What should we do when Christians can’t agree?
Disagreement and division amongst Christians is both surprising and at the same time, to be expected.
The opening paragraph of Ephesians 4 oozes with unity – one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father; so it is not surprising that the Apostle Paul calls believers to humble, patient unity. In the goodness of God, He calls a person not just to Himself by the blood of Jesus, but individuals into deep fellowship and unity with each other. Unity is the work of the Trinity!
Despite that deep, Spirit enabled unity, however, The New Testament is very clear about what our communal fellowship is like this side of the return of Jesus. Paul has disputes, even with the Apostle Peter (Gal 2), and in a chapter about how to live God honouring lives with each other Paul writes if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone – a clear indication that unity and peace is difficult.
So members of God’s church are called to unity and peace, while at the same time the Bible is ever so realistic about the difficulty of living out this call.
In our own city of Sydney, where we have the joy of our clergy being trained together at our own Colleges which so clearly promote care and support, we are nonetheless no less immune to the problem of disagreement. I know of no clergy who do not teach and proclaim the central place of the cross. But our disagreements are over how we make, keep and apply these central gospel issues. So the question is when should we, and how should we disagree and argue a position with brothers who are fighting in the same trenches against our common enemy, the devil? Are there principles that we can apply in answering this question?
The two normal options
When it comes to charting our way through how to disagree, we can see that even from the Lord Himself, the issue is complex. In Luke 9:50 Jesus declares if someone is not against you, he is for you; but in Luke 11:23 Jesus says whoever is not with me is against me . Should you side with someone who is not against you, or do they need to be actively in your camp? So, do we not divide in order to maintain unity and foster friendships, or do we divide in order to maintain purity?
In the New Testament truth, and deciding whom to follow, is not merely a matter of assessing their stated beliefs. We must always consider teaching, behaviour and attitude to fellowship. Pauls commands Timothy to watch both his life (behaviour) and doctrine (teaching) carefully (1 Tim 4:16). In 2 Peter 2 and 1 John 4 the marks of true and false teachers are seen both in what they teach and how they behave. This is completely unsurprising, as the call of God through gospel proclamation is a call to righteousness, to right living, and because righteousness also loves the truth, it will result in right teaching.
Along with teaching and behaviour fellowship is the other factor that must be considered. As we have seen believers are called to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). The attempt to exclude people from church is the desire of the anti-gospel man named Diotrephes (3 Jn 9-11). So we must be very, very slow in withdrawing fellowship, but also to not withdraw from wicked people is just as dangerous. At an individual level Timothy is warned to avoid Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14-15). At a church level Paul warns of eating and drinking with those who sacrifice to demons (1 Cor 10:14-22), and even more pointedly John commands that hospitality not be offered to anyone teaching a false gospel (2 Jn 11). This is because the task of the church and its shepherds is to both teach the truth and to correct error.
So what do we do? How do we put these ideas together? A friend put this well: we must not be divisive, but division over matters deepens relationship and corrects error if done kindly . Divisiveness attempts to create factions pitted against each other. Division puts the matters on the table for discussion, prayer and study. Rest assured that if we do not discuss our differences; if we say you have your opinion, and I have mine, let’s agree to disagree that the devil will attempt to use these unresolved differences to create factions and parties. What Christians do is respectfully address both the issues and our brothers and sisters and work together with Bible open to seek the mind of God.
Having very briefly considered what the Bible has to say on Christians disagreeing: that it is a right thing to do, but must not be undertaken with the goal of being divisive; what principles can we discern as we go about this?
Here are some thoughts:
- Recognise that fellow believers, as brothers, will be judged more harshly. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 gives the clear model that those outside the church will always have different beliefs and practises, but fellow Christians should be asked about their beliefs and practises, for their sakes and for the sake of others.
- Do not be a respecter of persons; that is, do not accept or reject another and their position based on the tribe they come from, the position they hold or the pedigree they have. We must assess everyone based on teaching, life and fellowship. (Read almost any chapter of 1 Corinthians to see that).
- Heed the warning of the Apostle Paul who are you to judge another man’s servant (Rom 14:4). This means we must be slow in attributing motive. We do not know why a person holds a particular position or why they act as they do. We must be careful of assuming we know the motive, and so we should ask. Christians discuss with each other.
- Practise should flow from theology, but so often theology is re-shaped by accepted practise. This is very dangerous. Accordingly, we will often need to discuss practises and behaviours as well as theology, and call each other to account on both matters.
- Beware the interpretation loophole. It goes like this – we both believe the Scriptures, but you interpret it one way and I interpret it another way, so we must respect each other . Such an argument makes the interpreter the final arbiter. It is always our danger to seek a synthesis that satisfies both parties, or explains everyone’s experience, at the cost of the revelation of God. Both need to work at the Scriptures -both the immediate passage, and the whole counsel of God- to seek greater clarity.
- Consider each other’s trajectory. No one holds a position independently of where they have come from and where they are going. It is worth considering are they/am I moving away from historical Faith or toward it? Do they/ I hold a position because they/I have a vested interest in the outcome? (This is often a moral failure we won t challenge or a settled, comfortable way of living.) This means in our disagreements we should watch behaviours as well as theology.
- There is no set of beliefs that mark out true faith, so that if you hold them you are orthodox and if you don t then you are not. A Biblical example is that for the Apostle, circumcision or non-circumcision counts for nothing (Gal 6:15), it doesn t matter one way or the other. But when it was demanded that Titus be circumcised Paul opposed it (Gal 2:3-5) because the basis of acceptance before God was being compromised. This demands that we pray for wisdom, and explore issues widely.
- When determining with whom you can work, remember that fellowship is not one dimensional, based on just one thing. Fellowship demands trust, and there are some areas that you can trust others in and other areas that you are unable to trust people – for example the people with whom you work at Carols in the Park may well be a wider group than those you ask to disciple a new Christian.
Here are some suggestions about how to disagree.
- Avoid quarrelling about foolish genealogies. (2 Tim 2:22-26). Choose to disagree only on important matters.
- If you choose not to disagree on a matter, it is worth asking yourself whether that is because it is indeed a foolish matter to dispute over, or whether the life of ease through not disputing is something we treasure more than truth.
- Beware of the real reasons for your disagreements. Sometimes there is a disposition to disagreement arising from personality differences, past failures, and the tribes from which we come.
- Recognise that everyone has their reasons for their positions. Holding a position other than yours is not necessarily the devil at work. Beware of demonizing the other person because of the position they hold.
- A person’s position can be held for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are Biblical, sometimes theological, sometimes sociological and sometimes from experience. And sometimes a person can t even articulate why you hold a position. Beware of assuming why a person holds a position. Talk with them about it.
- Christians discuss issues of difference with each other, with the Bible open. As you would expect, change can and does occur when we work together from God’s word.
- Do not just agree to disagree, and so take discussion on the matter off the table. That will create party spirit, demonizing of others, and broken relationship. God has spoken, and given us our minds, and the settings where we function. It is not just that you have one opinion, I have another. Let’s go our own way. Let us work on this
There are many topics we could point to by way of example, and I am sure you can consider many more than me. That said, I am sure we have all prayed that everyone will come under the sound of the gospel and be called to repentance. We must work with brothers in this task, and in working together, we will need to voice our disagreements and deal with them Christianly. This may at times, sadly, cause us to even break fellowship, but usually it leads to greater gospel clarity and fellowship.
Archie Poulos is the Head of Moore’s Department of Ministry, director of the Centre for Ministry Development and lectures in Ministry at Moore College.