Promoting Unity While Discussing Doctrinal Differences

A friend of mine who is an atheist said that when he looks at the differences within Christendom and the squabbling among denominations, he finds greater reason to conclude that Christianity is false.

Upon careful inspection, I think that theologically conservative Christendom holds most doctrinal matters in common. This unity is powerfully illustrated historically in what are called the ecumenical creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed). And even many noncreedal denominations still affirm most of what is found in the creeds doctrinally. 

Of course, critically important areas of doctrinal difference remain among Christianity’s theological traditions. And these differences need to be stated and carefully considered. But is there a way to dialogue and even debate our doctrinal differences without giving non-Christians the impression that Christendom is hopelessly divided and therefore potentially false?

I made the following proposal on my Facebook page and invited responses. I received 164 likes and 71 comments. Most people who responded agreed with my proposal, but some raised thoughtful points of concern and disagreement. I have included a few responses but only from those who disagreed with me. I hope we can all learn from these exchanges. As I noted above, a non-Christian world may be watching.

My Proposal
I have a serious suggestion for my Christian friends on Facebook to consider:

Avoid debating the denominational differences within Christendom when non-Christians are present and watching.

Instead, consider finding a more private venue for such important interactions. Or, if you need to debate differences, then intentionally start with sharing the common ground that all theologically conservative Christians affirm, such as that found in the ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity.

Why do I raise this issue? Consider C.S. Lewis’s comment:

“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.”1

Interactions with Respondents 
James: I would respectfully disagree. I think it would be a great time to model how to handle a disagreement between believers. Gracious and loving.

Me: I appreciate your comments and your sentiment. But how well do you think most Christians on Facebook modelhandling differences in a gracious and loving manner? And do you think Lewis is right that non-Christians are likely to conclude that Christianity is hopelessly divided and therefore false?

James: I get your point. But it depends on the Christian. I have had some of the most enjoyable discussions with some Christians who were in disagreement and I have had a few that didn’t go well also. I don’t remember ever having a nonbeliever jump in on these in-house debates though.

Rob: Your apologetics mentor, Walter Martin, obviously disagreed with your proposal.

Me: I worked very closely with Walter Martin and I think he would generally agree with me. In fact, his ecumenical views influenced my desire to promote truth, unity, and charity both among evangelicals and within broader Christendom. He debated Catholics and Adventists publicly as I have but he sought to consider both common ground and genuine differences. As a Southern Baptist, Martin took a moderating position between the historic theological debate between Calvinism and Arminianism (referring to himself as a “Calminian”). So while he was critical of aspects of traditional Reformed theology, nevertheless a couple of his theological mentors were noted Reformed scholars (Donald Grey Barnhouse, J. Oliver Buswell). I think Walter was keenly aware that an appearance of Christian disunity is a serious apologetics problem. 

Rob: So the point is that Martin argued nonessentials in public contrary to what Lewis said. Martin respectfully did this all the time on the Bible Answer Man (BAM) radio show. We’re doing this here. So my point is that you can’t take Lewis’s statement too strictly. It depends on how the debate is done. It’s not a matter of avoiding it altogether in public venues.

Me: I find Lewis’s point powerful. He advocates that Christians shouldn’t complicate matters of evangelism. As an apologist I find the appearance of disunity among Christians a potentially great challenge. When we look around on social media and the web, so many Christians seem to revel in disagreeing with one another. Martin constantly talked about “essential Christianity” (the title of one of his books) and distinguished it from secondary issues. Walter took care to discuss inter-Christian topics in a Christian context when he could (BAM was largely though not exclusively a Christian venue). You and I may see things differently. I even respectfully differ with my mentor Walter at places. I can respect and appreciate principled differences of opinion.

Nathanael: I also disagree. It may be the case that strangers to Christianity may not especially benefit from seeing such discussions, but those who left the faith likely will. Many people, I find, need to know that it’s possible for them to return to a Christianity that is quite distinct from the one they left. The Internet is filled with videos that take issue with specific versions of Christian thought and a proper response to them often must include a conversation about the room we give each other to disagree. It should therefore be no surprise to see Christians disagreeing on any number of issues. It is also beneficial, I believe, to speak up when people act in hatred in the name of the Christian church.

Me: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Nathanael. I think discussing differences among Christians can be beneficial, but I wonder how often this is true on Facebook and thus whether there is a better venue. I wish Christians from different theological traditions would first discuss their common ground before moving to their distinctive differences.

David: I have been thinking a lot about this lately, in light of a practice that I have sometimes engaged in on social media, wherein I intentionally mock certain so-called Christian preachers of the prosperity gospel on my Facebook page. My intention in doing so is for unbelievers (and young Christians) to understand clearly that these men do not represent historic, orthodox Christianity and that, due to their deeply heretical teachings—and disgraceful financial dealings—they deserve to be publicly ridiculed. Do you think that Lewis’s exhortation would apply to that scenario as well?

