Thursday, December 20, 2007

Truth and Relationships: A Distinction?

I've been asked to write about what I will call a "perceived distinction" between doctrine and relationships. I don't really like doing this because it should not be necessary to "reconcile friends". The question I've been asked to address is, "Which one of these two is higher?". Ideally, the question should not have to be asked. But, we do not live in ideal situations, even in churches, so it evidently takes some work to understand how the friendship between these two works. So, here goes! (I've learned over the years that a lot of patient participation is needed to have this discussion, so I hope there will be a few comments).

Two Bible passages have inevitably been used whenever I have been in this discussion: John 1:14 (grace and truth) and Ephesians 4:15 (truth in love). Somehow a dichotomy gets superimposed over these verses. The dichotomy gets expressed in ways like this: (1) "There are 'truthers' and there are 'lovers'", or (2) "There are 'gracers' and there are 'truthers'", or (3) "We need to keep truth and love (or grace and truth) in balance" (kind of a 50/50 thing). The assumption seems to be that people who are more focused on truth do not tend to be loving or gracious, and, conversely, people who are grace/love oriented are not very concerned about truth (usually meaning doctrine). I suspect the reason for the imposition of the dichotomy is that there ARE people who tend to neglect one side or the other. Then the idea of "balance" is suggested as the answer to the problem. But "balance" actually makes bad matters worse because it implies the lessening of one for the increasing of the other ( i.e. "Don't be so concerned about doctrine - you need to become more relational" - which is usually the way it goes these days; or "Don't be so involved with people - you need to be studying/reading more"). In reality, both sides of these verses are to be viewed as one whole, not a dichotomy. If there is a "balance" it better be a 100/100 one - to be 50% truthful suggests that the other 50% is something other than love. The believer in Christ should never seek to be less than completely truthful, loving, and gracious.

Another way to reveal that there should not be a dichotomy would be to juxtapose terminology in our common usage. We could (and should) refer to the mass of biblical data on relationships (like most of the book of Proverbs, Ephesians 4:25-6:9, Matthew 5-7 as examples among hundreds) as "The Doctrine of Relationships". Wouldn't this be great as a necessary part of the systematic theology curriculum (instead of dividing it off into counselling or some other department)? Or, as we live out friendships, why do we not think of our times together as "theological occasions" ( what a great name for a party! - OK, you may think I've gone too far now:-))? In this light, check out Section Four of my book "Childlike Faith" dealing with communal interpretation <>.

But, what happens when this is not working properly, which may be a lot of the time? I have asked myself many times, is there any biblical precedent/teaching for rightly sacrificing doctrinal truth in order to save relationships? I have not found any. I also have asked, is there any biblical precedent/teaching for rightly sacrificing relationships in order to save doctrinal truth? I have found, with tears, significant models for this. In a real way, the intent of this sacrifice of a relationship is ultimately to save the relationship too.

Titus 1:9 - 2:1 People who contradict sound doctrine are to be rebuked
Romans 16:17-18 People who cause division by differing from approved teaching are to be avoided
Proverbs 28:23 Rebuke is necessary to preserve relationships
II Corinthians 6:17 - 7:1 "come out"/ "be separate" - "having these promises"

There are negative examples, too, of times when a separation does not occur and one's life is damaged as a result (i.e. Lot not leaving Sodom in a timely fashion). Enough said about this for now.

The result of this line of thought is that doctrine and relationships must go together. But, when there is a breakdown in this whole, truth (including the Doctrine of Relationships) must assume the highest priority. One might ask, "But isn't love the greatest?" (1 Cor, 13:13). Yes, love is the greatest out of faith, hope, and love! But, love "rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor.13:6). Love is higher than faith and hope, but it must be governed by truth, which makes truth greater. The prophet Amos asked this question - "How can two walk together except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3). It is shared truth that builds shared love.


  1. good thoughts, keith.

    what relationship is more important that our relationship to Christ? and john 15 lays out how that relationship comes...

    "I am the True Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser."

    when Jesus begins His discourse about abiding with Him, He does not say:

    Hang out with Me and you'll eventually understand that I am the vine.


    If you would just spend time with Me, you'll see that I am the Vine.

    no. instead, Jesus says, To abide in Me, you must first understand this propositional truth. (interestingly too, the truths you must understand first start with who God and Jesus are, and then works toward who we are.)

    our relationship with Christ is first built upon truth. and the Scriptures lay out (1 John 1) that our fellowship with one another is built out of fellowship with Christ.

    you're right. we'd don't need to reconcile friends. we should be stating that relationships without truth are only perceived relationships...not real fellowship.

