God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from all doctrines and commandments of men which are in any respect contrary to His Word, or not contained in it. Thus to believe such doctrines or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience. The requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also. – The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, Chapter 21.2
In fanning the flames of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther replied in answer to the demand that he recant his views, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, Ch. 3, Sec. 55).
Upholding the foundational reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Luther’s conscience was bound by the Word of God as it alone is our infallible rule for faith and practice. No one can bind another’s conscience on a matter outside of what Scripture teachers or requires. And Luther found that church teachings, traditions, governments, and councils could be and often were fallible and relied on the doctrines and reasoning of men over and above the written Word of God.
Following his lead, the Puritans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Particular Baptists all believed and proclaimed that “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (LBCF 1689, 1.1) and “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.10).
Knowing that the Scriptures alone provided the source of authority for the church, new conflicts arose as the relationship between church and state began to be strained. Within the context of the historical upheavals of the seventeenth century in England and Europe unprecedented standards of religious freedom were developed. The reaction against this freedom and the radical sects for which it opened the door found both King and Parliament dealing with the Puritans and Nonconformists by passage of the Act of Uniformity in 1662. The Anglican Prayer Book was re-established and nearly two thousand Puritan ministers were removed from their posts. The church was forced to bow to the state and ministers were compelled to swear allegiance to the crown.
Dissenters could not hold public or sacred office and a charge of treason followed an unsanctioned religious meeting that was attended by more than five people. The Five Mile Act meant that dissenting ministers could not live within five miles of a town or preach without taking an oath of allegiance. It was no longer the Pope, but the politician who had his heel on the neck of the church.
Our Particular Baptist forefathers stood side by side with others from Calvinistic and Reformed roots. The determination to defend the grand doctrines of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners moved them to pen the Second London Confession to demonstrate how much they had in common with fellow believers among Presbyterian and Puritan ranks. But for all that they had in common, the differences were stark.
Ecclesiology and baptism are the two that stand out, to the point that Baptists were labeled “Anabaptists” and were forced to spend much effort and time defending themselves against this false charge. The First London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644) was introduced with these words, “The Confession of Faith of those churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists.”
In light of the fact that both the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith believed in the liberty of conscience (see WCF XX.2 and LBCF XXI.2) it is difficult at times to determine just why secondary matters like baptism would lead groups of Christians to persecute and abuse their brothers in Christ.
If Scripture alone is our standard and rule, and no one could bind another’s conscience on a matter outside of what Scripture taught, then what could motivate the downgrade in the nature of what should have been intramural debates? With political pressure on one side and theological pressure on the other, Christians began to actively and at times violently persecute other Christians. Within this framework, the Particular Baptists engaged in defense of the truths of Scripture and were willing to count the cost, even at the hands of their brothers.
The Difference between Discipleship and Debate
Our forefathers in the faith have left us many an example of how to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). They did this articulately through written publications, pamphlets, or flyers duplicated and dispersed abroad for all to read. This method of debating gave people time to read and mentally digest a view and then respond to it thoroughly. Even if debates were spoken, someone was writing down every word for publication, study, and rebuttal.
Today the form, methods, and rules seemed to have devolved. Spoken debates are often quick quips and sound bites more akin to propaganda slogans – more believable the more they are replayed and repeated. Written debate has devolved even more so as the medium has become digital and virtual. It is rare that a thought is completed on the page or screen before it is opposed and dissected.
When we do find opportunities to engage in a debate online the present form often opens the door for personal insults, slander, assumptions, and other abuses of the tongue through typing. Even with these dangers though, many in Christian circles enjoy debating. It is exhilarating to attempt to change someone else’s mind on a topic of importance to us.
These debates can grow quite heated. Lines are drawn from the Scripture or tradition and defended to the death! Sometimes the arguments are civil, at other times they unbecoming for believers. In light of this, we must pause and take a look at the Scriptures and evaluate the motivation behind our desire to debate. If we find it necessary to confront fellow believers on matters of faith or practice, we must not do so as a persecutor, but rather a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ.
Teaching or Taunting
Discipleship is the process whereby we obey the Great Commission and teach disciples all that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). It is teaching and being an example, but it is also a reciprocal relationship where both parties teach and learn. Of course, one will be older (more mature) in the faith, but those who are older do still have things to learn from the younger.
