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Theological Contours Don’t Have to Divide Us

I live in South Oxfordshire in England where many of the villages are chocolate-box pretty, the land is fertile, the meandering Thames adds its own unique fingerprint and the air is clean. Well, except when our beloved power station has a malfunction! 
But if there is something I miss, it’s hills. Mountains would be even better, but I’d settle for hills. Without them, the landscape is a lot less interesting.

For the last week, I’ve been thinking about the concept of contours. Not physical ones but theological ones. 

This was sparked by a conversation with a pastor-friend of mine as we lamented the absence of theological contours in the minds of some.

So what do I mean by “theological contours”? The Christian faith has within it many truths, but we can make the mistake that all truth is of the same order or the same importance.

For instance, I believe it to be true that Jesus was anointed at Bethany in the home of the man known as Simon the Leper. The Bible records this as a matter of fact. What’s not to believe?

But if some new archaeological discovery gave rise to the claim that this event probably didn’t happen in Bethany after all, but in a nearby village called Bethanaius, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

On the other hand, if someone claimed that they’d found a first-century tomb with a body in it of a man who had been crucified and for some reason they were convinced it was the body of Jesus of Nazareth, then that claim would certainly be one I’d contest.

It is the most fundamental Christian conviction, based on Scripture and inspired by the Holy Spirit, that Christ died for the sins of all of humanity and rose again to new life in a body that was recognized by the disciples.

Many years ago, Frank Morison’s magnificent “Who Moved the Stone?” was the human part of the jigsaw that convinced me of the truth about the resurrection of Jesus.

But if we don’t have theological contours, then everything is on the same level. 

We will defend the claims of Christ to be the eternally begotten Son of God, divine and human, crucified and risen, ascended and returning, with the same compulsion as we will defend our view of important issues such as who should receive communion, who can be baptized, the nature of ministry and maybe one day even the location of Bethanaius! 

In my last blog piece, titled Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?, I referred to controversies regarding these matters and the resulting tendency to exclude those who viewed things differently. 

It would be a mistake to think that I’m saying “their views are wrong and my views are right.” (I might be right. I might be wrong.) What I’m actually saying is that we can live with differences of opinion on these matters.

In the last paragraph of the post above, I stated that learning that it’s okay to live with those who see things differently “will require me/us to relocate our convictions into second place in order that an even higher conviction takes first place, namely the conviction that Jesus came to destroy barriers and we need to do the same.” 

This is the kind of theological contouring that is needed. 

Some truths are like the Himalayan peaks – they stand like a colossus over the worldwide community of faith down through the centuries. They rise to the heavens and they mark out the magnificence of God’s revelation to us in Christ.

But there are other truths that are also important, though maybe not as important as those that constitute the core of our faith. They are themselves magnificent highlands, but – well, everything isn’t the same level.

If you don’t like the sound of this (“he’s relativizing truth!”) ask yourself this – why is that Baptists who believe firmly that baptism should be for believers only and by full immersion are pleased to stand side by side with, enjoy fellowship with, and witness with those from other traditions who baptize infants?

Is it not because we accept that others have different convictions but these differences need not separate us? 

Why will most Baptist churches welcome and affirm the ministry of men and women from other traditions, even when the doctrine of priesthood in other denominations is very different from our own? 

I believe we do this because there is a higher principle, namely that by our faith in the risen Christ we are all part of the Body of Christ, even if we see these nonetheless important distinctives differently.

You see, you can’t relativize truth. Truth is an absolute. But in the absence of a consensus over what the truth is, especially when it relates to secondary matters, we can learn to live with uncertainty. We do it already, and at our best we do it well.

There will always be theological debate and struggle, and so there should be, for it is by wrestling with the Scriptures, listening deeply to one another and listening together to God that we can find new truths revealed. 

As Baptists, that element of communal discernment is integral to our identity.

Rather than exclude, find a compromise. Look for the best in each other. Walk humbly and speak humbly.

Above all, let love define the outworking of our faith. That seems to befit being disciples of Jesus, who said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.