Despite the absence of people, it was a lively Tim Horton’s. Our little café table had five men crowded around it in lively, somewhat heated conversation. We were discussing the upcoming sermon for Sunday morning, and the evidences of our theological diversity were showing. We were quite a collection of pastors, all from different backgrounds, all serving on the same church staff. We had come together from various Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ backgrounds. We had moved away from some doctrinal positions to come together. Some had abandoned their views on baptismal regeneration, others their views on perfectionism, still others their oneness Pentecostalism. But we maintained many of our other differences even in coming together. We had Calvinists, Arminians, Charismatics, and cessationists. It was as diverse a church staff as you could possibly make. It only worked because we were willing to embrace theological humility. Theological humility, especially in the area of eschatology, can go a long way towards church unity.
To be theologically humble does not mean devaluing one’s convictions. Every church, like every Christian, must have doctrinal convictions. There are some truths from God’s Word that are essential doctrines. The Church cannot thrive without a firm grasp on the incarnation, and atonement of Christ, the divinity of the Son of God, and the Triune nature of the Godhead. There are other truths which are essential for formulating a cogent church practice. For example, your theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are likely to be a strong convictions. Yet, there is room, even in a single church, for a diversity of beliefs on non-essential doctrines. Albert Mohler has developed what he calls a theological triage model of doctrinal importance. He explains it this way:
The word triage comes from the French word trier, which means “to sort.” Thus, the triage officer in the medical context is the front-line agent for deciding which patients need the most urgent treatment. Without such a process, the scraped knee would receive the same urgency of consideration as a gunshot wound to the chest. The same discipline that brings order to the hectic arena of the Emergency Room can also offer great assistance to Christians defending truth in the present age. (“A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”)[i]
This tool helps Christians to develop a “theological scale of urgency.” This tool equips us to keep a hold on the most significant doctrines, while not ignoring, or downplaying the importance of other doctrines, yet creating space for some flexibility.
Mohler develops three levels of doctrinal urgency. First, he establishes the essentials of the faith. This category is made up of the Christological and Trinitarian doctrines, along with the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Second-order doctrines, as he calls them, would be those differences across denominational lines which might limit a unified church. These are issues which would not call into question the salvation of others. These would consist of issues like mode of baptism and the practice of baptizing infants. Finally, his third-order doctrines would be those that we could disagree about under one roof. Within this category, he puts eschatology.
Eschatology might be a hard category for some to place in third-order, but it belongs on the third tier. Mohler’s point in the construction of this tool is not to deemphasize eschatology. Yet, we must recognize the complexity involved in formulating this doctrine, along with the diversity of Scriptures which are held in tension on the various aspects of this doctrine. Theological humility recognizes that this is a difficult doctrine to formulate, that many people change their mind on the End Times and that humility is appropriate while holding to this doctrine. Mature Christians can recognize these features and continue to allow room for diversity. The church I presently serve in has been intentional not to take a firm stance on the End Times. We have intentionally chosen to allow this diversity and it has invited those of a wide array of opinions and firm convictions to worship together. We have within our fold Amillennialists, Dispensationalists, and Historic Premellinnialists. We worship together now, just as we will one day in heaven, despite disagreeing on exactly when the arrival of Heaven will take place.
John 17 presents a clear encouragement for the Church to develop this kind of unity. In the hours before His most intense suffering Jesus prays that His followers would be “one.” In fact, He prays that they would be one, in the same way, that the Father and the Son are “one.” That is a deep “oneness.” We can reflect this desire of Christ in our churches through theological humility, through using our theology to serve one another instead of beating one another. We can reflect this desire of Christ by refusing to let our eschatological differences become the cause of separation. You can be one church under God, with divergent perspectives on the End Times. It is possible. I’ve seen it done.
Your perspective on the End Times should not drive a wedge between you and your brothers and sisters, rather it should promote love. John Frame speaks of the importance of doing theology in love when he writes:
Positively, we must learn to theologize in love (Eph. 4:15), a love that edifies and that promotes unity, not division. Theology ought to seek and promote reconciliation among brethren, even among denominations and theological traditions, as much as that is possible. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 327)
Theology can drive us to love when we keep the following three perspectives before us.
- A commitment to unity –> It must be more than a wishful dream if it is to happen. There must be a commitment to it and you must fight for it. You must determine that only serious error which damages the gospel is worthy of division. This is why churches must clearly articulate what the gospel is regularly!
- A commitment to Scripture –> You can’t have perspective one without perspective two, for it is only because Scripture places such an emphasis on unity (and such serious consequences on those who create division) that we strive for it. This means that as we challenge one another, express our theological opinions, and promote doctrine in the church, we have our thinking deeply rooted in the Scriptures and not simply in our denominational heritage. Scripture determines all!
- A willingness to be flexible –> If there is not an open discussion that is able to happen in your church where people can raise questions, doubts, and challenge others then unity will quickly become strained. There is no room for blind defensiveness in the church. If we are truly trying to be conformed to Scripture then we must be willing to let others check us with Scripture. We don’t want theological clones in our churches; we want disciplined students of the Scriptures. We don’t want to fear conversation; we want to embrace the sharpening of one another for the good of the church, and the glory of God.
Theological humility, especially over the hot topic of eschatology, is a necessary feature of developing deep unity in the church. You may disagree with your brother or sister over the return of Christ and the millennium, but in Christ they can still be your brother and sister. We may disagree, but it is possible to disagree in love and theologize in a way that promotes our continued life together.
[i] Mohler, Albert, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” May 20, 2004, accessed April 7, 2015. http://www.albertmohler.com/2004/05/20/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity-2/