I must be clear that the kind of debate I am addressing and comparing to discipleship is not the debate of the legitimate ministry of Christian apologists. No, instead it is the kind of debate engaged in by those who taunt others and have definite opinions on everything, spending large amounts of time talking, typing, arguing, and trying to tear up or tear down both the arguments and the arguers from the “other side.” If they are examined closely, however, their lives are just as void of real Christian ministry and fellowship as their arguments are void of charity (or any other fruit of the Spirit).
Debates and discussions ideally are supposed to aid the reader or the participant in coming to a better understanding of a text of Scripture or a topic in theology. However, often it seems there is more concern that a debate be won, and an opponent convinced so that the debater is vindicated and his position advanced. There is little concern for the fall out, little care given when those being argued with are wounded and little thought given to the message that is sent to the rest of the watching world.
Iron Sharpens Iron
Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” This verse has been used time and again to defend the practice of believers engaging in heated debate, but in examining this verse we may learn a few things about the difference between discipleship and so-called debate.
What does it mean “to sharpen?” The word means “to cause to grow sharp or keen.” So as iron will cause another piece of iron to grow sharp, able to cut or pierce, so too a man can sharpen the countenance of his friend.
Who is sharpened? The sharpening, the removal of rough edges, the refinement, and the growth in grace that results from diligent discipleship occurs between friends. In the Body of Christ, we see that much is required of us as we relate to one another. Fellowship, an act of worship toward God and an act of love and dutiful service towards each other, finds us in a loving, deep, and even spiritually intimate relationship with our friends.
A summary of what the Bible says about the relationship between friends is also summed up in a Proverb. Chapter 17 verse 17 begins, “A friend loves at all times.” So, the very relationship necessary for sharpening is a relationship built on unconditional love. That means that 1 Corinthians 13 applies specifically to how friends interact with one another. Let’s look at these verses:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.
When we take a look at discipleship and the love that is required of us by our Lord for one another within His Body (1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:14), and when we see how serious the presence of love is in our relationships (without love, we are nothing), and when we evidence Biblical love as is described above in our friendships, then we see what it means to sharpen the countenance of a friend.
We are discipling friends who are fellow members of the Body of Christ. This is fundamentally relational. We are motivated by love for them and for Christ. And we show by our actions, words, thoughts, motives, and attitudes that this is genuine, patient, longsuffering, gentle, well-behaved love. If we engage in theological discussions with any other motive or outlook, then we are not being obedient to the Scriptures.
We know who is sharpened, but now let us take the examination a step farther. What is sharpened? We sharpen the countenance of a friend. The Hebrew word here means literally “face” and it is used throughout Scripture to refer to a person’s presence or bearing, including his ability to think, discern, respond, and act.
This means that a man who is sharpening the countenance of his friend is working within a relationship based on unconditional love to refine and polish who he is, how he thinks, what he says, and how he behaves. Sharpening a man’s countenance is to work to refine who he is in every part of his being. It is indeed nothing short of teaching a friend how to avoid being conformed to the world while instead teaching him to be transformed by renewing his mind in the Scriptures (Rom. 12:1-2). It is about personal, practical holiness.
How do we sharpen? We sharpen the countenance of our friend like iron on iron. It is often believed that this sharpening is heated confrontation, even to the point that friends or fellow believers will offend one another in the process. If we remember that this is all taking place within the context of a relationship based on unconditional love, then will this sharpening ever be offensive? Will it hurt our pride or cause us to rear up in defensive anger toward the one sharpening us?
To understand and answer these questions we must ask why this process is likened to one of iron on iron? In order to make a cutting tool or a weapon effective it has to be sharp. At the time this verse was written workers, weapon makers, and soldiers would use a piece of iron to sharpen another piece of iron. The goal of the process was to take off the blunt, rounded edge along with any burrs, bumps, or irregularities in the metal. The result, after pressure and friction, was that the edge was not round or jagged, but smooth and sharp. The point was to make a point.
Often the focus is set on the friction and pressure instead of on the point. The goal is not to pressure one to become sharp, nor is it to create friction, confusion, or agitation. The goal is to remove those things that keep us dull and unusable.
To say it another way, this word picture of iron sharpening iron is restated by the writer of Hebrews in chapter 12:
1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
There it is. In order to run a good race, to compete with any skill, the athlete must “lay aside every weight” that would slow him down. Imagine a runner in a marathon with a heavy weight chained around his leg? It would not only slow him down, but would hinder his progress, and probably would cause injury if he continued to try to run without taking it off.
So, if we are to run the race skillfully, to compete, to finish the course, then we must first remove every weight, anything that might ensnare us, slow us down, and hinder our progress. And the Scriptures are quite clear – the weight that slows us down is sin.
