Smiling at Error?

“The truly wise talk little about religion and are not given to taking sides on doctrinal issues. When they hear people advocating or opposing claims of this or that party in the church, they turn away with a smile such as men yield to the talk of children. They have no time, they would say, for that kind of thing. They have enough to do in trying to faithfully practice what is beyond dispute.”
-George MacDonald

I want to affirm that MacDonald is offering up some real wisdom here. I also want to say that this is wisdom, not law, and as with all wisdom the crucial skill is knowing when to apply it.

There’s no time like the present, but look before you leap. The more, the merrier, but three’s a crowd. The clothes make the man, but don’t judge a book by its cover. The pen is mightier than the sword, but actions speak louder than words. All these proverbs are true in the way that proverbs can be true, and MacDonald’s advice is right up there with them. When to do which? That’s the question.  

To MacDonald’s point, there certainly are niggling doctrinal disagreements that just don’t matter. It’s fine for first-year seminarians to talk them over for the sake of the mental exercise, but how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is not a question that should divide brothers.  

My concern with bandying about a quote like the one from MacDonald, above, is that people come away with a sense that it is always wisdom to remain airily above the fray. Couldn’t Luther just go back to his prayers and agree to disagree with the Pope? What was Athanasius thinking, making such a pill of himself? Would it have killed Paul to just let Peter sit where he wanted at the church potluck? Did Jesus really need to go out of His way to pronounce woe on the Pharisees?

These men were addressing false doctrines that do real injury to God’s people, and in such cases, a wise man answers Jude’s call to contend earnestly for the faith.

Anybody can hate error because it is wrong. It takes real wisdom to hate important errors because they’re injurious, and leave the unimportant ones for a casual chat over coffee someday. May God make us wise.

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