15 September 2005

Sometimes fellowship is better than a fight. Sometimes not.

pyromaniacOne thing you'll quickly notice if you make even a casual study of historical theology is this: the history of the church is a long chronicle of doctrinal development that runs from one profound controversy to the next.

In one sense it is sad that the history of the church is so marred by doctrinal conflicts, but in another sense that is precisely what the apostles anticipated. Even while the New Testament was still being written, the church was contending with serious heresies and dangerous false teachers who seemed to spring up everywhere. This was so much a universal problem that Paul made it one of the qualifications of every elder that he be strong in doctrine and able to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). So the church has always been beset by heretics and false teachings, and church history is full of the evidence of this.

Obviously, then, we who love the truth cannot automatically shy away from every fight over doctrine. Especially in an era like ours when virtually every doctrine is deemed up for grabs, Christians need to be willing and prepared to contend earnestly for the faith.

On the other hand, even in an obsessively "tolerant" age such as ours, the opposite danger looms large as well. There are some people who are always spoiling for a fight over little matters, and no issue is too trivial for them to overlook. It seems they are looking for reasons to take offense, and if you're not careful what you say or how you say it, they'll throw a major hissy. More often than not, it's an insignificant issue, an unintentional slight, or an inadvertently indelicate "tone" that provokes the tantrum. (Ironically, these same folks are sometimes more than willing to tolerate major doctrinal errors in the name of "charity.")

Scripture includes all the following commands: "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18). "It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11). "I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Romans 16:17). "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations" (Romans 14:1). "Follow peace with all men, and holiness" (Hebrews 12:14).

Clearly, there are two extremes to be avoided. One is the danger of being so narrow and intolerant that you create unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ. The other is the problem of being too broad-minded and sinfully tolerant—so ecumenically minded that you settle for a shallow, false unity with people whom we are commanded to avoid or whose errors we are morally obligated to refute.

It would seem that the only way to be faithful to all the above commands is to have a sound and biblical understanding of how to distinguish between core doctrines and peripheral ones.

But search for serious material that carefully discusses biblical guidelines for making such distinctions wisely, and you'll come up mostly dry. This is an issue I fear most Christians have not considered as soberly and carefully as we should, and it would be my assessment that one of the crying needs of the church in this age of mindless postmodern subjectivity is a clear, careful, and thorough biblical understanding of when it's time to fight and when it's time to fellowship.

Few subjects interest me more than this. It seems a pretty obvious and foundational issue for the church and her leaders to settle. You might think the early fundamentalists ought to have done extensive work on the subject, but as far as I can see, they didn't. They treated several key doctrines as fundamental, based mainly on what happened to be under attack by the modernists, and they declared themselves devoted to "the fundamentals."

But they didn't always keep very clear focus on the distinction between what was fundamental and what was not. As a result, later generations of fundamentalists often fought and fragmented over issues no one could rationally argue were "fundamental." Predictably, the fundamentalist movement slowly collapsed on itself.

There are some valiant efforts currently underway to improve and preserve the best remnants of the fundamentalist movement. I sincerely wish them success. But it seems to me that unless the brightest minds and most careful theologians in that movement are willing to go back to this basic question and carefully think through the biblical and theological rationale for the original distinction between fundamental and secondary truths, certain things that ought to be clear will remain murky, and fundamentalism will be doomed to repeating cycles of failure.

If there's anyone left in the "evangelical movement" who is truly evangelical in the historic sense, the same thing applies to them, by the way.

Phil's signature


Dave C. said...

I see where you are coming from with this post and the previous one. But the problem that I see with any attempt to categorize issues is the authority and inerrancy of scripture.

Fundamentalists fight all challenges against scripture because many of those challenges are made in blantant violation of what scripture says.

Ordination of women is a prime example. Those who advocate for that do so in blatant violation of what scripture says. Should fundamentalists not fight against that because it might be seen as a "secondary" issue by others? How many secondary and tertiary issues can we concede away and still claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy or sufficiency?

When we start categorizing these issues, aren't we're bascially using human wisdom to cut up the Bible into what we think is important?

