In our increasingly tribal age, the lines in Christendom look like irreparable fractures. The superabundance of denominations (33,830 according to the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia) is one of many objections to the claim that Christians know the Truth. Some have called for us to abandon our differences; others have withdrawn to protect their heritage. How should we think about our own tradition in these polarized times?
Ice Cream Flavors
On Pastor’s Day at a local Christian high school, I sat in on a class where a guest speaker asked, “How many of you like chocolate ice cream?” Most raised their hands. “How many prefer vanilla? Strawberry?” A few changed their vote. The speaker concluded, “Denominations are like ice cream flavors. God knows that we are all different, and he is giving us choices. Some prefer traditional worship, others prefer contemporary worship. What matters is that we all love Jesus.”
This anecdote is a clear window into the spirit of the age. Non-denominational, non-confessional churches are on the rise. “Faith Community” sounds better than Baptist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian at a time when people are more likely to choose their church based on coffee bar options than differences in polity.
This is a dangerous trend. Wesley warns,
A catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.
The church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) must be concerned with theological differences. “Agree to disagree” often means “stop talking about important issues.” But questions of who runs the church; whether or not to baptize infants; the extent of sanctification in this life; the continuation or cessation of the miraculous gifts; the nature of the millennium; the role of women in ministry; the Bible’s teaching on gender and sexuality; and so on, are of far greater importance than Moose Tracks or Rocky Road. These are questions over the true meaning of the oracles of God. The truth is too valuable to sacrifice on the altar of the postmodern ethos.
The church must be concerned with theological differences. “Agree to disagree” often means “stop talking about important issues.”
Until our one Lord returns, the visible church will never be organizationally united. This is not a problem to be solved. The Scriptures primarily call the church to spiritual and local unity rather than organizational and global uniformity. W. B. Pope thought that “the only unity directly aimed at in Scripture is the mystical.” The ecumenical experiment of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with theological liberalism, and the call of the 21st century church is to refocus on contending for the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth—in an increasingly secular age.
Batten Down the Hatches
The equal but opposite error, however, is to forget that all who confess in true faith, “Jesus is Lord,” are part of one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.1 It is to forget our one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). Those from other traditions are our beloved brothers and sisters with whom we have more in common than any unbeliever. We need one another.
Those who cordon themselves off and batten down the hatches ultimately misunderstand the purpose for maintaining the distinctiveness of one’s theological tradition: building up the body, not tearing it down. A schismatic spirit is as indefensible as a latitudinarian one.
Some fundamentalists pride themselves on ecclesiological separation to the embitterment of their attitudes. When we isolate ourselves from the great Christian tradition, we tend to view it with disdain. We begin to say things like, “I think there will be some Calvinists in heaven.” Wesleyans applaud Whitefield who remarked that he would not see Wesley in heaven because Wesley would be so much closer to the throne than him, but we are slow to extend the same grace to the Whitefields in our day.
This preservationist fervor is simple-minded at best and narcissistic at worst. As one call to conservative Wesleyans says it, we must beware of withdrawing “into protected enclaves, congratulating ourselves on our superiority over other Christians.” I once asked a small group what they knew about John Calvin. A young man piped up: “We don’t like him.” We need to do better.
Our tradition is doomed to be cold and inequitable unless it is constantly challenged by the tensions that surface through charitable interplay with other perspectives.
It is almost certain that we have some light that others do not; but it is equally sure that others have light which we do not. We do not have a monopoly on the truth, even if we believe—as we should—that our tradition is most faithful to Scripture. Our tradition is doomed to be cold and inequitable unless it is constantly challenged by the tensions that surface through charitable interplay with other perspectives. We need and should be thankful for one another.
A Better Way
There is plenty of room between the heresy hunters who huddle together in their theological boxes and the liberal ecumenicalists who sing “Kumbaya” in a room without walls. But balancing the tension between distinctiveness and ecumenicity is a difficult enterprise. Is it possible to have a catholic spirit without losing one’s distinctiveness? I would suggest five steps to begin answering the question of how we should go about this in a way that is both biblically sound and charitable:
1. Clarify the differences between your tradition and other traditions. Folk theology tends to exaggerate the dissimilarity between Christian traditions. An ecumenical theology like Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity can help to clarify the common core that unites Christ-followers and far outweighs our theological differences.
The Reformed tradition often claims as Reformed things that are not distinctly Reformed at all; for example, the doctrines of union with Christ or total depravity, both of which Arminius, Wesley, and the great Methodists gladly and heartily affirmed. In Arminian Theology, Roger Olson had to devote an entire chapter to debunking the myth that Arminian theology denies the sovereignty of God. Have those spreading these myths ever stopped to read Declaration of Sentiments? Almost certainly not.
Arminians are also guilty of becoming entrenched in their own traditions and relying on dismissive caricatures of other groups to avoid serious engagement. Wesleyans in particular sometimes imply that they are the only ones who believe in holiness of heart and life.2 “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” means that Calvinists should find themselves defending Arminians and Arminians should find themselves defending Calvinists when the other side’s view is caricatured in their presence.
How then do we avoid such misrepresentations, and make sure that we address the actual differences between our tradition and others? This is where the next step comes in.
