When Friends Question Doctrine
What do you do when your Christian friend questions the basics of Christianity?
In the past month, I’ve had three different difficult conversations with three different long-time Christian friends. Though they still confess Christ, each is deeply struggling with a main tenet of biblical Christianity. It’s hard to hear the disillusionment they’re experiencing, but it seems just as hard to know how to help!
Here’s where they’re coming from: One is deeply disappointed with the church she grew up in; she feels like each church she's been a part of is comprised of well-meaning people who end up teaching legalism rather than Christianity. The second friend is having trouble believing that those who reject Christ on earth will suffer eternal separation from him – because if he could save everyone surely he would. And the third woman is dabbling with syncretism, which means she’s incorporating other gods/goddesses/religions into her understanding of the world and Christianity.
I love each of these women, and I long to help them work through these questions. Yet in crucial moments of my conversations with them, I never seem able to articulate my beliefs as well as I’d like, or explain why I disagree with theirs. Beyond that, I like people to be comfortable around me, so it’s hard to have a conversation about why I think they’re wrong. I’m afraid of coming off as patronizing, “holier than thou,” or like I have it all figured out.
So how can I be a friend to these women, and not just these women, but other friends and family members who are working through issues of faith?
Prayer is both the simplest (though sometimes it’s hard) and most important thing we can do. We can pray for humility and wisdom both for our friends and for ourselves. We should ask the Lord to continue his work in their hearts to reveal himself to them, and we should ask the Holy Spirit to continue teaching them his ways (which we still need, too)!
Paul's prayer for the Ephesians in chapter 1, verses 16-18, provides us with a good model as we pray for our loved ones:
”I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints."
And remember we’re not alone in praying for friends we love. Jesus is also constantly praying for each of us (Jn. 17:20, Heb. 7.25).
It may be uncomfortable to pursue friends who are walking down a path different from our own, but it is nevertheless important to show that we genuinely love them, regardless of their beliefs. And because of this love, we ought to continue to be a part of their lives, always seeking to deepen our relationships with them. When a relationship is built on love and trust, both parties are more likely to hear and heed correction from one another. This also gives us an opportunity to evangelize through the way we live.
By pursuing someone, we affirm their value. Jesus is a great example of how to pursue people with love. Do you remember the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18:12-14 about a shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep? It may be more comfortable to stay with our friends who are living “within the fold” with us, but in order to follow Jesus’ example we need to pursue the ones who stray.
Speak the truth in love
It’s usually scary to broach such a sensitive issue as personal beliefs, but it’s important that we boldly and lovingly explain our convictions and the biblical reasons we have to believe them. This requires preparation, more prayer, and making use of resources. You could even suggest a book study about the topic at hand.
Remember the common ground
Division is not what Christians should be known for. In fact, repeatedly in the Bible believers are urged to live in unity (Jn. 17:23; Eph. 4:3; Phil. 2:1-2; 1 Jn. 4:12). However, that unity comes from agreement on core doctrines. Central doctrine is so important that it is worth dividing over, especially when false doctrine threatens the message of the gospel – the saving work of Jesus on the cross. The New Testament epistles are full of examples of this.
Nonetheless, the necessity of doctrine should not keep us from loving and pursuing those with whom we disagree. While we should never pretend that it is no big deal, we should also be willing to engage with hope and humility. One part of this is remembering the areas of agreement and working from that point.
Relationships are complicated and always shifting. It takes a lot of energy, patience, and prayer to minister to someone who is questioning Christian doctrine, but it’s certainly worth it. Though it’s hard, I long for my friends to know this same peace and joy and have the same assurance in their relationship with Christ, his word, and his body, the church.