A Safe Place for Hard Questions

by Lee Anderson Jr. —

The truth claims of Scripture and Christianity give rise to some of the hardest questions that can be asked. The central tenet of Christianity is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, died on a cross to sacrificially pay for the transgressions of sinners and then three days later rose triumphantly from the dead to give all who believe in Him the hope of eternal life. This tenet is as well-attested and defensible as just about any religious truth claim that can be made.1 But the fact remains there are other matters set forth in Scripture that make us scratch our heads in bewilderment. It is these issues that require us to engage with hard questions.

There are, for instance, interpretive questions directly concerning specific statements in Scripture which can be difficult. Consider, for example, what did Solomon mean in speaking about heaping “burning coals” on the heads of one’s enemies by providing for their basic needs (Proverbs 25:21–22)? What did the Apostle Paul intend in his short, cryptic statement concerning those “baptized for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29)? And why did the Apostle Peter call Lot a righteous man (2 Peter 2:7), despite Lot’s markedly negative presentation in the Genesis account of the destruction of Sodom?2

There are also hard questions regarding theology; that is, questions focused on how the statements of Scripture fit together as a whole and speak to important topics. Some of these sorts of questions rank among the classic theological puzzles that Christian scholars have pondered for centuries. For instance, how is God existent in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and yet one? How is Jesus Christ both one hundred percent man and one hundred percent God? And how is it that God, who is perfectly righteous and trustworthy, and who created all things good, could have created a being (Satan) who not only rebelled against God, but who now embodies the very antithesis of God’s righteous nature, having brought sin into the world by enticing our original ancestors, and who continues relentlessly in deceiving the nations?3

Perhaps hardest of all are some of the questions having to do with where Scripture and theology intersect with contemporary culture and ministry. These questions vary considerably, but a few seem especially noteworthy: In light of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:12, that all who seek to live godly lives will be persecuted, what are we to make of the relatively low level of persecution in the United States, which is occupied by millions of professing Christians? Why have so many believers in this nation struggled to find local church homes characterized by reverent worship, sound teaching, meaningful fellowship, and godly leadership—even though the church (in its many denominations) has such a widespread presence throughout almost all regions of the country? Why has there been a rash of such grievous scandals in the church—scandals centered on abuse, greed, and immorality—by many of the very leaders in the church who would, despite their failings, maintain that the Scriptures provide the foundation for morality?4

I note these challenging questions not to encourage doubt or to demean the credibility of Scripture, but rather to make this point: There needs to be a safe place where the hard questions can be asked without fear of criticism, alienation, or reprisals for doing so. The local church should be that place. Unfortunately for many, that is not always the case.

Years ago, I attended a church where engagement with hard questions was discouraged. Challenging questions, if one mustered the courage to ask them, were usually met by the pastor with overly simplified, trite answers. Moreover, the answers given commonly involved flawed appeals to human authority rather than honest, detailed, and careful interaction with the Bible. In retrospect, I suspect the goal was not necessarily to answer the questions, but just to make them go away. I would like to think my experience was an anomaly, and that other churches and their leadership would welcome thoughtful, honest questions even if they were difficult. However, my interactions with other Christians have led me to believe my experience was actually closer to the norm. If that is so, the church is desperately in need of a change!

I grant that there needs to be discretion when it comes to how and where hard questions are asked in the context of the local church. Depending on the topics being addressed, a Sunday school class might be an appropriate place. Alternatively, a small group Bible study or a one-on-one meeting with a pastor or elder may present a better opportunity to ask certain questions. The point is that there needs to be some accessible outlet in the church for the questions to be asked. I understand too that some of the hard questions are beyond our ability to answer in full because they concern the very nature of an infinite God who, though not an illogical Being, exceeds our finite level of comprehension. Nevertheless, I believe that the vast majority of the hard questions are answerable—at least in measure—if only we allowed for them to be asked, and then made an honest attempt to engage with them and to seek out the answers.

