This is a continuation of my reflections on my 7 years in Munster (Ireland) working with IFES. You can find part 1 here. This post is part book-review, part reflection – perhaps a bit of an unusual combination for anyone else but me, who does quite a bit of my reflection through reading, and quite a bit of my work while also selling/giving away hundreds of books.
It was the summer before moving to Cork after my Relay internship in Nottingham, and I had a whole 2 months to spend as I wished. My new employer (Christian Unions Ireland) suggested that I don’t pack my summer madly full of teams and exhaust myself before such a big transition, but I still think I found a few weeks to co-lead a Beach Mission team for the first time in Tramore, County Waterford. What was one to do with the remainder of time?
Well, an invitation came up from a Cambridge University lecturer to chauffeur a visiting family, prominent in evangelical circles in America. Having not driven a car since passing my test, many years before, my desire to meet this family, and to live alongside them in a 5 star lifestyle for a week or two, outweighed any common sense that would have said no. And so there I was. Many travel stories could be told about those weeks, but as this is a book review, I better get to my point. At the end of that holiday I was sent a book by the family “A hill on which to die” by a Southern Baptist evangelical man who had stood strongly against liberalism in the church and had fought to swing the denomination back from error, by holding out the Bible as the inspired word of God.
If the account contained in that book was anything near the truth, I could be very thankful for such a stand of truth made in challenging and bitter circumstances, even if I did not always agree on the spirit in which the battles were fought – but who am I to know how I would behave in such heated years of debate and political gameplay?
It made me think a lot about what was worth spending my life on. There are so many good causes clamouring for our attention that affect millions of people. There were about to be many things I could spend my time and energy on, in a region which didn’t have much student work and still (despite much growth) only had a young and fledgling church scene.
Some groups that year would try and persuade me that creationism (6 day creation) was worth going to the stake for. Because if one loses that, they said, one loses the very trustworthiness of the scriptures.
Some individuals that year would try and persuade me that Luther was completely wrong to have a theology of the cross, and that a theology of glory (abundant miracles, over-realised eschatology etc.) could be radically different to that of the cross and still be the perfect way to walk as a Christian.
That was also the year that settling in a Baptist Church also meant I couldn’t become a member and have any voting rights or part in the leadership of the church, as I was a Presbyterian by conviction. Should I be baptised, just because they wouldn’t have me in? Or did I have to go to the Presbyterian Church or set one up anywhere I went in life?
Soon in my time, I was being labelled an egalitarian (in terms of the role of women in church life), simply because I spent time discipling and investing in women and making sure they had opportunity to grow in Bible handling and exercising their gifts in various ways. Similar assumptions were later made about my (lack of) trust in the Holy Spirit, as I had not been ‘baptised of the Spirit’ in the way a second-blessing charismatic might be happy with, and so I was assumed to be devoid of true spirituality.
Sadly even recently, it was me who jumped very quickly on things that a pastor wrote on social media, not understanding his friends or the context into which he was writing, and instead sensing an opportunity for my heresy heron to find something to publicly challenge.
And for every hard story, there have been encouragements and much grace shown to me. My Baptist church in Cork who (although denying me membership) let me lead a homegroup at times, preach in the church, shape the evangelism strategy at points and lead services regularly. And having been invited to lecture at a Pentecostal (Nigerian) Bible College for a few days, it was the organisers who persuaded the students to listen to me, despite me not having been baptised of the spirit at a second point in life (post-conversion) – that was a secondary issue, according to them – I had all I needed for life and Godliness already. And even those who would try to persuade me that creationism was an essential doctrine, would let my agnosticism (along with firm convictions on God’s word and God having created out of nothing) in to their fold in the end.
And these are just a few of the theological positions that one is encouraged to have strong views on. I am thankful that I have been nurtured in a gospel church all my life (in Belfast, Nottingham and Cork) that valued Godly character perhaps even more than agreement on secondary beliefs. I have been raised in a family where listening to diverse opinions on non-central issues was encouraged and demonstrated – where holding various beliefs in tension was not a problem. The heritage of Christianity that I have been brought up with, and the warm gospel heart of grace it came with, has let me explore theology and drink of the deepest wells and most profound literature. It has left me able to spend hours, days, weeks, even months exploring some debated topics, and even then not always coming to firm conclusions straight off. “If I just read this one more book, then I’ll make up my mind…” went my line of thought normally. One book later, I was often just as perplexed!
