Jesus said to his apostles, "If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31b-32). He asked the Father to sanctify his apostles in the truth, for the Father's word is truth (John 17:20). He promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things, and bring to their remembrance all that he said to them (John 14:25-26). They investigated everything carefully (Luke 1:3), and wrote so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing we might have life in his name (John 20:31). The early church continually devoted themselves to the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42). Following them, we have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets-Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-22). All Scripture, whether the words of apostles, prophets, or Christ himself, is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and cannot be broken (John 10:35). We must contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3b-4). We must keep our eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the doctrine which we learned, and turn away from them (Rom. 16-17). Those who preach a gospel contrary to the apostolic gospel are cursed (Gal. 1:8-9). But a good minister of Jesus Christ is nourished in the words of faith and of good doctrine (1 Tim 4:6), and the outcome of faith is the salvation of our souls (1 Pet 1:9).
Such is the scriptural teaching regarding the importance of true doctrine. But we seem to be living in an especially bad age to hear these words. There are sayings of Jesus which are hard sayings in any age. The statement that he came not to bring peace but a sword, and that family members will be at war over him was a hard saying to the family-centered ancient world just as it is to us. But in our day we take offense at the very idea of contending for truth, or in turning away from dissenters. It is not just familial discord that we wish to avoid, but disagreement in general. We fear certainty as if it were a dangerous thing.
Fighting for Peace
It is Scripture that entreats us to put on the full armor of God and contend for the faith. The battle imagery is not the product of a sick and conflict-ridden mind. But the same Scriptures also call Jesus the Prince of Peace and tell us that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. How are we to reconcile the two sets of texts?
First off, it might be suggested that the battle imagery no more promotes violence than the "Parable of the Unjust Steward" promotes shady business practices. God makes use of all kinds of analogies to illustrate points. In any analogy there are points of similarity and points of divergence. A table leg is a leg in the sense of being one of several supports. It differs from an animal leg in not being made of flesh. A doctrinal battle has points of similarity with military battles, along with points of divergence. The problem is in determining where to draw the line. Where does similarity end and contrast begin?
It is easy to get so lost on this point that we condemn any similarity between doctrinal battle and military battle, all the while approving military battle when we are the ones involved. We must see the issue more clearly. Christianity manages to make fine distinctions of which heretics never seem to be capable. G. K. Chesterton said that in his time he was surprised that Christianity got attacked for both its pacifism and its bloodthirstiness. As an unbeliever he said that he thought Christianity must be worthy of study if it was capable of being accused of both positions. Upon careful reflection, he found it innocent of both charges. But it is quite possible to be guilty of both errors.
Take the Unitarians. Historian Ann Douglas has documented the way Unitarian clergy were at the forefront of the movement to feminize American culture in the nineteenth century. Their religion was a softening of the harsher Calvinism of previous generations. Not surprisingly, pacifism was the common stance toward war among their ranks. (1) The Christian virtue of longsuffering was abstracted from the Bible where it was taught alongside of civic responsibility. Unitarian clergy were even capable of rejecting the Old Testament where it taught that God had ever condoned war.
In contrast, during the American Civil War, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was written by Julia Ward Howe, also a Unitarian. Granted, it is a stirring song, especially when performed by a mass choir, but it belongs in no Christian hymnal. Consider the second verse: "I have seen Him [the Lord] in the watchfires of a thousand circling camps!" Here is a line I cannot sing in good conscience. A probable case can be made that the Union Army was bearing the sword to execute God's wrath on evildoers according to Romans 13:4. So what? Such was certainly the case when Babylon invaded Judah, God's chosen people (Jeremiah 1:14-16). But if an archaeologist unearthed a Babylonian hymnal where one of the hymns spoke of seeing God in the watchfires of the Babylonian camps, would we also add that to our hymnals? In a fit of righteous indignation, the Unitarian movement spawned a glorification of warfare which has not only gone unchallenged, but has found its way into Christian hymnals. The only challenger I know of to this practice was J. Gresham Machen, who spoke of such hymns as "breathing out the angry passions of 1861." He lamented that "the warfare of the world [had] entered into the house of God." (2)
My point is not that the Unitarians are unique in having more than one stance toward war in their history. Most Christian bodies have. Even those bodies with broad unanimity will have dissenting members. The illustration I brought up was not intended to ridicule the Unitarians, but to make a point about evangelicalism. We have managed to outdo their confusion. We have managed to be at the same time militaristic when it comes to real war, and pacifistic with regard to doctrinal battle.
The irony is that we are living in a culture that at many points was designed by the Unitarians. To give them credit, the nineteenth century Unitarians were a more thoughtful, intellectual lot, but it is their pacifism and avoidance of conflict that we have picked up. And alongside of these traits, we have managed to keep our love of American civil religion with regard to war. We hate to be involved in disagreements at home, but we will with eager enthusiasm join the ranks of those who celebrate American military achievement with religious awe. Something is at least unbalanced. It would take a professional ethicist to present a tight case for which American wars have been just or unjust. I have no wish to argue the point. But even a just war should not be celebrated with religious songs. We can celebrate the end of a war, or a victory, or welcome the troops home and honor them. But to commemorate in song God's work in battle carries great danger.
It is especially ironic that some of us can turn from a blasphemously idolatrous celebration of war to an unbiblical denunciation of doctrinal battle. We denounce metaphorical battles and eulogize real ones.