How can the local church endeavor to become a safe place for questions? First, in their teaching, church leaders should not shy away from difficult topics. It is certainly tempting, when faced with a difficult issue in Scripture, to gloss over it and to focus on other matters. However, insofar as the biblical text itself makes it a point to address difficult issues, we must be willing to invest adequate time and study in likewise speaking to those issues from a biblical viewpoint. Second, recognizing that the main congregational worship meeting of the church is not often an easy place to address hard questions in a way that is satisfying to each individual concerned, we should seek to develop venues where believers can talk to each other openly and honestly about such things. Sunday school classes and, perhaps better still, fellowship groups can provide the needed atmosphere for Christians to be able to do this. Third, it is vitally important that churches not overload their pastors and elders with teaching and administrative duties, because they need to have the time available to speak to people in the congregation about hard questions when such concerns arise. I am concerned with the number of churches I see employing pastors whose sole responsibilities are teaching and administration (and, increasingly, book writing), but who have no involvement in actually shepherding the people entrusted to their care. Above all, in striving to be a safe place for people to ask difficult questions, churches, and their leadership especially, must cultivate hearts of patience and gentleness to be able to lovingly help those truly seeking answers. Critical and condemnatory attitudes or comments directed toward those asking honest questions ought to have no place within the local church body.5

Decades ago, Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s ministry at L’Abri (meaning “shelter”) in Switzerland established a helpful model for the church of how to graciously interact with those (both believers and nonbelievers) who were asking hard questions about the Bible, theology, and culture. One might ask, of course, should it not be ministries like L’Abri tackling the challenging questions, and so leave the church to deal with other things, like evangelism and worship? On the contrary, places like L’Abri are there to aid the church in this aspect of ministry, not to replace it. The Lord established the church and gifted to it teachers, charging them to proclaim His word (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2)—that is, the fullness of His word, regarding any topic it addresses, no matter how challenging it may be. Since “all Scripture” is “God-breathed” and thus useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) we must reasonably conclude that every local church—every God-ordained center of biblical teaching—needs to be open to those facing hard questions, addressing them as best we can from His word.

Is there a risk of hard questions undermining the stability of the church or the faith of its members? I do not think so. The core truths of Scripture and Christianity are so clearly laid out and so well attested that hard questions should not shake our faith in Jesus Christ—even when answers are not readily forthcoming. Still, the quest for answers to the hard questions is a noble goal. And to that end, it is essential for there to be a safe place to discuss the hard questions so that we, as believers committed to the truth, can pursue the answers to those questions together. It cannot be emphasized enough: The local church needs to be that place.

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

1See Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2004).

2Answers given by biblical scholars to these questions have varied widely. Please understand, my point is not that there are no answers, but rather that no single answer to any of these questions has gained broad consensus among those who have devoted the most effort to addressing them.

3These questions about the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and the ultimate origin of evil, of necessity, all concern, in one way or another, the nature of God, who is infinite and unique. For this reason, full answers to these questions are beyond the limits of our finite understanding. However, we can still engage with the questions in a meaningful way and, through the careful study of Scripture, arrive at satisfactory (albeit limited) answers. Questions like these typically are addressed at length in works on systematic theology. Two that I recommend are Integrative Theology by Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996) and the multi-volume academic series Foundations of Evangelical Theology edited by John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway). Charles C. Ryrie’s work Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1986), though lighter, is also useful.

4Scandals in ministry have occurred throughout church history (having begun at least as early as Acts 5). They are much more conspicuous today due to the speedy dissemination of information via the internet. Even so, it seems there has been an especially high number of scandals among large and otherwise high-profile ministries in the last few years. The Roys Report, a small ministry watchdog organization, has catalogued a number of such ministry scandals that journalists associated with the website have reported on. Several of them have occurred at relatively conservative ministries that affirm (in principle, at least) a high view of Scripture. It is saddening to note that this list is not at all exhaustive.

5Regrettably, there are those who would seek to stir up dissention, ungodliness, and even heresy within the church by asking targeted questions that do not come from a spirit of honest inquiry. I am not suggesting the church should not respond directly, forcefully, and biblically to these devious sorts of questions, rebutting spurious notions and rebuking those bent on harm. Nor am I suggesting the church should harbor those whose questions are devised expressly to damage the church and hurt its members. Indeed, engaging with any question must be predicated on the integrity of that question, and for this careful discernment is needed.

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