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Will Diversity Confuse the Sheep?

By Jon Zens

Dear Brethren in the Lord,

I read with interest the Winter 1984 Searching Together. Although I find much that I agree with, there are other points that I have difficulty with. I would like to share these with you, and any feedback would be much appreciated

1.  On p. 7 you state that proper hermeneutics “precludes division over some point of theology.”  Although the article denies that this is a “lowest-common-denominator liberalism,” I am forced to ask, is this not what such a statement is advocating?  The Scriptures are clear that we are to stand for the truth at all costs (Jude 3, 1 Timothy 1: 3, 2 Timothy 4: 2, 1:13, etc.)  Is not division over “some point of theology” warranted if the point is a “gospel issue”?  If proper hermeneutics “precludes division over some point of theology,” how then does one stand for the truth?

2.  Further, it is said that proper hermeneutics means that we should assemble “Calvinists, Arminians, pacifists, and ‘just-war’ advocates at the same table side-stepping nothing.”  I am disturbed by this because truth is objective (not changeable and subjective), as I’m sure you would agree.  This being so, I must ask what possible value is there in truth assembling with error?  Does this kind of procedure really accomplish anything?  What is the point?

3.  You state that “believers must verbally agree to actively seek out believers from other traditions and backgrounds so that we may hear them.”  While the value of this regarding trained Bible teachers and scholars is debatable, I view this as positively dangerous to other saints in the body.  There are many sheep who easily get confused by such an interchange, and wind up being blown about.  Some sheep simply don’t have the mental gifts and equipment to be able to safely handle such an interchange.  Would you not agree that there is a real danger to such a procedure if it is practiced and recommended indiscriminately to all members of the body?

4.  On p. 13 it is said, “We must face diversity openly and in love, as evangelicals together seeking theological consensus.”  Again my concern here is of a pastoral nature.  Would you not agree that diversity such as it is advocated can, in point of fact, confuse and shake loose from their moorings, certain kinds of sheep?  Is it not the responsibility of the elders to guard the souls of the sheep under their care?  Is it not the responsibility of the elders to encourage unity of theological consensus in the preaching and teaching ministry of the church so as to protect the sheep from error and/or utter confusion?  Should not such diversity be kept “behind closed doors” (that is, between the mature and enlightened members who are able to handle such open discussion and disagreement)?

5.  The question then naturally comes to my mind, When, if ever, should church discipline be exercised over someone for holding opinions contrary to the confessional basis of the church?  Where does freedom of expression begin and where does church discipline enter the picture?

I would be most interested in the reply to these inquiries, as they are honest questions

Again, thank you for the literature and feedback.  Although I don’t agree with everything in Searching Together, it is still a most worthwhile experience for me

Mark Brooks, Valencia, Pa

A Reply from Joe & Paul 
(this is Joe Higginbotham and Paul Patton who wrote on “Body Ethics” in the Winter 1984 issue of Searching Together):

As we said in the article, each of the hermeneutic approaches we discussed has its advantages.  This brother has apparently chosen the “Ecclesiastical Hermeneutic” where it is the role of the institutional church to tell people what to believe.  He takes truth and his role of shepherd seriously — and for that we applaud him.  Nevertheless, truth is not to be identified with a particular person’s theology, nor does it always flow through a clergyman, a system, an institution, or even an entire tradition.  The pastor who is overly zealous in defending the truth and exhorting the brethren risks sliding his congregation into paternalism.

While we agree with the brother that truth is objective and unchanging, we hasten to remind him that no one has a lock on it, and that God has not allowed it to be contained by any one movement.  History and Scripture show that God has been pleased to work through such diverse men as Luther, Wesley, Fox and Billy Graham.  Neither has God limited Himself to speaking through ordained clergy or institutional churches.  Paul was apparently familiar with a situation in which all were regarded as prophets, all prophesied, and all were subject to one another — not just to some ordained religious specialist (cf. 1 Corinthians 14).

We realize that assembling diverse individuals in the same congregation creates some problems for the pastor who sees himself as the order-keeper.  However, we must not fall into a “pragmatic hermeneutic” which says, “I can’t see how it will work, therefore, I will not admit that it might be true.”

Finally, this brother seems to operate from a presuppositional base that says Christian unity requires doctrinal homogeneity (uniformity).  We do not agree.  Christian unity is based, not upon common belief, but upon common relationship to Jesus by faith.  It was unity of common relationship in Jesus which kept Whitefield the Calvinist and Wesley the Arminian from killing each other, and made it possible for both of them to work together in the same kingdom.

Reply from the editor (Jon Zens):

Thanks so much for your letter received today.  Your first three questions related to Joe and Paul’s letter, so I forwarded it to them I will make a few general comments in response.

