In the age of the Internet and Facebook, along with other social media platforms, we as Christians have an opportunity unlike anytime before to discuss and debate our theological differences. In many ways it’s been a positive thing, encouraging us in the study of God’s Word and challenging us in theological truth and defense of our faith. It’s not always a good thing though. It’s easy to lose sight of our purpose and be motivated by the wrong things.
The Theology Gals podcast has started a new series titled “What do they believe?” We often receive questions about theological traditions, what they believe and how they differ from Reformed theology. These episodes will not be debates. The series will primarily focus on explaining each specific theological framework, how it is different from confessional Reformed theology and what we are unified in. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to talk about the why and how of theological discussion and debate.
The Purpose of Debate
While I was arranging the first episode in the series, onLutheranism, with Pastor Brian Thomas, Pastor Brian suggested that we also discuss, “how Christians from differing traditions can, and should, discuss and debate our differences in a generous, kind and honest fashion while recognizing we all belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” One thing he said on the episode was, “Remember the point of theological debate is unity”
I don’t think people often think of unity as a reason for discussion of opposing views, especially when it so often seems to cause disunity. I’ve seen some of the most ugly, unkind, ungracious behavior in theological debate, surely not something that looks like unity. Even in our disagreements we must be mindful of what unifies us, particularly on essentials as we are united in Christ. Our discussions should be for the purpose of edification, growth in the faith and knowledge of the Lord through His Word. This is not unity at the expense of truth, but rather a reminder of the foundation of it, our common faith in Christ and the Word of God as our basis for truth.
Ephesians 4:13 says, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
John Calvin explains in his commentary on this passage that we will not have perfect unity before glory, but that we should still aspire to it:
“In the unity of the faith. But ought not the unity of the faith to reign among us from the very commencement? It does reign, I acknowledge, among the sons of God, but not so perfectly as to make them come together. Such is the weakness of our nature, that it is enough if every day brings some nearer to others, and all nearer to Christ. The expression, coming together, denotes that closest union to which we still aspire, and which we shall never reach, until this garment of the flesh, which is always accompanied by some remains of ignorance and weakness, shall have been laid aside.”
Calvin is right that such is the weakness of our nature that our unity is not perfect. One way we can aspire to unity is to be mindful of the way we discuss and debate these things and of our purpose. When we discuss our differences, remembering that we agree on the essentials, that we are united in our faith in Christ should encourage us in wisdom in the way we do this, remembering we are all part of the same body, the same holy, catholic and apostolic church.
“Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.”
One of pastor Brian’s encouragements in theological debate is, “Be respectful and kind. Say what you mean, but you don’t have to say it mean.” Because of strong feelings about our theological views it’s easy to let our emotions play a part in these debates. It can be difficult to accept and make sense of a disagreement with someone who claims the same foundation for an opposing belief, specifically God’s Word. Discussions are far more fruitful when the parties are kind and respectful of one another. If you are mean and attack someone in theological discussion, it puts them on the defensive and they may not really listen to what you’re saying. It can also cause disunity.
“Be clear on both sides and major on the majors. Understand what it is we disagree about.” This is another great encouragement from Pastor Brian’s list on how to debate our differences. I think there are many debates which would be avoided if each side understood what it is they’re disagreeing about. In fact, there are times where the people debating aren’t really as far apart in their views as they assume. Not understanding the opposing view can lead to unnecessary contentious debate, as can making mountains out of molehills on theological topics. When we’re discussing our differences, our vigor should match the size of the hill, especially if it’s one we’re choosing to die on.
Because of our common faith in Christ, we are united together in the Church, the body of Christ. Love for Christ includes love for His Church and the truth of His Word. As believers, we’re called to unity and peace with one another. (See 1 Corinthians 10:10 and Philippians 2:2.) When differences arise on secondary issues we must stand firm, but not neglect the many things we’re exhorted to in our interactions with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Colossians 3:8 tells us that “those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…” We must remember these things even in our disagreements.
