Tossed To And Fro

(from In Christ—The Church At Ephesus, forthcoming)

Paul looked forward to the day when Christians would not be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4: 14). Again, this phrase suggests that Paul found this to be a common problem in the churches of his day. He was well aware of the struggle to establish orthodox doctrine. We know this because Paul was constantly arguing with various false apostles, not just misinformed Christians or theologians, but people who had usurped the highest echelons of Christian leadership (2 Corinthians 11:5, 12:11).

The early church was not a bastion of faithful orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but was a caldron of strife and struggle—as it has always been. The teachings of Paul and the Apostles contradicted both tradition and common sense among the ancient Greeks and Romans. The teachings of the church disturbed common ideas about truth and reality. They challenged and upset social, religious, academic and governmental practices and policies. Christians were thought to be atheists by the religious standards that were most common at the time because the Christians believed the usual gods of Greek and Roman culture to be false gods.

Paul was aware of all of this, and looked forward to a day when the church would grow beyond these kinds of childish concerns. It is not that childishness is a bad thing. It is not! But if children do not continue to grow to maturity, their childishness becomes a problem. Children are necessarily childish, but childish adults are problematic on several levels.

Doctrine is important, διδαχή means the substance of the teaching or the lesson. But this is not the word used here. διδασκαλία (same root word) means the process of teaching or the instructor. So, the various winds of doctrine refers to the various instructors. While every instructor may intend to teach the same doctrine, each will come at it from a particular perspective and emphasize different elements. The phrase means that we are to distinguish between the essential doctrine and the individual emphasis of the instructor teaching it. Another way to say it is that the different parts of doctrine that are emphasized by different instructors are not as important as the parts of doctrine that all of the instructors agree on.

We are not to get carried away with doctrinal differences, but are to remain grounded on doctrinal commonalities. The issue here is unity, and unity is maintained by holding to what we have in common, and not dividing over our differences. It is not that we are to ignore our differences or try to meld them into a common idea. No, our differences are what makes life interesting. Our differences drive clarity, compassion and comprehension. We need to discuss and evaluate our differences, but not divide over them. By remaining in unity while defending our differences, we set up a kind of creative tension in the church that drives biblical research and development. The purpose of Christian unity is not to have all Christians thinking the same things in the same ways. Rather, it is to have Christians from different perspectives contributing to a common trajectory of thought. Christian unity is the commitment to remain together in spite of our differences.

Of course there are limits to Christian unity. Heresy is real and apostasy is a constant danger. However, the determination and/or accusation of heresy and apostasy are not the jurisdiction of individual believers. Time and again, Paul assigned those responsibilities to church elders. So, it is incumbent upon us to give that responsibility to our church elders and to support their conclusions and processes. I’m not saying that ordinary Christians should refrain from doctrinal discussion. Rather, I’m saying that ordinary Christians should feel free to discuss and defend doctrine with all of their abilities. But at the end of the argument, they must not break fellowship unless explicitly instructed to do so by their elders.

When iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17) sparks fly and the iron gets dented. The iron can get hot and even smoke at times. The dents, the smoke and the heat are all part of the sharpening process. The discipline of Christian unity is not getting all Christians to think alike, but is the steadfast refusal to break fellowship with those with whom one disagrees. And this is the difficulty of unity. It takes patience, endurance, love, forgiveness and understanding. None of these character qualities are advanced by talking with those who agree with you.

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