In our day and time, it appears that those of us who are searching for truth are bombarded from all sides with preachers and teachers who radiate confidence and yet whose teachings contradict one another. In nearly every avenue of endeavor and on every question which can be asked, there seems to be an equally good sounding but opposing answer. You name the issueÑdivorce, remarriage, God's plan of salvation, capital punishment, evolution, serving in the military, human suffering, abortion, euthanasia, miracles, alcohol, etc., and we will find individuals proposing all sides of the issues involved with equal confidence. How does the guy on the street sort it all out?
The traditional answer to that question is to say go back to the Bible, but it has been my experience that on many of the issues involved both sides of the argument are using the Bible. Both sides are arguing not only from scripture, but from word studies within that scripture. In many cases, such as the purpose of baptism, we seem to end up pitting Greek scholars against each other. How can the non-Greek reader do anything to determine whose Greek scholar is right?
Apparently, I am not alone in my frustration in this matter. As far back as September 21, 1976, Charles E. Geiser, writing in The Firm Foundation, wrote:
But in the midst of these wonderful years as a child of God, it has also been my saddened observation to note that among well-meaning and knowledgeable brethren, there evidently is a difference of understanding on what I believe to be doctrinal issues in the church.
...I have studied under brothers in Christ for the past six years in undergraduate schools and graduate schools and have noted this plainly.
Not only in Christian academics do we have this, but when one hears many well-learned brethren who preach what they believe to be the truth of God, try to harmonize all these things with what has been studied and heard in classes, it is not difficult to realize that sound doctrine becomes perplexing. In other words, who has it? Who has this sound doctrine that we read about in the Bible and that many gospel preachers have exposed the veins in their necks over? I am being sincere in this because I think I see the wool over somebody's eyes in just what constitutes sound doctrine as compared with opinion.
Not only do sound brethren disagree on significant points in the Bible, but they disagree on what makes up doctrine and opinion. In other words, we can not even agree on where doctrine ends and opinion starts! Why not?
One solution to this problem is never listen to more than one side of any issue. Then you will never have to worry about the contradictions. Many church members have solved the problem just that way. They listen to one preacher, do no personal work, read only approved religious publications published by people who share their leadership's views, and send their kids to schools which will be careful not to expose their children to any new ideas. Not only is such a practice totally foreign to the God-commanded concept of sharing Christ with others, but it also is practically impossible in our modern mobile society.
Another solution is to hire supervisors of the truth (as defined by the group), to attack anyone who varies from the views of the leadership. There are several men who, in the name of keeping the faith do nothing but attack the work of those who understand certain biblical concepts differently than they do. Whether these individuals are correct in their criticisms or not is not the issue. In many cases, there undoubtedly have been false teachers who have been stopped by such an approach. On the negative side, however, is the fact that good programs and capable men have been lost to the Cause of Christ by these attacks. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). There is no biblical support for one man telling the leadership of different congregations who to hire or who to use in various efforts. If the man hired to defend the truth is in error, countless good works may be destroyed.
I would like to make some suggestions that I personally have used which have sustained and strengthened me in my search for truth. They may be unusual and strange to you, but I have found that they work and I believe they are consistent with the scriptures. They are randomly listed, not in order of priority necessarily. Let us consider three general points first:
1. Believe that a satisfactory answer can be obtained by you in every question there is--eventually. Jesus said, "...seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). Notice he did not set a time table for this, but he did indicate that we will eventually be able to find truth. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32).
2. Realize there are some answers that man cannot know. Numerous biblical statements are made emphasizing the limits of human understanding. A few are Acts 1:7; Deuteronomy 29:29; and ICorinthians 13:12, 15:51.
This may sound contradictory to (1) above, but we have to realize that some questions are answered by realizing that our minds are not good enough, nor our experience broad enough, to comprehend the answer. This still fulfills our need to know, even if we do not achieve the satisfaction of total understanding.
3. Pray for understanding. In 2 Timothy 2:7 we read "and the Lord give thee understanding in all things." See also 1 John 5:20; 1 Corinthians 14:14-20.
With every question we have, we need to ask God's guidance to understand.
Now let us consider some very specific suggestions which I personally believe can help a great deal in unraveling contradictory teachings.
