The past few weeks Austin Stone Community Church has been teaching a series on the sovereignty of God in suffering.  While I’ve enjoyed the series and agree with most of their theology on this difficult subject, I have also been made very aware of the vast difference of opinion on this subject in the Body of Christ.

While Austin Stone was teaching its series, Promiseland Church was hosting a conference on healing and deliverance.  I received following email from a good friend who attended this conference: Quite a week at Promiseland.  You might want to check out Dutch Sheet’s message there today.  I heard there was a troubling message last Sunday at Austin Stone.”

The email made the differences crystal clear. What one church finds truthful, another finds troubling. I believe the differences in theology related to suffering and healing is the greatest threat to Christian unity in our day.

The Great Debate

When I was in college, the debate centered the existence of charismatic gifts. Dallas Theological Seminary taught cessationism (that the charismatic spiritual gifts ceased to exist), and this viewpoint influenced many campus ministries and churches in Texas. Campus ministries had a difficult time working together if one was cessationist and the other practiced spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.

I have noticed that this is no longer the primary debate. Many leading teachers in the “reformed theology camp” such as Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler teach openly about the spiritual gifts. Mark Driscoll even spoke about three different kinds of tongues in his sermon last week!

That said, the theological differences have taken on new forms in our day. The same “camps” are in disagreement, but the debate has shifted to one about God’s will in suffering and in healing.

A Tragic Story

A few years ago this debate played itself out in dramatic fashion at the University of Texas. A student who was involved in one of the more “reformed” campus ministries got connected with some students in one of the more “charismatic” campus ministries. He experienced God is some new and profound ways which led him to eventually leave the reformed campus ministry and join the charismatic campus ministry.

A few months later he had a very serious episode. I do not feel it appropriate to give details about what transpired, but suffice it to say he ended up in a hospital.

His friends from the reformed camp said, “He needs a doctor.” His friends in the charismatic camp said, “He needs deliverance.” His friends in the reformed camp said, “God was trying to get his attention.” His friends in the charismatic camp said, “Satan was trying to distract him.”  His friends in the reformed camp said, “He was fine until he started doing crazy things with you charismatics.” His friends in the charismatic camp said, “You reformed guys do not know a thing about the Holy Spirit.” Trust me when I say I am being kind in how I am depicting the debate. It was much worse than I described.

I am glad to say that the guy got out of the hospital and is now doing great and is serving the Lord with a missions equipping and sending organization and is still in the “charismatic camp.”

My Quest for Understanding

This experienced led me to spend an entire summer studying the different views in the Body of Christ as it relates to the topics of suffering and healing. I met with several dozen pastors that summer who kindly and humbly answered my series of questions. I interviewed pastors from all different denominations and backgrounds. I interviewed some who had recently seen God do miracles in their church and some who had just lost their wives to cancer. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.

My quest was to understand where others came from, not to debate. After dozens of interviews, here are the two things that amazed me most. First, I was surprised to find that they agreed on about 90% of things. On most of my questions their answers were not that different at all. Secondly, I was surprised by how a slight difference of 10% can lead to a completely different landing zone.  Like an acute angle of ten degrees, it may be ten degrees at the angle but if the lines of the angle continue on very far the gap gets wide really fast.

Friendship is the Answer

One of the people I love most in life is my friend Mark Proeger. He and I met in East Asia on a mission trip when we were 18 years old. We’ve been friends now for 20 years. He was the first person I interviewed that summer because I knew he and I had about a ten-degree difference of opinion on these matters. Yet both of us have had a deep, deep passion to love God, to seek truth, and to see the Body of Christ work as one united Body. Our passion for Jesus and His Body has always exceeded our differences, even in this important debate. Our friendship has made all the difference.

I am hopeful that God’s people in Austin on both sides of this debate will embrace one another as friends and be willing to understand each others’ view points, for no other purpose than to understand each other better.

1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (MSG)

The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.

Justin Christopher is the director of Campus Renewal Ministries at the University of Texas and author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.