Dealing With Theological Diversity

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reading scriptureOne of the hardest things that people of faith have to contend with at times can be our diversity of theology and doctrine. The truth is that we will all have various levels of experience, educational, investment and opinion when it comes to forming doctrinal conclusions and forming our basic theologies.

As human beings we will always relate to God in participation with language, personal history and experience, and the many diverse communal influences and histories. We are often working with concepts and expressions that demand we think and express ourselves in forms and terminology that range from the literal to the metaphorical. Our scriptures employ every conceivable literary and expressive genre to help us do this… we have histories, birth records, personal correspondences, romantic poetry, moral parables, axiomatic wisdom literature and songs to name a few. How could we all, in our diversity, find a home with our scriptures if they weren’t so welcoming of us in so many ways?

And yet we have spent a lot of time trying to make everyone think alike. We pick and choose a few words here and a few there to justify the idea that we all need to have exactly the same theology and doctrine. And please don’t misunderstand me… I do think there is some bad theology in the world. I have seen scriptures twisted and deep truths ignored. I have also seen deep truths revealed in the wonderful diversity of thought and expression revealed in a community of people who authentically bring themselves to God and listen to one another.

What does exclusionary theology do to us? What does it look like and sound like in community? Maybe you know someone with a single magical question by which they determine if another person is a Christian or not? Even as a pastor I have faced this many times with guests and members here at Church in Bethesda, and I’ve been told that I probably wasn’t a legitimate pastor or a Christian when I failed their litmus test on a particular theological point of interest. I once years ago heard a biblical teacher say, and I quote, “I can tell you in three minutes if someone is a Christian or not.” This is what theological exclusion sounds like, and it’s not a spiritual gift or an action supported by our scriptures.

I’d like to offer three suggestions for how we deal with our diversity of theological experiences, expressions and conclusions as I reach as I read Paul’s advice and instructions to the church in Corinth. That was a church divided in many ways; they argued over leaders, theological matters dealing with food, and much more. They neglected their less economically viable members and even made lawsuits against one another. Paul’s task as an apostle was to help them grow in unity and closeness, even while remaining diverse in thought and opinion; he never implies they will all suddenly, or should suddenly, think alike on everything. We see the divisions being described in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 and pick up some of the advice and instruction, themed around the preeminence of love, especially in later chapters like 8 and 10.

Here’s where I believe we should start… 1 Corinthians 8:1, Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. And then we continue with the same kind of thematic love and mutual concern in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 & 31-33 “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Listen to these heartbreaking questions about legal actions against one another… 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another–and this in front of unbelievers! The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.

Paul says that the very idea that they have lawsuits between them means that they are already defeated… wow. Their lack of concern for each other overshadows their disagreement. They’ve lost the relational aspect of being a people. There’s a lot in the passage about us judging the world that I’m not sure exactly what to do with, but I can plainly hear Paul’s pain that the people are pursuing their own interests and concerns to one another’s detriment. He asks pointedly if it wouldn’t be better to be wronged than to fight for your own rights? Yes, someone might cheat us, but isn’t it better to be a cheated person than to be a person who attacks and slanders a sister or neighbor in response? Ouch. We can really hear how divisions among us can become cycles of violence and vengeance.

Paul calls for a model of behavior built not through enforced conformity, and not through wild independence, but through a balanced approach of maintaining our personal freedom in relation to caring for those around us. Of course, it would be easiest to simply demand my own way or be coercive toward others, but Paul speaks instead of mutuality of love and concern. Even though we may have different cultural concerns and divisions today, we can still learn a few things from our ancient teacher, Paul. The following three points I’d like to make are drawn from Paul’s wisdom, but not just a repeat of the words written to the church in Corinth. We may rarely have to deal with internal lawsuits and never with food offered to idols, but we do have disputes about leadership and many other daily theological concerns that vex us as a community.

