A plea for circumspection
Acton Institute Powerblog

A plea for circumspection

Gregory of Nazianzus, in his first theological oration, “An Introductory Sermon against the Eunomians,” makes a plea for appropriateness in the airing of theological disagreements.

He writes, “If we cannot resolve our disputes outright, let us at least make this mutual concession, to utter spiritual truths with the restraint due to them, to discuss holy things in a holy manner, and not to broadcast to profane hearing what is not to be divulged” (ੵ). His concern is that public disagreements before non-Christians will add barriers to the spread of the Gospel.

His further claim is that it puts the unbeliever in a position of authority over Christians, in that public disputes implicitly provide the audience with an authoritative position: “Why do we appoint our accusers as our judges? Why do we put swords into our enemies’ hands? How, I ask you, will such a discussion be interpreted by the man who subscribes to a creed of adulteries and infanticides, who worships the passions, who is incapable of conceiving anything higher than the body, who fabricated his own gods only the other day, and gods that can be distinguished by their utter vileness?” (੶).

This echoes Paul in I Corinthians 6, in which he admonishes Christians to not bring lawsuits before the secular courts. Gregory fears that the inability to keep a unified house in order would have disastrous consequences.

He concludes, “This is what civil war leads to. This is what we achieve by fighting for the Word with greater violence than is pleasing to the Word. We are in the same state as madmen who set fire to their own houses, tear their own children limb from limb, or reject their own parents, regarding them as strangers” (੶).

Such circumspection is hard to come by these days. Personally, I know it is difficult for me to resist castigating fellow Christians publicly or disputing them in whatever forum is available to me, secular or not. The greatest divide on this issue, of course, is between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians, who spare no effort to give non-Christians a reason to distrust them, by slandering each other incessantly.

The approach should probably instead be something analogous to that of parents, who know that the should show a united front to their kids. If they don’t, the kids will pit them against each other an manipulate them to get their own way. Isn’t that what’s happening today to a large extent? Aren’t worldly ideologies winning out because Christians are so committed to these same ideologies over against the bonds of Christian unity?

As in all things, we would do well to remember the words of Christ, which may be good advice for the steps to take in criticizing a fellow Christian (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV):

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.