SJ Camp said...

Dear Phil:

Very good post. The balance of wisdom is much needed today. However, I do agree in part here with Dave C. Being a faithful Berean (Acts 17:9-11) does mean that we measure all things by the authority and veracity Scripture--not just the perceived essentials. Paul even encourages us in 1 Thess. 5 to "test all things and cling to what is good."

I appreciate you brother... I fully agree that discernment and charity is necessary today by all of us.

Guard the Trust,

Ephemeral Mortal said...

I agree with Phil that there are primary and secondary doctrines, but the problem arises in defining and agreeing on what these are.

Another question to consider is whether these primary and secondary doctrines can change category over time. I know there are certain essential doctrines that will always remain primary, but what of certain secondary doctrines? Can not the prevailing conditions of the day (i.e. the prevailing area of attack) cause a secondary doctrine to be promoted to a primary one? I'm thinking here of a postscript written by Dr. Peter Masters in a book written by David G Fountain titled 'Contending For the Faith' -a biography of E J Poole Connor (ISBN1-870855-32-9). In it Dr. Masters suggests that the old formula for evangelical unity/seperation is no longer sufficient being based on doctrinal matters alone, because a major attack on the church today is directed at matters of practice also (particularly in the area of worship).

J. Ed Komoszewski said...

I think plenty of Christian scholars are grappling with this issue, but their thoughts trickle slowly into pulpits and pews.

The theme for the 2001 Evangelical Theological Society national conference was "Defining Evangelicalism's Boundaries." Several fine papers were given that looked at the issue biblically, theologically, and historically. David Dockery gave the plenary address on drawing biblical lines.

I know this issue is also discussed at length by Dan Wallace in his classes at Dallas Seminary. I have a file full of notes taken as we grappled with a doctrinal taxonomy in the mid- to late nineties. I hope one day Dan will publish his seasoned thoughts on the matter. He's a darn good thinker who's solidly reformed, exegetically savvy, and pastorally sensitive.

marc said...

We are and have been wrestling with an aspect of this at Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper is preaching pastor there) in regards to Church Membership. The issue for us, in a nutshell, is whether or not to allow into membership those who hold to a paedobaptistic view.

Based on the variety of opinions expressed in church meetings as well as the gallons of virtual ink spilled throughout the evangelical blogosphere on our proposed amendment, figuring out what is primary and what is secondary is not easily determined.

Maybe we can think of all this wrestling as a fight TO fellowship.

BTW, Ed, when you use big words like Doctrinal Taxonomy please give us a defintion. At first I thought you wrote Doctrinal Taxidermy, which of course would characterize a number of preachers who though they have the form of Godliness have denied its power... give me a call soon.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Have you read Dr. Mohler's article on Theological Triage? Here's the address.


Chris said...

It's interesting that the first things which come to mind when I think of the dumb issues Fundamentalists have thrown tomatoes over have little or nothing to do with doctrine at all (think of dancing or long hair) or are based on incorrect doctrine on their part (i.e. attacking Calvinism, "Lordship salvation," or "John MacArthur's bloodless cult").

The problem with the Fundamentalists I have run into isn't that they have good doctrine but are picking at secondary doctrines, but that they just have plain bad doctrine themselves.

John R. said...

One benefit of fighting heresy is that the Church was forced to clarify its understanding--and communicate those clarifications.

We are behind enemy lines and controversy will always plague us...

I think a good starting point for us today is to teach a solid view of the Trinity, the Person and Work of Christ, and the Innerancy of the Scriptures. These three basics would cover a lot of the "secondary" issues as well. (In a roundabout way, the doctrine of the Trinity affects our understanding of a woman's role in the church...[the economic relationship between the Father and the Son is reflected in the relationship between the roles of men and women...])

Coming from a fundamentalist background, I wish that those in the movement would read Romans 14--kind of like a daily vitamin. There are areas of conscience in which every man must be fully persuaded in his own mind. These areas are definitely not in the crucial doctrines and absolutes of morality, however. But the freedom in "doubtful disputations" is important.

theological said...

