Death By Dialogue
As a Christian who many might call “conservative”, I hold to the historical, orthodox doctrines of Christianity. I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus is the son of God, that he came to earth via virgin birth and lived a sinless life and died for the sins of man, that he rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All who turn from sin and trust in Christ will receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Heaven and hell are real and forever and God will separate those based on their righteous or unrighteous standing before him and reward or punish accordingly. And so on and so on…you get the idea.
These kinds of traditional Christian beliefs have come more and more under fire in recent years, and not just by those outside the Church, but also by those who profess to be Christian. The authority and truthfulness of God’s Word, the deity of Christ, the acceptability of other religions, the view of homosexuality and gay marriage, among many other hotly debated subjects, are increasingly divisive issues within the body of Christ. There are those who hold to historic, orthodox views, and those who set out to challenge the Christian norm.
Among those who push back against traditional biblical doctrines, one of the common mantras they use is that they are questioning widely-accepted interpretations of the Bible in an effort to begin “a conversation”. We should not just believe whatever we are told to believe, they might say, but we should question things. I am simply pushing the status quo in an effort to start a conversation.
Within the past 15 years, the movement that became known as the Emergent Church is a good example of this kind of mentality. Leaders such as Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Doug Pagitt sought to take the fundamental truths of Christianity and put them out onto the table for open discussion. No subject, however strongly held by Christians over history, was off-limits. As a result, many Christians picked up this mentality and began to question everything they ever knew about their faith, and various aberrations of orthodox Christianity were formed.
Whenever such a person is criticized by a “conservative” Christian for abandoning sound doctrine, the retort is always the same. All you ever do is shut people down. You are demanding that everyone fall in line with YOUR interpretation. Well, there are lots of different interpretations. I’m just trying to open up a dialogue and have a conversation about it.
Now, to be clear, there is merit to that kind of a response. People ought to question what they are told and be able to voice concern over doubts that they have. The Church should be a place where people can be honest about their questions and talk about them without being pounded into submission. This kind of theological exploration is crucial to someone’s faith becoming their own, and it is a key part of my own story. To that I give my hearty endorsement.
But there is a problem too. It appears that some people are happy to raise doubts about traditional Christian teaching, but have little desire to actually resolve those concerns with any real conviction. They want to be able to question everything, but not actually seek out answers. They want to live in the place of open-mindedness permanently. They want to start a conversation but have no real desire to conclude it.
I was confronted recently by another Christian who accused me of forcing other people to accept my “narrow-minded” interpretation of Scripture. She said that not everyone who loves Jesus agrees with my theology and therefore I have no right to make the kind of “arrogant” proclamations of truth that I do as a pastor and Bible teacher. To be fair, there is a measure of truth to this. I don’t see my job as beating people over the head with Scripture, but rather as helping them see what I see in the Bible for themselves. I have no inherent authority; only the Word of God does. Therefore I consider it my job as a teacher to show people what the Bible says as best as I can, and if they agree that it is really there, then believe it. If not, keep searching. The Bible commends the Bereans for taking such an approach when it came to hearing the Bible taught and calls it a “noble” practice.
 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.  Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
The point is that there is a place for conversation. There is a place for dialogue in discovering the truth. A person should feel free to ask a pastor, I know you said this in your sermon, but what about what the Bible says over here? It seems to be a contradiction, or that your interpretation might be off. I have read before someone teach it differently than you did. Can you explain this to me some more? Any pastor worth their salt would not freak out in such a situation, but take the time to work more on the issue at hand. This is a wonderful thing and ought to be happening a lot in Christian discipleship.
But the problem arises when people want to question everything without trying to find an answer. They are not actually after the truth, but merely the freedom to question the truth at every turn. This kind of mentality is unhealthy and spiritually destructive. It attempts to keep God free from any box that Scripture might seem to paint him into…even though God declares things about himself that squarely put him into a box!
It also gives off a false sense of humility. You are arrogant in thinking that you are right when other godly Christians disagree with you. At least I’m humble enough to know I might be wrong! On the surface this seems like humility, but it is actually a form of pride. Refusing to take a stand on a particular doctrine is itself taking a stand. It is declaring that there is only one way to view the topic (with an open mind), which is quite a closed-minded view towards those who have a doctrinal position on the matter. It is saying, you are wrong to believe what you believe, which is exactly what I am saying to you. So, in reality, we both have a firmly entrenched view that we believe to be the right one. Neither of us is necessarily more arrogant than the other.
In his book What Does the Bible Actually Teach About Homosexuality?, Kevin DeYoung says the following:
“Talking is not the problem. The problem is when incessant talking becomes a cover for indecision or even cowardice. As one who has pastored for more than a dozen years in a mainline denomination, I have seen this far too often. It’s death by dialogue. The conversation never stops after reaffirming the historic position. There will always be another paper, another symposium, and another round of conversation. The moratorium on making pronouncements will only be lifted once the revisionist position has won out. Every doctrine central to the Christian faith and precious to you as a Christian has been hotly debated and disputed. If the “conversation” about the resurrection or the Trinity or the two natures of Christ continued as long as smart people on both sides disagreed, we would have lost orthodoxy long ago.”
I agree completely. There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about doctrine, but the point of that conversation is to come to a conclusion. A conversation that is perpetually open-ended is not helpful at all. It is death by dialogue. Instead, conversations about Christian doctrine ought to help people discover the truth with enough confidence that they can stand firm on it, even in the face of opposition. To simply talk about theology without having a theology is no virtue at all.
So, when it comes to questions and conversation, I want to see it happening. Let’s talk! But only if the goal is to resolve disputes, not revel in them. Discussing personal doubts can be an incredibly valuable thing, but just know that there is an end goal in mind. The goal is to resolve those doubts as best as possible so that God can be truly known and truly loved. That is the whole point of theology. But to purposefully question everything without believing anything means that God is neither truly known nor truly loved. How frustrating it must be for God to reveal himself to us in his Word only to have us constantly ask, I wonder what God thinks about this? We dishonour God and do a disservice to ourselves when we refuse to listen to God’s plain voice.
In fact, that is the core problem since the beginning. The serpent caused Eve to doubt by asking, “Did God really say…?” Such questions are not dangerous if we are attentive to God’s Word. But when we live in the realm of dialogue and not truth, we are a sitting duck for the tactics of the enemy. They worked back then, and they still work now.