Some friends and I recently worked through Natural Theology, a book that binds together two essays, one by Emil Brunner, and the other by Karl Barth, on the topic of God’s revelation in Scripture and the world.
Barth really wades into Brunner in the second essay and it got us into a discussion about theological polemic and when and how it is appropriate to disagree in theology.
We live in a time and culture when we often feel that our identity and value is secured through distinguishing ourselves from those around us. In light of this, there is significant temptation to mistake matters on which to disagree for matters over which to break fellowship, and to mask the unnecessary breaking of fellowship with a cloak of conscience. Indeed, some have claimed that Martin Luther’s magnificent statement of conscience, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’, is the birth-cry of modern Western individualism.
It’s important to be aware of the push to define ourselves by what we are against, but undiscriminating unity is no fit alternative. In fact, the push for unity can be just as prone to hijack by the temptation to find security for ourselves in combining strength with others. It is too often motivated by a weak view of the work of the Holy Spirit in incorporating us into the true Church of Jesus.
Perhaps the problem is how we carry on this discussion: in cafes or armchairs, as a non-Conformist in an Anglican college, as people who would not be unduly troubled by changing denomination or having no denomination, and without fear of sanction for our views.
I’m not saying that we should always just put up or shut up, but perhaps the real test for whether a matter of Church practice or teaching is worth fighting or leaving over, is when fighting or leaving is going to cost. Maybe cost it all. And you do the sums, and it still seems worth it.
Hold fast your integrity, and rather let all go than let that go. A man had better let liberty, estate, relations, and life go, than let his integrity go. Yea, let ordinances themselves go, when they cannot be held with the hand of integrity: ‘God forbid that I should justify you till I die I will not remove my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and I will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live’ (Job 27:5-6). Look, as the drowning man holds fast that which is cast forth to save him, as the soldier holds fast his sword and buckler on which his life depends, so, says Job, ‘I will hold fast my integrity; my heart shall not reproach me. I had rather all the world should reproach me, and my heart justify me, than that my heart should reproach me, and all the world justify me.’ That man will make a sad exchange that shall exchange his integrity for any worldly concern. Integrity maintained in the soul will be a feast of fat things in the worst of days; but let a man lose his integrity, and it is not in the power of all the world to make a feast of fat things in that soul. (Thomas Brooks, ‘A Pastor’s Legacies’, in Sermons from the Great Ejection, Banner of Truth).