We need to be clear about the nature of a doctrinal battle. First, a doctrinal battle is like war because there are two sides contending against one another. However, it is unlike war because nobody gets killed (ordinarily at least!). The question then arises: is contention itself, within a doctrinal battle, bad? And, for whose sake are we contending? In a battle over Christian doctrine, we should be contending for the glory of God and the salvation of souls; these are worthy motives. Granted, it is possible to fight with unworthy motives and we ought to try to become aware of them. But we must not allow ourselves to believe that battle should never be engaged until all motives are pure. That day will never come, and the stakes are too high.
In our battle for true doctrine, we have weapons: prayer, argument and Scripture. While it is true that arguments and Scripture can be put to bad use, they are not harmful in and of themselves; misuse does not prohibit proper use. In fact, even those who say that they oppose doctrinal battle use these weapons. Moreover, they use these weapons against people with whom they disagree yet claim that they are merely "tools." A rolling pin is a tool, but it becomes a weapon when used against someone in a fight.
The difference between those who admit to engaging in doctrinal battle and those who do not is that the latter fight in a state of undeclared war. This is often the most dangerous type of combat. While this might sound like a clever battle tactic, remember: doctrinal war is to be unlike military war at points. It is my hope that when undeclared doctrinal war has been fought, it has been fought in ignorance, and not as a battle tactic.
Those who argue against the importance of doctrine are using a smoke screen. To such people, doctrine is "someone else's Christianity" while their emphasis is "the Christian life." But this is not simply a rejection of doctrine, it is merely a different kind of doctrine.
Guarding the Gifts
The call to fight for the faith often fails to be heeded because our focus is on the call rather than the faith. We are not mercenaries being asked to sacrifice ourselves for a cause far from our hearts. The faith once for all delivered to the saints is not to be understood merely as a list of doctrines, though it is that! A doctrinal list as such will motivate little sacrifice. But what comprises the list? What is the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints? It is the gospel: Christ's life, death and resurrection. Will you contend for that? It is the fact that men can be reconciled to God. Will you contend for that? It is the fact that history has a glorious ending. Will you contend for that? Put in these terms, we hardly need to be told to fight. All we need to be told is that there is someone attacking what is dear to us.
The same should be true of all doctrines. Our fights for every doctrine boil down to something vital. I do not argue the doctrine of absolution merely so that the proper teaching will be found in a classroom. I want my friends to go be absolved. I do not argue the doctrine of justification as an academic exercise. I want people to be justified. I do not contend for the centrality of Holy Communion so that people will teach that it is central. I want people to commune weekly. If we state our case in these terms, those who have little taste for doctrine might listen.
When we see fighting for doctrine as the guarding of gifts, we will be better able to see what our stance ought to be in a given situation. Without turning it into a calculus, we fight in such a way that the gifts have the best chance of being received by the greatest number. This means contending with most people with the hope that they might turn from error and receive the gifts God has for them. This means contending with some, recognizing that in their hatred of truth, they endanger the gifts for too many others to be treated gently.
When our own understanding of our faith is unfocused-when we see it as a string of disconnected doctrines-contending for it looks like an unending task. We hardly know where to begin. When our understanding is focused on the free gifts of God, the task is easier, for we have a center toward which to work. For instance, what do you do when you find out that your fundamentalist co-worker is unfamiliar with Reformation teaching? What I have seen many do is dwell on important yet peripheral doctrines. Arguments are started over predestination or amillennialism. The impression is left that we are obsessively focused on matters which involve differences of belief, but no change in church life. While there are some matters of internal belief that would be worthy of argument whether or not they affect church life, in our present climate of thought it is wisest to begin on those central matters which visibly affect the church.
If we focus on the gifts, matters are different. A question like, "Do you hear the gospel every Sunday from the pulpit?" is a question which is anything but peripheral. A fundamentalist will know that the gospel is important, but may never have asked whether or not it needs to be heard every Sunday. Perhaps it is assumed that the gospel is only for evangelism. If that is the case, you now have an opportunity to explain how Christians need to hear that Christ's death can save even them. Such a conversation will show people that the Reformation focus is centered on something important. When that has been demonstrated, they will perhaps have more patience to hear about other matters. When they can see that you are gospel-centered in your thought, they will be willing to entertain the notion that predestination is vital. If your theology has shown itself to be focused on Christ, the fact that you hold to predestination may cause the fundamentalist to ask whether predestination might be linked to the gospel. It is the fear that these are free-floating doctrines disconnected from central Biblical concerns which makes so many unwilling to listen.
Enter into the battle for good doctrine. That is, recognize that all people do not know of or receive all of the gifts God has offered his church. If we wish for his gifts to remain among us, we must fight those who would make something else central. We must contend against those who offer counterfeit gifts, for they get in the way of the real ones. This is not done out of a mean spirit, but out of a vital conviction that receiving God's genuine gifts is important. God went to great lengths to offer us free forgiveness through his body and blood. God's true peace was costly to him. We cannot think that any peace we could establish is of greater consequence. When we try to create a human peace by avoiding necessary conflict for the sake of the kingdom of God, we deceive ourselves. We will find ourselves entangled in civil religion and idolatry. In our avoidance of being contentious, we may find ourselves worshipping military might. It has happened before. No, we must accept the peace of God, and realize that this is the peace worth fighting for. It is the only peace which can be fought for peaceably. It is here that we must fight. It is here that we must rest.
2 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), p. 180.