Question: How can I reach a correct decision concerning differences in Christian doctrine and belief?
Many Christians have a healthy devotion to the Bible but an unhealthy aversion to doctrine. They have learned that the simplicity of the Scriptures speaks directly to their hearts while the scholarly ramblings of theologians often confuse rather than clarify questions of belief and behavior. Those of us who teach and preach have not done enough to improve this situation. We have not shown how good theology flows directly from the Bible itself and how biblical statements like “Jesus is the Son of God” are theological statements as well.
Unfortunately, this conflict has produced two groups of polarized Christians who have become either ardently independent or extremely dependent concerning doctrinal questions. The independent Christians gravitate to handy answers and often simplistic solutions, defying anyone to shake them loose from these rock-bound “convictions.” Dependent Christians, on the other hand, flow with whatever authority seems to be dominant at the moment.
Neither of these extremes leads to healthy believers nor to a vibrant congregation. The Bible calls for faith based on a clear-cut understanding of God’s truth and a spirit of obedience to His Word. Standards of faith and life dare not rest on the shaky basis of other people’s viewpoints nor the traditions of some church or denomination. The Bible never calls for blind faith; rather it urges us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Christ is Lord of our mind as well as Lord of our hearts. Therefore, we need disciplined thinking to experience spiritual growth.
Difficult but rewarding
Christians who seriously want solid answers to doctrinal questions may find that process difficult, but enormously rewarding. Let me offer some helpful steps.
(1) Consider everything the Bible has to say on the issue.
Toward the end of His earthly ministry Jesus was in constant confrontation with various groups of religious leaders. On one occasion the Sadducees wanted to argue the doctrine of the resurrection and raised the ridiculous question of a woman who had been married to seven men, pondering whose wife she would be after the resurrection. Jesus’ answer carried far beyond the immediate context of that doctrinal problem as He said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). The Sadducees, their religious and moral training aside, had deceived themselves because of their ignorance of God’s Word. No contemporary Christian should fall under that condemnation.
To be sure, considering everything the Bible has to say on any subject is difficult – but it is not impossible given the modern aids for Bible study available to all of us. Begin with a good study Bible (like the NIV Study Bible or Ryrie Study Bible). Then the creative use of a concordance and various topical indexes can help us trace down various references in both testaments.
Numerous passages speak with clarity and when the Bible contains texts which apply to any doctrinal question, the serious Christian must find them! Sometimes, however, we cannot and then we go on to the next step.
(2) Think through generally accepted Christian principles.
Coming to conclusions on doctrinal, moral, or ethical issues requires a balance between faith and reason. There is an unenlightened faith of which Paul wrote, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Our minds serve as tools of faith. God expects us to think through what Christians have believed on issues before we come to a conclusion on our own, especially when there is scanty biblical evidence to help us decide.
Faith and reason are like a strong man and a little boy going out on a hike. For much of the journey they can walk together, side by side, and the little boy (reason) can keep up. There comes a time, however, in rough terrain or when fatigue and weariness set in, that the strong man (faith) must let the little boy ride on his shoulders. Yes, there are times when minds cannot understand certain things and it becomes necessary to rest completely on whatever biblical evidence we have and a commitment to what we consider to be Christian principles. However, that awareness does not mean the little boy doesn’t hike as far as he can. First Peter 3:15 is clear: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
(3) Review accepted standards of historic Christianity.
This third step seems closely akin to the second but it introduces more of the element of historic doctrinal affirmation rather than the agreement of contemporary Christians. Let’s remember that the gospel invites investigation and always has. To the skeptical disciple who had already proclaimed to his colleagues a denial of faith, Jesus said “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27). Open research into the claims of the Bible is not sin nor even weakness. God invites us to raise doubts and ask questions as long as we go to Him for the assurance and the answers. Throughout history He has provided repeated affirmation to His people regarding the basic doctrines of the faith.
(4) Read the works of trustworthy scholars.
When first century Christians raised some questions about God’s delay in sending His Son back to earth, Peter called their attention to Paul’s letters reminding them “that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him” (2 Pet. 3:15). Probably few pro-abortionists travel in the ranks of evangelical Christians, but some people could be thrown off balance by the less-than-imposing body of Scripture which can be directed to this highly controversial social issue.
Yet a part of God’s gift to His church comes in the form of gifted scholars able to go beyond the boundaries of average thinking, probing the depths of controversial issues. (On the abortion question, the fine book by Surgeon General Koop and the late Francis Schaeffer is an excellent example.)
Many evangelicals currently struggle with the issue of women’s leadership in the church. In an effort to provide biblical and scholarly insight, the Dallas Seminary journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, has provided several articles on this important topic in recent years. In addition, the two-volume Bible Knowledge Commentary written by members of the Dallas Seminary faculty can be a significant supplement to Bible study.
(5) Follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
In doctrinal decisions, there are times when all the above steps may fall short. Consider the issue of war or personal self-defense. The Bible deals with these issues but intelligent and committed believers through the centuries have differed on how that biblical information should be interpreted. Conflicting values come into play such as the protection of one’s family or homeland in opposition to the human life of a potential invader. On issues like this the final deciding point has to be very personal – how is God’s Spirit leading me? That is not to say the Holy Spirit doesn’t lead us through all of the steps, even in our understanding of biblical or historical information. In some issues, however, we stand alone on that one assurance, dependent in humble obedience on what God wants to teach us. The learning Christian stands with a bowed heart placed under the control of the indwelling Spirit of God.
Kenneth O. Gangel, Ph.D.
Kindred Spirit, Summer 1989, pp. 3, 11