Discern Your Doctrine (Mark Dever)
Trevin Wax: What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper’s view instead of yours, what would they be missing?
I spent some time yesterday, a little more than an hour, listening to a speech by Mark Dever. The speech was delivered at the 2007 New Attitude conference-a conference featuring the likes of Joshua Harris, John Piper, Albert Mohler, and CJ Mahaney, all well respected Evangelical Christians. Dever’s speech, or sermon if you like, is titled Discern Your Doctrine. It is worth the hour to sit and listen to it. I will provide a synopsis and attach a few brief comments before concluding with a call to love.
As most of you know by now, or have wondered, I am a member of the so-called Restoration Movement Church of Christ (not a Capella; that is, my church uses instruments in worship). Our ‘movement’ (we have eschewed such cumbersome boxes as ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ thinking them too slow or stagnant; we are a ‘movement!’). Our movement has, at least at its inception, been controlled by an unofficial creed, not called a creed, but a slogan. Actually, there have been several of them along the way, but I think the one I will mention stands as the most prominent. So it was much to my surprise when listening to this speech by Dever that I heard him quoting our slogan and then wrapping his entire speech, or sermon if you like, around it: “In opinions liberty, in essentials unity, in all things love.” Why you…that’s our slogan!!! (spoken as a remarkably Homer Simpsonesque threat.)
Well, it is a fascinating idea; although, it is necessarily, as I have read recently in a history of the Disciples of Christ (Disciples of Christ, a History, Garrison and Degroot) a flawed idea. But I digress. This slogan is the hub around which Dever built his speech even though he didn’t really get to the slogan until the end of the speech and then attributed it to some Germans (!) instead of to my beloved Restoration Movement forefathers. In leading up to this fascinating announcement of what should motivate all of our discernment activities, Dever makes six rather important points. I found that the first 2 were the most important and took the longest (if I recall he spent about the same amount of time on the last 4 as he did the first 2), but I will list all six points he made and offer only the briefest of points about each.
First, he asks: Do we follow commands in order to purify or unify? Here I found Dever’s most compelling argument. He notes that Jesus himself said we must ‘be on our guard’ against all kinds of teachings and teachers. In other words, discernment is not a bad idea. In fact, we should discern because if we don’t we are likely to fall into all sorts of dangers. Dever points out, however, that discernment always runs the risk of extremes and that there are basically (I hate the word basically) two opposite, but equally dangerous, extremes.
On the one hand, some tend to be too inclusive for the sake of unity. These are folks who ramble on about things like ‘no creed but Christ, no book but the bible’ (Ha! Another RM
creed…slogan.) These are folks who think doctrine doesn’t matter all that much as long as we are united, answering Jesus’s prayer for unity (John 17), etc. Dever says these folks might be just as judgmental as anyone else because they tend to ‘undervalue God’s truth.’ Ooooh. That stings.
On the other hand, some tend to be too exclusive for the sake of purity. He says, “They are ready to quickly declare something wrong, or someone wrong or maybe even declare someone not a Christian. They neglect the wideness of Gods love that he shows in Scripture. They neglect seeing examples of his work when he has been at work.” He also said, that “we threaten our humility when we become self-righteous about this.” He noted that “truth and humility are not enemies” and that “knowing the truth will humble us.” He warned about those who are so exclusively concerned about purity that they think they have a “prophetic ministry of correction.”
In his second point he asks, “What are some common fights that we Christians have?” He goes on to note many and concedes that the list is virtually endless. I won’t bore you; his list is impressive.
In his third point he asks, “What are we together for?” In this point he notes that different levels of agreement are needed for different levels of cooperation and that agreement is not essential in all areas in order for Christian fellowship or evangelism to exist.
In his fourth point he asks, “What are the things we must agree upon?” That is, what are the essentials that we, as Christians, must necessarily agree upon to be considered Christians? I thought his best point here was when he noted that all of us will be “corrected at some level.” But I think the gist here was that there are some doctrines that can be dismissed (bad choice of words here) without sacrificing Christian orthodoxy or severing Christian fellowship.
His test pattern for discerning such agreement for essential doctrines is as follows:
1. How clear is this doctrine in Scripture? (I assume here he means ‘to me’.)
2. How clear do others think it is? (that is, other Christians)
3. How near is it to the Gospel? (that is, which instructs us about salvation)
4. What would be the doctrinal and practical implications if we allowed disagreement on this particular issue?
I think this is a fine test, and when it is done Dever concludes that there are three areas upon which we must agree as Christians: God. Bible. Gospel. Of course, within these terribly vague ideas he breaks it down even further. Not only must we agree about God, but we must believe certain things about God. Not only must we believe in the Bible, but we must believe certain things about the Bible. Not only must we believe in the Gospel, but we must agree what constitutes the Gospel. (Here I think the flaw of ‘in essentials unity’ becomes apparent.) Dever narrows the Gospel down to 1 Corinthians 15:1-9:
1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:1-9
He notes that for 14 chapters Paul had pointed out all the unnecessary things that divided the Corinthian church and points out that here, in chapter 15, is the one thing we should stand for: ‘Contend for this truth,’ Paul seems to be saying. Here is the Gospel in a nutshell, the essentials upon which we must agree. Thus Paul reminds the Corinthians of this core of beliefs.