  2. You argue in the first half of the post that there should be no dichotomy between love and truth (correctly so, I believe) but then assume that there must and will be "breakdowns" and when there is that truth trumps love.

    I disagree. When there is a breakdown, the soultion must be to put the two back together, not pit one against the other. I believe that a christian can never willingly choose to be unloving or untruthful. Ever. My summary for years has been "Never be so loving that you are untruthful. Never be so truthful you are unloving."

    Satan can speak truth when it suits his purpose, but he is never motivated by love.

    Being truthful apart from love does not make a person righteous any more than being loving apart from truth. The truth is that I am commanded to love and love "does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth." (I Cor 13:6) It is not love that causes us to neglect truth, but fear.

    Mercy-givers and shepherds tend to prioritize love over truth. Prophets and teachers tend to emphasize truth over love. Both tendencies fall short of the glory of God. To be Christlike is to embrace love and truth. Nothing less is defensible.

    Old Reverend Pharoah

  3. One other thing...

    I would add Romans 12:9-21 to the texts on the "Doctrine of Relationships" course. It is the "how to" of maintaining Christian relationships in truth and love.

    I would also includeGalatians 5:19-21 which is the list of things which are always wrong and verses22-23 which are the things against which there is no law; they are always appropriate. Embracing the second list and avoiding the first is only possible for those who have accomplished v. 24, which is the door to verses 25-26.

    I actually teach a course similar to a "Doctrine of Relationships" The outline covers "Our relationship with God, our spouse, our family, our church, and our comunity, in that order.

    You said you were hoping for comments. :>)


  4. Thanks Rev . . .

    I am not really sure of how you are saying anything really different from what I have said. I don't think you mean that when we are attempting to put the two back together that love trumps truth, do you? You are trying to put them together as they are intended to be.

    I do not agree that Satan speaks truth but is not motivated by love. I would suggest that Satan uses truth, bends truth, speaks half-truths, etc. He is the father of lies and masquerades as an angel of light. So, he only appears to be telling the truth. In the same way, in his treacherous deceit, he may masquerade as being loving. Thus, the emphasis among "professed Christians" on "let's just ignore our differences and love one another." I think we agree that that is neither truth nor love. That is what I am reacting to in the article, and it is, I think, the majority opinion (error) among professed Christians.

    So, I agree, truth without love is not really truth, and, love without truth is not really love.

  5. Hi again Rev . . .

    I meant to commend you for your course on relationships, and the additional Scripture references. You're right, and there are many more still!!

    I appreciate your comments. This is a hard topic to discuss because we all tend to have some presuppositions about both the terminology and the concepts, but we can only assume for a while that others do not really use the words and concepts in the same way until we talk awhile. For example, I am certainly not implying by maintaining that "truth trumps love" that there is ever an occasion at which the believer should become unloving for any reason, and certainly not deliberately. I'm sorry if I gave that impression. But, and I'd love to hear if you agree, my observation is that the great danger of our day is to jettison sound doctrine in the name of relationships. I am trying to counter that, not by suggesting that we should ever be unloving, but that love is governed, defined, and measured by truth.

  6. Just one more little thing. I'm developing a new pet peeve. For years now whenever I hear someone say that we must be separate from those we disagree with or from those we deem to be heretics, Amos 3:3 is trotted out like some divine command to be obeyed rather than a rhetorical question being used to illustrate a point. Am I missing something, or is this verse getting misused and abused more than Jeremiah 29:11? (one of my other pet peeves.) :>)

  7. Steve . . .

    I agree that Amos 3:3 has been misused. As I stated in the article, it is a question, not a command. I think the point of the question is that there is a fundamental reality in our experience - we will spend more time with/cooperate with to a greater extent people with whom we share greater agreement. This is a principle of life, not a command to obey. It is not a verse about separation, except to the extent that it reminds us that separations will functionally occur, and that is OK. So, I think the verse does point out that there is a sliding scale of relational experience that is proportional to shared truth. That is not something I make happen -it just happens.

