Something that has struck me over the last couple of weeks as our Bible study groups get into their stride is the diversity in the approaches of the participants. I was well aware that there was a wide range of belief and approach in the contemporary Church and as people get comfortable expressing their views a good part of this range is being demonstrated.
As someone who has just completed a degree in theology I know, too, that there is an an even greater variety to be found among theologians, alive and dead. There has been and continues to be substantial disagreement within the Church on a large number of issues.
So how am I to respond when people say things that differ from my own positions? This will depend a bit on how I see the views expressed in the context of orthodoxy as against heresy. There are a number of things that are clearly constitutive of what it is to be a member and especially a minister of the URC. Trinitarian Christianity is part of what I affirmed when I was ordained and I would feel the need to point this out.
Would this mean I should suggest to people they should conform or be excommunicated? I don’t think so. I would be under an obligation, I think, to point out the tension but it remains a matter of conscience whether they can reconcile their beliefs with the nature of our denomination.
There more interesting case is where people express views that are, I think, compatible with orthodoxy as so defined but, in my view, wrong. Most contemporary Christians are, my experience suggests, more Arminian than Calvinist in their view of human participation in salvation. Few would accept that our redemption was a matter purely of grace and nothing to do with any merit of ours.
I believe this to be wrong and very grievously so, but I also know that this is a minority view and has never been uncontested. It is possible, it must be possible, to be both wrong and orthodox. The orthodox do not agree with one another.
As the person in the churches with the theological expertise how should I handle positions that I disagree but also know to be mainstream and acceptable?
It seems to me that the only honest and helpful thing to do is to say what my own beliefs are while making clear that it is quite possible and acceptable to disagree with them, where appropriate saying that my own view is a minority view.
A good example of this is the question of universalism. I have come to align myself more or less with Karl Barth on this. I think it is going to far to assert that all will definitely be saved but not to say that this is not ruled out and may therefore be hoped for. I hope and pray that in the fullness of God’s time all will be made good, all restored, all redeemed.
At the same time I’m well aware that this has historically been very much a minority position in the tradition, although it has become more important in the last 50 years or so. In discussing matters of salvation with my congregations it would be wrong either to suppress my own view or to try to pretend that it was anything other than the minority view it has been.
My belief is that in encouraging confidence in and comfort with disagreement, held in love, I will assist those among whom my ministry is lived to express and develop their own faith. This may be different in many matters from my own but this shouldn’t prevent us walking our disciple ways together.
Furthermore people who develop their own understanding and become comfortable with expressing it should be more able to share the good news as they experience it and to find the best way to live it out in service.
As teaching elder my responsibility is not to impose my own interpretation of our traditions or of the Bible but to provide a point of access to all of its riches so that others can make us of them as they seek the will of Christ for them.