At my former university an athlete had two choices when it came to participation in sports. There were the recognised intercollegiate sports such as soccer, football (the real kind!), baseball, athletics, cross country, etc. The competition was with other universities, which generated well-intentioned and fun, but serious, rivalries. The other option was intramural sports, so-called “club sports,” such as rugby, “flag football,” volleyball, etc. The games played in this realm were against teams (“clubs”) that were made up of fellow students at the same university. In class they were fellow students working with one another but after class they were rivals on the field, only to return to being friends in the dining hall that evening. The purpose was to have fun while enjoying the same sporting interest. Those playing intramural sports would often find themselves standing side by side at the weekend football game supporting the same football team—their team. They knew who the real opponent was: the other school.
Unfortunately, in the history of Christianity, what has often been intramural skirmishes has all too frequently spilled over into mean-spirited, all-out war as those with opposing views entrench themselves as the enemy of the other side; as the enemy of those who are actually on the same side! The result has been an ugly blot on the Bride’s garment, which the world has then then joyfully used as an excuse to reject the gospel message. After all, if the church treats her own in such a way, then why become part of it? At least in the domain of darkness, the enemy is “the devil you know.”
But the unbelieving world is not the only people affected. Often, believers can become disillusioned with the church and thereby hesitant to be an active part of a local congregation. After all, they conclude, with friends like that, who needs enemies?
In recent days such intramural warfare in the church has been all over the blogosphere. I have daily received notifications (from the few Christian websites that I frequent) of the skirmishes, and in some cases the wounds, inflicted by those whom I am sure are otherwise well-meaning brothers in Christ. This sad occurrence infamously illustrates the very real danger of believers misrepresenting their brothers and sisters in their zeal to defend truth.
Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about strange fire in the church; that is, unbiblical theology (pneumatology to be exact) and its ramifications. According to Leviticus 10 such unbiblical “fire” is indeed contemptible. We should appreciate that men of God are willing to take a stand for the truth and to point out destructive error as well as to offer solutions to transforming the ugly chaos into God-honouring cosmos. In other words, strange fire needs to be quenched. Thank God that the water of the Word was thrown on this runaway fire. May much good fruit follow.
But even in this recent case we need to learn that, in our quest to oppose error, we can find ourselves, albeit unintentionally, misrepresenting those with whom we disagree. And in such a case we might be guilty of kindling reckless fire, which according to James 3:1-6 can be very destructive.
For instance, I recently heard one well respected theologian, concerned about “strange fire” in the church, claim that “postmillennialists believe that we will usher in the kingdom by making the world better.” I have read thousands of pages written by orthodox postmillennialists, and to be honest I don’t know of anyone who teaches that. Another well-known, and much beloved, preacher claimed that the postmillennial idea of “dominion” is the result of a “crazed megalomania” and an “egotistical madness,” which might be influenced by the devil. That is reckless speech and helpful to no one. Ad hominems are rarely beneficial towards discovering truth.
It is such examples that highlight the need for us to learn to avoid both strange and reckless fire. And we do so by taking care how we deal with alleged error. The world advises that we “fight fire with fire.” But if we oppose error recklessly then usually no one wins. The fallout is needless destruction of relationships, needless ruining of reputations and, in the long run, damaging of God honouring ministries. Alas, the church often suffers from intramural recklessness.
There is no way that I can address all of the ways by which we can avoid such intramural recklessness but allow me to try and handle one: Know what you are talking about before you open your mouth.
The Renaissance, with all of its attendant follies, did provide the world with a wonderful rediscovery of the need to return to primary sources in the search for truth. For far too long, the discovery of truth was simply the result of finding enough quotes by enough people who had sufficiently quoted others! In other words, no one was quite sure where or whom or what the original source was; and it did not really matter as long as you had a long enough string of quotes by enough scholars. The problem with this, as Erasmus and others discovered, was that the accepted Bible of the times, endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, contained some serious errors. And so men like Erasmus went back to study the primary source documents of the various Greek manuscripts, from which they then produced a more accurate Greek text. From this, the Bible was more accurately translated into various vernacular languages, beginning with English and then German. Because various men did the hard work of finding and working with primary sources truth was accurately preserved and passed on to others.
Now, here is my point: All too often in theological debates men with differing views misrepresent the opposing views because of their failure to actually read or listen to what the guy on the other side has actually said or written! In other words, because they have ignored primary sources, they recklessly distort what the brother actually teaches and believes. The word “misrepresent” is easier on the ears, but the word slander is actually more to the point.
Again, we see this quite frequently with reference to eschatological issues. The various millennial positions are often grossly misrepresented with the result that some terribly reckless caricatures are made. And all sides of the debate have been guilty of this. This is also sometimes the case with respect to the debate between so-called “Arminians” and “Calvinists.” Broad-brushed statements are made that clearly indicate that the preacher/teacher has not done his homework, which often means that he has not read what the brother with an opposing view has actually written or articulated. Primary sources have been ignored and quoting a critic has become the voice of authority. Such irresponsible straw-man or ludicrous generalisations are reckless; and such behaviour calls for repentance. I have on occasion been guilty of such recklessness and have needed to recant of things that I have said. And I have learned, the hard way, that I need to actually read or listen to what a man has said before I try to describe it and then refute it.
There is certainly need for vigorous in-house theological debate. After all, Christians are committed to the one who is the Truth and so we want to know the truth. But there is never justification for misrepresentation. And so, if we do not know what we are talking about, particularly when it comes to describing what another brother or sister believes and teaches, then we should seek to appear wise by keeping our mouths shut (Proverbs 17:28). And even if we think that we know their position, perhaps wisdom would call for us to make sure that we really understand their position—with its many intricacies—before we recklessly pontificate and run the risk of bringing down God’s displeasure. After all, God not only hates that which is untrue, He also hates that which brings sinful disunity (Proverbs 6:19).
Finally, let’s remember who the real enemy is. And it is not our brother and sister in Christ. Rather it is the world, the flesh and the devil. Let’s keep our intramural tensions in proper Christ-centred perspective as we stand shoulder to shoulder and cheer on the Victor as He goes forth conquering and to conquer.