To further complicate the problem, we have to ask: Is there a distinction between what we will tolerate 1) as a professed belief among our members 2) as a professed belief among our teachers and elders 3) as being taught from our pulpits and even Sunday schools

marc reports Bethlehem church's struggle with accepting paedobaptist members. I am a member of what I believe is a solid Calvinistic Baptist Church that for a time tolerated a paedobaptist elder (who agreed not to teach his views on this subject out of "submission" to the other elders!) Did we err in allowing this man to be an elder?

I appreciate dave c's comments. I am afraid that if we start trying to create categories of doctrines where the scriptures do not specifically define such categories (much less do the scriptures enumerate which beliefs fall in which category) we are going beyond the text of scripture. Anything which scripture clearly addresses we should consider worth contending for (though not always with the same degree of fervor). If we are not clear on what scripture says, then it probably falls into the Romans 14 category.

Steve said...

In line with what dave c., campi, and theological have said, I cannot help but wonder that Scripture INTENTIONALLY doesn't do much to categorize for us the primary, secondary, and tertiary issues. While a good number of the primary or nonnegotiable doctrines are pretty clearly evident, the secondary and tertiary are less so, and for Scripture to be rather silent regarding this may actually be a good thing for us...knowing our human propensity toward legalism or drawing boundaries in places where we're to be more charitable.

Yes, as Phil correctly points out, Scripture does tell us there are times we should not compromise, and there are other times we should be forbearing. And yes, to have wisdom in regard to when we need to be unyielding and when we need to be charitable would definitely be good.

And yet, when it comes to those gray areas where Scripture doesn't do the categorizing for us, I would think we'd need to be cautious that in grappling with gray area, 1) we don't discount the Holy Spirit's very valuable role in giving us discernment because even the same secondary or tertiary issue can vary from situation to situation, and 2) we don't diminish our passion to hold ALL truth in EQUALLY high regard because it's ALL God's inspired Word.

TEX said...

I think that we must accept those whom Jesus accepts. Thus the doctrines and truths that must be believed in order to be a Christian are essential. Those that are not essential to our being accepted by Christ are of varying levels of importance, IMO. I personally am very happy at what Piper and BBC are doing. We should make the doors of the church as wide as Jesus makes them, for what right have I to exclude someone from the assembly of saints whom Christ accepts? But I also agree with BBC and Piper that the teaching and elder function of the church can and should be narrower (in accordance with your church's doctrinal statement...in my case the WCF since I am a PCA pastor).
Basically I am saying that the essential truths for salvation and faith in the TRUE God are necessary. Other doctrines, while important, cannot be the basis for excluding from fellowship.
I am not saying that we shouldn't continue to dialog about our differences, I am just saying we shouldn't split over them (if they are not primary, fundamental doctrines). Our unity is the gospel...or as Paul might say it: "In Christ". If we are his, then we are united to one another in one body whether we like it or not. :0)
I obviously need to do more study on this issue, but this is may understanding thus far.
Love your Blog Phil! Keep up the great work!

grace and peace,

Jeremy said...

Just curious, but when we begin to label doctrines as "secondary" or "tertiary" don't we in many ways tell our people "these things are not important?"

For instance, if we were to say to our folks that we are not going to quarrel or divide over Lordship vs. Free Grace are we not telling our people that the Gospel isn't that important, you can get to it however you want?

I can see the benefits of marking some theological distinctions as "secondary" so as not to seclude ourselves from the greater realm of Christendom, but my larger concern is that when we do these things we are in danger of communicating to our people that they really don't have to care about such issues.

When our people don't care about the issues of theology and doctrine, be it primary or tertiary doctrine, then our churches will prove weak and ineffective. At least that is what I think... am I wrong?

Beyond The Rim... said...

I have always struggled with Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 11:18-19

"For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized."

It is like Paul is saying contention is inevitable and maybe it is. The question is his choice of words for what will be recognized by the contention: who is genuine. The Greek is dokimos which means approaval after examination.

