3. Division is not always a bad thing

I am a Calvinist, others are Arminian. I believe in a premillenial eschatology, others are amillinial. I am a traducianist with regards to the creation of the soul, others are creationists. I believe in inerrancy, others believe that this is an archaic naive doctrine. There are many points of doctrinal division that I am going to have with people, some of which are much more important than others.

Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Who is causing this disunity in the body of Christ, them or me? Do these division demonstrate the doctrinal bankruptcy of sola Scriptura? Should we elect of a Pope of Protestantism?

There are a few different ways that I could answer this.

  1. Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied deep enough (lack of scholarship).
  2. Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied broad enough (lack of perspective).
  3. Others don’t agree with me because they have not studied long enough (lack of wisdom).
  4. Others don’t agree with me because their traditional prejudices have created a learning disability that keeps them from the truth (lack of freedom of thought).
  5. Others don’t agree with me because they have sin in their life that is blinding them to the truth (lack of holiness).
  6. Others don’t agree with me because we don’t have an infallible authoritative interpreter of Scripture that would bring doctrinal unity?
  7. Others don’t agree with me because they are not Christian. If they were, well . . . they would agree with me! (lack of salvation).

Generally speaking, I do not default to these possibilities. Don’t get me wrong, these are all possibilities. It could be that people deny the truth (assuming that my position is such) due to ignorance, lack of perspective or wisdom, traditional bindings, sin, lack of authority, or a presupposition of godlessness. But I think we need to be careful about any negative prejudgments about people motives and the ultimate reasons for disagreements.

Here are the considerations that I would aspire to make before I draw upon the former possibilities.

Others don’t agree with me because they are right and I am wrong.

Granted, I am convicted I am right. If this were not the case I would simply change my position. But the possibility always exists that I am the one who is in error, being misinformed, motivated by false pre-understandings, traditionally bound, or lacking perspective. I must consider this with great humility, as hard as it is to do.

There are some things that I am more sure of than others. For example, I am less likely to be wrong about the existence of God than I am about the doctrine of inerrancy. It is much more plausible that there is an error in the Scriptures than it is that God does not exist. As well, I am humbled by the fact that there are many things that I used to believe that I no longer believe. I held to these former beliefs with (what seems to be) just as much conviction as many of the beliefs that I hold to now. What do I do with that? In most of those cases, the evidence, or lack there-of, militated against my previous doctrinal commitments forcing me to make hard adjustments. For example, I used to believe that if someone did not accept the doctrine of inerrancy, they were not Christian. This was due to my fundamentalist presuppositions no doubt, but when faced with the evidence that there are many people out there who do not hold to inerrancy, yet loved and trusted the same Christ as me, my position had to either change or slumber in the bedroom of naivety. I still have those decisions to make. It is called learning.

What I must realize is this: there is not one belief that I hold to which is protected by infallibility. Infallibility is the other side of the coin of absolute certainty. Absolute certainty can only be held by those who have all the information and are interpreting it correctly. To be infallible means that you cannot fail. Since I am not infallible, by definition, I can fail. All of my beliefs are subject to my attribute of fallibility. There is no one who possesses infallibility. Even Roman Catholics, as we have said, who try to alleviate themselves of this reality by trusting in the dictates of an infallible magisterial authority such as the Pope inevitably face the same problem since their own trust in the infallible authority of the Pope is fallible. The same holds true for Evangelicals and our infallible Bible. Our belief in the Bible is fallible, even if the Bible itself is not. No one can escape their own fallibility. Therefore we all could be wrong. We are left to rely on a process of examining and weighting the evidence and following it wherever it leads. This will often cause us to change our beliefs.

Therefore, serious consideration must always be made of the proposition that people don’t agree with me because I am the one who is wrong.

Others don’t agree with me because God does not want us to agree, irrespective of who is right.

