not refer to compromising the truth, but rather to the disposition of our heart. As Grudem asks: “Will we act in love and gentleness toward those with whom we disagree?”
Grudem’s quote of Francis Schaeffer, commenting on divisions within the Presbyterian denomination in the 1920’s and 30’s, is especially relevant for us today as Baptists:
“At the same time, however, we must show forth the love of God to those with whom we differ. Thirty-five years ago in the Presbyterian crisis in the United States, we forgot that. We did not speak with love about those with whom we differed, and we have been paying a high price for it ever since…we did not talk of the need to show love as we stood against liberalism, and, as the Presbyterian Church was lost, that lack has cost us dearly.”
I personally think it is a good thing we are discussing the issues we are discussing over the blogs, and through other media. I am learning a lot from fellow bloggers, and coming to understand several doctrinal issues better than I had before. At the same time, though, I am concerned that we may be failing the test of our attitude toward false teachers.
George Verwer, in the book The Revolution of Love, sums it up as follows:
“There is no more biblical teaching than love, and apart from love there is no biblical teaching. Love is the foundation of all other biblical teaching, and you cannot build the builiding of biblical truth without that foundation.”
May we all take to heart, as we continue to seek the truth of God’s Word together, Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
“And the Lord’s servant much not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2.24-25a).