As I noted in beginning this series, the Bible tells us to fight over doctrinal issues as well as sinful actions. But it also tells us to give other believers some slack as to how they interpret some biblical teachings. A significant issue in the early church was how much of Judaism ought to be retained in the Christian community. That’s at root a theological question. And in both Romans 14 and Colossians 2, Paul tells his readers to lighten up—in the latter passage, in the context of refuting a false teaching.
So when do we fight about doctrine? And when must we not fight?
The Bible itself indicates that there are different levels of doctrine. Some doctrines are more important than others. For example, Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1Co 1.17). The gospel is more central than the doctrine of baptism—or Paul’s words wouldn’t have made any sense. (Side note: that’s something you can mention to your friends who believe that you need to be baptized to be saved. If they’re right, then again Paul’s words make no sense–and may amount to malpractice.)
Further, some doctrines are more foundational than others: because you need to understand them in order to understand other things, you need to start your Christian life by learning first things first (Heb 6.1-2). It’s interesting to me that the doctrine of baptism, while less important to Paul, is still foundational, or elementary, according to Hebrews 6.
Over the centuries the church has recognized this distinction between less important, or central, and more important doctrines. The Reformers used the term adiaphora to refer to less important doctrinal matters, and as you can imagine, the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans disagreed on specifically which doctrines and religious practices were central and which were not. Sometimes they even disagreed within their own denominations—and it seems that worship practices were the most common area of disagreement.
In the 20th century the early fundamentalists were so named because of their emphasis on the distinction between the Important Stuff—“the fundamentals”—and the Less Important Stuff. In the succeeding years, a lot of fundamentalists lost sight of that, and it seemed that many who called themselves fundamentalists wanted to fight about pretty much everything; but the early emphasis was on bringing together theological conservatives from widely different denominations—Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, even Pentecostals—because they agreed more with one another than with the liberals in their own denominations. They could maintain their distinctives—with conviction—but still cooperate with others who agreed with them on the core doctrines of the Christian faith.
Early on, that group published a series of books called The Fundamentals, which argued for the centrality of certain key doctrines. Though to some extent that series reflected the hot issues of its day, it served as a valuable concrete statement about which doctrines are worth fighting for.
But for most of the century there was little noticeable work done on how you decide which doctrines are fundamental and which ones aren’t. In other words, when we fight, and when we don’t. (Scholars would call that a question of “epistemology.”)
So now some professed evangelicals think that hell is not eternal, or that God doesn’t really know the future, while others think that anybody witnessed to from any version other than the King James isn’t really saved.
We’ve never been more in need of a set of criteria for this issue.
When do we fight about doctrine, and when must we not?
What are the fundamentals, and what are the adiaphora?
I think the Scripture gives us considerable help on that question, of course. And with further help from an old friend of mine, we’ll take a look at some of that next time.