  8. A few years ago in a sermon my pastor said, "In essential areas, unity; In non-essential areas, liberty; In all things, love." How can we rightly sacrifice truth in an essential area in order to preserve a relationship? To do so would simply show our cowardice in confronting the issue and our lack of belief that God can use such boldness to transform. Conversely, how can we rightly sacrifice relationship in order to preserve perceived truth in a non-essential area? Certainly the Bible even notes that some areas of doctrine are of more vital importance (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Remember there were some in Ephesus who delved into disputed, unimportant areas of geneology/OT Theology only to find themselves rebuked by Paul (1 Timothy 1:4). To make this applicable to our contemporary scene, consider a scholar like R.C. Sproul, with whom you would probably disagree on several areas. Yet could you not profit from spending time with such a Christian man who contributed mightily to Christian academics? And if you were to spend time with the esteemed Dr. Sproul, would you not consider him a brother despite his differing eschatological views? Ultimately would it not be wrong to chastise and censure Dr. Sproul because of his beliefs in that disputed arena, an area in which Christians have held numerous differing positions over the years? Now notice I did not say eschatology was unimportant or that one's position was irrelevant. Rather, the point was that in non-essential areas we must value relationship over agreement, even while recognizing that - humanly speaking - those who agree will be more likely to partner together. So should we not distinguish among the issues as to which are essential to maintain relationship without confrontation and which are not? In closing, a point about the Romans 16 passage cited. While the text does not state the content of their teaching other than its differing from previous teaching, it does tell us that these men are smooth talkers who use flattery to deceive the naive. Should we not look for those three characteristics if we are seeking to apply that imprecation against someone in our contemporary setting?

  9. Dear Anonymous . . .

    First, yes, we should look for all three of your characteristics from Romans 16. Doctrine and life cannot be separated.

    Second, regarding R.C. Sproul - I have shared in meetings, fellowship, and discussion with him in a number of venues since 1974. I concur that that I have learned from him and appreciate a significant portion of his teaching. In proportion to our agreement we have had some good fellowship. You are right to say that he and I would disagree in many areas of eschatology. But, consider as an example, Sproul's comment in his introduction to Ken Gentry's book Perilous Times, in which Sproul rejoices that the book will be "a death knell to dispensationalists" and suggests that it will put the last nail in dispensationalisms "coffin". That sounds aggressive and antagonistic to me, not very agreeable. If someone refuted Gentry's book in order to preserve his own eschatological life against the rather ungracious attack of Sproul, would that automatically be considered unloving? Clearly the preterists are not willing to lay down their weapons on the eschatological battlefield.

    Third, I refer to your question - "So should we not distinguish among the issues as to which are essential to maintain relationship without confrontation and which are not?". I think probably all believers do this in some ways all the time, because there are probably no two of us who agree on everything in the Bible. My struggle is the "distinguish" part of your question; which things in the Word of God are non-essential or less essential? Is not every word of the Bible essential? How do we go about distinguishing? How do we decide where to draw the line? I really do struggle with this.

  10. Dr. Shearer,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. The reason I asked about the lifestyle qualifications in Romans 16 was because of this deeper question. Suppose you, as a pastor, were to leave your current ministry (just hypothetically here) and assume another senior pastor role in a church whose previous ministers had all taught preterism (another strong leap of logic, to be sure, but at least the scene is set). In the course of shepherding that congregation into the truth, I would assume you would at some point address that eschatological position that you find faulty and attempt to re-teach them what you would consider a more biblically faithful position on eschatology. Now imagine a long-term member of that church appealing to Romans 16, saying, "This new pastor is putting an obstacle in our way by teaching contrary to what we have learned." I would assume you would say that such an assertion is invalid, because sometimes Christians, churches and even denominations can hold to theological positions that need to be challenged and corrected. So then, if the teaching this hypothetical church had received for generations concerning eschatology was wrong, we surely could not appeal to Romans 16 against you as pastor seeking a return to biblical truth. Moreover, in this instance it would be especially important to keep your life free from any flattery and smooth talking or a focus on persuading first to your eschatological position those more naive in matters of doctrine. Such an action would provide a double safeguard in that (a) you were attempting to correct error with truth but also (b) you were not guilty of the things that characterized the men in Romans chapter 16, so even if some in the church did not like your position contra their old ministers, you could point out to them that their appeals to Romans 16 were baseless since the necessary actions that accompanied the differing teaching were missing. All that grand story to say, if you as pastor felt the need to correct some previous biblical misunderstanding in a church, how can this be done without becoming the obstacle spoken of in Romans 16?

    Secondly, I appreciate your honesty in saying 'I really do struggle with this,' in speaking of where to draw the line on distinguishing essential from non-essential. Certainly every word of Scripture is God-breathed and useful. But yet God also included a section in the Bible like Acts chapter 15, where the apostles whittled down to four essentials the required accomodations of Gentile believers in disputed areas. In 1 Cor. 15, the apostle Paul calls some doctrines "as of first importance." Does that not imply a level of secondary or even tertiary importance? Put simply, when you find yourself in disagreement with another believer over a theological matter, what matters of theology are so vital that you would confront the differing area vs. what matters would you agree to disagree about so that the friendship could continue unimpeded? And can this be done while still holding that every area of Scripture is essential or else God would not have included it?