1.  Since our perception of truth is couched in a growth process, all of God’s people are at different levels of understanding the gospel and its implications.  Hence, all who are His children — regardless of how high or low their growth-level — are my brothers and sisters, and I must accept them (Romans 15:7).  Within this framework of acceptance, I can then confront them with the truth (Romans 15:14).  Thus I stand for the truth in love, longsuffering, forbearing with my fellow Christians (Ephesians 4:2-3).

2.  Since all Christians are growing, and haven’t attained, isn’t all of my fellowship with them characterized by a certain amount of “assembling with error”?  Who could I assemble with that was free from error?  On that basis, I couldn’t sit with myself!  How can I minister to those in need if I do not assemble with them and dialogue? How can I grow if I do not assemble with others who probably have something needful for me?

3.  Such assembling, I readily grant, is fruitless unless the parties gathering are committed to (1) submitting to Scripture where they are shown to be in error, and (2) submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.  The dynamic I see in Romans 15:7, 14 is that positive growth and negative turning from error can only occur in an atmosphere where Christians accept one another in Christ.

4.  There is a delicate balance to be maintained between “guarding” unstable saints and “encouraging” growth by exposure to a plurality of viewpoints.  Christians must be encouraged to “exercise” discernment (1 John 4:1, Hebrews 5:14).  It would be my observation that many professing Christians are not discerning people for the simple reason that they are never allowed to think, to interact with various ideas, to make mistakes, to express themselves in reaction to what they see or hear.  Instead, they are spoon-fed, and “told from the top” what to believe (hence the presence of Institutional-/Clergy-/Creedal-hermeneutics).  The analogy of how a child (hopefully) grows to maturity seems appropriate: he is not, on the one hand, so closely guarded that he cannot explore and make mistakes; on the other hand, the parents keep an eye on the youngster so that he won’t get “burned.”

5.  To face diversity openly, and not behind closed doors, is certainly a position of vulnerability.  But it is also, I believe, the way to cultivate gospel maturity.  There is a big presupposition underneath this assertion that saints are committed to one another in the gospel.  For example, in our church we try to keep all our cards out on the table.  When young saints see how we handle diversity, and arrive at unity, it helps them mature.  If a visitor says something off-the-wall in a meeting, our people have the maturity to ride with the punch.  Since conflict is inevitable, the most important thing for churches is to know how to resolve trouble — and this is precisely the area where most assemblies fall flat on their faces.  They go bananas when any form of diversity surfaces.

You’ve probably heard of Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence.  They are not informed by the gospel, of course, but it is interesting to note that in the “secular” world they are recognizing the value of keeping lines of communication open — which is Scriptural.  Exxon asked Peters in an interview, “Is there a link, then, between productivity and communication?” Peters replied:

“Absolutely! . . . .You must have open communication of all sorts.  Absence of secrecy is first on my list.  Any activity that brings people together or serves as a channel for information is worth doing . . . At Hewlett-Packard Co. everybody in a thousand-person department will get together in a body once every two weeks.  They share refreshments and listen to people from other departments tell what they are working on and what neat things they are doing. . . . They want people to talk to each other and regard as well spent whatever money it takes to accomplish that . . . .The object is to get people to know each other so they will exchange information and take an interest in the welfare of the organization” (Exxon USA, 23:2, 2nd Quarter, 1984, p. 30).

Obviously, there are sensitive issues and brotherly disagreements that are best handled privately, often in connection with the eldership.  But in terms of general church life — and in the corporate world, as Peters notes — “secrecy” and closed doors should be a “no-no.”

The more an atmosphere is clothed with secrecy and closed doors, the more you can be sure that such things as suspicion, rumor, misunderstanding, distrust, power-plays, politics, gossip, etc , will thrive.

The way to avoid such negative things is to cultivate an open atmosphere where communication can prosper. One key reason why churches split is because the members have never spent time trying to understand where the “other side” is coming from.

6.  The New Testament gives a handful of examples where discipline is needful.  Sin must be confronted by the church.  The problem comes when “sin” is defined as departure from a party-line.  What if opinions that are rocking the boat are indeed Biblical, and the “confessional basis” of the church is wrong?  One thing I see repeatedly is that churches confront things that are not sinful, and skip over things that really are.  Our daily care of one another (Heb 3:12-13) is the Scriptural method to avoid the “big blow-ups” that often occur in churches.

7.  I think what Joe & Paul meant by not dividing over “some point of theology,” was the idea that we shouldn’t separate from Christians over non-essential points of systems of theology. For example, when you use the word “truth” in your letter, you seem to identify it with your system of theology.  You then imply that it is fruitless to assemble with others who disagree with truth — your system.

Indeed, certain issues can become very significant.  Circumcision in itself is “nothing,” but if anyone makes it mandatory, Paul uttered strong words against such a practice.  On the other hand, Paul allowed Timothy to be circumcised in order to have a door of ministry with the Jews.  The crux of the matter is to determine when something is a “gospel issue.”

I hope these thoughts will be helpful in our discussion together.  Feel free to come back with your response.

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