Perhaps you are familiar with the scenario. Outside it’s a cold and wet November evening but the house is so full of people that many have discarded their jackets and sweaters for the heat as they all gather excitedly around the word to listen and learn. The early folks get the comfy seats. Others suffer the kitchen and fold out chairs and still others have to sit among the paper plates and Styrofoam cups which littered the carpet. Never the less, most of them quite forget their situation as the pastor expounds on the scriptures. That is until a young man starts asking questions. Questions which spark still more questions and eventually ignite differing views in the room and suddenly the evening is consumed in a “debate.”
Synopsis. As I begin to discuss dispensationalism I want to extend an invitation to the readers to comment on and question what I am saying. Debating has become very taboo for a number of reasons, due largely to the prevalence of postmodernism. But it is an indispensable tool in the process of critical thinking and when done correctly will generate unity.
Half an hour later one of the older people, seated on the soft plush couch just opposite the TV, has fallen asleep. Two of the people in folding chairs have a headache. They and 3 others like them have given up on tracking with the discussion. One is doodling, one is checking face book on their phone and one, who keeps checking her watch, is thinking “when is this gonna end? I should have just stayed home.”
Finally the pastor prays and people begin leaving. Some even leave in a huff of frustration. If you asked them why, they might say that they felt like those who participated in the discussion had successfully managed to hijack the entire evening away from the pastor to argue about impractical non-essential differences in doctrine. They may even say things like “Doctrine divides,” “doctrine is for the scholars.” “debating causes division and Christians should be focused on unity and on evangelism not squabbling over some lofty ideas.” and perhaps if you have been in an “end times” study where differing views exist, you may hear something like “The end times are too complicated to understand.” or “Its controversial and it seems like everyone disagrees on something. How can anyone really know for sure what the bible means or what is going to happen? Besides if we are just going to get raptured why does it even matter?”
Over the years I’ve seen similar situations on a number of occasions to varying degrees. And I have heard all of these objections voiced by a variety of people. This illustration represents a very real and growing negative attitude in the church toward discussions about any kind of doctrine whether it be essential or not. There are, I think, several reasons for this. Our culture has adopted an entertainment centered mind set and suffers from severely deficient attention spans, biblical illiteracy and skepticism. All of these ailments, I think, stem from the widespread acceptance of the postmodern and existentialist philosophies we have all been indoctrinated with; either in the world of academia or in the media.
Now you may be thinking “what the heck is postmodernism and existentialism?” That’s an excellent question! You can learn more about these and other terms by clicking here. For the sake of continuity I will define postmodernism here as a type of Skepticism or Agnosticism (the belief that absolute truth is unknowable). At the heart of postmodernism is a view which says that there is no absolute truth, truth is different for everyone and is therefore relative (relativism).
Another key element of postmodernism is its commitment to what it calls “tolerance.” The traditional meaning of tolerance is the enduring of an action or belief that is not agreed with or approved of. The old tolerance saw that there was a difference between identity and ideas or behavior. Thus a Pastor might teach that we should “love sinners and hate sin.” The “New Tolerance” actually defines identity by behavior and says that all behaviors and ideas are equally valid; they are all equally right and true. Now, if a Pastor says “love sinners and hate sin,” he is, at best, speaking nonsense, at worst, he is a bigot. Why? Because there is no distinction between a person and their ideas or their behavior.
For instance, many people are under the false notion that a homosexual is a type of person. Homosexuality is treated as a third gender or a particular ethnicity. In reality homosexuality is not an identity but a deviant sexual behavior based the false idea that if one has an attraction or affection for some one of the same sex they are a homosexual. The truth is that we are gender specific human beings who are tempted to do things contrary to our nature. We are never the less wired to function in a particular way regardless of our feelings – but that’s another blog. The point is that, whereas traditionally, who a person was (i.e. a male human) determined their behavior (a romantic relationship with a female) and feelings would eventually catch up to the reality. Now it’s the exact opposite: feelings rule behavior and behavior determines identity. Thus postmodernism and existentialism demand that we must now love the sinner AND his sin. And to say something like “homosexuality is wrong” is to say that a homosexual is wrong for “being who they are.” To stand in judgement of them, is totally out of line. There is no room for any exclusive claims to truth in postmodernism – except the claim that those who hold to “exclusivistic views” (like absolute truth) ought to be excluded. I don’t blame you if you’re confused, the idea is self referentially absurd.
