Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom

christian-denominations

While the traditional elements of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy hold much, if not most, in common—at least doctrinally speaking (reflected in the ancient ecumenical creeds)—individuals within these historic subdivisions of Christendom sometimes give the impression that the three branches are almost completely divided. Correspondingly, when listening to conservative Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, and Baptists debating theology, the impression may be left that Protestants can agree on virtually nothing.

Yet the truth is that the most significant doctrinal differences within Christendom clearly lie between the theologically liberal (mainline denominations) and theologically conservative (traditional denominations). For example, liberal theology denies such cardinal Christian doctrines as God’s Triune nature, Christ’s divinity, and humankind’s state of original sin, just to name a few. As I see it, the theologically conservative or traditional denominations and branches within Christendom have significant theological agreement, but also have important differences on some critically important doctrinal issues (with arguably the two most important differences being the authoritative relationship of Scripture and tradition and the salvific connection of grace, faith, and works).

As a scholar who cares deeply about both biblical truth as well as historic Christian unity, when I write about and interact with members of other theological traditions within conservative Christendom, I try to promote the virtues of respect, fair-mindedness, and charity.

When I engage in theological evaluation regarding the beliefs and values of another theological tradition (denomination and/or branch of Christendom) within historic Christianity, I attempt to do the five following things to promote both truth and unity within conservative Christendom.

1. Identify Common Ground

I begin my evaluation by reviewing the common and essential theological-doctrinal ground and values that my tradition shares with the other tradition (mere Christianity, creeds, confessional statements, value statements, etc.). Because conservative Christendom shares a significant doctrinal consensus, there is much common ground to consider. As C. S. Lewis rightly notes: “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”1

2. Recognize Positive Features

I intentionally look to identify what strengths the other theological tradition models that my tradition can legitimately learn from and consider emulating. No single Christian denomination or branch of Christendom has a lock on all truth and virtue, so, therefore, Christians of different traditions can readily learn from each other.

3. Fairly Evaluate Differences

I endeavor to accurately represent the beliefs of the other tradition (quoting their most authoritative sources) and seek to render an honest, fair, and charitable evaluation of that position. Because of the deep consensus of historic Christian doctrine, I can usually distinguish between mere differences of theological emphasis and deeper substantive disagreements. For the sake of truth I must diligently compare every tradition’s doctrine in light of Scripture, including my own.

4. Seek, Review, and Response

I seek to invite thoughtful and articulate people within the other tradition to check the accuracy of my evaluation of their system and ask them to offer a response in writing or in a public dialogue and/or debate. The Golden Rule of Apologetics (to endeavor to treat other people’s beliefs the way you want yours treated) means that Christians must seek to accurately and fairly represent the views of others. I usually need help to correctly understand and convey the views of Christians in other traditions.

5. Utilize Christian Context

I seek to offer critiques of other traditions or denominations within a context where all parties are already part of Christendom (that is, I try to avoid criticizing other bodies within historic Christianity when non-Christians are present). Here’s C. S. Lewis’s advice when it comes to discussing or debating topics that are disputed among Christians:

“. . . I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”2

These five points reflect an effort to follow the Golden Rule of Apologetics when engaged in inter-Christendom apologetics. But in this case these “others” are either fellow Christians or at least members of historic Christendom that deserve respectful and charitable treatment.

This is admittedly a very high bar to meet, and I have not always achieved it personally. It is also possible that in endeavoring to carry out this type of evaluation that others within a different theological tradition may choose to not return the favor in kind. But I remain committed to trying before God to promote truth, respect, fair-mindedness, unity, and charity within historic Christendom.

Reflections: Your Turn 

Do you agree that Christians of different theological traditions should not discuss their differences in the presence of non-Christians? Why or why not?

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1967), vii.
  2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.