This may sound odd, but we must consider it. I said earlier that I was a Calvinist. While this does not give me exclusive right to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, it does require me to consider what part it might play in the question Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? What I am really asking is this: Why isn’t everyone unified around the truth?

I believe that it is a real possibility—even likely—that God does not want absolute doctrinal unity. In fact, practically speaking, I think it would do more harm than good. I believe that doctrinal disagreements are healthy for the church. When there is conflict between opposing options, the issue at hand is understood at a more profound level than is possible in the absence of the conflict. Conflict, in the end, can bring about a deeper conviction of the truth. When there is no conflict, there is no iron sharpening iron.

I am not in any sense trying to relativize the truth, but to help us to understand that wrong beliefs, even our own, could be serving the purpose of God and bringing Him more honor than we recognize. It is often said that heresy is God’s gift to the church. Why? Because when a false option is presented the truth becomes much clearer. In contrast there is clarity. In clarity there is conviction.

It is for this reason that we must be continually engaged with alternative options. As hard as it is to engage in beliefs that go against our present convictions, we need to recognize the value of the struggle. Herein lies what I believe to be one of the greatest strengths of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura—it presents the opportunity to wrestle with the issues at a level that is not allowed for in magisterial based traditions.

What I am saying is this: it may actually be God’s sovereignty that brings about division over the doctrine of God’s sovereignty! This does not mean that wrong belief is always justified. Neither does it mean that we need to be content with agnosticism or lessen our conviction about any doctrinal issue. To the contrary. It means that we engage in it more vigorously than we did before, being confident that God has a dignifying reason for conflict resulting from diversity.

We have learned to celebrate diversity in every area of life. We celebrate the diversity of the sexes. Men: We know that we are always right, but can you imagine a world where women did not contribute to a balanced perspective? That is horrifying. Women, can you imagine the opposite (don’t answer that!). Think of the diversity among personalities, nations, political parties, age groups, and cultures. While we may believe that our opinion is correct (and it may be), from a certain perspective we can appreciate the allowance for a dissension in values, beliefs, and practices. Understanding diversity can often cause us to see that the answer to many issues is going to be more of a both/and rather than an either/or. We could both be right and we could both be wrong.

In the end, if God is in control then the answer to my question is relatively simple. Why doesn’t everyone agree with me? Because it is not God’s will for them to. It is to His glory. Why? His will is better accomplished through diversity. In this I think we can learn to celebrate diversity without yielding to the postmodern matrix of relativism or apathy.

Advocates of sola Scriptura appreciate disagreements, but we also need to be careful about making the division created by such too wide.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    5 replies to "In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Eight(b) – What about all the divisions?"

    • Leslie

      Thought-provoking post, Michael. Thanks!

    • Karen

      The cobwebs of my mind rejoice in your broom. Thank you Michael!

    • Dr. G.

      Yes; there are even BIble passages that support the idea that “God does not want doctrinal”unity. Like the parts where He says, in proximity to discussions about churches, that there are “many branches”; and that no one will know which are dead wood, until they are tested by “fire,” in the End.

    • Jonathan

      Hello Michael,
      I think a good case could also be made that division is a horrible thing in the church. The apostles warned against false teachers coming in. There was the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to sort out whether or not you had to become a Jew to become a Chrstian – not leaving the issue to be decided by individual Christians. Jesus’ last, most profound prayer in John 17 includes a plea for unity from God for all of us who follow Christ. I totally agree with you that there must be heresies among us, but for there to be division on such essential issues like salvation and Christ in the Eucharist and baptism? I’m not so sure.

    • Simon

      Yes Jonathan, I don’t think Michael is saying that division is always a good thing, but only that it can serve a good purpose.

      Two points about Acts 15. First. appealing to the Apostles who were alive is what Protestants are attempting to do by appealing to their writings. Second, engaging with church leaders, rather than individual Christians simply deciding what to do, is a very wise thing to do, as I’m sure Micheal would agree.


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