Paul could have just as well said I hear there are questions and debates among you which is necessary because examination produces the truth. The problem is not in the questions, the debates, or the examination; it is in the lack of humility, the unwillingness to admit error, and the need to be right above all, even when you are wrong.

We need to remember the admonition of the writer of Hebrews 13:18.

"Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things."

and Micah 6:8.

"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

Dan Burrell said...

I would identify with those whom Phil cited as trying "to improve and preserve the best remnants of the fundamentalist movement". As an Independent Baptist who rejects much of what the modern Independent Baptist movement has become, I'm labeled (by many within the movment as) a "compromiser" and "liberal." I find that many "modern" fundamentalist Christians find it far more easy to "separate" than go through the scholarly disciplines of "publish" and "defend". The result is a fragmentation that produces unaccountability, cultishness, heresy and simply an atmosphere totally lacking in scholarliness. It can be found throughout the movement as a whole in the vast majority of their churches, pulpits, Bible schools and seminaries.

Until fundamentalist Christians learn to quit separating over every little offense or challenge and start going through the process of scholarly, systematic and accountable exegesis, exposition and discussion, they will remain a simple over-reaction to the liberal drift of main-stream evangelicalism without hope of ever contributing positively to the correction evangelicalism needs.

Perhaps they lack the will or more likely, the skills, to offer something more substantive than a rhetorical attack or denunciation as they "separate" from the (perceived) errant one(s). But as long as we cut-and-run every time we disagree or raise an issue that needs to be studied and vetted, fundamentalist Christians will remain little more than a misunderstood and unwelcome nuisance on the whole of Christianity.

I would conclude by saying that there are some historically fundamentalist seminaries and churches and colleges who are trying to offer a sound and scholarly perspective. Sadly, they often get drowned-out by the cacophany of hyper-separatist rhetoric flung by the most extreme or are ignored because of the stereotypes assigned to them by those who would make historic fundamentalism more of a stigma than a position.

Jeri said...

I agree with CHH. Fundamentalists introduced issues of dancing, hair length, dress code, and more dangerous, loyalty to the pastor as a primary virtue, a "soul winning" tradition that not only embraced a Fuller-Brush evangelization but *insisted* upon it, the concepts of "giving your life to the Lord" as an essential of sancitifcation, KJV-only, secondary separation, and the idea that scandall is relegated as a "local church matter" no matter how many people suffered from pastoral abuse.

Many Fundamentalists also did away with plurality of elders and reduced church government to a Baptist pope. Add racial segregation as an accepted practice at many churches and schools (not just BJU), and you can see that Fundamentalism often moves on cultural conservatism and not Biblical orthodoxy.

The problems that Fundamentalists have with others and the problems others have with Fundamentalism often have very bad, erroneous, and superstitious Fundamentalist traditions at their root. It seldom even approaches genuine doctrine.

When you consider the lack of accountability built into Fundamentalist emphasis on pastoral sovereignty and local church isolation, you find yourself ready to think that the sooner this movement does collapse, the better for everybody, including godly fundemantalists who need to get back into a biblical structure of church government.

Frank Martens said...

For some reason while thinking about this, a verse came to mind. And I'm not sure if this fits the situation but maybe it does...

1 Corinthians 2:14-16
"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. "For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ."

Frank Martens said...

So maybe the answer to the problem is that the only way for true unity is not by us coming up with what's primary and what's secondary. But by the Spirit working in the hearts of the believers to draw them together by having been given the mind of Christ and therefore creating true unity.

Maybe I'm wrong.

MTG said...

Can we please loose the word 'fundamental'. I believe the correct word should be foundational.

an example: The correct doctrine of salvation is built upon the foundational premise that man in his natural state is dead and depraved and unable of himself to desire God. (The T in tulip)

When have we ever sung "how firm a fundamental ye saints of the Lord"?

If I never hear that stupid word again it will be too soon. As a matter of fact I have NEVER heard the word fundamental used in the OPC by our Pastor, and I never heard the word in the PCA church I attended either.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Phil for this post.

