In our previous issue Mark Thompson took four examples of making a stand, three from the history of the churches over the past two thousand years and one from the New Testament itself, to make the point that taking a stand is an entirely appropriate thing to do.
Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore College, Newtown NSW.
So if making a stand against prevailing and powerful opinion is legitimate and important, when do we make a stand? Of course, just as important, perhaps more important really, is how we make a stand. How do we treat those with whom we disagree and those whom we think are compromising God’s revealed truth and spiritually endangering God’s people? Whatever our answer to that question, it must not disqualify the approach of the apostle Paul given to us in Scripture. We are not in a position to look down on him or dismiss his stand as a product of his own psychological make-up. The how question is a very important question and one we need to face in the FCA movement because there are differences even among us which sooner or later will need to be addressed.
In this Part II, I want to set out a brief list of theological principles to consider as we approach the other question ‘when do we make a stand?’
3. Theological principles for making a stand
There are undoubtedly more principles than these that we could profitably consider but at least these five can give us a start.
Firstly, the good God has given us a good word which is for the benefit of his people. The benevolence of God is hardly controversial among us. God has demonstrated his love toward us in this, that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8). He gives good gifts to his children. His truth is life-giving. Paul could tell Timothy that the sacred writings ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3.15). This means, conversely, that God’s people are harmed when God’s good word is obscured or denied. Error is dangerous and theological error is exceedingly dangerous. It also means that far from trying to minimise the application of this good word God has given us we should be seeking to understand just how much of a difference it makes for our good. God’s benevolence and the goodness of his word are foundational principles when considering when to make a stand. I want to ask, ‘Is this teaching, is this behaviour, drawing people away from the good God’s good word which nourishes and builds his people?’ ‘Does it build confidence in God’s good word as an instrument for good or does it undermine that confidence?’ ‘Does it suggest that the truth expressed in God’s word is incomplete, or out-dated, or ill-informed?’
Secondly, God’s word is the only authoritative basis on which to make a stand. Our consciences may not be bound any further than the word of God binds them. That was Luther’s point. We can only confidently make a stand when God has spoken and his word must not be silenced by institutional pronouncements or regulation, personal preferences or reasoning, cultural pressure, or any such thing. Here the theology of the written word of God is critically important. Because these words, though they bear the genuine conscious imprint of their human authors, are ultimately God’s word to us, they bear his authority. We can insist that there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we must be saved precisely because God himself has made that known to us in his word (Acts 4.12). So when contemplating making a stand I want to ask ‘Has God spoken on this issue?’ ‘Does his word make clear God’s perspective on this truth or this behaviour?’ Jesus himself, as well as his apostles, often clinched an argument with the words ‘It is written’. That is because they were convinced that where the written word of God addressed an issue, that settled the matter. On that ground a confident stand can be made. ‘Holy Scripture has spoken; the matter is decided’ (scriptura sacra locuta, res decisa est).
Thirdly, matters of indifference (adiaphora) only exist where either Scripture is silent or it gives freedom for diversity. The concept of adiaphora has a clear biblical warrant in Paul’s writing about circumcision. Three times he says to the Corinthians or to the Galatians the same thing: ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God’ (1 Cor 7:19); ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Gal 5:6); ‘For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’ (Gal 6:15). When it didn’t matter and no one was making an issue of it, Paul could freely avoid all controversy by having Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). However, when it was an issue, when people were making something of it, Paul could resolutely refuse to endorse circumcision: when in Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus ‘even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek’ (Gal 2:3). Similar things could be said about the practice of eating food which had previously been offered to idols. It is not an issue when no one is making an issue out of it (1 Cor 8:8) but once it is made an issue, and there is the danger of harming a brother for whom Christ died, it is no longer a matter of indifference (1 Cor 8:9–11). There are circumstances in which something which might generally be thought to be a matter of indifference becomes a matter of principle.
Historically the term adiaphora applied to the continuation of practices that existed in the Roman churches prior to the Reformation, such as the wearing of distinctive clerical dress and, as the Book of Concord (1580) put it, ‘ceremonies and church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word’. It was never applied to matters of doctrine. It was never applied to matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. There is undoubtedly disagreement in the churches and perhaps even among us here on some matters of doctrine and some matters directly addressed in the Scriptures. But these would never classically be considered adiaphora. They are instead a reason to keep talking as we seek to come to a common mind, not a reason to stop talking and retreat to our own view. The simple fact of disagreement on an issue between godly men and women who are all seeking to be faithful to Christ and the Scriptures is not in itself sufficient to render an issue adiaphora. Too many other things can be going on in those cases, some of them acknowledged, some of them hidden, even from ourselves. We must not allow too quick an appeal to adiaphora to close down the conversation.
There is ample ground for generosity towards people in Scripture — believers and unbelievers, those we agree with and those we don’t — and ample precedent in church history for such generosity. We are called upon as disciples of Christ to love one another and not to be divisive (Jn 13.34; Rom. 16.7; Titus 3.10–11). But there is little ground for what some oddly call ‘a generous orthodoxy’. Generosity towards people — most definitely; but tenacious faithfulness when it comes to biblical doctrine. So our decisions about when to make a stand need to take account of matters of indifference, which exist where either Scripture is silent or where it gives freedom for diversity.
Fourth, Christian ministry must have the courage to say ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’. Nobody likes negativity. It is much easier and much more acceptable to say ‘yes’ all the time. And yet you don’t have to read far into the Pastoral Epistles or any of the New Testament letters actually, before you realise that teaching and correction, encouragement and rebuke, go hand in hand in Christian ministry. Of course there is the question of how you say ‘no’, how you correct and warn and administer a rebuke when that is necessary. There is no license for harshness, or censoriousness, or condemnation in the New Testament. The goal is always repentance and restoration and a life realigned to the word of God and the mission of the gospel. But God’s people need to know not only what is true and right and appropriate but also what is false and wrong and improper. The ancient creeds spoke not only of what the truth was but also about what was not true. ‘Begotten not made’, according to the Nicene Creed. ‘Two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’, according to Chalcedon. Very often the leaders of the church, following the example of the apostles, found that saying what was true was not enough. They also needed to be clear about what was not true. For the sake of the precious people for whom Christ died, we must be prepared to say ‘No’ as well as ‘Yes’.
Fifthly, the goal of making any stand is not a ‘party win’ but confessing Christ and caring for his people. We far too easily dissolve into factions and tribes and parties. It is a very human trait. And it happens amongst Christians as well. At one level it is entirely normal and good that we should gather with others with whom we have a common mind and a common mission. But if it becomes an exclusive grouping, if it refuses to learn from others and to go with them back to the Scriptures to hear God’s truth together, if it is an instrument of division and not one of mission at all in reality, then the group or party or collaboration is actually an opportunity for great harm rather than great good. Our concern in speaking the truth, and confuting error, and seeking to live out what we have been told and believe, is in order to confess fully, genuinely and without hesitation that Christ is Lord. It is in order that Christ might be known in all the world and Christ’s people might be built up within the churches. So we need to ask ourselves what is the real goal for which we are making this stand: to draw attention to ourselves or to draw attention to Christ? To put down those who oppose us, or to guard and protect and build up those who belong to Christ?
You know, even refusing to make a stand amounts to making a stand in the end. It is a statement about what matters most to you and for what you would be willing to risk misunderstanding, rejection, persecution and worse. It is always possible to do it all wrong. But not being willing to do it at all just doesn’t fit with the God who has spoken to us, the priority of Christ and his gospel, and the preciousness of his people.