1. Examine the impact of the teaching upon people recorded in the Bible. How did their reaction to the teaching influence what they did? Let us go back to the issue of baptism. In Acts 16:33 when Paul preached the Gospel to the jailer, what was his reaction? The Bible indicates he was baptized "that same hour of the night." In spite of Paul's wounds, the hour, the inconvenience, and the stress of what
had happened, the act of baptism was of such importance it was done immediately. The impact of the teaching is obvious and most useful in interpreting the purpose of baptism.
2. If carried to its logical end, is the teaching going to make God foolish, illogical, self-contradictory, or stupid? This suggestion is based on the assumption that God is all-wise, just, and consistent which he himself claims in the Bible (see Psalm 104:24; Proverbs 8:12; Romans 16:27; 1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Timothy 1:17). Many good-sounding teachings of men would make God an idiot if they were logically pursued. We have to be careful to listen to others in this suggestion, for it may be our own lack of logic or wisdom that is showing.
3. Be especially sensitive to what the Bible does not say on various issues. The greatest errors made by creationists have been in cases where they have attempted to force the Bible to give information it was not providing. Similar errors occur where God says to do something, but does not say how to do it. Wanting more information about the future forces other errors. Every time we read a passage we need to say two thing--what is it saying and what is it not saying?
4. Use concordances instead of commentaries. A concordance such as Young's Analytical or Strong's provides simple English meanings to words used in the Bible. A commentary provides a man's opinion about a passage. A commentary can easily mislead, but it is nearly impossible for a general concordance to do so. I am not suggesting there is no value in a commentary, or that one is in error to use one, but a good concordance is a better help in my opinion as a layman.
5. On hot issues, critically read solid credible books on both sides and then study out your own position. Nothing will convince you of the falseness of a teaching faster than seeing a capable proponent attempting to defend it. Most of those who are trained in science and have rejected the classical evolutionary theory of man's origin from an amoeba were not convinced by a creationist. We were convinced by the total inadequacy of evolutionists to explain away the evidence against their position. A debate does not serve this purpose, for a debate depends upon the ability of the personality, not the truth of his position. Looking at a book's sources, consistency, logicalness, etc., can be much more useful. The amount of dependence on the Bible in the issue is also a factor in evaluating the work.
6. Beware of arguments based on isolated passages or minimal Scripture. You can prove anything about anything from anything if you allow isolated verses or quotes to be used. Never listen to sermons or read a book where isolated quotes are being given without examining the context of the passages being quoted. Many preachers and writers are especially bad about using passages which have the right words but the wrong subject involved in what is being said.
7. Pay attention to the kind of writing being quoted. Some passages in the Bible are historical, some are poetry, some are laws, some are dreams or visions, and some are scientific statements. To interpret a poem as historical document is an error and will lead to misconceptions.
8. Never consider your position immutable, but do not change it unless you are sure. Some may read this and say "you mean you would consider it a possibility that your position on evolution or on baptism, etc., might be wrong?" My answer to that is an emphatic "Yes." I will reassess my position on any subject if I am given reason to do so, and if I am convinced my previous understanding is in error I will change. My experience on most subjects has been that each time I re-examine my position and consider an opposing view I am further convinced of the correctness of my original understanding. But, on more than one occasion I have found myself to be in error, and when this has happened a whole new area of understanding has opened up, enriching my life and strengthening my relationship to Christ. There are numerous biblical examples of this very process. (See Acts 19:2-7; Galatians 2:11-14; and Paul's conversion.)
9. Believe you can and will know the Truth and that you will be saved even if you do not know everything there is to know. We have pointed out earlier that God has promised us that if we seek, we will find. The Bible abounds with admonitions to study, work out one's salvation, and to listen to God's Word. (See 2 Timothy 2:15; Philippians 2:12)
If you seek TRUTH, you will find it; but you will never know it all in this life. Not even the apostles had absolute knowledge, and yet Paul was confident of his salvation. You can easily understand enough to obey and be faithful to God, but we will never have total knowledge.
These suggestions will not totally solve the problem, but I have found that they give one with my limited ability and understanding enough confidence to challenge disbelief and inconsistent teaching with confidence. I hope they are useful to you.