A church can appear to be successful without sound theology, but according to Scriptures, a truly healthy church must have a sound theology. The New Testament writings show us that the early church spent considerable time dealing with theological topics. The Gospel writers, Paul, and others realized the need to have a theology that would serve the church under all circumstances. History shows us that whenever the church did not have sound theology, daily life was compromised. The pioneers of the movement that developed into the Seventh-day Adventist Church studied, debated, and wrote about theological issues as if the life of the church depended on the outcome.
If a healthy church needs sound theology, how does the church develop this? It seems to me that some principles need to be followed with sound theology as the outcome. Let me suggest some ways of developing a sound theology:
Recognize the role of the local congregation
The local congregation is essential in the development of sound theology. The church needs individuals who specialize in theological issues, but their work has to be understood, appreciated, and accepted by congregations. During the New Testament period, theology was conducted within the context of the congregations. Paul, for example, entered into a detailed theological discussion with the church in Galatia. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” he asks them (Gal. 3:1, NKJV). Paul recognized that theological issues impact the local congregation.
With theology deemed important in the local congregation, then the pastor performs a vital theological role. The pastor has many responsibilities; one of them equates with preaching and teaching sound theology, for most members often believe the pastor to be the primary source of theology. Additionally, the pastor must deal with divergent theological positions held by church members and recognize that some of these positions can be very harmful to the congregation.
The role of the Spirit
If divergent theological views have always existed, and continue to exist in the church, how do we reach a consensus so that we can function as a healthy spiritual body? Jesus promised that “ ‘when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth’ ” (John 16:13, NIV). Listening to the Spirit does not always lead to speedy resolutions of theological issues, but we have the promise that the Spirit will guide us, just as the Spirit has guided those before us. This approach requires patience and trust, but if followed, the outcome will make the church stronger. This approach means that individuals who hold theological positions that are different from the church body must seriously ask themselves where the Spirit is leading them.
God assumes responsibility for His church
No matter the approach used, sometimes it appears difficult, if not impossible, to reach a theological consensus. What then? Sometimes the alternatives are not appealing, but I am suggesting that we need to keep several points before us.
First of all, it’s important to realize that the church is not always wrong. If you find yourself in opposition to a position of the church, it’s not safe to conclude that you are right and everyone else wrong. On what basis can you conclude that you are right and all others wrong? We have seen that individuals who have a high view of their positions can often bring much harm both to the church and themselves. But does not such a position stifle reform and change if change is needed? Not necessarily. Consider well-known Reformers such as Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, and William Miller. Their primary contribution to reform was not so much in pointing out the errors of the church; rather, they shared their spiritual renewal and the reform they were experiencing. That approach becomes much more effective than dwelling on the errors of others and the “rightness” of one’s own position.
Secondly, the church belongs to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us that “he [Jesus Christ] is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18, NIV). That’s encouraging and should give us confidence that the Lord will not allow the church to fail. The church remains much safer in God’s hands than in our hands.
This issue of Ministry has several articles about the Trinity and a list of resources on the topic. Why this focus? We know that in the history of our church this topic, at one time, was debated, but the church, under the guidance of the Spirit, reached a consensus based on sound biblical teachings.
Some of our readers—conference leaders, theologians, and others—have shared with us their concerns that some individuals are beginning to advocate antitrinitarian views not supported by Scripture. I hope that the articles will be helpful in addressing the topic and that the resources listed (pp. 19–22) will provide additional material for you. Sound theology is critical for a healthy church. This body—the church—will be healthy if we allow the Spirit to guide us in our theological journey. That’s the promise that God has made to us.