Bad ways to argue for church practice

If you are in church leadership, it won’t be long before someone disagrees with something you do or some doctrine that you teach. And that’s okay, we aren’t expecting total agreement on every issue within the church membership. It is okay to disagree.

But when we disagree, there need to be clear grounds for doing so. All too often, we default to certain arguments that really aren’t credible. Here are some of the common ones.

I was brought up to think…

There is, of course, nothing wrong with drawing upon what you were brought up with. No doubt, if you have been to a bible believing church, there will be some good things that they established. But some of those things, that may well be legitimate, are not demanded by the bible. Other times, it may simply be a blind spot in our church that what we were doing wasn’t biblical.

When we hit upon other churches doing things differently, defaulting to ‘I was brought up to believe…’ doesn’t get us very far. Two people, brought up in two different places, might be brought up to believe two different things. Who is to say which tradition is right and which is wrong? This is not a solid ground for reaching a biblical conclusion.

Our tradition says…

This is usually a more nuanced version of the previous point. We might not be rooting things in our particular, individual church’s practice, but in the established practices of our denomination. That might be a legitimate thing to raise if you are in an Anglican Church, who claims to hold to Anglican doctrine, polity and practice, but you think might be departing from that tradition. It isn’t unreasonable to say that, assuming the purpose is to be in line with the tradition and not some biblical matter on which the tradition is being challenged. Even then, no tradition can be above the scriptures. The aim of any tradition should be to act in line with scripture, so even a reference to tradition may not end matters.

But let’s say you have moved beyond denominations. You clearly are not wedded to your denominational way of doing things. You are now dealing with two different traditions. Again, which tradition is right? We can’t settle that with reference to our particular tradition. Instead, we have to go back to the scriptures to reach a conclusion.

Everybody interprets the Bible differently

Well, that’s not entirely true. Some of us do interpret the Bible in the same way as a significant chunk of other believers. So, we might be able to establish a fairly consistent pattern of thinking. It isn’t quite true to say we all interpret differently; many of us agree on significant amounts.

But where there is a disagreement that arises from interpretation, what are we to do? If we default to ‘everybody interprets differently’, who is to say your interpretation is any better than mine? Maybe we might settle the matter by who has the most theological qualifications or who has most people on their side across Christendom. But these simply push the question back to one of authorities – it depends which authorities you accept – weight of numbers, value of qualifications or some other means of adjudicating. In the end, ‘every interprets differently’ is tantamount to ‘no one can ever really know’. And if that’s the case, why hold a position at all?

I feel in my heart…

Feelings led practice is a recipe for disaster. In many cases, we end up pitting ‘what I feel in my heart’ against what god has specifically said in his Word. In the end, if I don’t feel like doing what God’s Word says, the issue isn’t someone else’s interpretation of scripture, or a problem with the Word, it is a problem with our affections. We just don’t want to do what Jesus says.

This seems the most reasonable/logical to me

It is entirely right to use logic to work out what seems right and true. However, we should not make our logical reasoning ultimate. For one thing, it depends on our prior commitments as to what appears logical. Unless we are able to assess all our priors, whilst we will reason logically, commitment to logic alone won’t lead us to a helpful conclusion. What do we do, for example, when the Church says things that are contrary to our logical understanding? It may be that what the church is arguing is totally illogical; it may be that our logic is faulty. We might be right in not merely accepting every word that comes from the pulpit just because it is uttered in church, nevertheless, it isn’t necessarily wiser to slavishly follow what is logical to us. The Lord, by his own reckoning, does not always work as we believe he ought.

According to the confession…

Don’t get me wrong, confessions can be extremely helpful guides. They are often helpful statements of what believers in the past thought about core Christian doctrine. But I have noticed a tendency, which I have outlined here, to argue with reference to confessions rather than the Bible. Recently I wrote a post about something and someone else, agreeing with me, insisted that I was right because the Westminster Confession of Faith made it clear. Well, I might well agree with the WCF (a fine confession in the most part) but it is not infallible. Indeed, how do I know whether to agree with the 1644 London Baptist Confession, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 Westminster Confession? What of the differences between them and the XXXIX? Or the Belgic Confession? Or the 1527 Schleitheim Confession? These simply do not agree on all points. How do I pick between them, even if they are mainly good? Whilst there is a right historical rootedness to arguing in line with a confession of faith, it cannot be an ultimate guide.

If, like the Reformers in whose tradition most of those confessions stand, we stand of sola scriptura, that must be the ground on which we determine these things. If the Bible really is our final authority in matters of faith and practice, we cannot allow traditions, feelings, reason or church experience to supersede the Bible. All of those other things can have a role in how we understand the scriptures, but where it is clear that the Bible speaks contrary to any of those things, we are not making it our final authority in matters of faith and practice when we nonetheless run with one of those other lesser forms of authority instead.

Luther’s commitment to sola scriptura led him out of the Roman Catholic Church. he could not square what the Bible said with the teachings emanating from the pontiff. In the end, his conscience – that is, what he knew to be true – was captive to the word of God. Hier stehe ich… etc etc. We do not conform to reformation principles – that is, those biblical principles that would keep us faithful to Christ – when we allow things other than scripture to act as ultimate points of authority for us.