“But,” you ask, “what does this have to do with debating ideas?” EVERYTHING! If people believe that all ideas are equally right, regardless of whether or not they fundamentally disagree, then where is the sense in debating them? “Of course,” says the postmodernist “there is nothing wrong with explaining your beliefs, but trying to convince some one else of its truth is presumptuous! You are saying that “their truth” is not true, which… is not true.” By erasing a standard for absolute truth and equalizing ideologies this view has sought to eliminate the tensions associated with disagreements within the realm of religion and philosophy; but really all it has done is eliminated any real meaning for any ideology.
How so? Well when truth becomes purely subjective, when it’s something we create rather than discover, it no longer has any firm grounding in reality. Everything becomes a matter of personal preference and “the will to power” wins the day; that is, whoever is the strongest ends up deciding what is true for everyone. Why is that a bad thing? Well, logically – rationally, there are good ideas ( like “eating vegetables is healthy” ) and there are bad ideas (like “eating poison is fun” ). And ideas have consequences because they fuel our actions.
Take the holocaust. Its not as though Hitler just didn’t like Jewish people so he killed six million of them. Long before he started carting Jews off to death camps he became convinced of a world view which came straight out of Darwin’s cosmogenic mythology. Hitler took Darwin’s system of “natural selection” and his assertion that there existed a hierarchy of racial purity, to its logical conclusion. The result? Massive genocide, ethnic cleansing for the furtherance of the human race. Very bad idea.
Hinduism asserts the existence of transcendent gods, which is better because at least then you have a rational standard for right and wrong. But it’s still a bad idea because it imprisons people in their respective classes so that they can never rise above the standard of living they were born into. Generation after generation of people in the low class will always have to suffer poverty, exploitation and oppression. The only way up is reincarnation.
Christianity views all people born under heaven as being equally intrinsically valuable having been fearfully and wonderfully crafted in God’s image. Thus Jesus commands his disciples “love one another just as I have loved you.” and “who ever wishes to be great among you must be the servant of all.” The manifestation of this ideology has nurtured western culture through the ages and has produced the greatest most free culture the world has ever seen.
So clearly, while we would say that all humans are created equal, we would not say all ideas are created equal. There are ideas which are better and more valuable than other ideas. The more an idea corresponds with true truth, the better the idea is; and, as ideas do have consequences, we want the very best ideas we can get. Postmodernism’s assertion that all ideas, or world views are equaly vaild and that truth is relative changes the value system around so that ideas are equal and certain people are superior to others (like men and women who are supposedly superior to unborn children because they have a more developed “personhood”).
So let us keep these rules at the forefront of our thinking when it comes to the issue of discussing and debating philosophical and theological ideas:
1. There IS absolute truth and it IS knowable.
2. Human beings are equally valuable regardless of what they know or believe.
3. Certain ideas are superior to other ideas, that is, there are good and right ideas that are true and there are bad and wrong ideas that are false.
4. Ideas have consequences because they lead to and fuel our actions (thus good ideas are preferable).
5. True tolerance allows equal people to agree to disagree respectfully and agreeably with out degrading those with whom they disagree.