Me: Since social media involves the meeting of Christians and non-Christians, I think believers should be aware that non-Christians observe how Christians relate to one another. In light of that, I think we should consider reserving our disagreements with other denominations for more private venues and seek to exhibit more respect and unity as the body of Christ. However, I can see how one might feel the need to step in and clarify—on social media in front of nonbelievers—the difference between historic Christianity and a counterfeit version.

Regarding mocking and ridicule: My view is that people who espouse heresy or engage in misdeeds are still made in God’s image, so I personally would not mock them. I would carefully explain the fundamental error of their doctrinal position and explain how their handling of finances is unbiblical and immoral. I would also let people know that other orthodox and responsible Pentecostals and charismatics are extremely critical of the aberrant and heretical prosperity teachers. I hope you find this helpful.

Rick: There is a lot to be said for your viewpoint, Ken. I have mixed feelings because there is so much doctrinal misunderstanding and I think uncorrected misrepresentations are also damaging. There are so few venues for dialogue that I think Facebook ends up being the meeting point. Wish I had the answer but I do believe that, regardless, we should be irenic and respectful in all discussions. Seeking to understand first and disagreeing only “with gentleness and reverence.”

Me: Thoughtful points, Rick. I would be happy if Christians would simply be conscious of the fact that when they disagree publicly there are likely non-Christians watching. So emphasizing the unity they share before they discuss their differences may be a big help. Learning how to disagree respectfully is critical. 

Rod: I understand your point, Ken, but disagree. In my opinion such a policy would result in the more thoughtful, nuanced, and respectful contributors (from whatever “side”) refraining from debate, while others continue unchecked.

Me: You raise an important practical issue, Rod. I wonder if the perception of disunity within Christendom isn’t a deep problem apologetically. If Christians don’t opt to vocalize their differences in a private venue then maybe leaders ought to emphasize and teach Christians how to effectively dialogue publicly. 

Rod: It is certainly a deep problem. We do need to think more carefully and practice grace and purposeful restraint in our public communications. We might all learn from observing effective apologists (past and present) at work.

Takeaway
Whether you agree or disagree with my proposal, if you are a Christian I hope you will think carefully about the topics of truth, unity, charity, and evangelism.

Reflections: Your Turn 
How important is Christian unity when it comes to evangelism? Do you agree or disagree with Lewis’s perspective? 

Resources

  • For a detailed discussion of historic Christianity’s agreements and disagreements, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.

  One thought on “Promoting Unity While Discussing Doctrinal Differences

  1. October 12, 2021 at 5:44 am

    Interesting topic and experiment. From what’s I observe on FB Christians may do more harm than good but it may depend somewhat on the group and the administrator’s rules.

    • October 12, 2021 at 10:34 am

      Bruce:

      I’m not sure exactly what you think will do more harm.

      Will private discussions of doctrinal differences be worse than public doctrinal differences?

      In terms of evangelism, some non-Christians have told me that the divisions and bickering in the body of Christ is a huge turn off.

      Of course I also propose that if Christians want to debate doctrinal issues publicly then start with the doctrinal common ground.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  2. October 13, 2021 at 7:46 pm

    There are no atheists*, and discussion of differences among Christians is right, acceptable, and should be encouraged. This so-called ‘atheist’ friend is stating a lame excuse for his unbelief which the Apostel Paul said is actually a ‘willful impression of the truth’. Absence any discussion among denominations’ differences, this person would still pretend they are an atheist.

    *Ecclesiastes 3:11 He made everything appropriate in its time. He also placed eternity within them—yet, no person can fully comprehend what God is doing from beginning to end.

    • October 14, 2021 at 2:11 pm

      Dear LateGreatPlanetEarth:

      Greetings in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      There are people who claim to be atheists even if Romans 1 reveals that all people have an inner awareness of God (Latin sensus divinitatis). But God’s grace must allow the claimed atheist to see his inner presence. Telling people they are lying about their proclaimed atheism probably doesn’t do much good in an evangelistic conversation.

      All discussions among Christians about doctrinal differences that don’t include truth, unity, and charity are unbiblical. Anything done without love is fruitless (1 Corinthians 13).

      In John 17, Jesus prayed for the unity of his church. We therefore should prize unity in the body of Christ.

      The author of the book The Late Great Planet Earth which you use as your online identification, Hal Lindsay, predicated Christ would return in the 1980s and was wrong. I heard him predict it in person at Melodyland Christian Center (December 31, 1979). Date-setting concerning Christ’s Second Coming which is always wrong also hurts the credibility of Christianity before an unbelieving world.

      Below is my book on eschatology if you are interested. I offer suggestions in how to address the topic of eschatology carefully and responsibly.

      May I humbly suggest that you might consider using your real name rather than the name of a controversial book. I think it promotes greater accountability.

      Truth, Unity, Charity.

      Ken Samples

  3. October 28, 2021 at 5:14 pm

    Love the discussion and appreciate the tension between the two views. Best thing I’ve read today.

    I think respectful disagreement in front of non-Christians is inspiring if the two parties take the time to really hear each other out. Non-Christians are expecting Contention – when they get angry and try to destroy each other – is inappropriate in public and anywhere else.

    • October 28, 2021 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks, Michael.

      Ken Samples

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