The Simplicity of the Gospel
Theological Disagreements and Why They Hardly Matter
“If you call yourself a Christian, you have to believe everything the Bible says.”
“Real Christians believe the Bible is the highest authority.”
“Denying that the Bible is the Word of God is blashpemy.”
“If you don’t agree with me, then you are against God.”
Have you heard or read statements just like these or similar to these in your Christian experience? I sure have. They sound quite intimidating, don’t they? Don’t worry, these verbal ecclesiastical separatist threats have no place in the kingdom of God.
In my recent years of being a theology student, I have noticed that many Christians can’t seem to keep a civil conversation about most theological topics.
Whether it’s between a conservative or liberal Christian, or somewhere in between, one side or the other eventually ends up being accused of tainting the Gospel for asserting a belief about God that doesn’t match with the other’s biblical interpretation. I mean, neither side is to blame for initiating this mess of a theological debate. The Church has been battling this issue of preserving the truth of the Gospel since the dawn of its existence.
As early as Acts 15, the Church is seen facing challenges with Jewish believers who taught that Gentiles, or non-Jews, had to observe Mosaic Law and be circumcised like the Israelites to be considered people of God. At the end of the day, those Jewish believers who taught that (or Judaizers, as they have been called) were still considered believers. It’s easy to think that the goal of the apostles was to maintain the right ontology of Jesus, or Christology, but it’s not even that complicated.
The goal of the apostles in resolving disagreement in the Church was to preserve the simplicity of the Gospel.
If I asked you to tell me what the Gospel is, I assume many of you would think I’m asking you to write me a novel. I’m not. There’s this common conception of the Gospel that I have seen across churches in America that makes it seem like the Gospel is the most complex story in existence when in reality it is so simple:
Jesus Christ reconciled humanity to God by conquering death.
That’s the Good News.
Who is he? Leave that to Christology.
How did he do it? Leave that to soteriology.
What will it look like when he returns? Leave that to eschatology.
The point I’m trying to make with all of these different “-ologies” is that they are all additional teachings to the Gospel and should never be assumed as part of the Gospel.
All Christian theological constructs that exist today derive from various biblical interpretations. If the biblical authors wanted to teach its readers a clear theology, why didn’t they? The answer to this is simple, too.
Orthodoxy wasn’t their primary concern.
I want to come back to this point, but first I want to address where I think this pressure for orthodoxy, or “right belief”, came from.
*queue crash course*
The first real major theological controversy in Church history wasn’t until the rise of Arianism in the early 4th century. In short, it taught that Jesus was not fully divine, but instead, he shared equality with God yet was created by God, thus making him not eternal. In retrospect, before this theological framework drifted into the distance, it had the right intentions. Other than Judaism, the surrounding religions were all polytheistic, and Arius, a deacon of the Church of Alexandria in North Africa, wanted to avoid Christianity being labeled a polytheistic faith since it was being criticized for believing in a God the Father and God the Son. His compromise to promote a monotheistic faith was to deny Christ’s full divinity. His efforts actually show us his sincere reverence for God, not some desire to drag the church into the the abyss of heresy like so many people think.
Around the time this controversy is rising, the Roman Emperor Constantine joins the scene, becoming the first presumed Christian Emperor and implementing an Imperial Church-State. Ironically, he was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian supporter. Constantine assumed himself to be the final authority in both political and religious affairs. Many historians argue that Constantine never was a genuine Christian but chose to use the faith as a means of maintaining political power and unity among the people, but no one can speak with certainty.
Word eventually reaches the Emperor that Arianism is spreading in Alexandria and he grows fearful that it will separate the unity of his newly established “Christian” Empire since they cannot agree on the nature of Christ. Constantine gathers over 300 bishops from across the Empire and voila! We have what is now known as the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. Months passed while the issue of Arianism was debated until it eventually was deemed unorthodox, but most of the bishops who attended thought little about the controversy since it had been so localized in North Africa. Some of those who signed the affirmation of this belief even did so merely to end the debate, not because they actually believed it.
But wait, there’s more!
Constantine actually sympathized with Arian thought several years later, and when Constantine died, the next several of his successors actually became supporters of Arianism and they were now using their religious authority as Emperor to promote Arianism as orthodoxy instead (what a twist). Arianism began spreading more across the Empire and many favored it. This lasted for roughly half a century until the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381, initiated by Theodosius I and largely led by Eastern bishops, both of whom opposed Arianism.
*end crash course*
The concern for orthodoxy really seems to have taken the stage here. The leaders of the church had the right idea for seeking to establish one concrete, indisputable understanding about the relationship between God and Christ.
They wanted the church to be unified.
Don’t we all?
We’ve had issues of maintaining unity in the church literally since the time of Jesus. Some would argue that we have done a pretty good job at staying unified while others would argue the opposite. It really depends on how you look at it. You can choose to view the diversity of denominations in Protestantism and its separation from Roman Catholicism and Catholicism’s separation from Eastern Orthodoxy simply as a tragedy or as a beauty in a tragedy. If you see the different denominations and find it contradictory that they all claim to believe the truth yet simultaneously disagree with each other, you might fail to notice the beauty in the unity of Who they worship despite their theological differences.