“But wait,” you say, “what is so great about debating? Isn’t it just a lot of people arguing about ethereal, impractical ideas? If all it does is generate contention, what is it good for?” A valid question considering the previously described perspective. Firstly, debating and discussion exist because humans are a society of finite beings seeking to discover infinite truth. Many of us know a great deal about certain things but to know all is far beyond our capacity. Mystery is an integral part of the human experience. We are and ever will be learners and discoverers chasing each other deeper and deeper into the infinite depths of those Truths which are bound up in the God whence comes all wisdom. God has not created just one person to fill them up with all truth and knowledge (and by knowledge I mean both intellectual and experiential) he has designed mankind to consist of vastly divers persons. We are all part of a network of discoverers and learners. We are made to form a community, we are social creatures designed for relationship. And it is in the context of community that we share our understanding of reality and learn what we do not know from those who do know. In addition to this God has designed reality to function as a unit with a variety of parts that we don’t always immediately understand. Truth is scattered all over the place and its meaning or how it fits together is not all explained for us; we need to figure it out. Some people start with better pre-suppositions than other and discussion and debate are an invaluable tool for learning and discovering truth.
Secondly, debating must exist because humans are sinful and live in a fallen world. Unfortunately mankind has more than a knowledge of what is good. Our eldest grandparents, Adam and Eve, embraced the knowledge of evil as well. We, being their children, have become extremely proficient in evil. As I have already shown there is no shortage of bad and false ideas and information all inextricably tethered to hellish consequences. Discussion and debate are the process where by we not only discover truth and develop good ideas it also the method where by we weed out those ideas that are bad; for wickedness is subtle and often masquerades as an angel of light. Thus debating and discussion work as a safeguard against the seductions of heresy. This is why fellowship is so vital to the Christian. Believers who isolate themselves make themselves a target for the enemy and often develop strange ideas, which, if not checked by a brother or sister, may lead them into all kinds of error and apostasy leaving them shipwrecked.
I think one reason why the idea of debate is so taboo is the prevalent mis conception that if some one disagrees with me they are saying that I am stupid. Certainly there are cases where this is true, but not always. Being wrong doesn’t mean someone is stupid it just means that they are wrong. It seems to me that behind the assertion “To disagree assumes someone is stupid or someone is better than someone else” is just raw arrogance. Why? Because some one who would assert such a thing is suggesting that they are incapable of being wrong and last I checked the only infallible person in existence is God. When discussion and debate are done correctly and respectfully it actually generates unity. Abstaining from discussion on deeper issues breeds error and division. Not just from the body of Christ but also the mind and work of Christ.
There is much more to consider in this issue. Like the difference between arguing and fighting; the importance of listening and loving; balancing between your convictions and having an open mind; having honest answers for honest seekers; making a point and taking a hint; and kind words and respectful tones. All of these I would love to discuss some day in a future article but I do not space or time now to do so. Sill these I think are a good outline of what debate and discussion should look like. I do want to point out that it is vital that we do balance between maintaining our convictions and having an open mind. There must be a clear line between these two. Being open minded on the issue of dispensationalism is one thing but we must not compromise on something like the deity of Jesus Christ.
The old maxim says it best I think “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity.” it is not my intention to separate myself from my brothers and sisters that I know and love because I disagree with them on certain no- essential issues. Such things we can, and I believe, should, debate vagariously as we seek to develop the best ideas, the best understanding of what is true. But we mustn’t divide over them. Never the less I do not want to minimize the importance of what can be considered “non-essential” doctrines. Essential and non essential do not necessarily mean important and not important. As I hope to discuss in my next article non essential views are still important and we should still try to come to sturdy, defendable, conviction about such things. The above phrase really is saying that we don’t want to make such convictions the test of true orthodoxy. After all when you are considering the great width and breadth and depth of theological truth you will find that certain “non-essentials” just don’t fit well in the greater scheme of what scripture says. Even in non-essentials we still want to have the best ideas. We want the best understanding of Gods truth because only the best good can flow from the best truth.
