Theology with Humility

By Matthew Dickerson

July 8, 2023

Scripture — Philippians 2:1-4

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Focus

Practicing humility toward both Scripture and toward fellow believers means acknowledging that we might not be right about everything, that we don’t have to be right about everything, and that even when we are right about something, our unity with other believers is more important than having others acknowledge that we’re right. Humility also allows us to learn from others, even if we don’t agree on all points.

Devotion

If you read yesterday’s Life for Leaders, you read a little bit about my recent conversation with a brother. As we drove across rural Maine, he was commenting how Christians often take the very teachings of the New Testament that so frequently emphasize the importance of unity—especially Paul’s epistles— and argue about them to the extent that we divide ourselves. Christians seem to be very good at creating doctrinal and ecclesiological litmus tests, and if others don’t pass those tests we assume we can’t learn anything from them or even fellowship with them. Thus, the church ends up looking a lot like our divisive culture. (Sadly, this is just one of the ways Christians create divisions among ourselves. We could add to that list: politics, worship styles, building plans, ministry strategies, and what food to serve at a church lunch.)

As I was pondering this, I thought again how Jesus built his group of disciples and how the Holy Spirit worked in the early church. Two examples more than any others spoke to me.

The first is the makeup of Jesus’ innermost circle of twelve disciples (called his apostles), whom he led together in close fellowship for an extended time. This group included two folks worth considering in particular: Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. We don’t learn much about either of these men. Neither plays an especially prominent role in the gospel accounts of Jesus. We get one story (recounted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) about Jesus dining with Matthew (also called Levi) and some other tax collectors. We are told even less about Simon. In the same three gospels, his name is mentioned among the apostles. And that’s it. Or, rather, it’s almost it. Matthew’s gospel gives us one additional detail that is curious. In his list of the twelve (Matthew 10:2-4), he mentions nine by name with no other descriptors except to identify which pairs are brothers. He notes that Judas is the one who betrayed Jesus, but says nothing else about Judas’ background. But with Matthew and Simon, we get an extra little juicy detail characterizing them; the gospel refers to “Matthew the tax collector” and then to “Simon the Zealot.” Why would Matthew’s gospel give us that type of information about those two and not anybody else?

The Zealots—whom we could characterize as both a religious and a political movement—were a group of Jews who strongly opposed Roman rule and sought to incite the people of Judea to rebel against Rome. They despised Jews whom they deemed as compromising or sympathizing with Roman rule. Matthew, of course, was the worst sort of facilitator of Roman rule: he actually collected taxes for the Roman government. To say that Simon and Matthew were not likely to ever be at the same house parties would have been an understatement. Simon would have despised Matthew. So consider for a moment the fact that Jesus included both Matthew and Simon together in his small fellowship group. He wanted them not just to tolerate each other, but to work together and care for each other. Indeed, to love each other. We are not told how well they did at this, but the fact that we don’t hear anything about arguments between them is, to me, very encouraging. (The gospel writers often let their readers know about other arguments among the apostles.) Whatever the case, we know that Jesus put them together with the prayer that they be united in him.

Paul also had some notorious conflicts. He and Barnabas had “such a sharp disagreement” over ministry strategy—in particular, whether or not to include John Mark on their missionary journey—“that they parted company” (Acts 15:37-40, NIV). He also had a sharp doctrinal disagreement with Peter. The examples of Paul’s disagreements over strategies and doctrines are more troublesome for me because we are told they did lead to some division. That suggests to me that Paul, despite all his teachings about the importance and practice of unity, was a fallible human like all of us. It also makes it clear that he understood the reality of disagreements and how they could lead to division, and yet he still taught the importance of unity. But perhaps the biggest takeaway for me is that in the doctrinal disagreement between Paul and Peter (Galatians 2:11-13) at least one of them had to have been wrong. And yet God still used both Peter and Paul to give us the New Testament. Having a perfectly correct theology was not a prerequisite for God to teach and equip his people through them. And yet so often modern Christians have a litmus test that we won’t listen to anybody who doesn’t affirm all the doctrines of our church, our group, or just our own understandings.

So am I saying that theology is not important? No! As I now enter my 61st year, having sound theology is more important to me that at any time in my life. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is that the older I get, the more deeply I want to know God, and to that end the more important it is to me to study and understand his word. When I teach and preach and write, I want to make sure that my teaching is sound and faithful to that word. And yet even as sound theology because increasingly more important to me as I get older, it becomes less and less important to me that other Christians agree with me on all points. I also become more aware of the complexities of the Word, and of the possibility of faithful thoughtful Christians having a different understanding than I do. I am happy to walk alongside fellow believers and struggle together to understand God’s word. But I now resist the urge to argue over points of disagreement.

These are not mutually exclusive. We can hold sound teaching in high regard, while at the same time resisting being argumentative. In Paul’s same letter to Timothy which I cited yesterday, in which Paul urges Timothy not to be quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:14,23-24) and to be gentle with those who disagree (2 Timothy 2:25), Paul repeatedly emphasizes the importance of sound teaching and the dangers of bad teaching. I’ll admit this isn’t always easy. My own change is still a work in progress. I like to be correct, and I have a propensity to want to show that I’m right. (About everything I believe.) What I am lacking when I do this is humility.

Perhaps this is why humility is such an important virtue when it comes to unity among God’s people—why in the same breath that Paul speaks of Christians “having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” he also urges Christ’s followers to be humble. And that’s an area in which Peter could agree with Paul, writing in one of his own letters: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5, NIV). Practicing humility toward both Scripture and toward fellow believers means acknowledging that we might not be right about everything, that we don’t have to be right about everything, and that even when we are right about something, our unity with other believers is more important than having others acknowledge that we are right. Humility also allows us to learn from others, even if we don’t agree on all points.

Imagine the witness the church could have in our divided world if we practiced the humility and unity that God calls us to. Think of the witness God’s people have already had when we have done that. It’s a wonderful and hopeful and encouraging thought.

Reflect

What are some positive examples you have seen of humility toward Scripture and humility toward others? What has been the impact of those examples?

Have you seen examples of pride when it comes to Scripture?

Act

Yesterday’s actions are still good ones to consider today:

If you are aware of any of your own relationships with other believers that have been divided because of disagreements, consider what you could do to help heal those relationships.

Try to find somebody who proclaims a Christian faith and yet comes from a different church or denominational tradition from yourself, and seek how you could live in Christian unity with that person (without requiring either of you to agree with each other on areas of theological difference.)

Pray

Lord, thank you that you desire for us to know you. You continue to reveal yourself to us in so many ways including through your Word. Help me to know you more, and as I know you more help me to love you more deeply. Forgive me for the times that my own desire to understand your word has led, in pride, to divisiveness: for the times that it has been more important to me to be right than to be loving. This is a dangerous prayer, Lord, but I ask you to help me grow in humility. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15).


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Matthew Dickerson

Author

Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include:...

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