I think we make too big of a deal about little theological differences.
It seems like much of American Christianity has been presenting orthodoxy, as the most important aspect to the Christian faith, with this notion that Christians have to believe very specific things about Jesus in order to be redeemed, but I don’t think that has always been the case. Prior to the Arian controversy, the only internal conflicts that the church faced were issues of orthopraxy or “right conduct”.
In the modern theological world, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are portrayed as contrasting each other, however, I view them as one and the same.
Take the example of Hebrews 11, the chapter everyone reads to learn what faith is.
Every story that the author lists off is an exegesis of the Old Testament that teaches how these significant figures, all of whom lived prior to the time of Jesus, were deemed righteous.
(Spoiler alert: It wasn't from doctrinal adherence or observance of the Laws.)
The “trick” to righteousness was how they expressed their faith in God’s promises.
Take another example from Titus 2, everybody’s favorite prooftext to necessitate a high view of orthodoxy:
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (v. 1, ESV).
Seems pretty straightforward. Paul said it, so you must believe it.
Except, I think we need to look closer at what he means by “doctrine” here. In Greek, it’s the word didaskalia, which really means “instruction” or “[applied] teaching”. As it got translated across the languages, from Greek to Latin to French, all that time it meant “[applied] teaching”. It wasn't until English came along and decided to give it a new meaning, as a “belief”. So when you read that word “doctrine” in your Bibles, the author doesn’t actually mean your conscious beliefs. Instead, they’re referring to how you practice what you are preached.
You can even figure this out without using linguistics. If you take the time to just read the rest of the chapter (remembering to factor in cultural contexts), none of it makes an argument for the reader to be taught the right beliefs, but rather the right behaviors. Paul follows this first verse with various different ways their “sound doctrine” can be applied to the daily life of a first-century Christian (avoiding drunkenness, having self-control, etc.).
All this being said, I am not inferring that our behaviors are more important than our beliefs.
The point that I am trying to make is that our beliefs are not more important than our behaviors.
Where I think the Church has faulted since the Arian controversy is in its tendency to separate the two from each other. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy were meant to be equally important aspects of the Christian life. I think we fell into error as a Church when we started to hold orthodoxy on a higher pedestal instead of placing them both on the same platform.
Ironically, our fight to protect the Gospel got us too caught up in intellectual conformity that we lost sight of the mission to love as Christ did (John 13:35). Our beliefs are still important, just not all of them are essential. If any point I’ve made is clear, it’s that the only belief necessary for redemption is the belief in the Gospel. I know, however, that our church history would try and tell you otherwise.
History shows us that apostates, blasphemers, and heretics seem to be the Church’s least favorite people. The issue I have, though, is that these three words are not synonymous and they aren’t always bad, either. Generally speaking, apostasy is rejecting a belief you once accepted, blasphemy is treating something sacred with irreverence, and heresy is believing something that the majority repudiates. Throughout my theological studies, I’ve been led to the conviction that an apostate can still be a Christian, a blasphemer can still be a Christian, and even a heretic can still be a Christian.
These terms do not always negate the authenticity of faith; they merely label those who challenge theological intellect. Your Christianity is not defined in whether or not you can properly articulate the Divine (nobody can). Rather, your Christianity is defined by (1) your faith that the work of Christ — that is, his birth, life, ministry, teachings, death, resurrection, and impending return — is sufficient for the redemption of the world to God and (2) your expected response/actions to that faith, which is to love.
Theological controversy is unavoidable. You can disagree with anybody you want to about almost any theological topic, but you can’t disagree on what the Christian life is to look like: a life of love.
Too often Christians are convinced that loving someone is teaching them the “truth”, but they fail to recognize that we don’t all agree on what is true, so we end up hurting our own ministry when we approach “loving” others in this way. Conversely, non-Christians are the ones who realize this reality over those who profess Christ, so they approach loving someone with acceptance (not to be confused with tolerance) rather than the “harsh truth”.
This approach of loving someone reflects Jesus’ ministry, where he accepted people where they were at, not where he thinks they are going (source: anywhere between Matthew 1:1 and John 21:25). If it’s not already obvious, we’re supposed to do the same.
Love the homosexual. Love the transgender. Love the Republican. Love the Democrat. Love the victim. Love the immigrant. Love the criminal. Love the minority. Love the outcast.
This act of love does not mean you have to force yourself to affirm their worldview or ideology or theological framework. It’s an act of humbling yourself to serve the other. America is individualistic. In it, you seek after what’s in your own best interest. The kingdom of God denies the self. In it, you seek the interest of the other. Rather than seeking to convince everyone to believe the way you believe, seek to commune with others so they can witness what Love is.
Like the author who wrote to the Hebrews arguing that our justification is by faith alone (one that is put into practice), I also write to argue that our justification is not in doctrinal adherence, but a faith that expresses itself in love for God and people.
After all, Love is the Gospel.
(If you managed to make it here without me boring you to sleep and actually care to read more about the rest of the theological controversies throughout church history, hit me up. I can send some good reads your way.)