A couple of weeks ago on the blog, we looked at the value of theological controversy. There are benefits to the church when it has to defend the truth. But it is possible to become so zealous for the truth that we become inflexible with those whose theology does not line up exactly with ours. For some, theological debate becomes the focus of their Christian life. Are there things in theology that are not worth arguing about? If so, how do we know what those things are?
I think the book of Titus helps to give us a guideline to direct us in this. It does seem that there are points of theology about which it is not profitable to contend. In our study of Titus last Spring, we saw this: But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless (Titus 3:9). One of Paul’s concerns in his letter to Titus was that there were people in the church who were causing division by stirring up controversies. He was so concerned that he gave this instruction: As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned (Titus 3:10-11).
So should we resist all theological controversy for the sake of unity? No, Paul teaches that there are some things about which we must stand firm. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people (3:8). He writes something similar earlier in the book: Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you (2:15). Insist on these things…declare these things…let no one disregard you. The big question is, what are “these things”?
The short answer is the gospel. In both ch2 and ch3, the apostle takes time to review gospel truths. In ch2:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,
12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,
13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Then in ch3:
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
It is regarding the truth of the gospel that Paul wants Titus to insist and to make sure that no one disregards. He exhorts Titus in this while also directing him to admonish those who engage in “foolish controversies.” For this reason, I think we can formulate a broad principle regarding the points of theology about which we should insist: any point of theology that directly pertains to the gospel is one for which we should contend.
For example, we should insist on the literal death and resurrection of Christ. Paul writes in 1 Cor 15:17, And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. This is not a point of theology about which we should agree to disagree. If we lose these things, we lose the gospel. Likewise, we should insist on substitutionary atonement, that is, that Christ died in our place in order to satisfy the wrath of God for our sin. 1Pet 3:18: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. This is the gospel. We cannot do without it.
On the other hand, there are some points of theology that do not appear to be integral to the gospel and therefore may not be a reason for serious controversy (as opposed to friendly debate). It is my opinion that eschatology is in this category. Eschatology is the study of the last things – what is going to happen in the end. There are people who believe there will be a literal millennium (1,000 year reign of Christ on earth) in the future, others who believe we are in it now, and others who believe there is no millennium at all. Some believe the church will be raptured before the 7-year tribulation, others believe the church will be raptured somewhere in the middle, and others who believe the church will be raptured after the tribulation. While some of us find it enjoyable to discuss these things and engage in friendly debate about them, they are not essential to the gospel itself.
Admittedly, there is some gray here. Some may think a given doctrine is central to the gospel while others do not. Still I think this guideline is valuable for helping us exclude certain areas of theology from the realm of serious theological controversy. I would propose that we ask ourselves the question, is the gospel itself damaged if we allow for differences on this point of theology?
Clearly there are things worth fighting for and others that are not. I have proposed but one guideline for determining which is which. I could propose at least one more and may in a coming blog post. But I would be curious to see if you would suggest other guidelines?
Posted by Greg Birdwell