Spurgeon once said discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong, but between right and nearly right. An issue that has been brought home to me of late is that of resources. Not a lack of them, so much as a glut of them. Not so much choosing which ones to use, for many of them are genuinely good, but that none of them are perfect.
The problem with imperfect resources is, no sooner as you send somebody to them because they may offer something helpful in one area, you run into other areas where you are not on the same page. A trusted resource on one issue might be less helpful on another issue. With seasoned believers, a chew the meat, spit the bones approach is perfectly fine. You hope they will parse it, take the good and leave the bad. But what about for newer, hungry believers who don’t have all the framework in place to do that?
There are good people, good resources, good organisations out there with whom I have a high degree of confidence what they produce is more likely to be helpful than not. But I am conscious that almost all of them, at some point, will not be in line with us. How do you help newer and younger believers to navigate those things when you aren’t even sure exactly when and where they will crop up?
On one level, we want to be teaching good theological triage. Here are the big first-order matters that mean you want to steer well clear. Here are the secondary matters that may be important in particular spheres but won’t affect the gospel. Here are the tertiary matters where we can agree to disagree without too much fallout. That is all well and good.
But what about when, say, a tertiary issue has become something of a hot-button in your church? Let’s say you are discussing something about the end times, on which almost everyone agrees is a tertiary thing. Theological triage puts it in the last category, which seems safe enough. But what if differences over Pre, post and A millennial views – for whatever reason – seem to have become a totemic issue in your church? Suddenly, what is tertiary in the ordinary run of things has much more significance in your particular context. Not because the issue of itself is major, but because it has become major in your particular setting for some reason.
That is to say nothing of the numerous secondary issues you might run into. Issues that don’t impinge on the gospel, but do have significant ramifications for your local church. A young believer going onto the website or accessing the material from a totally sound gospel organisation may begin clicking around and come across all sorts of views that – whilst not matters on which you would break fellowship – may prove to be less than helpful to them without the appropriate tools to work through the case being made. What, if anything, is to be done?
First, I don’t think we should overlook the significance of the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit can make a dead sinner alive in Christ, he will surely lead them in knowledge and understanding of the Word. That isn’t to be blasé about these things but it is to say that we shouldn’t underestimate the preserving power of the Spirit. He is, after all, given to us to open our eyes to the truth. If we have a regenerate person on our hands, we can trust the Spirit will do his thing and help them in all kinds of ways.
Second, I think it emphasises the real importance and value of proper discipling relationships. Minimally, it calls for regular means of communication and discussion. If somebody happens to wander onto a solid website that you’ve directed them towards and they stumble across (horror of horrors) a case for paedocommunion (I thought I’d try to broaden my appeal for once), it is easily resolved by having a conversation about it. We can walk people through the good steps and helpful material whilst pointing out (as we understand it) the missteps that might end up with you giving communion to infants. But we will only hear about these things and get opportunity to discuss them if we actually have open channels of communication where we can have those conversations. They will almost certainly need to be channels that do not fit neatly into one coffee a week or regular diarised time because these things come up at the strangest of times and we need to be ready to address them.
Third, I think we need to avoid two potential traps. First, we should avoid setting ourselves up as pontiff and intimating that we, and only we, are the ultimate interpreters of scripture. We have to accept that we are fallible and – though we will obviously believe we are right because nobody believes what they think is wrong – accept that we will have our own errors to which we are blind. Others may see a matter more clearly than us and we send a better message acknowledging that than simply dismissing the other person altogether when we consider them a gospel person who can be accessed as a secondary source.
Second, we should avoid the fundamentalist tendency to limit what people may read. This suggests little more than that we are scared by it and have no answers to it. If we are saying a source is broadly trustworthy, we have to let people read it and offer opportunities for them to discuss it with us. If they seem convinced by it, or that it has some value, we won’t help by banning them from reading it or scarring them off the source. We do better to simply meet with them, hear their case and then discuss it further with them by showing an alternative (in our view, more plausible) understanding.
In the end, we avoid both these traps by pointing our people back to the scriptures. We don’t set ourselves up as pontiff, but sit down together under the scriptures. We avoid fundamentalism by allowing people to read what they want, and engage with whatever they want, but then sitting down with them and bringing it under the light of scripture. in the end, good relationships with open communication that brings all things under the authority of the scriptures, this will help us take the good and reject the errant and model it to new and young believers too.