If one thing should be clear for those who believe the Bible, it is that the gospel proclaims salvation by grace alone. The apostle Paul is most adamant on this point throughout all his letters, but most visibly in his letter to the Galatians. In the mind of the Galatians, they had only added a small qualifier to the gospel. For Paul, however, any qualifier destroyed the whole message of salvation. An outsider might have seen this exchange simply as a squabble over inconsequential words, but it was much more—it was a matter of keeping the true gospel intact.
Movements and ideas throughout Church history have arisen placing qualifiers on the gospel. Many add to the gospel, making it a grace-plus-action gospel. Others remove parts of the gospel to make room for more people to fit. It is popular in our time for western Christians to focus their attention almost solely on mimicking the works of Christ. As a result, their gospel is noticeably void of words and full of works, and they usually respond to doctrinal differences, distinctions, discussions or debates negatively. They will say things such as, "You are just being divisive and unloving. If you only learned to love your brothers and sisters, the church would be a better place." Or, as the common objection to doctrine goes: "Doctrine only divides."
This is a valid question, does doctrine divide?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes, doctrine divides the sheep from the goats. It can also divide the sheep into unnecessary categories. The answer is also no. No, doctrine does not fundamentally divide the sheep from the sheep, even if they are in different categories. Although the sheep may have distinctions and differences when it comes to secondary and tertiary subjects, they are not at odds in their foundational doctrines, most notably the doctrine of Christ.
Because the Christian faith relies on doctrine for its vitality, preaching and teaching are primary activities in Christian living. In fact, anything to do with words, and particularly the preciseness of Scriptural words, must be highly regarded. If we get our words wrong, we assuredly risk getting our works wrong. Fundamentally then, proclamation, discussion, debate, clarification, and distinction play a vital role in the strength of faith.
In secondary and tertiary differences between Christians, the success of discussion and debate largely depends on the attitude of those involved. To be successful, those who discuss or debate these doctrinal distinctions must see it as an opportunity for their personal convictions to be challenged and their understanding of one another's convictions to be broadened. When the goal is to uphold the truth lovingly, Christians who engage one another over these differences find themselves growing closer to one another rather than drifting apart.
Problems arise when personal convictions define words contrary to Scripture’s definition of them. This usually comes about when Christians misunderstand certain verses, or worldly ideas are imported into the faith. The subsequent personal convictions will inevitably detract from the true gospel, causing major differences in fundamental beliefs. This causes discussion and debate to move from secondary and tertiary subjects to fundamental subjects.
Here doctrinal distinctions and discussion prove their worth. I’m sure many have argued themselves blue in the face over fundamental differences only to realize that the ultimate problem between them is their definition of a word, or perhaps a simple misunderstanding of the other’s words. Many continue, convinced their misunderstanding is not a misunderstanding, and their wrong definition is the correct definition. In these cases, to correct may seem tough—it may even feel unloving—but in the end, it is the most loving act.
Say, for instance, a brother or sister believed a certain wrong idea with great passion. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding or a wrongful definition. Nevertheless, this idea had proven itself to be detrimental to the Christian faith time and time again and was beginning to show its deadly fruit in this person's life. We would see the one correcting them as caring most for them. However, when the feet of correction hit the ground running and the erring sibling feels threatened by it, the correction would inevitably feel unloving. Regardless, the action would be a display of love.
To give this a different image, imagine a farmer driving his tractor through town with his plow attached. Leaving the field, he forgot to raise the plow, so as he drives, it tears into the pavement, ripping it up, leaving a wake of destruction. For the farmer, all he sees is smooth pavement ahead of him, and everything seems to be going well. But, he is still making the road dangerous (if not impossible) to drive, leaving quite a mess for the others to clean up and repave. When people begin to honk, try to wave him down, or try to stop him, he wonders to himself, "What's their problem? My driving is fine; I'm not breaking any laws, the sun is out, it's a good day." He is quite annoyed when he is forced to stop, but when he turns around, he finally sees the mess he's made.
Distinctions and discussions cannot be entered into naively. If ignorance rules the day, everyone is worse off for it. Scripture commands us to commit ourselves to sound teaching, to be careful of our words, and to avoid those who unnecessarily stir up division. Paul doesn’t mince his words to Timothy regarding those who do not hold to sound words: “He is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth” (1 Timothy 6:4-5a). Writing to Titus, Paul includes this in his qualifications for a good leader. This leader, says Paul, must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Later, Paul instructs Timothy as to how this is carried out.
“Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” (2 Timothy 2:14-17a)
In these passages, Paul makes a distinction between those who quarrel about words and those who rightly handle words. The quarreler ruins it for everyone with his love for argument. He turns many away from considering the true meaning of words because others see him and think such consideration must always include controversy. According to Paul, the fundamental reason for this distinction is the level of knowledge each possesses. The quarreler is uninformed and unwise, while the one who holds to sound words is wise. Because of this, the quarreler is rash, irreverent, a babbler, and deprived of truth while the one who holds to sound doctrine is calm, accepted by God, and trustworthy.
As Christians, we are called to sound words and doctrine. Often, the road to this end is filled with many discussions, debates, and interactions which might look unloving or unappealing to onlookers. But they are worth it. They produce a sure understanding of truth, and that is worth far more than the ruin naivety brings.