Theology Gals is on the Bible Thumping Wingnut Network with many who hold different theological views from one another. We’re aware of our differences. Ultimately it’s our common faith in Christ which unites us. I have witnessed a great example of brothers discussing differences well for over 25 years on the White Horse Inn radio show. For many of those years, Reformed, Lutheran and Reformed Baptist brothers would discuss a topic focusing on the essentials they agree on, but not neglecting to recognize where they disagree and why. They do this with kindness and respect.
We should discuss our differences out of love, encouraging one another in theological truth through the study of Scripture. There are benefits to discussing our differences when done well. It should challenge us to know what we believe and why, and how to defend it, although not to the point of drawing blood from our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s easy to focus on our differences and forget that we agree on far more than we disagree on. Hence, we must be mindful of seeking unity in our common faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of His Word and obedience to it.
Every Sunday in the Theology Gals Facebook group I post a weekly prayer request thread. Last week I was heartbroken as I read through them. We have many gals suffering greatly: a husband living with extreme depression, a child diagnosed with a terminal illness, the sudden death of a parent, and many other things I won’t mention. There were even things which may not seem as severe, but they are things which result in suffering or trials. I hear ladies sometimes say something like, “I know this is small compared to what many are dealing with.” I’ve often told women, “Don’t compare your suffering with other sufferings.” Suffering and trials come in different ways, different extremes, last different lengths of time. Scripture talks about suffering in general. The things in Scripture about suffering are for you, regardless of how severe your trial is.
I know how difficult it can be when you’re right in suffering’s midst. It feels like it may never end. Even though I’m not completely on the other side of this season, I’ve seen the Lord’s grace in so many ways through it, and I’m thankful. I’ve experienced peace and joy from the Lord, even when my circumstance seems hopeless. Still, it’s not something I really like to talk about in detail, nor is it easy to do so. But I decided I would share my story, the things I’ve been through and the things I’ve learned because of suffering, with the hope of encouraging others.
Marriage and Children
As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a wife and mom. The night I met my husband at a birthday party, we talked the whole evening about theology, music and the Christian faith. Brenton was further into his study of Reformed Theology than I was. He asked me to call him when I got home that evening (few had cell phones in 1994) so he’d know I’d arrived safely, and we talked for three more hours. When I finally made it to my room in the middle of the night, before I slipped into bed, I pulled out my journal and wrote this sentence: “Tonight I met the man I’m going to marry.” It’s a little corny, I know. It wasn’t because I thought God gave me some private revelation, I don’t even know why I wrote it. I just knew there was something special about this guy. It took Brenton a little while to get the courage to ask me out, but on January 12,1995 we went on our first date, and seven months later to the day, we were married.
Thirteen months after we said, “I do”, we welcomed our first son. I come from a family with lots of girls and few boys so while I hoped for some boys, I wasn’t especially optimistic that I’d have many. Little did I know the Lord would ultimately bless us with four sons. We would have had more children if we had been able, even if it was five more boys, but the complications I had with childbirth became life threatening. I can clearly see God’s sovereignty in it now. I am grateful for the children the Lord has given us.
My husband and son’s around 2007
I think I was made to be mommy to boys. I enjoyed hunting for toads as much as, if not more than, they did. I was right there every time we fed our pet mantis’, because I love watching them catch and eat their prey. I love messy science experiments. I don’t mind having pet snakes and lizards, and we have many. I love attending the Reptile Expo, and even purchased a pet lizard for myself, a crested gecko. From the time I was little, it seemed to me boys’ toys were more fun. When my oldest son received his first set of Lincoln Logs, I stayed up late into the evening building a village. I know those things aren’t necessarily just for boys, but with having all boys, we have many of these in our lives. I’m about as girly as they come. I love pink and purple, dresses and makeup. I’m sensitive. But I love being mom to my boys, and I enjoy many of the things they do.
I have loved being a wife and mom. Even on those challenging and difficult days, I was reminded of the many blessings the Lord had given me. I was a busy mom, caring for my husband, raising four children, homeschooling and being involved at our church. There were many days I barely sat down: cooking, cleaning, laundry, teaching, walks to the park, playing, etc. I enjoyed it though, even the busyness of it all. I also loved entertaining. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have several people over to our home after church for Sunday dinner. I had a routine for preparing for the Lord’s Day that worked well and I just loved the worship, rest and fellowship of the day. Life was good.