The task of laying aside the weight, of being sharpened so that the rough irregular blemishes are honed off, is the task of removing, or mortifying sin. It is repentance, confession, and walking in obedience. If we want our countenance to be sharpened, our being to be keen and useful, then we must get sin out of the way.
The Word of God
This can be applied as we see that a man sharpens the countenance of his friend by aiding him in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is using the Word of God as it was meant to be used.
The Word is the tool with which we sharpen one another, set in a relationship of love and concern for spiritual growth and effective service to our Master. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The Word teaches us doctrine, that is, the content of our faith. Doctrine is what we believe. The Word is used to reprove, to confront sin and error in our life and our belief system. The Word of God corrects by giving us steps to restore us to rightness, a remedy for what has been reproved. The Word also is used to instruct us in righteousness, that is, to show us how to be right with God and how to grow in our fellowship with Him.
There is no anger here, no animosity, pride, condescension, irritation, or impatience. There is also no harshness, rudeness, temper, wrath, or ill esteem. The Word, when used rightly to disciple one another, is used in the context of a relationship built on unconditional love. There we are again, back to love.
The Plank and Speck
Now some might say that removing the speck from a brother’s eye can be hard work. There are some in the church that are professional speck removers. In their opinion, they alone are right, and we are all wrong. They will expose the error of our ways, tell us how ignorant and naïve we are to have fallen for such a false piece of doctrine, they will reprove us for not being as wise as they, they will correct us with harsh, impatient, unkind words, and then they will insist that to be instructed in righteousness is nothing less than embracing their point of view without question.
Here we have a brother, though not necessarily a friend, running straight for us, tweezers in hand to pluck the speck out of our eye. But as they get near suddenly, we are bludgeoned by the beam sticking out of their face. Can you imagine this zealot trying to remove a speck of dust from someone’s eye all the while a utility pole complete with garage sale flyers attached is protruding from his eye socket?
These pole bearers and speck removers forget what the Bible says. While the Word of God never condemns removing a speck from a brother’s eye, it is absolute in giving us instructions to first remove the plank from our own eye. In other words, we must be ready to deal with our sin and our pride and our false beliefs first, and then seek to assist others in the pursuit of right living and right belief.
It is also interesting that often the only difference between a speck and a plank is simply perspective. If a speck is in your own eye, it appears as a plank, obscuring much of your field of vision. But in another’s eye, at a distance, it is but a speck.
So, the iron that is sharp, the runner that is fast, and the eye that can see without obstruction is the iron, the runner, the eye that is consistently and continually being honed and trained to be rid of sin. It is a living application of Romans 6. It is aiding one another in the pursuit of holiness. It is becoming more and more like Christ by the power of the Spirit through the application of the Word of God to our daily lives.
Debate – the right way and the wrong way
In the arena of debate then, we ask what role iron sharpening plays? In a true debate, one side affirms a positive and the other a negative. There is opposition. But in the task of iron sharpening iron we are on the same side. It is not a confrontation with an opponent but an exercise in striving to understand, apply, and obey (to hear and to do) the Word of God.
In many debates, the sides that disagree on points of doctrine or practice often fail to view one another as friends, much less as fellow members of the Body of Christ. They really do view each other as enemies.
Debate that Destroys
When the view is skewed, and heat and friction seem to be the tool of choice, then we see that debate does not edify, it does not build up, it does not lead to growth. Instead, it often leads to ruin. This kind of debate destroys. It tears down people and their ideas. It belittles, derides, and holds others in contempt. It is surely not loving or compassionate, but proud, puffed up with a self-satisfied sense of superior knowledge and a more progressive state of sanctification. It builds up the individual putting forth the argument instead of building up the Body.
Often too we find that people in this category of debaters usually have very narrow views on many things. If you disagree with them in any one single point, no matter how minor, then they are ready to disown you, amputate you from the Body, and cast you aside to the condemnation they are sure that you deserve and have coming. They do so all the while believing that God has used them to proclaim to you the very truth by which you will be judged! What love is this?
Debate that we are commanded to avoid
In truth, the simple Scriptural fact of the matter is that as believers, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are given some very pointed, specific, and clear commandments in regard to this kind of debate. The Bible says in 1 Timothy 6:
3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, 4 he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5 useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.6 Now godliness with contentment is great gain.
