The Terminator of Truth
If you come to this church on Sabbath morning but you don’t believe in the validity of the seventh-day Sabbath, what should our board do about that? What if you don’t believe in the virgin birth? Or in the divinity of Jesus? Or the 1844 Sanctuary doctrine? On the one hand, you might say, “Well, people like that wouldn’t even show up here.” But that’s not necessarily true. There have been people who came here for extended periods who weren’t even truly born-again Christians; but they liked the camaraderie, the potlucks, the strong moral foundation here, the community service opportunities this place provided for their children. And all the time, quietly in their hearts, there were things they didn’t believe in concert with their fellow attendees.
I imagine we might all be surprised if every single person here had to write up a full-confession statement of beliefs and then have us post them openly on our web site. Instead of “What We Believe,” we’d have subsections: “What Steve Believes.” “What Nancy Believes.” “What Jose Believes Is Wrong About What Nancy Believes.” And so on. Could the church survive something like that?
A few years ago, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, the final score of 48-21 was substantially overshadowed by an off-the-field football player played by an actor named Lester Speight. If you watch on Super Sunday more to enjoy the competition for “Best Commercial,” this one from Reebok was the hands-down winner of the day. Six feet seven inches, 330 pounds, all hard muscle, and the point of the commercial was that some nameless company had hired Terry Tate the Office Linebacker to be its code enforcer. If you used your company laptop to play solitaire, boom! This guy flattened you with a tackle. If you didn’t get back from lunch in exactly thirty minutes, boom! This lightning-fast monster came flying through the air ready to clothesline you into submission. If your fax didn’t have a cover sheet on it, #56 would tear down the hallway, jump across the line of scrimmage, and boom! “You parked in the boss’s spot again! Boom! You spent twenty minutes uploading pictures to Costco’s photo center on company time. Boom! You turned in an expense report without proper documentation—no restaurant receipt from In-n-Out Burger. Boom!
And for 60 bone-crunching seconds, this #56 was just hurtling across your TV screen, with agonizing “thumps” as he tacked the poor people who made little mistakes here and there.
Well, Reebok really scored a touchdown with the ad, and some viewers were searching the Internet afterwards, wondering: “Who is this guy . . . and can I get him to enforce discipline at my company?” I think some pastoral staffs were putting their heads together and asking: “Can we get him here? We’ll put him out in the parking lot and he can stiff-arm all the latecomers into the sanctuary.” Get in there by 11:00 or I’ll put your spine out of line. One of the Reebok actors told the press that this Lester Speight’s football tackles were absolutely real, not staged. In fact, he said: “Man, the guy hit me so hard I was bleeding.”
There was a Leadership cartoon once, and they must have found a relative of Cousin Lester’s to be the enforcer at Sunday School. I mean, this guy was huge. He looked like a Marine drill instructor: butch haircut, square chin, no-nonsense clip-on tie, tattoo of a church steeple on his muscular biceps. And this man has a new, fragile Christian by the neck, lifting him about two feet off the ground, while about eight other people are quaking in their boots in the background. And this Terminator—I mean, Sunday School teacher—is bellowing at the guy: “Sixty-one? Sixty-ONE? What do you mean, there’s sixty-one books in the Bible? Drop and give me twenty!” And the caption reads: “It quickly became clear that retired General George ‘No Surrender’ Summers was the wrong choice to teach the new members class.”
Well, we’re having a bit of fun here, but have you ever been personally tackled over Bible truth and your particular interpretation of it? Have you ever been forced to run fifty laps because of your faith? If you were driving to church this morning, and thinking to yourself that there are 61 books in the Bible, instead of the correct, true, holy answer of 66—which every good Adventist in the world ought to know . . . I mean, come on, people—should I radio ahead and get the CHP (that’s the Christian Highway Patrol) to pull you over at the next intersection and beat the heresy out of you?
I know that many of us who work in the Lord’s vineyard have experienced prickly encounters with someone who was determined to have their say—and maybe their way—over some Bible teaching or doctrinal interpretation. And armed with a stack of quotations and perhaps even DVDs, they seek out dialogue and debate with friends and strangers alike.
