“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24)
Have you ever felt like you had plateaued in a particular area of your life – like you were just circling around the same already too-well trodden territory? You’re not alone. We’ve all hit ceilings in life where growth was stymied and progress halted. The question isn’t whether you’ve had such an experience but rather, “What are you going to do about it?”
In my field, which is ministry, there are certain people whom I have learned from, as have many of my peers. We share these same fathers of the faith: ministers who have spoken into our lives and even helped to lay the spiritual foundation from God’s Word upon which successful lives of service have been built. It is good to periodically go back and reread their books, listen to their MP3s (or tapes, if they go back a few more years), and refresh ourselves on those basics. That is all well and good. However, sometimes a misplaced loyalty to those who first spoke into our lives can keep us from learning from others who may be able to unlock an altogether new treasure chest of truth for us.
Having now been in ministry for over three decades, I have had various seasons in which my ministry has taken on a different vision or purpose. I have planted churches, traveled and spoken around the nation and abroad, taught at Bible schools, and authored several books. In most instances, when I launched out into a new season of ministry, God has sent a new mentor into my life to feed me spiritually as well as instruct me in areas that would be necessary to the success of that coming season. Most of the time, this did not come through a personal acquaintance so much as it did through their materials: teaching tapes (now MP3s or podcasts), books, YouTube videos, etc. Those mentors, in turn, introduced me to other teachers who brought further illumination. Each time this has happened, it has almost been like God was reinventing me for a new purpose. At the time, it seemed that the things I was learning were all-important, overshadowing former truths I had learned in previous seasons. This was not really the case, but the relevance of what God was giving me in respect to the season I was entering made it seem that way. All truth is vital, and what serves as a foundation yesterday is what enables us to learn new truths that will build on that foundation today.
Here is where the rub comes for many. Some of the teachers from whom God has had me learn were from a completely different doctrinal camp than the one in which I began. For some, this constitutes an impassible barrier which they refuse to cross. “If it’s not coming from my favorite preacher(s), my denomination, or my ‘camp,’ then it must be wrong,” seems to be the underlying attitude. This kind of prejudice and short-sightedness runs deep in many fields of endeavor, but nowhere are the divides deeper than in the Church. Charismatic or non-charismatic, Protestant or Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, traditional or contemporary – the divides often run so deep they create an impassible chasm which some will never cross, even to investigate what might be there for them to learn.
Recently, a comment from well-known pastor and Bible teacher, John McArthur, regarding women in the ministry created a firestorm of controversy with most simply huddling together in their respective camps, lobbing insults (often without even a pretense of kindness) at one another from behind the polarized doctrinal walls that divide them. There was a lot of heat but very little light. Mostly what happened was that the world saw us fighting one another with a ferocity that flew in the face of Christ’s command to love one another as He loved us. Besides discrediting our witness to the world, it also does nothing to foster understanding between believers. Most opinions shared in these social media exchanges are not well thought-out or nuanced answers from the scriptures written with gentleness and respect, but responses meant to shame the opposition into silence. In the realm of social commentary or politics the word used to silence or shame the opposition is “bigot.” In the Church it’s “heretic,” which is generally used of anyone who does not share my interpretation of the scriptures.
Certainly, doctrinal orthodoxy is important, but there are some issues which are crucial while others are not, and none of these disagreements should be addressed with hostility and bitterness. We might try listening to what others have to say. We may agree or we may agree to disagree. As I said, God has brought a lot of teachers into my life from different camps which I disagree with on many points. That, however, has not kept me from learning a great deal from them that I would have never learned in the camp from which I came. I think God does it this way on purpose so that we have to step out from the security of our cloistered doctrinal “safe spaces” and actually dialogue with other believers who see things differently. If we don’t we’ll hit our ceiling early, feeding only on an unchanging diet which, for the most part, isn’t teaching us anything new.
I don’t think we realize just how much our own context and environment shapes our perspectives, and sometimes it only takes a new way of seeing things to broaden our understanding and enlarge our world. If we want our ceilings lifted to open a new level of growth to us, we’re going to have to risk hearing something unfamiliar. This was even true for one of the Lord’s closest disciples. Peter went up on a rooftop one day to pray before lunch. While he was there, just doing his devotions, God gave him a revelation that would not only raise his ceiling of understanding by several stories but would open the gospel to the entire Gentile world (see Acts 10). You never know what you might learn if you’re open to the idea that there are truths that lay just beyond the borders of your present experience.
I don’t mean to burst any bubbles or start any doctrinal wars, but none of us have it all. Paul said, “For we know in part….” (1 Corinthians 13:9). If I want the part you have, I have to be willing to come over to where you are to get it. We’re not talking here about some form of religious pluralism that says “all roads lead to God” or that “all religions lead to heaven.” Jesus said, I am THE way, The truth, and life. NO ONE comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 emphasis mine). What we are saying is that within the revelation of truth that God has given us in His Word, we’re all supposed to be on a quest to learn the truth that sets us free. None of us have a corner on that market. If we can agree that far, maybe we can risk making some new connections from which we can learn.
Soon after his rooftop lesson, Peter found himself in the home of a Gentile Centurion to whom God had sent him to share the gospel. It was new and unquestionably uncomfortable, but it was also God. Peter even had to defend his actions to his friends back home, but in the end, it opened the way of life to a larger world and increased Peter’s at the same time. Personally, I’m a thankful to all my teachers, both new and old. We’ll all live in the same neighborhood in heaven because it’s not divided by denominations or doctrinal dogmas. We’ll all find out there that we had some things right but a whole lot wrong. It’s alright. We’ll have plenty of time to get things straight there. It will be an eye-opener to everyone, I’m sure. I look forward to it. How about you?