Testing the Spirits

When I was a youth minister (long, long ago and not so far away), I met a young man who turned out to be a youth minister in another Christian tribe. We struck up a conversation and shared a cup of coffee. We had a lot of things in common— we had similar educational backgrounds, similar job challenges… and elders. But we also had some basic differences. He had a different eschatological expectation than did I. And he was more charismatic than was I (I have about as much charisma as a rock). So… what do you think we ended up discussing the most— our similarities or our differences? You guessed it! We ended up in a friendly debate over a variety of doctrinal issues.

After we had gone round and round on amillennial versus premillennial end-time theories (why did we get stuck on that?), he finally said, “We getting too hung up on doctrine stuff; why not just stress Jesus?” Then he added, “Maybe if we stress Jesus, maybe all these other things won’t matter so much.” Well, it took me awhile, but I came to see that he was right (Lynn would say that this usually takes a long while.) I still think I was right on the individual issues that we discussed. And I think it is good to have such discussions when they are done in a Christian and brotherly way (and I think they were that day). But I think he was right that our common ground in a common faith in Christ and a common reliance upon His work at the cross trumps makes our doctrinal differences less critical.

My NT reading today begins, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). We are to test the spirits because not all are from God. The Bible says too much about the dangers of apostasy to believe that doctrine is unimportant. The elders at Ephesus would face (and cause) a distortion of the truth (Acts 20:29-31). Timothy would have to deal with the doctrine of demons (1 Tim 4:1-2). But at the same time, we must understand that the gospel is not at stake with every difference or nuance in our understanding. There are some issues over which we fight over and just aren’t worth fighting over! I think Paul may be talking to us when he refers to controversies which are “foolish and stupid” (2 Tim 2:23-24).

Yes, John tells us to test the spirits to see whether they are from God because there are many false prophets in the world. But John’s test of doctrinal orthodoxy is pretty basic, and it says nothing about one millennial positions or mode of church music. He focuses on Jesus, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3).

My youth minister buddy thought that if we would focus more on Jesus, our doctrinal differences might not matter nearly as much. I wish I could have that cup of coffee with him all over again. I think the conversation might be different.