05 June 2017

Fixed and Flexible Thinking

Last week I wrote of how changes in thinking can feel like an earthquake. Competing ideas rub against each other creating friction and movement, and like an earthquake, this can be destructive or constructive.

Today, many people who align their lives with biblical values experience the growing tension between their established orthodoxy and society’s general disregard of it. There was a time when Australian society was largely Christian in its worldview. Those days have long gone.

So how is anyone to know which challenges to their thinking are destructive and which are constructive? As a Christian, what change is faithful to the gospel, what is neutral and what change undermines the gospel? What should I hold firmly to, and to what should I hold loosely? Or perhaps a more basic question - do you think that what you believe really matters anyway? 

If you answered yes, then do all beliefs have the same weight? I'd have to say NO. There certainly are some beliefs I am totally fixed on, but others,  maybe not. But which is which?

I found Roger Olsen’s book, Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity in Diversity to be quite helpful in thinking through this question. Olsen distinguishes between three orders or levels of Christian truth; dogma, doctrine and opinion. 
Olsen defines dogma as 'truths essential to Christianity itself; to deny them is to follow something other than Jesus.' Christian identity is at stake. Dogma is expressed in the foundation Paul laid in Corinth to keep Jews and Gentiles with all their differences together: 'Jesus Christ, his living, dying, rising, ascending, coming again.' 

Olsen defines doctrine as a 'secondary category of teachings central to a particular tradition of Christians.' These can include some very significant matters that define entire traditions such as predestination or free will; how we understand the saving work of Jesus; the nature of church and the work of the Holy Spirit. 
Lastly, Olsen defines opinion as 'matters of a speculative nature about which there is no consensus in the church.' These are matters where scholarly, Bible-believing Christians read the same passages and come to different conclusions. For example women in leadership or current issues around sexuality and same sex marriage.

But even my examples are a problem because one person’s opinion is another’s doctrine, is another’s dogma. Who is to decide?

From our own perspective, we see our dogmas and doctrines as fixed and any challenge or suggestion of change can create anxiety or tension. We can't imagine how someone doesn't passionately believe what we believe!

If our beliefs are fixed, we are prone to disengage from divergent thoughts and label them liberal, unbiblical or heretical. Yet I wonder how often we stop and genuinely listen to those views before we cast judgement? I wonder how often we invest the time and energy necessary to personally understand those who think differently? It seems easier to make a new denomination (or find a new church) than live in tension together. And that's the really unfortunate part.

I’ll bet that many of us will reach different conclusions on a whole array of 'opinions' and maybe even one or two 'doctrines.' The great challenge always before us is loving when we disagree and choosing the bond of unity without demanding the bond of uniformity.

We will disagree. But can we stay in relationship even in our disagreement? Now that is the supreme challenge! If we can, we reveal a truth greater than our arguments and a maturity rarely seen in the world today.