1) We must remember that though God and faith communities have always employed and appreciated clergy, theology does not belong exclusively to anyone based on education or experience. In fact, theology should never belong to any individual. While education is very important in growing a deep historical engagement with many theological concepts and questions, we all do theology. You are a theologian. Maybe you aren’t a theologian in the academic or vocational sense, but you do theology when you think of God and process faithful decisions in your daily life. Too often we rely on or search for a teacher who has an exclusive hold on truth and is willing to share it. And we like to be in that teacher’s position, if we’re being honest. We also like arguing our opinions and being smart. *sigh* Can our egos handle a loss of power and prestige if others are not looking to us for exclusive truth and expression? As Paul says we all have knowledge and we can also say that we are all doing theology, and safely conclude that we need to: Keep community in theology. Theology is a team sport and we all have a variety gifts and abilities to bring to the playing field. Humility helps us be better listeners and learners, and listening and learning helps us form better theologies.

2) We must always be guided by right love and action toward one another. We have too often believed that someone’s dissimilar theology or belief was our license to love them less, treat them less well, and end our responsibility of fellowship and community with them. You know what I mean? We act like someone being in disagreement with us over theological concerns is grounds for hating them, slandering them and dividing from them. Sometimes we have done this over the least significant of reasons and topics. When we decide to maintain right action toward one another we are speaking of orthopraxy as distinct from orthodoxy; that is right action versus right thinking. This is not to say that right thinking and right action need to be opposed, but to point out that they are often distinct interests even when working together in concert. Sound counter-intuitive to what church has taught you in the past? I was raised to believe that I would be saved by my doctrinal correctness. But how do we reconcile that idea with the judgment scene described by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 where the good and bad, the saved and unsaved, are divided from one another by how they treated other people? That’s a rock solid example of orthopraxy in Matthew 25. In fact, it’s a great example of orthopraxy and orthodoxy working together as Jesus explains to the people that their treatment of others is tied directly to how they think of others, seeing Jesus himself in them or not. Paul, following the lead of Jesus, taught the early Christians a form of orthopraxy to use in times of diversity and disagreement. Humility and mutual concern frame a love for one another that guides us in times of disagreement and diverse thought and theology. And we can conclude that we should: Keep love for one another in it’s place of preeminence. Getting our thoughts and actions in concert around love will set the stage for safe disagreement.

3) We can watch for bad theology, most often recognized by it’s fruit in the lives of people, while maintaining orthopraxy. Sometimes we’ll encounter a theological idea or conclusion about God that seems to move counter to scriptural witness, and we have to engage that idea to see if it can be reconciled with our greater community, textual and historical understandings. But even as we watch for bad theology and challenge it, we do so in the practice of orthopraxy. So bad theology doesn’t necessarily identify a bad person. I need to say that again: Bad theology doesn’t necessarily identify a bad person. Remember that our diversity may at times signify that one or another person is weaker or stronger in conscience and faith, but that is not grounds to judge them. Paul teaches a seeking of the other’s good that demands us to be graceful, lenient and careful with the people around us. He considers it an emulation of Jesus, and thinking back on the way Jesus dealt with countless people in his own ministry, I agree. Whenever we start leaning toward a purist orthodoxy that relegates people to second-class citizenship or excludes them altogether, let’s remember that Jesus taught the principle that “the Sabbath was made to serve humanity, not humanity made to serve the Sabbath.” (Mark 2) Doctrine, theology and religiosity are mechanisms to serve us, not vice versa. Even in our efforts to craft and live the best theology, we do not have license to hate or disregard others for their own efforts that end up dissimilar to our own. Maybe we can say it like this: Keep grace in a place above doctrine. Another way to summarize such an idea might be the words of James when he said that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2)

I say we all memorize those words from Paul… 1 Corinthians 8:1 from the New Living Translation…

“But while knowledge makes us feel important,
it is love that strengthens the church.”
AMDG, Todd

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