Little did I know how much everything was about to change…
I remember the first day I started having some odd pain. I was perplexed by it; it didn’t make any sense at the time. When my husband called me from work, I even mentioned it to him. I wasn’t too concerned, took some ibuprofen and went on with my day. Over the next few months I just wasn’t feeling well, I was so tired, and that pain. It didn’t come all at once, but things got worse and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I made an appointment with our longtime family doctor, I was in tears. I told my doctor, “Something isn’t right.” That appointment revealed some lumps. Dealing with those were a distraction from finding a diagnosis to the other symptoms. That was followed by various scans and ultimately removing the concerning lumps and biopsy, which thankfully came back non-cancerous. I was still having many unexplained symptoms.
Suddenly my life was full of doctor appointments, tests, specialists, hospital stays and more tests. Things were getting worse. I was living with constant nausea and vomiting, fevers and pain, along with other symptoms. I would eventually get down to 88 pounds, something I hadn’t weighed since probably about 6th grade. I was getting so weak. I was unable to care for my family. My doctor eventually sent me to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where I spent a month. And other things were bringing heartbreak to our family at the same time. My second to last day at Mayo, they found my brother in law’s body. We’ve experienced many losses the last several years, in the midst of my own physical suffering.
While there have been diagnosis’ which include an autoimmune disease and neurological condition, treatment can be tricky. I absolutely have experienced some healing, but it’s still a daily struggle. Few people know what I have and continue to really suffer with physically, emotionally and spiritually. I still rarely enjoy eating and often have to force myself to even try. Daily I live with nausea, fevers and pain. I don’t want people to know how weak I really am. I’m not depressed, thankfully. In fact, my third son said to me one day, “You’re always so happy, Mommy, and it doesn’t make sense with what you’re going through. It has to be the Lord.” He’s absolutely right. By God’s grace, I’m content…. most of the time. The Lord has given me immense peace and joy. And my tears are more often than not because I’m amazed by God’s grace. It’s because of His love and grace that He has blessed me with so much, including a loving and faithful husband who I adore more than words could describe. The way he has cared for me and our family is beyond what I could have hoped. I have sons who constantly amaze me, and I’m thankful for the close relationships I share with each of them. My husband and son’s all contribute to keeping our home run smoothly, taking over responsibilities I can’t keep up with, and never a complaint. The Lord has blessed me with such good friends, too, lifelong friends who love and care for me, who encourage me and point me to Christ. These blessings far outweigh the suffering.
It took me awhile to get here though. I’ve had many rough moments, and still have to fight discouragement often. In the beginning of this season, I cried quite a bit. I’ve had many moments of crying out to God, asking, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why can’t you just heal me?” I’ve had times where the pain was so great, I begged God to please just take me. It wasn’t because of depression, but rather, I didn’t know if I could physically handle it anymore. My husband and closest friends will tell you there was a time I really wanted to give up, that for a short moment I considered stopping the treatment that was keeping me alive. Again, it wasn’t depression. Physically, the misery can be so wearing. I’ve also been rushed to the hospital, almost died. My body wasn’t holding onto potassium, something our bodies can’t function without. I’ve had the doctor sit next to my hospital bed the next morning and say, “Do you understand you almost died? Do you understand this is life threatening?”
My suffering pales in comparison to what my husband and children have gone through. That’s the worst part. Hearing my husband crying in the middle of the night…he’s not a crier. The only time I saw him weep before that, was when his father was dying. The worst thing is that look on my children’s faces when mommy is being rushed to the hospital once again. It’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. They don’t say it out loud, but I know they’ve all wondered if they were losing me. It didn’t help that in the midst of this, our family also suffered several losses: my brother-in-law, two of my close friends, my grandparents, my mother-in-law, my son’s close friend and more. Eight funerals in four years. And then one of the hardest things, which I’ve already written about, was when my oldest son said to me, “I can’t believe in a God who lets those who love Him suffer so much.” I’ve experienced great guilt over what my husband and children have gone through and guilt that I can’t care for them the way I want to.
