Controversy and three levels of doctrine

Ed Stetzer has given us a grid for three levels of theology. It's simple but I think it's helpful in deciding what's worth fighting over when it comes to theology:

  • Essential Matters - These are areas like the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the gospel. Lose these and we lose the faith.
  • Convictional Matters - These are still important, and include ares of theology like baptism and church polity. We can still cooperate with each other, even though some of the convictions may limit the amount of cooperation at a practical level. These are worth discussing, but we don't fight over these like we do essential matters.
  • Preferential Matters - These are minor and not worth fighting over at all.

Ed says that the problem with fundamentalists is that everything becomes an essential, so we end up fighting about everything. That's clearly something we need to avoid, yet I think it happens more often than we'd like.

The other problem, though, is more common. Ed said that convictions still matter. If convictions don't matter, soon nothing matters.

This is so simple, yet I've found it really helpful. Theology seems to be discussed between people who think everything is worth fighting over, and others who think that nothing is worth fighting for. Some things are worth fighting for, but the trick seems to be distinguishing between these three levels.

Thoughts? A bit more to come on this tomorrow.

Dwell Conference Day One

I'm sitting in my hotel room at the end of the first day of the Dwell Conference, although I have no idea when I'll be able to post this. The room comes with free high-speed Internet, but it's pretty sporadic.

The measure of a good conference is that you can walk away with one thing that you needed to hear and that will make a difference. The conference is only half over, and tomorrow looks to be even better than today, but already it's been a good conference. We've had C.J. Mahaney talk about watching our life and ministry; Ed Stetzer talk about Kingdom mission; Eric Mason talk about incarnational ministry; and Mark Driscoll talk about dwelling in the text.

I also went on a trip to the Redeemer offices for a session on how people change, taught by Lois Kehlenbrink.

Tomorrow we have some sessions with Darrin Patrick, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll.

Some observations:

  • These guys get it. It's the best blend of gospel doctrine and mission that I've encountered at a conference, and it's contagious.
  • There's been a good emphasis on not running down other ministries. It's been taught and practiced. These guys have their convictions, but it's been expressed with humility and charity toward others. I should say that this is true of Mark Driscoll as well, whose message tonight on dwelling in the Word was excellent.
  • I'm not a church planter, although I'd love to be. Another day or two of hanging out here and I think I'd be in.
  • Ed Stetzer once planted a church in Buffalo, where he paraphrased an old prayer: "Give me Buffalo or I die." I figured that if Stetzer could say this about Buffalo, someone needs to say it about a place like Toronto. I'm increasingly burdened to see something happen in that city.
  • I love New York. I need to visit here more. I still hope to live here for a year one day.

People occasionally ask me if I would like to move on to a different church, into denominational life, or even to do more teaching. This conference reminds me why I love pastoring, especially in a place like Toronto. I've written down a number of things I need to go home and work through. Even though I'm not currently a planter, I've been challenged in very helpful ways today.

One more side note, but an important one: I've been challenged about being critical. I don't know exactly why, since it's not a conference topic. Some of the speakers here are unfailingly gracious toward others, and it looks and smells good. Mahaney and Keller are two examples. It's so easy to blog about things we don't like, and to tear down the ministries of others, but it comes at a cost and it detracts from mission. You can have doctrinal convictions and still show humility and grace to others. These guys model it.

I've rarely encountered what seems to be present here in spades: strong, missional theology, gospel and Kingdom focus, and humble orthodoxy. Exciting to see. It makes me hungry for more.

Rigoletto: Can an Opera Reveal the Meaning of Life?

I've wanted to attend a service at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York for the longest time. Yesterday it happened. I preached at Richview in the morning, then got on a plane and arrived in Manhattan with plenty of time to make it to the 6:00 service. When I made it to the service, I thought that I had the wrong place.


Turns out I was in the right place. Redeemer put on an abridged performance of the opera Rigoletto, followed by a lecture by Tim Keller and a time of Q&A. They call this an open forum, which is something they do a couple of times a year. It's designed "specifically for those who are exploring the claims of the Christian faith."

At first I was disappointed not to catch a regular service, before I caught myself. What's not to like about a performance with singers from the Metropolitan Opera, followed by a time of reflection by Keller? I settled in and it was amazing.

I'm going to have to come back another time for a regular Redeemer service, but last night was outstanding.

Today a group of us are meeting with Ed Stetzer for the day. Tonight we have tickets for Letterman, and then tomorrow we're at the Dwell Conference. Looks to be a good few days.

Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

One of my heros is Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892). I'm not alone. Even though he's been dead over a hundred years, it's hard to avoid hearing him quoted. His words are repeated on blogs, and I heard C.J. Mahaney read from one of his books at a big conference a couple of weeks ago. Thousands read his books every day. People like Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll possess documents bearing his signature. Once in a while I check eBay to see if anything connected with him is for sale.

Spurgeon was part of the Baptist Union. It wasn't exactly a denomination. It had no authority over its churches, and it had no doctrinal statement. It only required the belief that the immersion of a believer is the only Christian baptism. It assumed that its churches were evangelical.

Near the end of his life, Spurgeon was in poor health. He began to hear that some were departing from the fundamentals of the faith throughout the country. Spurgeon encouraged the Union to take action and to adopt a statement of faith. His request was rejected. Spurgeon eventually published an article called "The Down-Grade." It began like this:

No lover of the gospel can conceal from himself the fact that the days are evil...yet our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward...What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth is to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been originated which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Ghost is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sins is turned into a fiction, and the Resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren and maintain a confederacy with them!

...When the old faith is gone, and enthusiasm for the gospel is extinct, it is no wonder that people seek something else in the way of delight.

Spurgeon argued that we should leap over denominational boundaries for the truth's sake, but we should not subordinate truth to denominational prosperity or unity. "Numbers of easy-minded people wink at error so long as it is committed by a clever man and a good-natured brother, who has so many fine points about him," Spurgeon said.

Let each believer judge for himself; but for our part we have put a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up; for under color of begging the friendship of the servant, there are those about who aim at robbing THE MASTER.

Spurgeon's article caused a commotion. He followed with more articles. In October 1887, at the age of 43, he decided, with regret, to withdraw from the Union. He didn't try to take anyone with him, or to start a new organization.

Spurgeon took a lot of heat. The president of the Union wrote in a major paper that Spurgeon would be better off encouraging people than causing division and grief. All kinds of political moves took place, resulting in a confusing vote that was viewed as a censure of Spurgeon.

The controversy took a toll on Spurgeon's health. Spurgeon was not someone who enjoyed fighting. In 1888 he wrote of depression, strain, and the feeling of being half dead. To make it worse, some charged that Spurgeon had been too gracious in the controversy, arguing that he should have been more militant.

Some reflections:

As I read about Downgrade, a lot of it sounded familiar: an established pastor expressing concern about doctrinal drift; debates over the value of doctrinal statements; clever and good-natured people being accused of theological innovation; criticism from both sides, with some saying that the critic is too harsh while others complain that the critic is too soft. Nothing is new. Even the issues seem familiar.

Downgrade also highlights the cost of controversy. The debate split friends and negatively affected Spurgeon's health.

Downgrade is cited today by some who are known for controversy. There's no doubt that some think Spurgeon's example is worth following today. Certainly the trends that he described are still present today.

We're going to have to explore whether or not it's worth speaking out, like Spurgeon did, when we see a major theological drift taking place. We'll also have to look at how. We'll come back to this.