As a very young Christian, and as I think it is already in my nature to do this, I have thought about what are the important things in life and what aren't (I found I did this even before coming to Christ.). I am experiencing quite a bit and noticing quite a bit as well. As I am not well-versed theologically, but have an insatiable appetite to be so (beyond just knowledge, meaning having the knowledge of Christ shape my heart), I cannot fully offer something in realtion to what is more important than another. I will perhaps write more in depth at a latter time on my blog about observations. I will say this though, Christ is most important (we all know this), (but don't all do this) and the seeking of Him in diligence is something all Christians should be involved in and when I say seeking Him, we must pick up our bibles as well as look to the past and it surely helps being able to talk about these things with other Christians.

I'd like to ask you as I am not quite certain, what is the historical defintion of an evangelical. Can you point me in a direction for this answer, and perhaps you could offer your definition?

Thanks again Phil.

Matthew Hoover said...

Here's a list of things that I see as necessary before we have any sort of understanding of the essentials of the faith (no specific order):

1. Presbyterianism- It's a big help in discerning the fundamentals to be able to learn from your elders, who learn from their elders in the presbyteries, who learn from their elders in the general assembly.

2. A Corporate and Covenantal Mindset - We have to humble ourselves to remember that the commands to contend for the faith and discern the fundamentals don't come to us as individuals, but to the Church and her leadership. This is a tough one for a lot of modern Sons of Thunder out there, who get all swelled up thinking of themselves as the last defense of Christendom alive today.

3. Generational Maturity - This issue is one that requires a Christian maturity that quite possibly takes longer than a lifetime to attain. Which is a real problem when one's children are hanging on to the faith by the skin of their teeth. A lot of us need to worry a lot less about the state of the Church and a lot more about the state of our own households.

4. A Repentant and Teachable Spirit - You can't start this discussion by imagining that you already know what the essentials are, and that your job is to either convince everyone else or separate. Get out of your circles more often. Read some books.

5. Kindness and Grace - Never have stricter fellowship standards than the Father in heaven. He's put up with a lot of wierd doctrinal ideas, and so should you. If you don't believe it, take an honest look at your own Christian past.

6. Faith in the Lord - It's His Church to build, and He's doing a great job. Unity and peace is a fruit of the Spirit, not a prerequisite.

7. Honor and Submission - Pray for an encourage your elders (especially your mother and father), believing that they know more than you do.

Matthew Hoover
mhoover at kurtzbros dot com

Chuck said...

Hi Phil,

I've been lurking and reading your blog for some time now, and have really enjoyed it. This post is definitely one of your best ones.

At one place you state:

"It would seem that the only way to be faithful to all the above commands is to have a sound and biblical understanding of how to distinguish between core doctrines and peripheral ones."

While not denying this, I would appeal all to consider that the way to be faithful to the commands listed would be to simply "Combine sound doctrine with sound character". The missing ingredient in these unnecessary divisions is a spirit of humility and charity--in other words, a Christlike attitude that is a mark of spiritual maturity.

I see many of the comments here focused on asking what's fundamental and what's not, and I grant that this needs to be done. But I'm a bit saddened at the fact that there's been little said about the problem of brilliant, erudite believers operating in the flesh under the guise of "defending the faith". To your list of verses I would add Paul's highly relevant instruction in Galatians 5:13-26:

"For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another."

Again, thanks for the timely post Phil. Keep on doing a great job.

C.L. Wynn

Jeri said...

By the way, I am sitting here listening to a jack Hyles tape that one of my blog readers sent me. I need some help from all you Bible scholars.

How many years separated David and Ezekial? And how many years separated Ezekial from Paul the Apostle?

Can anybody supply the answers?

focus like a laser said...

As j.ed komoszewski reports, Dan Wallace's views on this matter are well though out: misunderstand primary issues and you won't get to Heaven. Misunderstand secondary issues, and you won't arrive in good shape. There are several threads discussing this subject at:http://netbibleinstitute.com/forum/index.php

focus like a laser said...

I've started a new thread at the NETBible Forum so that interested persons can get all the views on one thread. I notice that the views on this blog are getting split over different comment areas!


See you there!