I have had a few of these encounters along the way, and there’s a question I think it is helpful to ask at a certain point in the summit meeting. “Does this debate at your church help . . . or hurt? Is it unifying or dividing the congregation? Is it causing growth or splintering? Is it leading you to pray for the pastor or talk about him behind his back?” And I will say that sometimes new friends who have been prone to do battle have reflected for a moment, and then admitted that maybe they could do more to help heal wounds of division.
Let me ask today: what does this question of doctrinal warfare mean for us in our daily lives? It appears that the early Christian church had both Terry Tate the Reebok Linebacker and General George the Terminator sitting on the front row. Along with Paul, Silas, Barnabas, and Timothy, people like this were right there with their camcorders getting video clips of the drums in the youth division. People were fighting about doctrines that still had the wet ink on the parchment. Notice what Paul writes in Titus 3:
But avoid quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned (vv. 9-11).
Now, this is a deep, complicated, gray-area principle. But we do find here that at least under some circumstances, division on Bible teachings is a dangerous and wrong thing to indulge in. If someone is endlessly tackling the saints in the foyer of the church, or coming to prayer meeting wearing a helmet, Paul seems to be suggesting that they be cut from the team.
BUT . . . now let’s hear a warning that sounds to us like it comes from the other team’s huddle. Paul’s writing now to his friend Timothy; this is from 6:3-5. If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind.
So you notice the apparent awkward contradiction here. On the one hand, Paul tells us that fighting about church teachings is bad. It’s divisive, it’s harmful, it’s unproductive. On the other hand, adhering to false doctrines, and body-checking people with heresy and dangerous interpretations . . . for sure is wrong. So we have: “Don’t fight about truth. If someone is teaching falsehood, stop him.” Truth is important—but controversy over truth is to be avoided. But how can we know if we’re defending truth? After all, every person sitting here today is convinced that the way they see things is truth, the whole truth, and nothing but truth. If it weren’t truth, we’d change our views. Nobody wants to be in error. So it rings a bit hollow to us when Paul comes along from a dusty 2,000 years ago and says: “Listen, you guys, don’t fight about truth. And I know—so I’ll tell you what truth is.”
But, in a sense, he’s correct. The Bible is written by godly men who wrote under the process of inspiration, Holy Spirit-protected truthfulness. So if something is plainly written by a Paul or a John or an Isaiah, we can take those clear statements as incontrovertible truth.
Let me very humbly share a few principles that help us through this difficult topic. And I say this as a person whose own biblical views have been humbled on more than one occasion. I am less sure about some things today than ten years ago, and more sure about others. But one thing we have to prayerfully attempt to do is to discern, with the Bible and God’s help, the difference between necessary truth and other truth.
For example: the Bible unflinchingly tells us that the doctrine of the Resurrection is absolutely vital. It’s not negotiable; it’s not a bargaining chip. It’s not something the Adventist Church could vote out of its 28 Fundamental Beliefs in a future General Conference. Without the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday morning, and the subsequent resurrection of all of God’s faithful saints, there is no Christian Church. The entire edifice falls if that one doctrine gets a crack in it. First Corinthians 15:3: For what I received, Paul writes, I passed on to you AS OF FIRST IMPORTANCE: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. Then verse 14: If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. Case closed. Every time we pastors sit down with God’s Word and begin to craft a sermon for Easter Sabbath, we realize anew that the Bible explicitly establishes the Resurrection as a linch-pin teaching: without it, we lose the doctrine of forgiveness, of eternal life, of heaven, of the Second Coming, of the divinity of Jesus Christ, of the validity of Old Testament prophecy. Everything falls apart without the Resurrection.
So if a guest speaker came here and attacked that teaching, we would be perfectly within our rights—in fact, we would be morally obligated—to show that person to the door. That teaching could not stay here among us even as a discussion. There are some beliefs that are crucial to the faith.