Of course when jousting with the world’s experts (or at least watching them joust, thinking I am gallantly riding in with them!) on topics that I am reading about for the first time, it is not a surprise that I was not immediately able to see a clear position to take on some of these issues. But I have appreciated the chance to wrestle for years with these topics and gradually increase my convictions on where I stand on many things.
But I am a rare case (in many ways, you might say). Not many have such theological resources at their fingertips (in English and in wealth). Not many spend years delving into finer points of theological nuance, before they have to make decisions in order to get on with life.
It is into this that Gavin Ortlund writes, and writes fantastically.
What is a primary issue? What is a secondary issue? Do secondary issues matter? What is a tertiary issue? Do some theological truths change from being one level to another level depending on circumstance? What churches ought to put aside differences and unite? What theological truths are important enough to be wiser to stay apart?
Gavin comes from an unashamedly reformed position (not that it is obvious throughout the book), though interestingly has found himself outside of normal denominational parameters in the convictions he has reached on various points. He therefore is a good sparring partner and hopes to get us flexing our theological muscles and our generous spirit, rather than agreeing with him on everything he believes!
He helps us firm our convictions on some major points (he follows Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, amongst other things) but is beautifully experiential in realising that not everyone can state theology or understand theological statements on primary issues, yet may still believe them in their heart (quoting John Owen and others on that topic). But on other points he aims to persuade us that there are more grounds for diverse views within a faithful church that many of use care to believe or practice on a day to day basis.
His work was a rare gem on a topic I rarely see tackled, that fits perfectly into one of the great strengths of the Christian Union movement in Ireland (and IFES beyond) where the Doctrinal Basis that speakers and committees are asked to sign-up to, is as broad as the gospel allows on primary issues, but as narrow as the gospel demands also. Figuring out what is primary and what is secondary (or tertiary) is indeed what every young leader spends a lot of time wrestling with. Some need to stop being heresy hunters in every meeting. Others need to learn to take a stand against theological error (even at the expense of friendships and other costly things) that will destroy God’s people long-term if it is allowed to persist.
But beyond the CUs this book is one that is hugely needed too. As the Presbyterian Church in Ireland perceivably go to loggerheads with each other over whether female leadership is a primary or secondary issue, as the Association of Baptists in Ireland recently debated at a leadership gathering whether to let paedobaptists like me into membership, and as the Church of Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland face battles against liberalism, this topic is a timely one. Not to mention the need to increase theological conviction in many within the new independent and charismatic churches in Ireland, and the increasing secularism in the north which will mean unless similar church denominations agree collectively on a strategy to shut (and plant) churches, many resources will be wasted and the Church will suffer at the hands of reluctant denominational committees, all holding out on their precious secondary (and tertiary) beliefs, unwilling to budge.
The awkward thing is, that when one starts to realise how much of the gospel is of primary importance, and how much we hold dear is actually just cultural or tertiary beliefs, one starts to realise that one has spent an awful lot of life living ungenerously towards others, choosing to not love them well, by not seeking to better understand them and their position.
And indeed it can be one of the greatest blessings of travel too. It opens one’s eyes to the whole world, to vastly different cultures, and to the persecuted church. And when one sees with new eyes, with the voice of the persecuted church in one ear, and the many Unengaged People Groups in the other ear, it is very hard to start fighting theological battles constantly over minutia of doctrine that don’t appear all that central in scripture.
But without leaving Munster, I am indebted to several (unofficial) mentors, who demonstrated several principles to me so well and bore with my naïve understanding of this topic with incredible grace:
- Is what you are opposing really what the other person believes? Is your articulation of their belief the fairest or most generous account you could give of it?
- Is this the hill upon which to die?
- Am I the person who ought to do this?
- Is this the right time?
- Is this the best spirit in which this can be done?
Perhaps two small areas which I felt Gavin (in a marvelous book) could have spent a bit longer on:
- How God has sovereignly used mistake after mistake, mis-emphasis upon mis-emphasis, to still bring about his good purposes in this world
- The difference between heresy and mistaken belief (or convictionally being different on a secondary issue)
The first is as much because I feel the weight of it on my own heart – what glorious grace that has brought me to where I am, and what grace I will need to go any further. The second perhaps because the word “heresy” is chucked around an awful lot, when we actually mean “if he were to continue in that belief and not hold it in tension with other doctrines, one would logically be heading down a path to heresy”. Such ultra-logical frameworks often over-exaggerate the way someone arrives at convictions in life, but sometimes can be helpful to perceive where something could lead.
But having promised my wife (recently married) that I’ll sell some of my books, and having lost my student audience to loan and sell second-hand books to, I feel bad to say that I think I may buy five copies and give them away. But I really might. This one is just so helpful.