I can certainly be dogmatic. When I am convicted of something I consider to be of first importance, I’ll hold on to my position with a knuckle-whitening death grip. And I don’t think that’s always all that bad. I pray I’m always dogmatic on issues such as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, the necessity of repentance and trust in Christ’s work for salvation, and many other cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
But — and we all saw the big “but” coming, didn’t we? — I’m finding myself increasingly bothered by dogmatism on issues which are of secondary or tertiary importance, issues on which Christians throughout the history of the church have disagreed because they are not unquestionably clear from the Bible. I’ve tried to figure out what it is that bothers me so much about this, and I think I’ve figure it out.
I believe that that dogmatism is dishonoring to the Bible and dilutes the gospel.
By dogmatism, I mean holding and proclaiming something to be incontrovertibly true when the biblical evidence is less than adequate for such brazen confidence. I know for a fact that I’ve done this before on various issues, and I am certain there are some matters in which I’m still guilty of this. But I hope by grace to grow in this area.
Don’t get me wrong. Theology is important. Doctrine matters. I think it should be preached, taught, learned, loved, and celebrated. I believe every church “does theology,” even when they say they don’t. I’m convinced that strong faith is rooted in deep biblical truth. Every Christian needs to press into the systematic study of God’s character and ways, especially as revealed in the person and work of Christ.
That being said, I worry about dogmatism in the gray areas. Here are a few examples:
While I believe we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, just how “alone” does our faith have to be in our actual experience? As we walk through life, don’t we all have moments and go through seasons in which our faith subtly shifts off of Christ and onto, say, our good works, or an exaggerated and perverted view of God’s love, or some relative comparison between ourselves and someone who seems to be a much bigger sinner?
Take the Galatians, for example. They had obviously drifted from trusting solely in Christ to trusting partially in their flesh (1:6; 3:1-3). Paul corrected them with very aggressive language and warned them that to continue in that pathway would mean being under the curse of God’s wrath (3:10). But, were the Galatian believers not saved during this time of being corrected by Paul? Because their gospel understanding had been distorted, did that mean that they were not justified by grace? I don’t think so, and neither does Paul. Paul still addressed them as members of “churches” (1:2) and believes they had received the Spirit (3:2) and put on Christ (3:26). He explicitly says they “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (4:9). There’s no doubt that the Galatians were believers, even though their conviction regarding the necessity of faith alone in Christ alone had been weakened.
So I am bothered when Christians point at other Christians who share the same weakness of faith as the Galatians and, rather than merely trying to lovingly point them to the truth, say they are not Christians. Our faith is not perfect from the moment of our salvation. If it were, why would it need to be tested and refined (1 Peter 1:7)? To impose such a high standard dilutes the gospel’s message of mercy and grace. I think God’s desire to save people by grace is very, very strong. We do not have to understand the Trinity, the polity of the church, the dynamic nature of eternal security, or the doctrine of election in order to be saved. We must repent of sin and trust in the work of Christ. To add to this is to dilute the gospel message.
How about dogmatism dishonoring Scripture? Well, I’ve heard it said that women should never teach the Bible, even to other women. Those who hold this view point to the gender roles in the Bible. The problem here is that there is nothing in the Bible even close to teaching this. Or I’ve heard it said that good Christian parents will home school rather than send their children to public school. When people point to Deuteronomy 6 with absolutely certainty that home schooling is the obvious application of that text it makes my skin crawl. Or when people insist that tithing 10% is THE biblical mandate for giving. Why is this one Old Testament law carried over into the New Testament?
You see, I think we honor the Bible more when we emphasize what the Bible emphasizes and don’t force the Bible to support our own personal convictions. The Bible even makes it clear that believers are going to have matters over which they have differing convictions. Romans 14 tells us that we are to love one another despite these differences and not despise or tear down someone’s faith because of these minor matters. In fact, Paul instructs us that if we think we’re on the right on one of these issues, “the faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (14:22). We can have discussions and sharpen one another and exhort and rebuke when necessary, but we also need to discern between critical gospel issues and matters of personal conviction. Words like “heresy” and “false gospel” should never been thrown around because of these matters of personal conviction.
Keeping the gospel central and allowing room for differing beliefs on secondary matters actually exalts the gospel more than if we treat all issues as if they are of equal importance as the gospel. Emphasizing the clear teaching of Scripture honors the Bible more than when we make claims on clarity that exist only in our own minds. Finally, by honoring the Bible and exalting the gospel in this way, unbelievers will more clearly see Christ and his work in our lives, and the message of the gospel will stand apart from all the other noise we can make.