In an essay entitled Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, C. S. Lewis lamented a good half-century ago that sometimes priests and preachers who have lost all faith in the truths of the Bible still wear the cassock and the pastor’s hat, come to church, get a paycheck from the diocese, and then fail to support the belief system that is supporting them. He calls this a form of prostitution, which is a colorful but appropriate metaphor. And then adds this lament: “Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar: he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more.” And notice this sad conclusion: “Missionary to the priest of one’s own church is an embarrassing role.”
I’m gratified as I surf different denominational web sites, and as I read the great books of the Church, that very often we find a strong, unifying, faith-building coherence to the various statements of belief. What are the critical things? The same key pillars are affirmed over and over. I most often read about the love and omnipotence and omniscience of God. About the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments. About the perfect sinlessness of Jesus our Savior and Redeemer and His atoning blood which is totally sufficient to save us in heaven. About the Resurrection. The Second Coming. The doctrine of the Church. The importance of Bible baptism. And the triumph of God’s kingdom over the rebellion caused by Satan. Christians everywhere recognize these teachings as crucial to the faith; and thankfully, most believers who embrace the Word of God don’t find it necessary to endlessly debate those points.
So some doctrines do need to be defended. There are some pillars where, if a dissenter wants to endlessly argue against the Body of Christ, he or she eventually needs to be escorted from the Super Bowl gridiron. “Warn him once, warn him twice,” Paul says, and then that’s it.
And of course, this is itself one of the core questions: what is important? What is crucial? What is it that will threaten the Church itself if left to conquer from within? Some people think that jewelry is a very important issue; others don’t see it that way at all. But the question of jewelry has divided and destroyed many churches. Maybe you don’t care about that question in the least, but if we began to perform same-sex marriages here on Sabbath afternoons, you might have something to say about it. This is our dilemma.
In the introduction to his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis shares how he decided which issues to cover. Which “disputed points,” as he put it, was he going to tackle? And he writes this: “One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such point ‘really matters’ and the other replies: ‘Matter? Why, it’s absolutely essential.’”
What, then, is vital? Obviously, anything that impacts our eternal salvation is important. Anything that casts God’s kingdom in a false light is important. Anything that besmirches the character of God is important.
But some things are not. I have been in Sabbath School classes where the members steered over to some hot political point where the Word of God is eloquently silent! It doesn’t say what we should believe. And yet two sides will get going in heated discussion, and emotions will begin to heat up. After just a few minutes, it sounds like World War III has begun.
The reality is this. The Bible isn’t clear on every question. No one knows the answer to these questions. And I have had to gently come to someone in the parking lot after church and say to them, “Look, let’s not have wars that are unwinnable. First of all, the Bible doesn’t specify. All you had in there were your opinions. We all know what Bible verses are pertinent to the subject; there aren’t going to be any new ones. Secondly, that whole issue only deserves two minutes anyway, especially because it’s unsolvable. It should never get more time than that.” Humble Christians need to agree to not keep snapping our wet towels at our doctrinal adversaries, trying to irritate them into an arm wrestling match.
I have had delightful go-rounds with friends and neighbors over the question of what happens to the soul of a person when they die. They believe the soul goes directly to heaven when you die, and, being a faithful Adventist, I believe in the concept of soul sleep. In both scenarios, it’s either a moment or an apparent moment before you see the face of Jesus. But there is a very real difference of opinion between us.
And so we begin to go at it. I give them Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6. “The dead know not anything.” They hit me with Philippians 1:23: “I desire to depart and be with Christ.” I circle around and come after them with I Thessalonians 4: “The dead in Christ shall rise at the second coming.” They pop me back with II Corinthians 5: “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” and Luke 16: “The rich man and Lazarus.” And after calling it a draw, and getting into it again a month later and calling it a draw, and having a third discussion across the back-yard fence the following Christmas and calling it a draw, I finally come to realize a couple of things.