In point five, Dever asks, “What are some things we may disagree about?” He cites Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” He also takes four test cases and notes that we can indeed disagree about some things without compromising faith, the Gospel, or Christian fellowship. Encouraging indeed. (His section about ‘egalitarianism’ is rather brilliant.)
In his last point, Dever asks, “How can we disagree well?” Again, Dever makes two solid points to consider when having a conversation with someone with whom we disagree. I should ask: 1. What can I learn from this one with whom I disagree? Well, this requires a great deal of humility, and can be difficult to navigate since we may have to finally admit that we are wrong. 2. What do I owe this person with whom I disagree or who disagrees with me? Again here is required a great deal of humility. We owe them love. We owe them respect. We owe them the courtesy of making it evident that we care about this person and that we are not just trying to win an argument with them. In other words, we should try to understand what they are saying. I think this point often gets lost on me. Much of the time, I care more about winning an argument with someone than I do about the person. This is dangerous ground upon which to tread.
So what is the point here? I think the point is clearly this: Disagreement is not bad; discernment is required. Those who point out our errors are not our enemies. “The opposite of your friend is not your enemy, but your flatterer.” So it is good, it seems to Dever (and I agree), that there are those who are willing and able to engage one another in hardy, healthy debate and conversation. Disagreement is not the end of the world, and there are some areas where our error clearly needs to be pointed out in order that we might be saved (Jude). However, it is better to engage in debate and conversation with humility, with love, with an eye and ear for learning and not just winning. Best line in the speech was this, “We want to be known for what we are for rather than what we are against.” (Hmmm…someone recently wrote a post about this very point.)
Here’s what the apostle wrote to the church at Ephesus:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-16
If some are given to this and some are given to that, I think this means that the Lord fully expects we will correct and rebuke one another (and often Scripture may do that very thing). Scripture may bite hard, but we should not. (Although someone said to me the other day: “I’m not nice when it comes to gross misrepresentations of the genuine Christian faith. And, I’m not supposed to be.” Indeed!) This does not mean, however, that we abandon the overarching command to love. Love. Love. Love. This is what distinguishes the church from everything and everyone else in the world (as far as organized religion is concerned). If we are not known by our love for one another, then we will be known for something else. And if we are known by something else, can we legitimately call ourselves Christians? Can we who fail to love even begin to think we have a right to do evangelism and call people into this story? (I’ll say this, there are times when I know I am loved more by people outside the story than I am by those inside the story. There are times when I love those outside the story more than those inside it.)
So, “In opinions liberty, in essentials unity, and in all things love.” It seems to me that love can go a long, long way towards correcting our errors-and who among us desires to remain in error? Dever ends by quoting from John Wesley, “I shall thank the youngest man among you to tell me of any fault you see in me. In doing so, I shall consider him by best friend.”
It remains to be seen, however, if love will win the day, especially in the world of blogs where, for example, just the other day, a couple of the writers here were called Pharisees because we “make grace too wide.” It remains to be known if love truly conquers all. It remains hidden as to whether or not we can love. Maybe there is something to this slogan after all. It remains to be seen if we will be known by our love and not our hate. It remains to be seen if love can truly bring together those who are concerned with unity and those who are concerned with purity and conclude that the two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe Alexander Campbell and Barton W Stone weren’t wrong to adopt this slogan and hoist it high even if the opinions and essentials part is practically impossible. And maybe, just maybe, if we pay attention, close attention, to love we will see that what matters most is not our opinions, not our essentials, but our love.* After all, Jesus himself said that it was by our love for one another that the world would know we are his disciples.
Not opinions. Not essentials. But love.
And so it remains, can we disagree and still love? Can we disagree and maintain Christian fellowship? Will we love? How will we be known? Can we discern with more concern for the person than for winning? I ask all who visit and read: Can we, will we, discern with love?
Will we love?
*Which is not to say that we abandon essentials at all, but does mean that we should be far more concerned about humility. Fact is, I could be wrong. We could all be wrong. And all theology is a matter of opinion. Maybe there is something to the vaguery of Dever’s ‘God, Bible and Gospel’ regardless of how we formulate our opinions about these essentials from Scripture. Maybe there is something to grace after all and its wideness is not the real problem, but its narrowness.
**word count 2494