All of us who follow Christ realize that there are certain foundational, irreducible facts one must accept in order to be counted “in the faith” or not (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). To cite an obvious instance the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that, “...without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV) To put it another way, belief that God exists is not an option, it’s a requirement.
However, as anyone who has ever tried to write a statement of faith can attest, it’s not so easy determining just what all is absolutely required and what is optional. The luminaries of my spiritual heritage threw out creeds (statements of faith) altogether because they felt that the published creeds went beyond what the Scriptures teach. It’s my opinion that in the process, they sort of threw the baby out with the bath water. The result of anathematizing creeds was that it’s sometimes difficult to determine what a particular congregation does believe or stand for. It’s not that they don’t have beliefs – they may have a very strong commitment to a particular doctrine – but you’re left in the dark because it isn’t written down anywhere. A case in point: When my daughter left home to attend college, we were naturally concerned that she find a church to attend which agrees with our understanding of the faith. There were a couple of candidates. But it was extremely frustrating trying to evaluate them because I couldn’t find anything in writing concerning their views of such things as the Bible or salvation. I learned long ago that you can’t rely on the name on the signboard to tell you what the doctrine of a particular church might be. We finally had to request a meeting with one of the Elders to get some of the basic information. He was able to answer our questions satisfactorily, but when I asked if what he’d told us was written up anywhere, he trotted out the old chestnut about renouncing creeds. Right! They have a creed – they just refuse to put it in writing. The cynic in me wonders whether the refusal to write down what you believe is a way to avoid accountability. Whatever.
The flip side of determining what the essentials of the faith are is figuring out what isn’t essential. In what things are we allowed to have our own opinions? Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, what are the “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1)? As I understand it, a disputable matter is something about which the Scriptures are silent, or give no specific instruction. In the classic case, there is no command regarding the issue, nor is there a prohibition. In other cases, something is said in Scripture but does not directly apply.
In all these situations we have to exercise judgment. We have to arrive at our convictions and conclusions based on principles and inference. Inevitably, some of our conclusions will differ. For example, some say that practices which are not explicitly sanctioned in Scripture are prohibited. Others conclude that silence on a particular issue indicates permission. Still others say that all such things are matters of opinion and left to individual preference.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in conjecture. There’s nothing wrong in having an opinion. There’s even nothing wrong in having a strong belief in an area where there is not a clear statement or direction in Scripture. The problem comes in when somebody gets dogmatic about their particular hobby-horse. For example, I’ve heard some pretty heated debates over where the crossing of the Red Sea took place or the exact location of the Temple in Jerusalem. There are heated arguments over the rapture and the millennium. There are some who regard others who don’t hold the same viewpoint as little short of heretics. Are things like this really a matter of heaven or hell? To hear some folks carry on, you’d think so.
This whole business of being dogmatic about a conjecture or speculation really came home to me recently. I published a book titled, “Beloved Witness.” It’s a practical commentary on the Gospel of John. I received an anonymous email from someone who’d heard about the book. This person wanted to know my conclusions about the identity of who wrote the Gospel – particularly had I looked up all the references to the “beloved disciple”? I certainly don’t mind answering questions but I was a little put off by the confrontational, almost hostile tone of the email.
I sent this person the section of the book which discusses its authorship. In reply, I received something to the effect of, “I would have thought you’d have asked me!” “Eh?” I thought to myself. “I don’t even know who you are. Besides, I’m no good at reading minds. If you have something you think I ought to know, why don’t you just tell me instead of playing games? You could at least be polite about it.”
Needless to say, I was a trifle annoyed. My first inclination was to either not reply at all, or to take umbrage at being treated like a particularly dense moron. What gave me pause was the person had probably gotten wind of the book from a ministry newsletter I’d sent out. I didn’t want to alienate someone who might have donated to the ministry in the past. So, in the spirit of “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), I merely said that I’m always open to new insight.
Several hours later my correspondent finally identified herself. Sure enough, it turns out she is a lady from my father’s generation who has supported the ministry I’m involved with. I don’t know her personally, but I sincerely hope that the belligerent way she came across is merely an artifact of the medium of email rather than a reflection of her personality. In any case, she sent along a screed which purported to show that the “beloved disciple” who penned the Gospel of John is none other than the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead.
Now I like to think that when I write about something I’ve done enough research to have an idea what others think and the conclusions they’ve come to. If something is controversial, I like to have a grasp of the contending theories. This one threw me for a loop. I couldn’t recall ever hearing or reading anywhere the possibility that Lazarus was the “beloved disciple.” To check myself, I dug out the commentaries and took another look. Nope. Nada. Zilch. No mention anywhere that anybody ever entertained such a thought. Further, right off the top of my head, I could think of several counters to the arguments put forth to support the theory and one bit of data that I think conclusively proves that Lazarus couldn’t have been the “beloved disciple.”
As stated before, it’s fine to speculate. It’s fun to play around with conjectures. Asking, “what if” can cast new light on a subject and lead to new insight. The problem is being dogmatic about things we cannot know. This gal was adamant in her position. I got the impression she was totally closed to discussion – even though her position is held by virtually no one else. To say anything contrary or to question the conclusion would invite thunderbolts from on high. Of course I am exaggerating somewhat. But the mental image which came to me was of going on a walk, minding your own business, and suddenly being challenged by a growling pit-bull. You quietly, carefully, slowly back away murmuring, “Nice doggy! Nice doggy!”
My point is this: Yes, there are some doctrines and beliefs about which there can be no compromise. What we believe about certain things really does have eternal consequences. (Even so, we should be open to discussion about them. As Paul says, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NIV)) However, can we approach conjectures, speculations, what ifs and disputable matters in a spirit of fun? Can we enjoy tossing ideas around without looking down our noses at someone who thinks differently? Can we leave the judging to our common Master? After all, does it really matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?