Same Theology, Different Vision

The church is a fissiparous organization. I love her, but there is no doubt in my mind that churches can be divisive and critical of each other. Sometimes, of course, criticism and even division is necessary. But often the church has a way of making secondary issues into central issues and criticizing and critiquing each other when we shouldn’t. I am particularly aware of this as an associate pastor in a more progressive church in a small rural/traditional setting. Revolution Church, where I serve, is a theologically conservative church with a progressive methodology. But no matter how many times I have insisted on what our beliefs are other congregations have refused to believe me. In fact one pastor told me he simply didn’t believe that I held the doctrines I said I did. How is it that two churches that hold the same theology can end up being so different?

The difference isn’t just one of personality or musical style, the differences go much deeper. The differences have to do with how we see the core of our ministry fleshed out. Tim Keller has helpfully provided a way for me to think about this distinction in his forthcoming book Center Church. A full review will be ready next week, but here I want to highlight one of the important points Keller makes about theological vision. It is in this area of church life that we find the root of our differences, but they do not have to be differences that divide us.

What is a theological vision? Keller defines it as what you do with your doctrine in your particular context, or more particularly he says, “It is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (19). There are several factors, then, that shape our theological vision. Keller has boiled them down to how we answer a set of questions.

As we answer these questions a theological vision will emerge:

What is the gospel, and how do we bring it to bear on the hearts of people today?

What is this culture like, and how can we both connect to it and challenge it in our communication?

Where are we located – city, suburb, town, rural area – and how does this affect our ministry?

To what degree and how should Christians be involved in civic life and cultural production?

How do the various ministries in a church – word and deed, community and instruction – relate to one another?

How innovative will our church be and how traditional?

How will our church relate to other churches in our city and region?

How will we make our case to the culture about the truth of Christianity? (18)

The reason churches that believe the same doctrine can look so vastly different is because they answer those questions so differently.

Keller goes on to point out how because theological visions are often invisible, and because people don’t take the time to carefully consider this dimension of ministry they assume that all differences are rooted in doctrine. That is terrible mistake, and one that strikes me as completely anti-gospel. It is not honoring to Christ to assume the worst about your brothers and sisters, and we ought to be far more careful to divide than we are at present. Keller writes:

It could be argued that an acquaintance with the category of theological vision will help us understand many of the conflicts in local churches and denominations. Our doctrinal statements of faith and confessions do no tell us what in our culture can be affirmed and what can be challenged, nor do they speak directly to our relationship to tradition as the Christian past or reflect much on how human reason operates. Yet our ministries are shaped profoundly by our assumptions about these issues. When we see other people who say they believe our doctrine but are doing ministry in  a way we greatly dislike, we tend to suspect they have fallen away from their doctrinal commitments. They may have, of course; yet it’s equally likely that they haven’t strayed but are working from a different theological vision. Unless we can make these assumptions more visible and conscious, we will misunderstand one another and find it difficult to respect one another. (19)

There’s a great deal of caution and humility that ought to go into how we view and judge other churches. We should move slowly, speak graciously, and assume the best about them until proven otherwise.

But along with that we should consider that they have examined their context and maybe they have answered the aforementioned questions differently than we have. We might disagree with their decisions, we might wish they had answered them another way. We might wish they had stayed closer to tradition, or been more progressive. But their answers to those questions don’t necessarily make them heretics, or cultural compromisers. If they have maintained the gospel, and if they have retained the fundamental doctrines of the faith then we should love and respect them, even as we disagree. Theological vision helps us discern this difference. It is possible to hold the same doctrine tightly, and yet be vastly different churches, and the church needs to be okay with that.

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