A friend of mine who is an atheist said that when he looks at the differences within Christendom and the squabbling among denominations, he finds greater reason to conclude that Christianity is false.

Upon careful inspection, I think that theologically conservative Christendom holds most doctrinal matters in common. This unity is powerfully illustrated historically in what are called the ecumenical creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed). And even many noncreedal denominations still affirm most of what is found in the creeds doctrinally.

Of course, critically important areas of doctrinal difference remain among Christianity’s theological traditions. And these differences need to be stated and carefully considered. But is there a way to dialogue and even debate our doctrinal differences without giving non-Christians the impression that Christendom is hopelessly divided and therefore potentially false?

I made the following proposal on my Facebook page and invited responses. I received 164 likes and 71 comments. Most people who responded agreed with my proposal, but some raised thoughtful points of concern and disagreement. I have included a few responses but only from those who disagreed with me. I hope we can all learn from these exchanges. As I noted above, a non-Christian world may be watching.

My Proposal
I have a serious suggestion for my Christian friends on Facebook to consider:

Avoid debating the denominational differences within Christendom when non-Christians are present and watching.

Instead, consider finding a more private venue for such important interactions. Or, if you need to debate differences, then intentionally start with sharing the common ground that all theologically conservative Christians affirm, such as that found in the ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity.

Why do I raise this issue? Consider C.S. Lewis’s comment:

“I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.”1

Interactions with Respondents
James: I would respectfully disagree. I think it would be a great time to model how to handle a disagreement between believers. Gracious and loving.

Me: I appreciate your comments and your sentiment. But how well do you think most Christians on Facebook model handling differences in a gracious and loving manner? And do you think Lewis is right that non-Christians are likely to conclude that Christianity is hopelessly divided and therefore false?

James: I get your point. But it depends on the Christian. I have had some of the most enjoyable discussions with some Christians who were in disagreement and I have had a few that didn’t go well also. I don’t remember ever having a nonbeliever jump in on these in-house debates though.

Rob: Your apologetics mentor, Walter Martin, obviously disagreed with your proposal.

Me: I worked very closely with Walter Martin and I think he would generally agree with me. In fact, his ecumenical views influenced my desire to promote truth, unity, and charity both among evangelicals and within broader Christendom. He debated Catholics and Adventists publicly as I have but he sought to consider both common ground and genuine differences. As a Southern Baptist, Martin took a moderating position between the historic theological debate between Calvinism and Arminianism (referring to himself as a “Calminian”). So while he was critical of aspects of traditional Reformed theology, nevertheless a couple of his theological mentors were noted Reformed scholars (Donald Grey Barnhouse, J. Oliver Buswell). I think Walter was keenly aware that an appearance of Christian disunity is a serious apologetics problem.

Rob: So the point is that Martin argued nonessentials in public contrary to what Lewis said. Martin respectfully did this all the time on the Bible Answer Man (BAM) radio show. We’re doing this here. So my point is that you can’t take Lewis’s statement too strictly. It depends on how the debate is done. It’s not a matter of avoiding it altogether in public venues.

Me: I find Lewis’s point powerful. He advocates that Christians shouldn’t complicate matters of evangelism. As an apologist I find the appearance of disunity among Christians a potentially great challenge. When we look around on social media and the web, so many Christians seem to revel in disagreeing with one another. Martin constantly talked about essential Christianity (the title of one of his books) and distinguished it from secondary issues. Walter took care to discuss inter-Christian topics in a Christian context when he could (BAM was largely though not exclusively a Christian venue). You and I may see things differently. I even respectfully differ with my mentor Walter at places. I can respect and appreciate principled differences of opinion.

Nathanael: I also disagree. It may be the case that strangers to Christianity may not especially benefit from seeing such discussions, but those who left the faith likely will. Many people, I find, need to know that it’s possible for them to return to a Christianity that is quite distinct from the one they left. The Internet is filled with videos that take issue with specific versions of Christian thought and a proper response to them often must include a conversation about the room we give each other to disagree. It should therefore be no surprise to see Christians disagreeing on any number of issues. It is also beneficial, I believe, to speak up when people act in hatred in the name of the Christian church.

Me: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Nathanael. I think discussing differences among Christians can be beneficial, but I wonder how often this is true on Facebook and thus whether there is a better venue. I wish Christians from different theological traditions would first discuss their common ground before moving to their distinctive differences.

David: I have been thinking a lot about this lately, in light of a practice that I have sometimes engaged in on social media, wherein I intentionally mock certain so-called Christian preachers of the prosperity gospel on my Facebook page. My intention in doing so is for unbelievers (and young Christians) to understand clearly that these men do not represent historic, orthodox Christianity and that, due to their deeply heretical teachingsand disgraceful financial dealingsthey deserve to be publicly ridiculed. Do you think that Lewis’s exhortation would apply to that scenario as well?

Me: Since social media involves the meeting of Christians and non-Christians, I think believers should be aware that non-Christians observe how Christians relate to one another. In light of that, I think we should consider reserving our disagreements with other denominations for more private venues and seek to exhibit more respect and unity as the body of Christ. However, I can see how one might feel the need to step in and clarifyon social media in front of nonbelievers—the difference between historic Christianity and a counterfeit version.

Regarding mocking and ridicule: My view is that people who espouse heresy or engage in misdeeds are still made in God’s image, so I personally would not mock them. I would carefully explain the fundamental error of their doctrinal position and explain how their handling of finances is unbiblical and immoral. I would also let people know that other orthodox and responsible Pentecostals and charismatics are extremely critical of the aberrant and heretical prosperity teachers. I hope you find this helpful.

Rick: There is a lot to be said for your viewpoint, Ken. I have mixed feelings because there is so much doctrinal misunderstanding and I think uncorrected misrepresentations are also damaging. There are so few venues for dialogue that I think Facebook ends up being the meeting point. Wish I had the answer but I do believe that, regardless, we should be irenic and respectful in all discussions. Seeking to understand first and disagreeing only “with gentleness and reverence.”

Me: Thoughtful points, Rick. I would be happy if Christians would simply be conscious of the fact that when they disagree publicly there are likely non-Christians watching. So emphasizing the unity they share before they discuss their differences may be a big help. Learning how to disagree respectfully is critical.

Rod: I understand your point, Ken, but disagree. In my opinion such a policy would result in the more thoughtful, nuanced, and respectful contributors (from whatever “side”) refraining from debate, while others continue unchecked.

Me: You raise an important practical issue, Rod. I wonder if the perception of disunity within Christendom isn’t a deep problem apologetically. If Christians don’t opt to vocalize their differences in a private venue then maybe leaders ought to emphasize and teach Christians how to effectively dialogue publicly.

Rod: It is certainly a deep problem. We do need to think more carefully and practice grace and purposeful restraint in our public communications. We might all learn from observing effective apologists (past and present) at work.

Takeaway
Whether you agree or disagree with my proposal, if you are a Christian I hope you will think carefully about the topics of truth, unity, charity, and evangelism.

Reflections: Your Turn
How important is Christian unity when it comes to evangelism? Do you agree or disagree with Lewis’s perspective? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment.

Resources

  • For a detailed discussion of historic Christianity’s agreements and disagreements, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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