I’m now grateful for the suffering, although I’m ready for it to be over yesterday. And yet I realize that I wouldn’t be learning the things I have, was I not going through this. One of my dearest friends reminded me recently, “You wouldn’t have your Theology Gals podcast had you not gone through this.” She’s right. We speak of God’s sovereignty, but I’ve had to learn to truly trust in His perfect wisdom and plan. Scripture describes many reasons for suffering and we’re told to count it all joy because the Lord uses it for our good. I don’t deny I’m not thrilled about the prospect of this continuing to be my life this side of heaven, suffering the symptoms of the autoimmune and neurological conditions which plague my body. I admit that often I put my hope in the possibility of healing instead of in the Lord, regardless of what my future looks like. I also struggle with coveting the good health of others and the things they’re able to do that I am not. I can’t remember what it feels like to feel normal, to not have pain, to not feel sick.
The reason I’ve written this is to share about the things the Lord has done in my life through suffering and the things I’ve learned, with the hope of encouraging someone else. I’m a far more grateful person than I ever was before. I’m very aware of God’s grace in ways I hadn’t considered previously. I understand more now, that I’ve been given far more than I deserve. I was guilty of trying to control things I should have been trusting the Lord with. At one point I told a friend, “I have to trust the Lord now, I have no other choice.”
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I can hold onto and trust in the truth of God’s Word even when I don’t feel like it. I’ve felt like the Psalmist in Psalm 13 when he says, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” It’s the end of the Psalm that reminds me that I have much I can hold onto, regardless of how I feel, even when I start wondering if He’s listening at all. The Psalmist concludes chapter 13 with, “ But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.” Isn’t that amazing? Even when the Psalmist feels far from God, even wondering if the Lord had forgotten him, he holds onto the goodness and kindness of our Lord and is reminded of his salvation and rejoices in it. No matter how difficult things get, as Christians we have hope in our salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ. There are similar Psalms where despair is expressed, followed by a proclamation of God’s goodness. I’ve found comfort in the Psalms of lament.
I know some of you reading this are suffering right now, have been suffering for a while, or maybe you’re dealing with something smaller or new. You may have an illness, a difficult marriage, a sick child, infertility, you’ve suffered losses, or…the list goes on. Or maybe you’re one who is thinking, “I’ve suffered some small trials, but nothing that severe. But my small trial is still hard.” I say to all of you what I said in the beginning of this article: don’t compare your suffering with others’ suffering. Suffering and trials come in different ways, different extremes, and last different lengths of time. Your suffering is difficult for you regardless of what it is and how long it lasts, and the Lord will use it. When I did an in-depth study of suffering from Scripture, I was shocked by all the reasons for suffering that Scripture mentions. Our suffering tests and prepares us and teaches us to rely on God (2 Corinthians 4:17, 2 Corinthians 1:8-9). We suffer so we we may be comforted by God and comfort others in their suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). We suffer for our good (James 1:1-2,24; Romans 5:3-5). These are only a few of the reasons.
On our Theology Gals episode on suffering, we talked about not only reasons for suffering but also the many things Scripture offers to comfort us in the midst of our suffering. The Holy Spirit comforts us and gives us peace and joy in the midst of our struggles. The Lord has also given the church to love and support us. But I know very personally that suffering can feel lonely sometimes, too. I’ve felt so lonely but yet I’m never really alone. Neither are you, never really alone. The Lord is always near.
While I’ve had plenty of weak moments, asking why and even questioning God, I’ve also found comfort in His grace and the gospel, finding my hope in Him instead of all the things I’m tempted to look for hope in. He isn’t just in control of all things, He also loves me. Even in my darkest moments, I can look to Christ and find hope. There’s much I don’t understand. I do know, however, that His ways are good, His ways are loving, His ways are perfect. Take comfort in this.
On this episode of Theology Gals Coleen and Ashley discuss Christmas. The gals talk about whether we should participate in religious and private celebrations of Christmas and how we should approach this holiday from a Reformed perspective.
On this episode of Theology Gals Coleen and Ashley answer your questions. They discuss their thoughts on the Pearl’s, alternative medicine, becoming reformed, when the wife is more interested in theology than her husband and more.
Tim Challies Reviews Created To Be His Help Meet Part 1 & Part 2