A friend of mine has a coffee cup with the following words printed on the outside, “Presbyterian Coffee: Predestined to be brewed decently and in order.” I chuckled when I saw it for the first time several years ago. The humorous one-liner nicely captures a couple of representative ideas that are associated with a particular church denomination. An amusing tongue-in-cheek way to integrate the love of coffee, a distinctive theological perspective, and a related view of church polity, one might say! Funny sayings aside, the hallmark of church polity of things being done “decently and in order” actually derives from Paul’s remark in 1 Cor. 14:40, where he instructs believers to be orderly in their worship and to avoid discord and confusion. I suggest that this regulative principle of church polity can be of great service outside its walls, especially in conversational contexts that can be potentially explosive.
I think Paul’s admonition for orderliness in worship should also inform our theological discussions, both generally during conversations between believers from different Christian traditions, and particularly if the topic being discussed has had a pedigree of varied interpretations in the history of the church. In the latter cases mostly, I have noticed that less light and more heat seems to be generated. Being able to engage other perspectives graciously, reasonably, and with the meekness of wisdom reflects Christian maturity and charity. Lessons must be learned from church history. Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s somewhat uncharitable exchanges at the Marburg Colloquy should serve as a caveat that even mature believers can falter in this area. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11, ESV). Godly speech requires godly wisdom.
James 3:13-18 has served as a vade mecum (a handy reference), especially when I lecture on certain theological topics that tend to generate spirited discussions in class. This passage immediately follows James’ poignant commentary on taming the tongue:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
The principle from the passage is clear: wisdom from above leads to order, wisdom that is not from above leads to disorder. Conversations that arenot tempered with wisdom from above can become boastful, self-centered, partial, and insincere. Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is characterized as being pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy, impartial, and sincere.
Wisdom from above must inform our theological enterprise, especially when confronted with a counter-perspective from a fellow believer (or even a non-believer). The degree of our Christian character is betrayed in our exchanges, both in the way we communicate our disagreement, and in the way we receive a critique of our perspective from someone. When love undergirds one’s conviction, it shows forth in one’s words, and words reflect one’s character, for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (Lk. 6:45). Engaging an opposing view courteously speaks volumes to the other person as well as to the audience. Decency and order should govern such exchanges
This was quite evident at the annual ETS conference which met last November in Atlanta, where the hot topic of the New Perspective on Paul was debated between individuals on a panel with differing convictions in a decent and orderly manner, which was both edifying and God-glorifying. The points and the counter points were argued respectfully, reasonably, and with the meekness of wisdom, not with bitter jealously and selfish ambition. The lesson is clear. Speaking the truth in love leaves a legacy of righteousness, and this harvest can only come from Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Cf. Phil. 1:11). Our past failures should serve as gentle reminders of our constant need of God’s enabling grace and wisdom when dealing with difficult (and differing) theological perspectives.