He was waiting by my office door at 8 a.m. on Monday, and I could tell he wasn’t chipper. Church members who rise early to greet you without an invitation usually aren’t. Pastors aren’t usually chipper on Monday morning, either.
I spoke to him as warmly as an early morning before the requisite two cups of coffee would allow. He got right to the point: “I’m here to talk about what you taught on the millennium yesterday in Sunday school. I’ve been in church my whole life, and I’d never heard most of that before. That troubles me, and I want to talk some more about it.” He was not quite hopping mad, but close.
The view he’d never before encountered was amillennialism. I’d done my best to unpack it clearly, giving a biblical defense. I threw out a few names from church history who’d held that position, including Augustine and the reformers. Many in our congregation loved the Reformation, so that cloud of witnesses would be ringers with them.
This dear brother held to dispensationalist premillennialism, and after we dialogued for a while he admitted he’d never been challenged to consider another view of events surrounding Jesus’s return. Neither his position nor mine changed during our mostly pleasant three-hour talk, but it accomplished my mission: to teach him and our congregation how to do theological triage and disagree graciously.
Many church disagreements over non-essential doctrines don’t turn out that well, and I’ll admit to having been a party to sinful dialogue over such matters myself. How can a pastor promote theological triage—a method of ranking doctrines as essential, secondary, and tertiary, first proposed by TGC Council member Albert Mohler—as a pathway to maturity and unity in the body? Here are three ways I’ve tried to do it over the years.
1. Make it part of your preaching.
This is the most natural way to help your congregation grow in handling differences maturely (and peacefully). Not every hill is one to die on, so you must help them see when it’s time to go to war and when it’s time for diplomacy.
Pastor, help your people see when it’s time to go to war and when it’s time for diplomacy.
For example, when preaching through 1 Thessalonians 4, briefly present the major views of Christ’s second coming and defend your conviction, making clear that good Christians have long disagreed on the matter. Or when preaching on baptism, defend your view but respectfully (and briefly) set forth views held by other evangelicals. Show your congregation it’s possible to disagree without disparaging those with whom you disagree.
2. Consider teaching a class on it.
In a previous church I served, a minor controversy arose among members over church music styles. That disagreement gave me the idea for a class I called “Doctrines That Divide: What Are the Hills to Die On?” Not as inviting a title as I might choose today, but it went for 12 weeks during the summer, and we invited all adults, high-schoolers, and college students. We spent four weeks on primary issues, three weeks on secondary issues, three weeks on tertiary issues, and finished with two weeks of panel discussion with the elders and questions from church members. All in all, it was well received.
On tertiary doctrines where our elders or other church leaders disagreed, we invited those who held differing views to teach on them. For example, one of our elders held to premilliennialism, and he taught that view. I taught the amillennial view. We did that in attempt to avoid caricature or misrepresentation, which seems to be the fuel that often fires the most heated intra-church debates. We allowed ample time for questions and discussion.
3. Emphasize a loving tone and enduring patience.
If misapplying Scripture were an Olympic sport, Job’s friends would’ve been perennial gold medalists. They exhibited all the major fruits of an unholy spirit: unloving, impatience, accusatory, presumptive, quarrelsome, unkindness, bitterness, harshness, lack of self-control. Let’s teach members to approach our differences with other Christians precisely opposite to Job’s so-called friends.
We can’t harangue others into embracing the truth.
Two watch words I’ve used toward this end are tone and patience. Of course, there are theological and practical hills on which to die, but even so we should treat opponents with respect as God’s image-bearers, avoiding a harsh tone and taking the long view. Peter seems to call for this: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Paul reminds Timothy that we can’t harangue others into embracing the truth (or our view of a given doctrine):
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance. (2 Tim. 2:24–26)
A former journalism colleague exemplified Peter and Paul’s call for wedding grit with grace in theological engagement. One of our co-workers at the newspaper was a Jehovah’s Witness, and my friend often engaged her with the Bible, trying to expose the Watchtower Society’s false teaching. To my knowledge, he never won her, but I’ll never forget what she told me: “I’ve never had a talk with another Christian who was so kind to me, and who actually listened to me.”
Ripe Opportunity Ahead: Reopening
Our churches have been closed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic and now the discussion has turned to reopening. Even as my own church has reassembled over the past couple of weeks, we know all our members probably don’t agree with how we’ve handled it. Some probably think reopening immediately is dangerous. Others no doubt think a slower reopening amounts to compromise.
An opportunity exists for pastors to be patient with their members and for them to teach their churches to be patient with their leaders and with other Christians as we work through what is an important but not frontline issue. No living pastor has addressed reopening amid a pandemic.
Granted, this isn’t a theological debate, and there’s not really a normative “biblical way” to reopen a church. But if pastors teach their people it’s okay for Christians to disagree on non-gospel issues, then they’ll be better positioned to survive and grow in grace amid reopening.