First of all, the fact that the issue is unresolved doesn’t seem to be threatening our Christianity. This other person is still fully committed to Jesus, and so am I. Secondly, again, we both seem to know all of the Bible verses there are. Unless there is some new Dead Sea scroll discovery that gives us a 67th book of the Bible, we have all the information there is, and still aren’t seeing eye to eye. And I finally come to realize that something in the other person’s past experience makes it hard for him to see this issue in any other way than he does. What seems to me a very coherent and logical and even wise heavenly plan is unsettling to him. A sincere evangelical once said to his Adventist pastor friend across the street, “Sam, when I die I don’t want to just lie there in the dirt; I want to go immediately and be with Jesus.” And who am I to argue with that very good sentiment?
So it is often possible—and wise—that when we dialogue with friends on the other side of the river, we both try hard to rejoice together over the 98% of great Bible truths that we hold in common. There are so many things that we believe in full union; we must ask God to help us try to talk more about those things.
And maybe someone will say to me: “But, Pastor, isn’t it possible that Satan will use the idea of immortal souls to bring about a major deception in the last days?” Yes, that is possible. And all we can do now, while that possible campaign lies in the future, is to love these neighbors of ours and hope that if that day of darkness comes, and lies about God and heaven are sweeping the earth, these new neighborhood friends of ours will remember our visits and gain a new perspective at that time, with the Holy Spirit’s help.
I would like to recommend to you today what the Bible recommends to you today: a gentle andinquiring spirit. We should seek all truth. We should have fellowship Bible studies where we get into the deep and controversial things. It’s a time-honored principle that we shouldn’t air our debates before the general public; that never draws people in. Attack billboards and prophecy brochures that cast aspersions on the beliefs of others are always inappropriate. But here within the family, if we can do so lovingly, sure, let’s study hard. We should explore just as far down the paths of learning as the Holy Spirit enables us to. But as we read from Colossians 3 last week, let’s clothe ourselves with compassion and kindness and humility. Let’s preface our debates with: “I may be wrong. I’m still learning. And isn’t it wonderful that Jesus has saved us and now enables us to study these truths with a perfect absence of fear”?
For many decades our media ministries like the Voice of Prophecy have had to learn the art of presenting all arguments in a gentle frame of humility. There are some evangelical and Catholic-owned radio stations where, if you talk about death and soul sleep and hell in violation of their belief structure, they’ll pull the program. They’ll cancel your contract. So the people involved in scripting those radio messages had to ask God to help them remember that every single day, they were reaching virgin ears who had never heard from the Adventist Church before. They had to build bridges, not blow them up. They wanted to be attractive as well as articulate. As St. Augustine once said: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
Let me close with this. All other issues are subservient to the centrality of Jesus. Jesus is everything. Jesus is our all in all. Jesus is our only hope. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus is the One who is coming again. Let’s place every other issue in its right perspective and place, in the shadow of the life and victory of Jesus.
I believe that all of us who are humbly trying to share Jesus with others are going to win some battles and lose others. There will be those for whom our Bible perspectives will not take hold. The convictions which are so sweet and clear to us will not come into focus in everyone else’s life. And yes, we will stand in frustration on the sidelines as friends we care about go through needless hurt as they battle their own misconceptions.
Yet you and I are God’s steadfast ambassadors. I can only hope and pray that somehow, despite those flashes of helpless pain, these friends of ours will at least hold on to the hand of Jesus. That they will discover, even if childlike, even if imperfect, even if prodigal son-like, the thing that Acts 16:31 talks about: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. And I pray that our time with these precious souls, the gifts of connection that the Holy Spirit creates for us—as He did for Philip and the Ethiopian ruler so long ago—will be positive, healing blessings. I’d like to save everybody I can, and make the others happy. Shall we pray?
Lord, we are acutely aware today of our inexperience, our lack of wisdom. Sometimes we battle enthusiastically over things we know so little about. Help us to lower our voices and raise our level of compassion. Help us to defend our Bibles and not our opinions. And please make us the most diligent to share a friend named Jesus, the one doctrine that ensures salvation. In His name we pray, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.