Over the past fortnight we’ve seen (at least) two major debates blow up on social media , one about doctrine and the other about practice resulting from public statements made by prominent Christians.
The general structure of those debates tends to follow the following lines:
- There is an initial emotive reaction – this might be positive, negative or both at the same time.
- This is followed by some people attempting a thoughtful critique of the issues involved
- More debate and discussion follows. Those who critique and disagree with the original statement are sometimes accused of being churlish, pedantic, unloving. In turn, the supporters are told they are naïve (sometimes both of those charges have a level of truth – but not always).
- Somewhere along the line the message goes out that we are meant to shut up and move on. This particularly comes from those who wanted to be generous.
I am not going to talk about those specific debates today -and I guess equally in terms of reasonably contemporary church matters (by which I basically mean “in my life time”), we could also list the following examples:
– The controversy surround Penal Substitution and Steve Chalke’s book – The Lost Message of Jesus
– The Doctrine of God debate between James Dolezeal and John Frame
– The Eternal Functional Subordination debate about the Doctrien of the Trinity
– Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins”
– The Toronto Blessing (Going back a little further)
– The Ordination of Women to the priesthood in the Church of England.
As you can see, there are lots of issues that cause debate and controversy. All of them have a doctrinal element – we want to hold to truth, all of them have a pastoral element -we want to love and care for people and all of them have an evangelistic element -we are thinking about what and how we communicate about the Gospel to the wider world.
Fascinatingly, debate has intensified and speeded up in my life time. Issues that would have been the subject of discussion in monthly magazines like Evangelicals Now and Premier Christianity, letters to the editor, articles circulated around churches on paper and eventually books are poured over in detail within minutes and by the end of the day, a lot has been written and said. Of course, go back a few hundred years and the process was slower.
The point I want to make here is that whilst we are tempted to try and close a debate down and for all good reasons, there is also value in spending time over it. I want to close the debate down because
– We find that the tone is sadly uncomfortable, unhelpful, hurtful and embarrassing -especially as these debates are now much more public to a wider world. I have written elsewhere about helpful and unhelpful ways of conducting theological discussion (advice I of course find it difficult to stick to when it is something I am passionate about).
– We have taken on a particular psychology/philosophy which is future focused. It’s important to move forward and to leave the past behind -to forget about it.
Now, I want to suggest that if by “move on” we mean “Don’t wallow in things, and stop going round in circles over the same point” then I agree -and I also know that I and all of us are good at going round in circles and wallowing. Sometimes we need a call to stop circling around a mountain and press on.
However, historically for the church, moving on has not meant leaving an issue and a conversation behind. The classic examples of this are
- The debates and discussions about Who God is and Jesus’ nature that led to the historic creeds and formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity
People like Arius were the popular, winsome people of their day. They got their message out in witty punchy phrases, they were charismatic preachers and some of them had a knack for writing catchy worship songs too. Their views caught hold and were attractive for the rulers of their day, providing openings in high places for “the Christian message.”
How did the church move on? It moved on because people like Athanasius, Hilary and Augustine stuck their necks out and reasoned, challenged, debated, preached, lectured and taught. They also wrote -copious amounts of closely reasoned, passionately argued doctrinal reflection. They made themselves unpopular, not merely being blocked on twitter, they weren’t just told to shut up. They were exiled.
Why? They persevered because those things mattered then and they saw the cost as worth it. They stuck with the debate because moving on meant moving into a deeper, richer, stronger graps on the truth of the Gospel.
- The Reformation and the Question of Salvation and justification
Imagine of Martin Luther had just nailed his protest to the door of the church, the equivalent of 95 tweets in a thread and then left it at that. “Thanks Martin, you’ve made your point, now it is time to move on.”
There are probably a few people around today who actually would prefer it to be like that but where would we be if Calvin and Zwingli then Turretin hadn’t all piled in. Where would we be if the Puritan preachers and writers hadn’t picked up the baton?
Yes, we need to “move on” but we also need to persevere and have patience in engaging with things that matter.
We have to persevere because actually there’s nothing new under the sun. The two debates of the last fortnight have been about what God is like, who Jesus is and how we are saved. Those doctrinal issues lead to practical questions about how we relate to each other, especially how we relate across ethnicity and across gender.
Isn’t all of that familiar? Aren’t those the very sorts of things that Paul and Peter were engaging with back in Acts and 1 Corinthians and Galatians.
Let’s not just “move on” let’s press on.