2. Seek out the best and most authoritative spokespersons from other traditions. Instead of beating a straw man with Calvin’s beard or Wesley’s wig tacked on, we should actually listen to other traditions and then engage with their arguments and concerns. This has been made easier by a plethora of perspectives books published in recent years (e.g., the 32-volume Counterpoint series). In many cases, these books also offer responses from other positions to a given viewpoint, as well as rejoinders from the viewpoint’s perspective. Most importantly, they model good theological dialogue.
Instead of beating a straw man with Calvin’s beard or Wesley’s wig tacked on, we should actually listen to other traditions and then engage with their arguments and concerns.
An important part of clarifying differences is to read great works from other perspectives. As a Wesleyan Arminian, I’m currently reading the great Methodist theologians William Burt Pope and Thomas Oden. But I’m also reading Calvin’s Institutes and Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.3 A Wesleyan who never reads Calvin is a poor Wesleyan indeed. The more we learn, the more we realize that “only if you live in a very small thought-world is Wesleyanism the opposite of Calvinism.” A Calvinist who never reads Wesley is just as poor of a Calvinist. Fred Sanders begins his book Wesley on the Christian Life by asking, “Is anybody listening to the voice of John Wesley anymore?” He continues, “Wesley’s words were once heard in every church, not just the ones directly downstream from his institutional influence. His voice was once impossible to ignore, and his influence inescapable.” Wesleyans say, “Amen!” Rightly so.4 One would have to ask, would they say “Amen” if one of the other great Johns (Calvin or Edwards) were being commended instead?
It’s also important to follow the work of contemporary theologians from other faith traditions. Putting names and faces to theological positions helps to humanize the debates.
3. Identify what your tradition has to offer to the body of Christ. Wesley thought that entire sanctification was the “Grand Depositum of Methodism, that for which we were chiefly raised up.” It has been rightly said that if Methodists lose this doctrine, they will lose their reason for existing. But in what sense is this true? Is it true because entire sanctification is the most important doctrine in Scripture? Certainly not. It is not even a first-tier doctrine (i.e., not on the same level as the Trinity or the bodily resurrection or other creedal affirmations). Rather, it is true in the sense that Methodism is a tradition and traditions exist to contribute something to the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. Classic Methodists contribute an optimism about grace and a passion for holiness that the rest of the church desperately needs. If Methodism drops the ball on spreading Scriptural holiness, it has lost its reason for existing, because it is no longer contributing what the Lord wants it to contribute to his body. Consider the questions raised by Kevin DeYoung, mouthpiece for the young, restless, and Reformed:
I find it telling that you can find plenty of young Christians today who are really excited about justice and serving in their communities. You can find Christians fired up about evangelism. You can find lots of Generation XYZ believers passionate about precise theology. Yes and amen to all that. But where are the Christians known for their zeal for holiness? Where is the corresponding passion for honoring Christ with Christlike obedience? We need more Christian leaders on our campuses, in our cities, in our seminaries who will say with Paul, “Look carefully then how you walk”? (Eph. 5:15). (emphasis mine)
Where are the Christians who are zealous for holiness? I know some! But what are we doing to ensure that our voice is heard outside our holy huddle? Arguably not enough.
4. Strengthen your tradition’s theological credibility. The whole church suffers when any one theological tradition dominates the marketplace of ideas. With the Reformed resurgence, many astute evangelicals feel as though there are no other serious theological options. Sometimes it seems as though for every one book released by Arminians through a major publisher, there are a dozen systematic theologies released by Reformed theologians. Michael Avery once remarked, “Wesleyans have warm hearts, but no books.” Until this changes, our tradition will be theologically anemic and we should not expect to be taken seriously by other Christians. A healthier future begins by taking personal responsibility, pursuing and promoting higher education, and encouraging a culture of serious writing and thinking. However, we need a comprehensive plan for strengthening our tradition—something that is beyond the scope of this, or any single, article.
5. Build meaningful friendships with those from other traditions. If you have one theologically-informed friend from another tradition, you are blessed. I’ve been inspired by the longstanding friendship of Michael Allen (a Calvinist) and Roger Olson (an Arminian).
While at the hospital with my pregnant wife, I met a charismatic Calvinist (in the Piper-Grudem vein) who teaches Bible at a Christian school. Since then, Ethan and I have had several meaningful theological discussions over dinner. He recently asked me for feedback on a sermon that addresses the relationship between total depravity and saving grace. On Christmas evening, he texted me, “Hope you had a richly blessed day rejoicing in the incarnation.” Relationships like this are invaluable to me. Our theological differences have enriched—not hindered—our Christian fellowship.
All Christian traditions are not created equal—and they cannot all be right about everything. But there are perspectives, emphases, and values in each tradition that the whole body needs. The foot cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” If we remember that our tradition has something to offer the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, we will be on our way to a healthier balance between distinctiveness and ecunemicity.
- In this context, as in the Nicene Creed, “catholic” means “universal”—the church in all times and places—and “apostolic” refers to the church’s foundation on the teaching of the apostles
- See Philip Brown’s article “Sanctification: Overlap and Differences Between Wesleyan and Reformed Understandings.”
- Also helpful is Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and A. A. Hodge’s work by the same title.
- If you’re a Calvinist, I recommend Sanders’s article, “Calvinists Who Love Wesley”.