Throughout church history, the Christian church has been subject to many practical controversies over ethical, theological, civil, and ecclesiastical concerns. Some issues rise to the level of primary concern with regard to Christian doctrine. Others are intramural debates regarding issues of secondary or tertiary significance. Great wisdom is needed to navigate each of these matters. In all these controversies, Christians must make the Scriptures the starting point for discussion. Individuals must give due consideration to interpretive principles in order to gain the biblical perspective on matters not explicitly taught in the Bible. The history of biblical interpretation also factors into the quest to come to a settled opinion on these and other practical controversies. In all things, biblical love and patience are necessary to maintain Christian unity among brethren.
The Christian church has faced theological controversies in every generation over matters of chief doctrinal importance. At crucial seasons, ecumenical councils, synods, and assemblies were formed to articulate and defend the doctrine of the triune God, Christology, the will and depravity of man, justification by faith alone, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. However, the church also has debated secondary issues such as the use of alcohol, Bible translations, views on creation, political convictions, marriage, race relations, the Sabbath, spiritual gifts, stewardship of creation, theonomy, and women in ministry. All these concerns affect the lives of believers, though some are more significant than others.
As we engage in intramural theological debates, we must first keep in mind the often-quoted statement—frequently attributed to Augustine of Hippo—“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” This sentiment captures the spirit by which we ought to approach debates over doctrines and practices of secondary or tertiary importance in the church. This is not to suggest that these are unimportant debates or that they do not have potentially grave consequences for the health and well-being of a local church. Rather, it is to affirm that disagreement over them does not necessarily destroy the essential unity that we have with other believers across denominational lines. Sensitivity to the level of importance of a controversial debate is requisite to fair engagement of it. Sadly, believers often divide and ostracize one another over secondary matters.
Several important hermeneutical principles are essential for healthy practical and theological debate. The Scriptures speak to every matter of life either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly. Regarding those things about which Scripture speaks implicitly, a knowledge of deductive principles is required. We must learn the principle of good and necessary consequence as well as the principle of the analogy of faith. The principle of good and necessary consequence is vital for drawing biblical conclusions about the cessation of extraordinary spiritual gifts, the change of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week, and the abrogation of the civil laws given to Israel in the old covenant. The analogy of faith guides our understanding of a biblical approach to such matters as the believer’s use of alcohol and stewardship of creation. Additionally, the redemptive-historical progression of revelation weighs heavily on our understanding of issues such as the continuation of prophecy and extraordinary spiritual gifts, as well as on the eschatology of the Sabbath. On other matters, such as race relations, marriage, and women in ministry, the Bible speaks more clearly and explicitly. Still others, such as convictions about politics, require a knowledge of both the ethical and the redemptive-historical teaching of Scripture about the place of secular government.
Additionally, we must keep in mind the spiritual maturity of those who often have the strongest opinions in these debates. Many new believers or weaker believers have strong but biblically underdeveloped convictions about various controversial subjects. The Apostle Paul went to great length to address the matter of weaker and stronger brethren in debates about food, drink, and meat offered to idols (Rom. 14:1–23; 1 Cor 8:1–13). We should approach controversies regarding such issues with a desire to edify our brethren rather than tear them down or simply win an argument. On one hand, we are called by God to welcome one another in the bonds of Christian love. On the other, we must not allow the tyranny of the weaker brother to rule with regard to unbiblical convictions.
Most controversies that the church faces today have been addressed in one form or another by Christians in the past. The Holy Spirit has worked in the lives of pastors, theologians, and members of the church in every era of church history, illuminating their minds in the understanding of the meaning of Scripture. Therefore, we ought to diligently consider the way that former generations of believers have addressed these matters. This does not mean that historical consensus is authoritatively binding per se. It does, however, mean that we ought to listen carefully to the way that consensuses have been reached while subjecting them to the scrutiny of Scripture. Sola Scriptura does not mean that we ignore what other believers have said in searching for the biblical teaching on particular matters.
No matter the controversy we face, we must carefully turn to Scripture and to historical-theological sources to inform our convictions. We must labor to exercise Christian love with our brethren on matters of secondary or tertiary significance. Deep humility and a desire to do what is pleasing to the Lord are essential for engaging in such debates.
Behind the principle of the analogy of faith is the prior confidence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. If it is the Word of God, it must therefore be consistent and coherent. . . . If it is the Word of God, one may justly expect the entire Bible to be coherent, intelligible, and unified. Our assumption is that God, because of His omniscience, would never be guilty of contradicting Himself. It is therefore slanderous to the Holy Spirit to choose an interpretation of a particular passage that unnecessarily brings that passage into conflict with that which He has revealed elsewhere. So the governing principle of Reformed hermeneutics or interpretation is the analogy of faith.
We must put on love—love for God, love for neighbor, love for truth, and love for the church. The point in drawing lines is not to be right or even courageous. The goals are to love God by proclaiming and protecting His Word, and to love others by putting up fences to keep out wolves and nurture green pastures. The hard work of setting boundaries must not be ignored. God calls us to it for His glory and our good.