  11. Hi again, Anonymous . . .

    I really hope your hypothetical scenario is truly hypothetical! Wow!

    First, I probably should say that in the selection process between a church and her pastor, great care should be given to all kinds of details and issues. This kind of doctrinal discussion should occur during that process, not after the decision is made. The elders of the flock (Acts 20) have a biblical responsibility to safeguard the doctrine of the church, and the flock has a biblical responsibility to respect and obey the elders (Hebrews 13:17). If the elders and congregation felt that strongly about preterism, they should have said so, and not received this hypothetical pastor (me!?) as their pastor. Is that a form of separation? I suppose so. But it makes for peace. At the same time, the pastor should have checked and discovered this problem ahead of time ... and not accepted the pastorate of this church. He is in this situation because of his own neglect. If he finds himself in this situation now, the honorable thing to do would be for him to leave. Sometimes separation is the only way (not the best way) to maintain peace, to which we are also called (Col.3:15, 1 Cor.14:33).

    Now, for discussion sake, let us assume this pastor knew the situation ahead of time and went there anyway. If he related his intent to try to change this congregation's eschatology (or any other doctrine, philosophy of ministry, or even methodology) up front, and they agree and hired him anyway, they must now submit (Heb.13:17). If they will not, the pastor has a serious decision to make. He could resign, sacrifice himself, to keep the peace. In that situation, God will likely take His hand of blessing off of this dishonest and arrogant congregation, and bless the pastor somewhere else. Or, the pastor could bring his unjust accusers under church discipline for their dishonesty (because they had agreed). The goal of discipline is restoration (Gal.6:1), but often separation does occur, even if it is temporary. This must be done with love and sensitivity, but it probably is the only way to save this congregation from disaster.

    If the congregation agreed up front to the proposed change, and the pastor proceeds slowly and carefully with great grace and love, he might be able to pull this off. But I am not at all in favor of trying to sneak changes in on unsuspecting congregations - I do not believe that is "love rejoicing with truth".

    One more run at this . . . Maybe there is some unspoken assumption that the pastor discovers after he starts his ministry at this church (whether doctrinal or otherwise), and the pastor believes this needs to be corrected. It will probably not be this major a matter of eschatology. Let's say it is that he discovers a differing view on the future rebuilding of Babylon than his own (in Iraq? Rome?). There will always be matters that require slow, patient, careful instruction. Even if there is never complete agreement, I think there can and should be peace and love.

    My last paragraph does imply that I agree with you that there are teachings of varying importance in the Bible. All are essential, but not all are setting up the contours of sound doctrine. In your example, futurism vs. preterism very definitely sets up the contours for one's (or a church's) understanding of eschatology. Whether rebuilt Babylon is in Iraq or Rome does not - this teaching will still be essential, but it will fit inside the futurist contour either way. That is how I try to struggle my way through this.

    I agree, then, that there are varying kinds of significance/importance to biblical teachings. But, I cannot allow that some biblical teachings are more true than others, or more essential in terms of God's revelation. So, not levels of truth but levels of significance. I cannot just say "eschatology" is less significant than, let's say "soteriology", for a huge part of soteriology is eschatological. As an example (you may disagree if you please), when I have observed someone depart from the truth of the Eternal Security of the True Believer, I have made a mental prediction in my mind that it will not be long before they depart from the Pre-Seventieth-Week of Daniel Rapture truth as well, because the misunderstanding of grace that leads to both denials is the same (it happens the other way around too). This kind of thinking is necessary to experience church well and do ministry well.

    There must be agreement within a church or ministry on their common understanding of the contours of doctrine. Often this is called a Statement of Faith or Doctrinal Statement. Within the authority structure of that church/fellowship of churches/ministry there must be agreement to the level of the contours or there will be confusion and maybe anarchy.

    Outside of our churches/ministries we will only successfully cooperate to our level of agreement with other believers, with whom we disagree. I have a good, longstanding friend who is a preterist, postmillenialist, and also a career missionary in another country. I love him, I pray for him, and I enjoy fellowship with him when I am with him. But, he could not be a member of my church, we could not plant a church together, and I do not give him any money to support his ministry (he would respond the same way - I would probably take the money if he offered it:-)). I have many friends like this. Is this okay?
    Or am I still not loving enough?

    I'm sure that much more should still be said, and I've probably prompted more questions. But I'm going to stop for now, and see what the responses are.