The Argument Against Arguments
For most of my preaching career I have been obsessed with arguing doctrine. Give me a good debate book with solid syllogisms, quality charts, and flashy speeches, and I’d be happily occupied for at least an afternoon! A large part of me still loves these discussions, and I enjoy dissecting an argument almost as much as I enjoy playing my mandolin!
But in recent years, things have changed for me. As the impossibility of perfect knowledge has become more and more apparent, the appeal of a well thought out syllogism has lost some of its enchantment. What I’ve learned, or perhaps unlearned, is that many of the rock-solid arguments I used to believe simply do not hold water.
Perhaps they make sense if the rules established by the one making the argument are true, but in many cases I do not accept those rules any longer. One example of this is arguments for a pattern of worship. If one operates with the assumption that there is a mandated worship service with five acts that one must perform each week, then one could make a good case that God requires a cappella music only; however, such an assumption is unfounded and is a modern invention.
At one point, I could argue against instrumental music on Sunday morning with the best of them, but now I am not convinced by arguments I once thought were iron-clad.
What about orthodoxy?
Someone may agree with me up to this point and say, “Yes! Human understanding (or private interpretation) is flawed; that’s why we need church tradition. If a doctrine is not in line with orthodoxy, then it should be rejected.”
To me, if there is one thing that church history teaches us it is that when people argue over things that are incomprehensible mysteries (such as the Trinity or transubstantiation) for hundreds of years, then what you get is Constantine, crusades, Discovery Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, slavery, and segregation, all of which was justified by the church in one way or another.
I just don’t see why we should judge our doctrines by the writings of men who produced a church that gave us inquisitions, witch trials, and the mistreatment of indigenous people.
Do they have things to offer us? Sure. But are their interpretations of the Bible and answers to tough questions the standard by which we judge who is to be accepted and who is to be rejected? I don’t see how.
By their Fruits You Shall Know Them
The best test of fellowship is someone’s fruit. At least, this is Jesus’s recommendation:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.Matthew 7:15–20
Someone can have a good argument but not produce good fruit. Jesus explains in the next three verses that there are those who can do many wonderful things in the name of the Lord, but that does not mean that they know him. Instead, the most compelling argument one can give for their church, doctrine, or tradition is the fruit that it produces.
Does it split churches? Does it alienate orphans and widows? Does it add to the pain in the world? Can God be seen in it? Is it the product of love or the other qualities of the fruit of the Spirit?
This marks the difference between a false teacher and a true prophet. One can have a great syllogism, but do they have love? One can be in line with the best church fathers, but do they show mercy? One can deliver a powerful closing statement, but what effects does their teaching have on the poor?
Arguments can be misleading. We can believe a lie. But we can never go wrong with loving our neighbor. Whoever loves is born of God, and, as Carl Ketcherside has said, where God has a son or daughter, there I have a brother or sister.