But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless
Titus 3:9

"Well, I'm not sure Barack Obama isn't the antichrist. The Bible says to be on guard against the evil one. And given his policies of late - and this video I saw on YouTube - you ought to consider the implications" ...

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" ...

"WHAT?! This church doesn't believe in infant baptism?! The Presbyterian tradition goes all the way back to the early church, how can you not see that?" ...

"So, could God make a rock so big he couldn't lift it?"

It's true, pursuing a full understanding of Scripture necessitates some conversation and debate with fellow believers. How else will iron sharpen iron if we aren't willing to engage in lively - and loving - exchange? We can never assume that our own wisdom is the final word on spiritual matters.

But there's a problem. If we're not careful, our iron-sharpening-iron debates degenerate. Almost before we recognize it, our hunger for knowledge becomes its own end.

During my freshman year of college at a small Christian school, I was often drawn into theological "debates." The conversation often included predestination, but was just as likely to include some esoteric unknowable like whether God could make a rock so big that even he couldn't lift it. Initially, the polemic in me enjoyed these intellectual tête-à-têtes. Like many others, I was driven by a desire to see the Bible in the right way, and I learned to appreciate some differing viewpoints on some topics. But the thrill of scoring a point on a verbal sparring partner was a little addicting.

As the semesters passed, many of us found that we were better off serving alongside each other than debating each other, regardless of differing views on infant baptism and the like. But some of us… well, the metaphor changed. Often, those who continued to "debate" theology got more and more entrenched within their positions and stopped really listening to whomever they were sparring with. The goal changed from wholehearted pursuit of truth to wholehearted pursuit of debate for debate's sake. Those iron-sharpening-iron sessions became more like a session of bulls locking horns over theological territory.

As Paul wrote Titus and the church in Crete, some conversations don't truly help us in our walk as Christians. In fact, they're just plain "foolish." They may not be so painfully, obviously unhelpful as the number of angels on the head of a pin, but they still fall into that broad category of "useless." What's worse, when we spent our mental energy on these spiritual rabbit trails, it just distracts us from what's truly important.

None of us possesses perfect knowledge or understanding of Scripture. If we did, and knowledge of God could be quantified, he wouldn't be the infinite God we know. Now, I'm certainly not saying we should quit trying - part of the wonder of the Christian life is learning to know God more, and appreciating his character the better for it. What I am saying is that we can lose sight of our motivation for "knowing." Like the church in Crete, we can quickly start debating the finer points of theology - or Christian living, or whatever - to prove ourselves right. And when that happens, the Gospel gets tossed to the side. The main point gets lost among the minor details. What is - and always will be - most important is the wonder of God reaching down to pull us up. Christ died to save sinners even before they were repentant - that's the heart of the Gospel. And that, my friends, needs no debate.

Anything that takes priority over the Gospel - including worthless or overzealous arguments - acts as an idol in our hearts. What cherished theological minutiae are getting in the way of your fellowship with other Christians? Even with your view of the Gospel?

Original publication date: September 23, 2009