Soft Hearts, Solid Spines
by Joe Holland
The Internet allows unprecedented opportunity for communication between Christians from different theological traditions. The results have not been pretty. Comment threads are the Devil’s playground and blogs his amusement park. And even if we exclude online media, theological bickering between Christians is and has been pervasive. Regrettably, Christians who hold to the Reformed confessions are often viewed by other Christians outside our tradition as some of the least winsome members of what we call the communion of the saints.
The command to love has been lost by us, if not lost on us. But how can the theologically astute love their equally theologically astute brothers and sisters across contentious theological and denominational lines? The solution is in the life, death, and love-commanding witness of Jesus.
Consider Jesus’ silence for a moment. As a weekly synagogue attender and itinerant preacher, Jesus was bombarded with heterodoxy, moralistic deism, theological mush, progressive nationalism, and spiritual immaturity. And I’m only speaking of what came from devout Jews. Jesus was able and entitled to rebuke the slightest theological imprecision among the faithful at any moment. But when we consider how much theological correction He could have done, His silence speaks more than His teaching. Jesus did not draw attention to every theological imprecision that He heard. He loved sinners and was patient with their theological inaccuracy and spiritual immaturity.
Next, consider Jesus’s admonition concerning those whom the disciples labeled as outsiders. In Luke 9:49–50, we find a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though he was not one of the twelve. John bristled at the notion of commending this rogue exorcist who lacked the kind of theological instruction that the twelve were receiving. But Jesus’ command was just the opposite. He said, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” Jesus commended the ministry of a man who lacked knowledge of the finer points of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus also loved and encouraged the less theologically astute. Consider Jesus’ new command: “Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34). The shadow of the cross falls on John 13. But how would the world know that these men and women were followers of Jesus? Would they be known by their rigorous theological debate? No. According to Jesus, they would be known by their rigorous love for one another.
Love for all Christians is the common ground between orthodox Christology and orthodox missiology. When was the last time a class on evangelism emphasized love among Christians? If the world will know our Christology by our love for one another, our missiology must include a strong exhortation to treat all Christians with aggressive affection.
Lastly, consider how Jesus crowned His command to love with His cross of love. If the disciples were expected to love the thousands of converts they were to see in the coming years based on their agreement on the finer points of theology, then Jesus’ command to love is naïve at best and laughable at worst. But if Jesus provided at the cross a unifying principle and redemptive power that could humble the proud, lift the humble, and soften the contentious, His command finds glorious fulfillment at Golgotha. The centrality of the cross of Jesus, shared by all Christians, is the foundation of Christian love and the antidote to angry Calvinism.
This truth was driven home to me this past summer. I was hiking through the Blue Ridge Mountains, praying for my congregation. I was praying about a contentious conversation I recently had had with a couple in my growing church plant. I was clearly right and they were clearly wrong, or so my self-centered narrative went. But as I prayed, I remembered that Jesus died for this couple. He spilled His blood for them, and all I could spill was self-righteous vitriol — in prayer, no less.
I still think I was right in the theology of my argument. But I was grossly wrong in how I loved them. I undermined my theological precision by wielding it with loveless blunt force trauma.
This is not to say that Jesus intends us to abandon meticulous theological study or debate. There is a malignant false dichotomy today that pits charity against orthodoxy. To show charity is to risk being labeled a liberal progressive. To express theological concern is to risk being labeled contentious. To help guide us, we must remember that although brothers and enemies both fight, how they fight makes all the difference. The honor of Jesus demands both a soft heart and a titanium spine.
Diligent theological study must lead us to humility-soaked love for all the blood-bought followers of Jesus. If it does not, we have missed one of the most basic principles that Jesus taught His disciples. Visible and unifying love toward one another is not an option for the worldwide church. It is a command.