By Brandon D. Smith
“How dare you?!”
You might remember this phrase from Mark Driscoll, one of my early heroes in the so-called “New Calvinism” movement. His growl was aimed at men during a rant about how they misuse women sexually and otherwise. It went viral on social media. Some loved it. Some hated it. Some just laughed at it. But more than that, it was a representation of the type of biblical-theological communication many of us grew up on.
Growing up in rough neighborhoods, I got into fights often. When I became a Christian later in my teen years, I always felt that Christianity was too soft. I bought into the stereotype that Jesus was a wimp and that I had to check my “manhood” at the door. As a new Christian, I felt like protecting my wife from an intruder or defending myself physically might be a cosmic sin. So, the how-dare-you, Jesus-the-MMA-fighter God was someone I could worship, because he scratched my itch for safety and justice. I didn’t want to leave my fighting days behind; instead, I wanted them to be sanctified.
Though I began studying theology under a strong but measured Wesleyan pastor, it wasn’t long before I was drawn to the punch-you-in-the-mouth type of Reformed theology that was popular at the time. With these guys, Jesus was a Savior who could beat me up. He was the biggest and baddest dude on the block. Driscoll also taught us that Jesus (apparently) “is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed” (Rev. 19:15-16).
What I really needed to be taught in my early theological years was a balanced view of Jesus, one that takes into account both his humility and meekness as the Good Shepherd and suffering Savior and his sovereign power to wage war on sin and death, pour out wrath on evil, and bring vengeance on physical and spiritual injustice. I needed to be reminded that the Kingdom of God does not handle sin and injustice and even danger in the way the world had catcheized me to believe. The difference between Jesus and me is that he can be wrathful and “make someone bleed” with a perfect, righteous anger that I could not. Righteous anger comes from a perfect, holy God who cannot sin in his anger, whereas unrighteous anger comes from pride, jealousy, or division.
This is not to say, of course, that Driscoll and the other New Calvinists didn’t preach about the “softer” side of Jesus, but at least during my early years of listening and reading, they seemed so intent on eradicating the supposed “boys who can shave” that we lost the balance. That imbalance led to a form of spiritual immaturity, in which the machismo attitude bled into our theological thinking. To many of us, theological correctness depended on our narrowed view of a particular secondary issue or hermeneutical move, and anyone outside of that view must be wrong (or worse, a heretic).
Learning Theological Method
This is not a full-on indictment on Driscoll. He was not alone in this, but he was perhaps the most influential leader in this macho Christianity-style of preaching and teaching in my life. But this tendency to fight like Jesus fights, stand our ground “like men,” and take responsibility in many ways has not left us. While these are not sinful impulses by any means, they can be twisted into theological arrogance under the guise of a mere theological preference. This arrogance is spiritual immaturity masking itself as “guarding the good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14).
For some, the only way to preach the Word rightly is not by wasting time telling funny stories or using illustrations, but by preaching the Word with force and strength, daring anyone to disagree. The best strategy for fighting doubt, insecurity, skepticism, or immaturity in the congregation is to mock and belittle the opposing view, asserting how truly insane one must be in order to disagree with your interpretation.
During my “cage stage” in Bible college, I was the annoying guy in the dorms who had six Bible verses and three put-downs to demolish any fellow student who wanted to argue with me. I would deliver the blows one-by-one, and then walk away satisfied that I’d defended orthodoxy yet again. You’re welcome, Jesus.
Entering seminary, I wrote papers the same way. I had a thesis—or something resembling one—and I would bludgeon my reader to death until he or she agreed with me. During one fateful paper, in which I was in some form or fashion calling those who disagreed with me modern-day Pelgians, I quoted Karl Barth to defend the same view of justification as Michael Horton. When I received my graded paper from the professor, he had written in red ink a simple question next to my Barth quote—“Are you sure Barth means what you are asserting?” In my attempt at proving my point at all costs, I lifted a quote out of context from a theologian I would not have agreed with.
Thankfully, I had that same professor for most of my theology courses. He helped point out several of my theological blind spots and, more importantly, my spiritual immaturity. I went from being prideful about my own inerrant interpretations of, well, everything, to considering that I might be wrong sometimes. More than that, sometimes neither side is wrong, per se, but rather interpreting a gray area differently or highlighting two sides of the same coin.
