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Grace for Learning Journeys

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We believe in grace for salvation, but do we believe in showing grace to others as we learn together?

A friend wrote,

“I am now open to your idea that the Lutheran approach to Matthew 7:21 is a valid one. Given that possibility I should apologize to you for being so quick to dismiss it as a possible interpretation. You may actually be right Shawn…Up until now I had not honestly considered that view as a possibility, but it now seems I may have been wrong. Please forgive me.”

I wrote back to say there was no need to apologize. It’s no sin to be skeptical of a view the first time you hear it—especially if you heard it from me!

His letter made me want to explain my approach to theological disagreement.

As far as I’m concerned, doing theology is hard.

There are so many moving parts, different nuances to consider, and perspectives to learn about to do theology well that it simply takes time. Learning to repeat whatever your favorite teacher or tradition happens to teach is relatively easy. But coming to an informed opinion about the deeper questions of Scripture takes time, effort, patience, time, humility, determination, brutal honesty, time, and dialogue partners who aren’t afraid to challenge you. Oh, and did I mention it takes time?

And after you consider that we all have jobs to work at, families to love and care for, churches to serve in, activities to attend, neighbors to help, and hobbies to enjoy, there’s not much time left for thinking about theology. That means it takes even longer for people to work through important theological questions. As Christians—and especially as Free Grace people!—we should give each other time to doubt, be skeptical, argue, think about things, and let ideas simmer before expecting anyone to be persuaded.

Now, I understand that, in some circumstances, quick theological decisions need to be insisted upon. If a pastor or teacher is questioning some doctrine fundamental to that organization, I can understand insisting on making up your mind quickly.

But not every question is fundamental, and we should normally give people plenty of grace and space to think things over so they can develop an informed opinion.

I’ve met too many people who are dogmatic about their highly speculative interpretations or sure about theories that are frankly crazier than a soup sandwich. Now, I don’t mind people holding wild theological opinions—the truth is often stranger than fiction! But I do mind it when those marginal speculations are considered the new orthodoxy that's used to divide and exclude unless you agree right away!

Let’s not do that.

Instead, let’s treat our theological speculations the way that Southerners treat crazy relatives. First, we don’t pretend not to have them. Second, we don’t hide them in the attic but sit them in the living room. And third, we freely admit they’re nuttier than a five-pound fruitcake.

Over the years, I’ve learned so much about the Bible and have had to change my mind on so many issues that intellectual honesty requires that I admit that I’m fallible. I make mistakes of fact and reasoning, and it takes time to work them out. You’re the same way. So, let’s just admit it and treat each other’s learning journeys with as much grace as you’d expect to be treated (cf. Matt 7:12).

So, if you ever disagree with me, think I’m crazy, but later come to see that I might have a point—there’s no need to apologize. I’ve probably thought the same thing about myself!

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


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