Friday, April 08, 2005

Some Thoughts About Dialogue

It is with interest each month that I scan the Baptist Bulletin. While not every article appeals to me, I always take a few moments and read John Greening's Front Lines column. This month I have found myself thinking about it a couple of days after putting it down, so I thought I would blog about it. (If you'd like to read the article, click on the link in the title of this thread.)

John, who I consider a friend, argues that dialogue is the path to compromise in the realm of theology. He was offered an invitation to represent the GARBC, our national fellowship of churches, at a meeting which included evangelicals and Catholics. The stated goal of the meeting was to learn from each other, hoping that the Spirit of God might bring unity among the groups on the question of the authority of the Bible. He declined the invitation because, in his estimation, dialogue with these particular participants would be unbiblical.

While I appreciate John's commitment to doctrinal purity and his leadership of our fellowship, I am not sure I would have made the same choice. Let me share three observations.

First, the communication of the gospel always requires dialogue. Jesus talked to anybody who would listen about the gospel of the kingdom. He talked with Pharisees, Sadducees, prostitutes, tax collectors, convicted thieves, drunks. He talked in synagogues, in the Temple, in homes, on the hillsides. He dialogued all the time - and it was more than conversation. He was seeking a resolution - that people who did not live under the authority of his lordship would begin to do so. Paul followed the same pattern - going into synagogues, into homes, into philosophical debating arenas - all to talk about the gospel.

When we lived in Boston, Vanessa and our Senior Pastor's wife represented Protestants at a discussion held at a mosque in suburban Boston. The Muslim women wanted to learn what different groups believed about Jesus. Vanessa and Ronna got to share the gospel with a room full of Muslim women - because they were willing to accept an invitation to dialogue. How else could the gospel have reached that group? How else could the gospel have reached the group that John turned down?

Second, dialogue does not require compromise. If I know what I believe, why I believe it, and can defend it with some effectiveness, I never have to fear compromise. When Paul entered those synagogues in the early days of the church, did he ever fear that he would end up compromising with the legalistic Jews who populated those synagogues? Absolutely not - he kept dialoguing until they threw him out and he had to start elsewhere. A friend of mine reminded me of Acts 19:8, where Paul "reasoned" in the synagogue. The Greek term for reasoned is dialegomia - from which we get our English word, "dialogue." Dialogue provides teaching opportunities in which the truth can be shared.

In his article, John lists differences that we have with the Roman Catholic Church, and then asks, "Why then would we dialogue?" The answer is that we should dialogue so that they can hear the truth. There is no compromise involved in listening respectfully and then talking plainly about how the Bible ought to be our sole authority for life and practice. I am sorry that a golden teaching opportunity may have been missed.

Third, we do have something to learn. It seems that hardwired into the DNA of our fellowship is a presupposition that we have it all right and everyone else has it all wrong. I tend to think that we need to take our doctrine of sin more seriously than that - we might very well have an incomplete or clouded picture when it comes to some of our theological beliefs. Other traditions within Christianity have thought more clearly about different areas of the faith, and we can learn much from them, just as much as they can learn from us.

Take for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity. I have found that in many of our churches, the extent of thought people (pastors included) have given to the Trinity is the egg illustration and that it is too hard to understand. However, when you move outside of our immediate fellowship, you find that other Christians, such as ancient Eastern Orthodox theologians or neo-orthodox theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg or postmodern theologians like Stanley Grenz, have thought extensively about how the Trinity is the basis for all Christian belief, how it is a belief that ought to affect every aspect of our lives and worship, and how it can be explained and understood in compelling and awe-inspiring ways. To gain this breadth of understanding, you have to dialogue with more partners than our fellowship contains.

One of the lacking virtues needed in our theology is humility. We need to believe what we believe with confidence and passion, and also with humility. As both a finite and sinful being, there is no way that I can presume that I have all the pieces of the puzzle together and cannot benefit from the perspectives and thoughts of others. Let me say this clearly - I know John Greening to be both a godly and humble man, and I do not want to suggest that he has displayed arrogance in the decision that he wrote about. My concern is for the systemic attitude that causes us not only to miss opportunities to speak - but also to listen.

Read John's article. Read my take. Then share yours. I am sure we all have a lot to learn from each other.

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