It seems fair to say we Christians do not do very well when it comes to hashing out difficult topics—at least without descending into quarreling or acrimony. This is largely (I believe) because we lack training in how to interpret Scripture. Simplistic viewpoints (“The Bible just means what it says,” or “We shouldn’t interpret, just obey!) fail to take into account the nature of God’s written revelation. He requires us to think—to use our minds (Matthew 22:37).

The subject of this series (originally taught for a church in Albania) is so important, with relevance for the Christian church globally, that I was eager to share it with a broader audience.

Major Principles

  • Humility. Phil 2; 1 Cor 13. No one is 100% objective. Nor is certainty always possible. The mind of Christ (1 Cor 2) is a spiritual attitude, wisdom for following God, not omniscience. Wrong thinking here is a major threat to Christian unity! Scripture has a “topography.” Some commands are more important than others (Matthew 23:23; 22:36-40). Some sins are more serious than others. Some passages are more relevant (at this time of my life, and in this cultural setting) than others. It is okay to say “I don’t know.” Some degree of wrong doctrine, or doctrinal imbalance, doesn’t mean one is a false teacher — a term reserved biblically for those who reject the authority of the Lord and embrace immorality. Is there no “doctrinal forgiveness”? See Harris & Jacoby, Informed.
  • Both testaments. Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:14-16) Most early Christians didn’t have a New Testament until the 3rd or 4th century. The Old Testament is still God’s Word for us, yet the Torah is not his law for us. The notion that we are saved or matured by holding to Torah (“Messianic Judaism”) came into existence in the 20th century. Paul vigorously opposed such thinking in Galatians. There are 1000s of connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament. It takes training to understand these, just as Jesus trained the Twelve in how to handle the Word during his three years with them (Acts 4:13). To engage difficult subjects, we need to be grounded in the whole of Scripture.
  • Context is king. Biblical context and cultural context. Appreciation of both is necessary if we are to interact graciously with fellow believers who may think differently than us, and also if we are to wisely and sensitively advance the faith in our increasingly secular world. Determine not to take any passage out of context—a violation of biblical integrity.
  • Fairness / examine all sides. Proverbs 18:17; 18:2. Know the best arguments of those with whom you disagree! If you don’t, then you haven’t sufficiently thought the issues through! Read widely and don’t read only those you agree with. That isn’t honest or fair. Have we jumped to conclusions, or embraced certain positions, without doing our homework?
  • Patience with others (2 Tim 2:14-15, 23-26; 4:1-2) and also patience to do the hard work of study. Study the Bible primarily, but also delve into the works of others who have done the hard work of research. Realize that some issues will take people months or even years to think through. Many Christians lack this sort of patience. Which makes discussion of hot issues highly problematic.

Minor Principles

  • Beware novelty . Hebrews 13:8-9. Examples: “Prophecies,” Red Letter Bibles, Black Israelites, Messianic Judaism, baptism “in Jesus’ name.” Don’t be naïve. Don’t get sucked in. What is the historic position of the Christian church? Do we really think we’re the first people in history to wrestle with some of our modern issues?
  • Biblical languages : Go easy on the Greek & Hebrew. Either develop true expertise or rely on those who have it. If you want to become proficient, (1) master English grammar, (2) study a few years at the university level, with exams / accountability, (3) and continue to learn the rest of your life. If you’re teaching and mention a Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic word, state your source. Do not leave others with the impression you’re an expert—unless you are.
  • Avoid patternism . This is common in “restoration” churches. (Acts 2:42; Acts 17:2; Mark 1:35; Acts 11:26). We may be finding a pattern in scripture that’s not actually a pattern. And even if it is, that doesn’t prove we must follow it. (Wear sandals, pray before sunrise, etc.) Just because something’s “in the Bible” doesn’t necessarily mean we need to slavishly imitate it.
  • Principles vs. practicals : Distinguish them. Specific commands (pray, use our gifts, sing, make disciples…) seldom include the practicals. Our “practicals” (traditions) do not have the authority of God’s Word! Sometimes we need to distinguish form and function (e.g. Rom 16:20). Read carefully. Failure here easily leads to legalism, judgmentalism, and going beyond what is written. There may be more than one valid way to address and resolve an issue.

Strong Cautions

  • Conviction should be proportional to knowledge. Romans 12:3; Proverbs 26:16; James 3:1-2. We aren’t going to be experts on every topic! We need a realistic appreciation of our strengths and weaknesses—about what we know and what we don’t know. When we have strong opinions but little supporting them, something is wrong.
  • Watch out for ego. 1 Cor 8:1; Proverbs 18:2. Information mustn’t be used as a weapon, or to compensate for low self-esteem. Be like Demetrius, not Diotrephes (3 John). Given that ego plagued the professional religious establishing in OT as well as NT times, we need to be careful!
  • Stay connected with people. This affects how we process things—and how successfully we explore difficult topics. The NT assumes Christians will be part of an organic faith community. Rom 12; 1 Cor 12. It also assumes we are connected with outsiders. When we are, this keeps us anchored. It also helps to filter out ungracious, legalistic, or impractical ideas.

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