How to agree to disagree on important (but not essential) matters

I am convinced there are some theological issues which, no matter what view we hold, we’re wrong. These are also, not coincidentally, among the issues where we have the strongest convictions or opinions. For quite a while now, I’ve been making my way through Three Views on the Millenium and Beyond, a book offering a basic defense and critique of three prominent eschatological positions:

  • Postmillennialism
  • Amillennialism
  • Premillennialism

I find the debate between the contributors—Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Robert B. Strimple, and Craig A. Blaising—fascinating because the distinctions are often based on details the average layperson might miss. The tense or range of meaning of a word in the original language, and that sort of thing. But however subtle the distinctions might seem, they do matter. At the same time, I’m thrilled about how much the various positions actually do agree, and on what points. All, for example, agree on the end point: the literal, physical return of Christ, and that his coming will bring God’s redemptive work to its conclusion (even if they disagree on how long that will take).

I think these sorts of books—volumes that compare and contrast viewpoints—are more essential than ever. Culturally, we’re rapidly losing our ability to engage in debate, to say nothing of offering thoughtful critique.[1. And if you don’t believe me, spend five minutes reading tweets related to politics.] These are skills we need to relearn, especially as Christians. There are some issues about which we must draw clear lines, obviously. But there are many others that, while important, we have the freedom to agree to disagree.[2. I would put the meaning of the millennium in this category.]

So how do we do this? How do we agree to disagree on important, but not essential, matters? Let me offer four suggestions:

“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). Paul wrote to the Roman church encouraging them to pursue unity, refusing to judge one another based on their convictions about observing festivals, eating and drinking, and so forth. But in doing so, he didn’t simply say, “Let’s all try to get along.” He first said each must be fully convinced in their own minds. In other words, they had to have a conviction about something before they could disagree on it. The same is true for us in our day, not just on eschatology, but on many other social and theological issues. Be convinced what you believe is right. Know what you believe and why (which requires us to do our homework).

Acknowledge the lack of consensus. When it comes to eschatology, there has never been a clear consensus among God’s people. Some of the most brilliant theological minds in history have disagreed on this. Clement’s view was not Augustine’s view was not Luther’s view was not Lloyd-Jones’ view was not Carson’s view, and so on. Moving beyond a theological issue to a social one like poverty alleviation, we can’t even come to a clear consensus on how best to help those in need, beyond general agreement on the importance of education. But the “how” is where we get tricked up. Many great organizations are tackling the same problem from different perspectives, each confident that their way is the best way—but those ways aren’t always the same.

Recognize the possibility we might be wrong. The Word of God is perfect, but our understanding of it is not. Because we have limited knowledge and intellectual abilities, we’re going to get something wrong when we study it. The same is true for our understanding of many social issues. We should be convinced in our own minds, but that doesn’t mean we’re right. We should be willing to ask the question, “What if we’re wrong?”

Listen humbly. Even if we remain unconvinced, we would be wise to give those with whom we (probably) disagree a fair hearing. We might not change our view, or we might become more convinced we’re correct. But if we try to understand a different point of view, we can engage far more charitably.

Photo: Pixabay

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.[1. The Pilgrim’s Progress, Kindle location 660]

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.[2. Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress by Leland Ryken, 27]

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:[3. Questions 2-4 quoted from Ryken, Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress27-28]

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

“What shall I do?” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (1)

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a certain place where there was a cave; and I lay down in that place to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed a dream, and in this dream I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a place with his face turned away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a heavy burden upon his back.

I looked and saw him open the book and begin to read; and as he read, he wept and trembled. Not being able to contain himself, he cried out in a loud voice, “What shall I do?”

It’s impossible to overstate the power of the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress.[1. The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come, Kindle location 182] Bunyan masterfully captures the plight of man in his description of Christian—he is a man burdened, weeping, utterly destroyed by the book he carries. But he cannot turn away from its pages.

He can only read and cry out, “What shall I do?”

Personal reflection

How many of us have faced a similar crisis in our own hearts? Conviction comes—and what shall we do?

Many of us, like Christian, keep it to ourselves for as long as possible. We pretend everything is fine, even though we’re troubled to the core of our being. Sooner or later, though, we reach a breaking point and can no longer keep what’s going on hidden—”For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

And, as is so often the case, when we speak, people begin to reject us. They find our message absurd, laughable, ignorant. Family rejects us. Friends scorn us. Some come alongside us and encourage us to stay on the path; others seek to draw us away. We have moments of joy, from which we quickly slip into the slough of despond…

This is how the journey to the celestial city begins for so many of us.

Reading tips from Ryken

But the first chapter of The Pilgrim’s Progress is equally as demanding as it is captivating. As Leland Ryken puts it well in his guide to this classic book, “Part of the genius of Pilgrim’s Progress is that it requires readers to analyze the symbolic level of the story and in particular to figure out the nuances of the theological truth that is embodied in the narrative details.”[2. Christian Guides to the Classics: Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress by Leland Ryken, Kindle location 299]

So as we feel our way around the first chapter, we need to consider what each detail symbolizes and what it teaches us about the Christian life at the point at which Christian finds himself on the journey. But even so, we would do well to heed Ryken’s advice as he offers four tips for reading this book:[3. Ryken, Kindle location 167]

(1) The most important prerequisite for enjoying this book as literature is the ability to abandon oneself to the travel motif and the adventure genre. At this level, the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals. (2) Equally, we need to relish the technique of allegory in which places and characters bear the names of abstract qualities. But the word allegory does not quite do justice to what is happening, so we need to add the concept of symbolic reality, which results when we enter a realm of the imagination in which the leading ingredient is a “forest” of symbols. (3) Putting the previous two points together, Pilgrim’s Progress requires us to read at a physical level as the basis of everything else, but also to see that the two protagonists have undertaken a spiritual and psychological journey in addition to the physical journey. (4) The primacy of the spiritual governs everything that Bunyan does in the story and determines his storytelling techniques and choice of material.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Two points to consider:

  1. How does this chapter portray the lost state of man?
  2. How does what you’ve read in this chapter reflect or differ your own experience?

Feel free to post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.