Resources

For my attempt to provide a truthful and charitable Protestant evangelical evaluation of Roman Catholicism, see these two linked articles:

For my attempt to provide a truthful and charitable Protestant evangelical evaluation of Seventh-day Adventism, see these two linked articles:

  One thought on “Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom

  1. December 19, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Doctrinal error is a serious matter with eternal consequences. I think it’s good for non-Christians to know that many who attach themselves to the label of “Christian” are following a counterfeit salvation. Our God is a Holy God, a precise God, who surrenders none of His absolute sovereignty, especially not to a corrupted creature. Salvation can only come from Him, by Him, and to Him.

    • December 19, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks MFD.

      Ken Samples

  2. December 19, 2017 at 1:56 pm

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

    • December 19, 2017 at 2:07 pm

      Thanks for the reblog, Vincent.

      Merry Christmas, my friend!

      • December 19, 2017 at 3:50 pm

        You’re very welcome Ken likewise my friend 😎

  3. Ely Wilson
    January 4, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    I enjoyed the articles and the guidance on evaluating differences. After a complex evaluation, I try to do a “common sense check,” to ensure that my assumptions and methods were appropriate. In this case, my common sense check: would you personally be willing to become a member of that church and submit yourself to their teaching and authority, even if you don’t completely agree? I fall in the Reformed category, but due to the many places that I’ve lived, I’ve willingly joined various churches over the years that were not Reformed. However, I’ve tried to attend a few mainstream Roman Catholic churches, and I can’t follow their requirements.

    • January 4, 2018 at 10:38 pm

      Thank you, Ely, for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your “common sense check.”

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  4. Jared
    January 21, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    I agree with Lewis that we need to be careful about presenting a divided face to the world, when so many of the differences are trivia, minutia, and unimportant to salvation. His advice comes from a passage that uses the analogy of a hallways with many rooms. The hallway is the things all Christians have in common; the rooms are the different varieties of traditions and denominations and such. Our goal as Christians should be to invite people into the hallway of Christianity and then empower them to explore the rooms until they find one where God uniquely meets their needs. At any point, they can switch rooms – at any point, they can change their mind. They’re still off the same hallway as all other Believers. The trouble comes in when Christians in each room are not practicing their faith but rather yelling across the hallway condemning all other Believers. Who would want to enter the hall? I love how Paul in his letter to Titus constantly reminds people to “make the gospel attractive.” This too is one of our jobs as Christians. Not to beat people over the head with Bibles and our own preferential traditions and interpretive approaches – but rather to do all in our power to make the gospel attractive.

    • January 21, 2018 at 5:24 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jared. I appreciate very much Lewis’s metaphor of Christendom being like a large mansion with many rooms for the various church traditions and having hallway to meet together in.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  5. David Mialaret
    January 23, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Hi, Ken. Thanks for the invitation to respond. I would think in some instances it’s best not to invite unbelievers into debates over our differences, but I also think that in some instances it may actually help a seeker to come closer to saving faith. If that seeker can see in us the wisdom, love and gentleness of Christ, that is, Christ’s character manifest in us, in spite of our sometimes disagreeing with each other, wouldn’t it be evidence that God really is among us?

    Kind Regards,
    David Mialaret

    • January 23, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      Thoughtful point, David.

      Thanks for sharing.

      Ken Samples

    • January 30, 2018 at 9:50 am

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments, David.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  6. March 5, 2018 at 7:57 pm

    I do think that intramural debates of non-essential doctrines should occur in that setting, intramural. I am personally very troubled at the disparaging way many of my brothers and sisters speak about other denominations, very often being very ill-informed as to the specific teaching they are critiquing. I see this very often with respect to Catholic teaching and correct it where I can.

    To disagree agreeably is a skill sorely needed within Christ’s body; to disagree with gentleness and respect is something we are commanded to do. I think it applies to doctrinal disputes every bit as much as our apologia.

    • March 6, 2018 at 10:36 am

      Well said, Lawrence.

      Thank you.

      Ken Samples

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