I’ve not mastered this myself. At my worst, I still default to this immature posture—a theological form of neener-neener-boo-boo. And I still see many of my colleagues and peers making the same mistakes all these years later.
Of course, social media has only exacerbated this tendency, giving a platform for anyone, anywhere to take pot shots at theological “enemies.” We have seen this tendency crop up on Facebook and Twitter on both sides of recent debates about immigration reform, the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Revoice Conference—to name a few. In all cases, it largely seems as though people on all sides have spent more time talking past one another than to one another. But we can do better, can’t we?
Loving Others Theologically
Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett offered a good rule of thumb: “Until you can state your opponent’s view so well that he himself says, `Yes, that’s what I believe,’ you aren’t ready to debate him.” Following this rule will likely require private interaction before public accusation. A few weeks ago, someone sent me an email asking if their critique of my book seemed fair to me. Not only was it fair, I wish I had asked this person before I published it! Nonetheless, I realized in that moment how important it is to seek truth and fairness in theological discourse.
Many times, my generation uses theology as a blunt weapon to crack theological skulls rather than a signpost to the beatific vision. Our goal, it seems, is to start theological wars rather than to seek peace treaties. We confuse conviction with stubbornness. We confuse conversation with assertions. We confuse concern with suspicion. And all of this is done in the name of love—which often means that we rebuke others’ theological sins (which isn’t wrong by itself), but forget that “love also bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).
To love others theologically in the way Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13—to truly want to see them change their minds or reconsider their views—is to sit across the table from them and hear them. We act like those Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:3, “For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans?” We say like those who “belong” to Apollos or Paul (1 Cor. 3:4), “I belong to <insert theological hero or nuance>” and assume others must be against us. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes there is genuine disagreement that falls under the banner of Christ. It seems that the loving and spiritually mature response, according to Paul, is to work toward unity in the name of Christ, not division in the name of theological nuance. Loving others theologically assumes the best about them, takes them at their word, and doesn’t treat them as though they’ve already slipped down whatever slope we’ve assigned to them.
I truly believe that we aren’t always malicious when this happens. Many of us—myself included—have good, loving intentions that are ultimately marred by the overly zealous theological method of our youth. We want so badly to see others change, to see them believe what we so strongly believe is taught in Scripture. Yet, even though we’ve never actually seen any sharp teeth, sometimes our fear leads us to confuse our brothers and sisters for wolves in sheep’s clothing. We rush to division and debate without taking a moment to consider their motives and positions. Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin, in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of Lamb, offer a helpful word toward this end:
“If we consider the person whose heart is recollected in prayerful abiding, who gives himself or herself to a generosity of spirit, seeks reconciliation, and refuses division, it becomes clear that Jesus is our model. Jesus, at times, did seek division (so he forces us into discernment about when divisiveness trumps our call to unity), but he also sought love across every boundary he confronted—whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—Jesus broke down barriers in love.” (215-16)
So, there is a time and place for theological boldness and we should not be soft on modern-day heterodoxy. We could cite ample places where Jesus and the biblical authors warn against false doctrine, exhorting and commending those who are against it (Ezek. 13:9; Matt. 23:1-29; Acts 20:30; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 2 Pet. 2:1, 3:16; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:2). Indeed, theological positions that bear false witness, minimize the Bible’s sexual ethic, deny the sufficiency of Scripture or the exclusivity of the gospel, or mix politics with Christianity should be called out.
However, our theological method should be rooted in Scripture and informed by the Great Tradition, yet with enough nuance and patience to longsuffer with brothers and sisters who stand with us on the majors, even while we urge them to agree with us on the minors. Ultimately, we must look at ourselves and determine if our theological discourse is rightly built on strong conviction, or if it’s marred by our theological upbringing. More pointedly, we should determine whether we are being spiritually immature (“worldly and behaving like humans”) or spiritually mature (“bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things”).
Brandon D. Smith works with the Christian Standard Bible, serves as editorial director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and co-hosts the Word Matters podcast. He’s also written a few books and blogs at Biblical Reasoning.