If the doctrine being taught, insisted upon, or pushed is not a doctrine that leads immediately to godly living, then that is a presentation of unwholesome words. That person is then labeled by the Word of God as, “proud, knowing nothing, obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings.” What is produced by Biblical discipleship? The fruit of the Spirit. What results from improper debate? The works of the flesh (see Galatians 5:16-26). And the command here is that we are expected, yes ordered to withdraw from such a one.
We also read in 2 Timothy 2:
14 Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 16 But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. 17 And their message will spread like cancer. 23 But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.
Here we are charged before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, not to argue meaningless, useless things that ruin the hearers by overturning their faith. The right handling of the Word of God means that we shun profane and idle babblings, arguments that lead not to godliness but to godlessness. These ideas, these false doctrines, these false teachers are infecting the Body like cancer. So we are to avoid foolish and ignorant disputes that promote strife instead of the restorative goal of unity and harmony.
Responsibilities to the Weaker Brother
We must be reminded that the liberty, the freedom we have in Christ is never to be used in any relationship to further indulge our own flesh or draw others, especially weaker Christians, into disputes. The whole point of Romans 14:1 is that we must not engage in disputes over doubtful things with weaker Christians.
Yes, we must teach truth and help others grow in grace, but we must do so with pastoral concern and care for souls. Arriving at the truth is important, but the process to get there is just as important. To arrive at truth through violence means one might believe rightly, but they will carry scars and be hard pressed to lead others lovingly into that same truth. To arrive at truth through loving discipleship and shepherding will mean that we appreciate both the truth and the journey. We will have enjoyed the Pilgrim’s Progress.
For those who debate, who fight to win, who are making the narrow way narrower than it is – for those who are so theologically ingrown that they cannot even see where the plank is protruding from their own eye – for them I have two words. Stay away.
Our desire should be to promote growth, equipping the Body for the work of the ministry (literally, “the work of service”) which leads to edification by means of Biblical discipleship. This goal is rarely to be achieved by participation in debates or involvement with internet forums. Too many keyboard theologians, with no accountability, no wisdom, no humility, no pastoral heart, no care and concern for the weaker brothers, no love for their “opponents”, no discernment, no understanding, and no obedience (“be slow to speak, quick to hear”), are ruining the faith of others.
The Scriptures tell us that these kinds of disputers are spreading like cancer. They may even seem to be right in some areas, but their attitude, their language, their words, their demeanor, their tone, even the way they think things through all points to one huge unmistakable red flag. They have no real ministry, no real love, no real heart for God, and no fellowship in the Body. It is all about the promotion of self. Of course, they would deny this, but at the heart of the matter, this is the truth, to them the gospel is a means of gain. They desire to gain reputation, prestige, and the appearance of intellect. For them, it is all about self-promotion.
As we are sanctified, as we walk in the light and holiness together, we have this guarantee – we will have fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7). Any doctrine, any agenda, any system of theology, any point of debate that leads to a break in fellowship between fellow believers must be carefully examined in the light of Scripture. Yes, there are times to withdraw, but if we are forcing schism at every turn then we have fallen into a category that is truly frightening. For of all the things that God tells us in His Word that He hates, near the very top of the list is one who would cause division among brothers (Proverbs 6:19).
The Church, the Body of Christ, as it is visible upon the earth, is a called-out community. We may wear differing labels and hold various traditions, but if we do indeed belong to Jesus Christ then we are members of one another and should desire being knit together as we grow up into the Kingdom of God. We know that we are to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it is most often those closest to us in faith and practice from which we divide.
Consider how often the New Testament warns us about community destroying sins. We are instructed by Peter to lay aside “all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking” so that we might instead “desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” (1 Peter 2:1-3). Who more than those who claim to believe the Doctrines of Grace should be gracious in disagreements? If Christ expects us to love our enemies, how much more should we love those who have been called to share in the salvation of our Lord Jesus?
Let us be diligent then to lead by sacrificial service, to teach by example and to disciple deliberately, even when debating. Our motive as we make disciples is always the glory of God and the sanctification of one another by means of faithful and loving application of the Word of God to our daily lives. He is holy and expects us to be holy as well (1 Peter 1:15-16). And He has given us the means, indeed, through the knowledge of Christ He “has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). We have the means to be holy and to help others be holy as well. May we be bold enough to use these means faithfully and lovingly, even if it means paying the price and suffering persecution.
We must believe the truth, defend the truth, and suffer for the truth. If we must take a stand and suffer at the hands of our brothers and sisters in Christ, may we never repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling. Let us maintain this truth that our conscience is bound by the Word of God, and we will, as much as depends on us, live at peace with all men (Romans 12:9-21).