Nothing generates unity more than the purest love and truth. But there, is I think, some confusion on what unity really is. I want to highlight this because there is a big difference between unity and uniformity. Look at marriage. In the marriage of a man and a woman you have the unification of two vastly different and independent creatures to form a new and different person. It is a dreadful tragedy when one spouse confuses unity with uniformity and insists that the other conform to their will, preference, and personality in everything so that their true character and personality is discarded and the other person crafts their spouse in their own image. This is a violation of their person hood and a disgusting and damnable sin. Many Christians are, I think, of an unconscious opinion that those who don’t agree with them completely on everything are out in left field or down right heretics. Unity recognizes and celebrates diversity as it seeks to harmonize. Of course there can be no unity with out truth and love and there we must be conformed to Christ. But where there is an incomplete understanding of truth, love covers and binds like bricks and mortar. In a marriage both people must recognize the beauty of the other persons person and seek how to strike a harmony between the Lord the husband and the wife.
Likewise in the church we all must learn to appreciate the diverse perspectives and preferences that exist with in the pale of orthodoxy. Some of us like to pray in “King James English,” Some of us like to pray with simple words, either way Christ is clearly more concerned with sincerity than aesthetics. Some of us like stain glass windows and the awe inspiring ambiance of a cathedral, some are only concerned with the practicality of having a place to worship, even if it’s just a school gym. Both sides have good reasons for why they do what they do. It is sad to think that some are so against the other that they don’t even bother to consider why those of the same Spirit would do such things. I don’t agree with infant baptism but at least I understand why it was the standard for so many believers for so long. And I am, frankly slow to condemn the practice as sinful.
We are a diverse people seeking unity of spirit not uniformity where we all think exactly alike with out variation; that would be degrading to our very identity. No, in the worship of Christ we come together as a symphony of many vastly different instruments who are being played into a harmonious melody. I tend to think that there are places where God intentionally made scriptures a little vague so that we have to work and think and talk about what is meant. Otherwise we would never get past a superficial understanding of the word or the Lord or each other.
So where does debating fit in with unity? Debating ideas, even non-essential ideas, is not intended to separate people form each other it is intended to separate people from error and those who are committed to error and heresy. Love Longs for unity but it also lives for truth. Truth with out love is often cruel but love with out truth is a mockery. Debate and discussion are the tools we use to find truth. Debate and discussion applied with loving respectful can generate that necessary environment where one can learn, teach and yet remain convinced of their convictions with out being ostracized. When no agreement can be reached we still have love and the Spirit of Christ holding us together We can agree to disagree agreeably. We still ought to be seeking the best in one another. How great would it be if Christians sought more so for reasons to dwell together in unity than reasons to part? How great would it be if we could graciously love and appreciate one another for the person we are regardless of the various perspectives we hold? Maybe we could even learn something from each others differing perspectives.
There was a time when men could enjoy a spirited discussion or debate, hold almost polar opposite views and at the end of the night go and have dinner together as friends because they could see past their differences to their essential equality. Now the view of ideologies being elite and human beings being equal has been turned upside down so that we view ideologies as all being equally valid but we view certain people within the human race (whether the intellectual community or some minority) as being elite in some way. This brakes down unity among people and progress in ideas.
Debating and discussion are a crucial part of critical thinking and the development of good ideas. It also helps us to weed out those ideas which are false and damaging. Humans were never meant to figure everything out on their own. We were meant to work together as we seek to understand the unsearchable depths of Gods wisdom and truth. Though many hold debating and discussing to be dangerous tools of division, it is really a tool meant to divide truth from error. When done in love with gentleness and respect it actually generates unity by allowing us to agree to disagree agreeably. Therefore let us as equal men discern elite Ideas.
This is my invitation to you to speak up. The issue at hand, namely dispensationalism, is not an essential doctrine, but that does not mean it is not important. It touches every other doctrine and we want the best doctrines we can have, even in non-essentials. Your thoughts matter here and I know most of you will have opinions and questions. I implore you to share them, however long or short. I can’t promise to respond to everyone but I know that if you are willing to participate the most interesting part of this blog will become the comments sections. These are my rules, seek the truth, stick to your convictions, keep an open mind, above all respect and love one another and at the end of it all lets still be brothers and sisters. Amen?
Beyond that I have included a glossary of terms for the more obscure words that may be used. If you find a word used that isn’t explained please let me know I will update the glossary. Thank you and may the Lord bless you and keep you in his name.
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