Theology is Not a Bloodsport, by Frank Viola
APRIL 13, 2019
A careful read of church history will chill your blood.
From the late fourth century until the seventeenth century, Christians slaughtered their fellow brethren over doctrinal differences.
Sure, there were doctrinal wars undertaken in print where one writer would quarrel at pen’s point with another author. However, the pamphlet wars eventually evolved into something far worse.
Christian leaders began unsheathing their swords and the bloodletting began. Tragically, the blood has been flowing ever since, even today in the West where there is freedom of religion (I’m speaking metaphorically).
During the past four decades, I’ve been given a front- row seat to watch a number of church splits. In every case, it began with someone getting their feelings hurt and going on the warpath. I remember one case in particular. A man came into our fellowship with a pet doctrine that he wanted everyone else to embrace. (We’ll call him Tom.)
Tom was so persistent he could wear down a granite mountain. He ran our blood hot. Despite his efforts, we didn’t accept Tom’s teaching. He got his feelings hurt and the Ginsu knife made its appearance.
Someone decided to throw a match into the situation by correcting Tom. The result: we could all smell flesh burning. Others tried to correct Tom too, but they were left sucking air. Tom became so angry, he had smoke blowing out of both ears. (I’m aging by the moment as I think about it.)
Tom exploded into criticism and began vilifying the members of the church, accusing them of despicable and heinous things— none of which were true. He was on full meltdown, spewing venom wherever he could. Beyond his blistering denunciations, his sentiment was, “I wash my hands of those people!”
The words of judo champion Dumitru D. Coman come to mind: “When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you.”
Regrettably, I’ve watched this same drama play out in different settings. Different actors, but the same scenes packed with the same slurs.
The lesson is a chilling one. If you’re going to meet in close quarters with other Christians, put your asbestos suit on. Someone is going to unleash toxins. And it will be over either a personality conflict or a doctrinal difference. (Often, these two are joined at the hip.)
More ironic, they will use the name of God and “protecting others” as a justification to malign their sisters and brothers in Christ. (Historically, those who incinerated heretics by fire or tortured them have always used “God’s name” and the “protection of the sheep” as their defense.)
The blood that flowed at the hands of Christians over theological disagreements in the sixteenth century was up to the horse’s bit. The tragic endings of John Huss, William Tyndale, Felix Manz, Balthasar Hubmaier, and countless Anabaptists will curdle your blood. But we’ve come a long way today.
We’ve come two millimeters!
Christians who have thin hide may not use the sword to impale those with whom they disagree. They’ll use the keyboard and the internet instead. But the effect is the same— carnage. Throughout this book, I’m going to declare holy war on this entire attitude.
Treating our fellow brethren with the love of Jesus Christ is written in the very bloodstream of God. And you can find it all over the New Testament. To put it another way, theology doesn’t have to be a bloodsport. It can be a civil and intellectually honest conversation. And it should be.
Unfortunately, much of the problem today is that Christians use different conversational styles when they discuss theology.
So the disagreement ends up being rooted in semantics rather than in substance. This isn’t always the case, of course. But it happens more than you’d expect. Yet it should not be so among God’s people.
The above is an excerpt from Frank Viola’s new book, ReGrace: What the Shocking Beliefs of the Great Christians Can Teach Us Today (Baker, 2019).