Getting Past Theological Differences

(This article previously published by The Odyssey on May 3, 2017)

He can’t possibly be warm enough.

I watched from the living room as my teacher and the other five students moved around the tiny kitchen, getting chai tea or coffee.

The teacher spoke softly, but his strong Australian accent carried his voice farther than anyone else’s.

It was March, snow was still piled high outside, but our teacher wore sandals and a cotton gown. He’d dressed that way for over twenty years since starting as a missionary in India.

This teacher was a regular speaker at the Youth With A Mission base in Cimarron, Colorado. I had been at Cimarron for almost two months at that point, training for a three-month missions trip to Asia.

So far my classmates and I had listened to speakers discuss everything from spiritual warfare to agriculture. This particular teacher’s specialty was multiculturalism in missions. Several people had described him as an unusual teacher.

Finally, everyone got their snacks and migrated into the living room. We sat in a tight circle, with our teacher’s chair at the head. He sat and softly sipped his tea for a few moments. Then he started telling a true story:

Three missionaries – a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and an Episcopalian – are standing in a river outside a village in India. They’ve done pretty well, people have been very receptive to their message. Now almost everyone in the village, roughly five hundred people, is standing on the river’s banks waiting to get baptized.

The three missionaries keep going down the line, baptizing one person after another, and then they see the next person get into the water and walk toward them.

She’s a young woman, unmarried, and in her arms is her five-month-old son. She walks up and holds her son out, indicating she wants him baptized.

The Baptist and Presbyterian missionary look at the boy, unsure what to do. They’re both aware the mother is unmarried, which already makes this awkward.

The real issue, though, is that neither Baptists nor Presbyterians believe in infant baptisms.

They could give the mother a short theological thesis on why they won’t baptize infants, but they know such an explanation won’t work. To these villagers, a person isn’t truly a Christian until after he or she has been baptized – so an unbaptized child who grows up in a Christian household is still Hindu, still unsaved. Why must their children stay Hindu while they become Christians?

It’s a different view than many Westerners have, and when missionaries in nearby villages have refused to baptize infants, the result’s always been the same: immediately, every villager who wanted to be baptized leaves.

The crowds on the river’s banks have noticed the pause. Everyone is staring at the missionaries, waiting to see what they’ll do next.

Their next action is going to have drastic consequences on their ministry.

Slowly, the Baptist missionary reaches out and takes the boy.

He passes the boy to the Presbyterian, who passes him along to the Episcopalian.

The Episcopalian reaches into the river, takes a handful of water, and then sprinkles it on the boy’s brow as he says the Rite of Holy Baptism.

One of the missionaries then baptizes the mother, and the line of villagers keeps moving into the river.

For a moment nobody spoke. We just sat there, considering the story’s implications.

Our teacher sipped his tea again and began discussing something else.

* * *

Over the next few months, I struggled with the story. Not only did it mess with my views on infant baptism, it raised an uncomfortable question: can Christians compromise on denominational beliefs?

Regardless of which group Christians identify with, every Christian has opinions about certain topics. Since they concern religion, Christians usually have strong emotional feelings behind these opinions.

Is there a place for compromise then? I wondered.

Is there a point where Christians have to be willing to put aside opinions and focus on working with different people?

For many Christians throughout history, the answer has been a resounding “No!” Sometimes they may have been right. There may be occasions when Christian groups drift so far from the truth there must be some kind of reform.

Coming from a Protestant background, I believe if reform doesn’t happen, then people have a legitimate reason to leave.

But even as a Protestant, I know that that’s not why many Christians fight with each other. Many times, Christians fight because they believe they are right about something and react violently against anyone who disagrees.

As a storyteller, I’ve become very attuned to just how hateful Christians can be when they disagree about following God in the arts. I’ve read about artists who struggle in churches because other Christians tell them “real” Christian artists only write things like worship music or VeggieTales.

In some cases, the other Christians become downright brutal in their criticisms.

For a religion whose founder prayed that his followers would have complete unity, Christianity has had many hateful practitioners.

Where is the halfway point then? I asked myself. How do Christians get along with each other when they completely disagree on certain things?

* * *

I should fold laundry. No, I’ll wait.

I was sitting on a futon in my college dorm room, close to the window so I could read. I occupied about a third of the futon, the rest was covered in homework and clothing I’d recently removed from a dryer. One of my roommates was on the other side of the room playing a video game.

I had been a student at this Christian college for almost seven months, the same one I’d been planning to attend after finishing YWAM Cimarron’s program. I’d taken various classes so far, from photography editing to Biblical literature.

In the midst of my school work, I’d looked for books or articles about Christians isolating Christian artists. One article had cited Os Guinness’ book “Fit Bodies Fat Minds”, so I’d found a copy.

I had discovered Guinness’ book was about how evangelical Christians are generally anti-intellectual, but it contained tidbits of wisdom on other issues.

I was in the middle of a chapter on “thinking Christianly,” where Guinness talked about how easy it was for many Christians to go from thinking “this is the Christian way” to “anyone who disagrees with my way is not a Christian.”

Suddenly I stopped and reread a certain passage:

God has not spoken definitively to us about everything. Obviously, he did not intend to. Thus if it is an error for some Christians to make relative what God has made absolute, it is equally an error for others to make absolute what God has left relative. Put differently, where God has not spoken definitively we can legitimately say, “This conclusion (or policy or lifestyle) is not Christian.” But it is not legitimate to go further and say, “This conclusion (or policy or lifestyle) alone is Christian.”

I set the book down for a moment. Finally, I had my answer.

I could get along with Christians who had different theological views by realizing we could both be wrong.

There are things the Bible makes clear, and things which the Bible makes not so clear. When that happens, Christians have to form their own opinions on the not-so-clear things. Christians should also have good reasons why they have those opinions.

But in the end, an opinion is simply a person’s own view. Views may be well-intentioned, but they are not quite Gospel.

I say that as someone who really doesn’t like admitting I could be wrong.

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