Chapter 66

The Inadequacy of "Yes" Theology

If saying no makes me narrow, so be it.

Terror seized me by the throat a few months into my engagement to be married. Ardor turned to horror. Hot pursuit suddenly got cold feet. This came with a fundamental realization: If I had this woman, I couldn't have any of the others. If I said yes to one, I was saying no to millions. Not that this was the breadth of my options, mind you, but whatever options I might have had before I said my vows, they were no more after I said them.

I gingerly raised some of these concerns with the woman who nevertheless became my wife. That was many years ago. She's forgiven me, I think.

Every yes contains a no. And if you can't learn to say one, you won't learn to say the other. (Maybe that's why we put up with two-year-olds.) It certainly describes the way Christians and churches can drift into heresy and confusion.

Every yes contains a no.

I know of a church whose new pastor has led it into serious, even fatal, theological error. The mystery is that his predecessor, a thoroughly orthodox, godly, and beloved man, had pastored the church for more than three decades and had never preached anything but the gospel truth. How could this happen?

I asked a friend who knew the church. She explained, "He told them the truth all those years. What he didn't tell them was what wasn't the truth." He said the yes, but he never said the no, and because he didn't, his people never really heard the yes. They weren't so thoroughly taught after all.

But I empathize with my colleague. It takes intellectual rigor to understand the yes well enough to know the no. It taxes the mind, and it can put a strain on relationships. I once preached on Jesus' command for the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Encouraged by some remarks I read by Tony Campolo, I asked my upscale congregation, rhetorically, "May a Christian own a BMW?" Maybe I should have been content just to tell my people that one cannot follow Christ and be a slave to riches. Maybe not. Whatever the case, from the calls and mail I received, I could tell that the message was memorable, if not popular.

Learning to say the yes and the no: Few issues portend so much for the future of the church, because none carries so much potential to fly in the face of the spirit of the age. I speak of the infatuation with pluralism and inclusivism and certain brands of multiculturalism; the belief in the egalitarianism of opinions and feelings—that it is not only wrong, but rude and bigoted to think that some people's ideas and feelings may not be as good or as valid as others. It's the "Who's to say?" syndrome: Who's to say what is right? The answer is everyone, or no one, or both. Whatever. It's cool.

Faithful stewards of the household of God must practice the discipline of saying both yes and no. It's hard, it's not fun, and it doesn't usually preach to packed houses. But believers in every age have had to learn it or lose the faith. It wasn't enough for Nicea to say that Christ was begotten of the Father. It had to say, "begotten, not made." It wasn't enough for the signers of the Barmen Declaration to declare that Christ was Lord; they had to add that Hitler was not.

Without declaring the no, we become the church that Machen observed in his day: "conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness-and-light kind of way, which is just meat for the wolves."

Saying no is part of the nature of our faith, a faith that Alan Watts, the Anglican-turned-Hindu, found to be "a contentious faithuncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious, and invincibly self-righteous." So be it. But its narrowness is the narrowness of the birth canal, or of a path between two precipices—or of a lifetime spent loving one woman.