A few years ago I made my way through John Frame’s excellent book on theological method, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. It was helpful in many ways. In particular is Frame’s section on “cognitive rest” and how genuine growth in our knowledge of God comes by way of spiritual maturity and growth in sanctification. Here is an important excerpt:
Many doctrinal misunderstandings in the church are doubtless due to this spiritual-ethical immaturity. We need to pay more attention to this fact when we get into “theological disputes.” Sometimes, we throw arguments back and forth, over and over again, desperately trying to convince one another. But often there is in one of the disputers—or both!—the kind of spiritual immaturity that prevents clear perception. We all know how it works in practice. Lacking sufficient love for one another, we seek to interpret the other person’s views in the worst possible sense (We forget the tremendous importance of love—even as an epistemological concept; cf. I Cor. 8:1-3; I Tim 1:5ff; I John 2:4; 3:18; 4:7ff). Lacking sufficient humility, too, we over estimate the extent of our own knowledge (155).
Frame continues in the above paragraph to suggest that when we encounter immaturity in ourselves or in the one with whom we are debating, it may be wise to step away from the argument—for days, months, even years—in order to allow time, the Lord’s discipline, and the daily rigors of spiritual battle to cultivate the requisite spiritual maturity needed for theological debate and discussion.
In other words, now may not be the time for you to engage your brother or sister over a particular, hotly-debated issue. Neither you nor your friend may possess the spiritual maturity with which to navigate the conversation or benefit from it. And it is vital to remember that stepping away from the debate does not necessarily indicate that you are a coward–a lesson I wish I would have learned much sooner in my Christian life–but only that you desire your words to carry the weight of conviction and Christlike character.
A Christian who has weathered the storms of personal trial and spiritual battle, who has wrestled with the text of Scripture for the sake of intimacy with Jesus Christ, and who, through seasons of faithful ministry, has cultivated a genuine love for others, will enter into theological debate with that sweet, Spirit-wrought blend of unswerving conviction and heart-felt warmth. But this kind of growth takes time, and it is sometimes best for everyone involved if we take a break from the debate for the sake of our spiritual growth and the cause of Christ.
2 thoughts on “Spiritual Maturity and Doctrinal Debate”
Good word, Derek. 2 Timothy 2:24-26 comes to mind: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
The continuous and unrelenting aim for every Christian is a loving, charitable, kind, gentle yet confident and earnest defense of biblical truth (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5; 1 Peter 3:15). How this plays out day to day, meaning when to speak up and when to remain quiet, requires discernment that flows from the spiritual maturity you describe.
Yes, I love 2 Tim 2:24-26. It is one of my “life verses.” The ability to remain steadfast in one’s convictions while gentle in how he deals with others can only come from the Spirit and, as 2 Tim 2:24-26 tells us, a clear understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Thank you for treating me gently last night after I forgot to have you close in prayer :)