Addressing Fraternal Disagreements in the Body of Christ
Scripture does not require brothers and sisters in Christ to agree about everything, but it does place certain expectations on the way we are to disagree with one another. Biblical authors—and Jesus himself—seem to place a considerable weight on the way we disagree with one another.
Glorifying God with One Mind and One Voice
Since its inception, God called the church to pursue unity. Jesus asked the Father for his followers to be “made completely one” so “that the world may know” he was sent by the Father (John 17:23). Peter instructed the churches in Asia Minor to “be like-minded” (1 Pet. 3:8, CSB) or to “have unity of mind” (1 Pet. 3:8, ESV). Paul likewise urged the Corinthians to “be united with the same understanding and the same conviction” (1 Cor. 1:10). He also challenged them to “become mature,” to “be of the same mind,” and to “be at peace” (2 Cor. 13:11b).
Yet the pleas of Jesus and the apostles for unity of mind were not demands for uniformity of thought, nor were they a total rejection of a diversity of opinions and practices within the church. This is evident in Rom. 14–15, where Paul contrasts those who are “strong” with those who are “weak” in faith. The “weak” here describes Jewish Christians who had practical and philosophical differences with their Gentile counterparts. The “weak” brothers do not appear to disagree with the “strong” about the requirements of salvation. (Paul did not accuse them of subscribing to a false gospel like he did with the Galatian agitators who required adherence to the Law for salvation.) But the “weak” do differ from the “strong” in their beliefs about what constitutes a mature follower of Christ. They seem to be working from different convictions about what is and what is not appropriate behavior. The “strong” “believes he may eat anything” while the “one who is weak eats only vegetables” (Rom. 14:2). The “weak” believes “one day to be more important than another day” while the “strong” considers “every day to be the same” (Rom. 14:5).
Biblical authors—and Jesus himself—seem to place a considerable weight on the way we disagree with one another. Click To Tweet Paul ends his discourse on the ethics of disagreement with this intercession: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, according to Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice” (Rom. 15:5–6). Paul sees the unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ as the fulfillment of the promises of God across the Old Testament (2 Sam. 22:50; Ps. 18:49; 117:1; Deut. 32:43; Isa. 11:10). We who have many differences can glorify God by the way we come together to praise the Lord and honor his name (Rom. 15:7–12). But it is crucial to note that Paul sees this kind of unity as something only God can grant to believers (Rom. 15:5). We cannot achieve it by our own merit.
Christian unity is a gift from God for the glory of God.
Pursuing Gospel Unity Despite Our Disagreements
The differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians over matters of food are not identical to the theological differences between Christians today, as these differences largely stem from different approaches to the interpretation of biblical texts while Jewish and Gentile differences originated in competing traditions and customs. However, many of the same principles seem to apply.
First, we must pursue peace where we can with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ. Where we can have unity in the gospel itself, let us pursue unity and tranquility. All followers of Jesus share the same gospel message—“that Christ died for our sins” and “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4)—but we often disagree about the mechanics of the gospel (e.g., conditional vs. unconditional election, particular atonement vs. universal atonement, etc.) and the implications of the gospel for our lives (i.e., what new practices we should adopt as followers of Jesus). We can major on the majors and minor on the minors, but only if we can discern between the essentials and the non-essentials of the Christian faith. Our unity does not come from uniformity of thought, but from having the same Savior, the same mission, and the same love for one another. Our unity does not come from uniformity of thought, but from having the same Savior, the same mission, and the same love for one another. Click To Tweet
Second, we should be accepting of differences in opinion, especially in debatable matters. As Paul instructs us, we must not get hung up over disputable matters. Yes, we must address denials of essential Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, and salvation by grace through faith alone head on when we encounter them. However, we cannot be contentious on matters that are not directly addressed in Scripture or matters where the meaning of Scripture is widely disputed. Many of our theological differences come from our imperfections as interpreters of Scripture: our finitude, our ignorance of historical details, our biases, our reasoning processes, and our emotions. (I explain these interpretive differences in greater detail in my recent volume, When Doctrine Divides the People of God.)
Third, we should refrain from condemning those with whom we disagree. It is one thing to judge their opinion as incorrect and quite another to condemn them for holding that opinion. This is not a slippery-slope brand of relativism that says there is no truth on these matters, but it is an acknowledgment that the building up of those for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15) is more important than winning an argument over the matter.
Fourth, sometimes gentle, private correction is needed. Luke’s account of the conversion of Apollos in Acts 18:24–28 provides helpful guidance for how a young believer can be encouraged in his giftedness but also gently corrected when needed.
Apollos was a gifted man who was “competent in the use of the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24), “fervent in spirit” (18:25), and bold in his proclamation of the gospel (18:26). Luke tells us he was “speaking and teaching accurately about Jesus,” even though he was working with incomplete information (18:25). Priscilla and Aquilla loved Apollos enough to take him aside and gently correct him, to fill in the gaps in his knowledge (18:26). They did not contest him in the synagogues, or push their glasses up their nose and say, “Well, actually . . .” Instead, they saw his giftedness and wanting to encourage him rather than discourage him, took to private correction. We must be careful about what we say in the public eye about each other, especially in an age when everyone with a social media account can see our business. Click To Tweet
Finally, we must remember that our gospel witness is on the line in the way we disagree with one another. We must be careful about what we say in the public eye about each other, especially in an age when everyone with a social media account can see our business. The unbelieving world now has access to our denominational squabbles and political dogfights through technology. And yes, the way we handle our public disputes as followers of Jesus does have an impact on the credibility of our gospel witness. Believers should be able to express genuine love and concern for one another even as they give voice to their disagreements.
Whenever we publicly express disagreement with a brother in Christ, we should ask two questions. First, we must ask if our response builds up the other person or tears him down. Does this response merely prove I am right or is it a gentle, loving correction? Second, does our response model the kind of God-glorifying unity for which Jesus prayed? If our answers tear down an individual or fail to model God-honoring single-mindedness of mission, it may be better to refrain from making a comment.
Sometimes, it is best to follow the advice of Thumper’s mother, “If you can’t tweet anything nice, stay off Twitter.” Or, to quote Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–390), “If we cannot resolve our disputes outright, let us at least make this mutual concession, to utter spiritual truths with the restraint due to them, to discuss holy things in a holy matter, and not to broadcast to a profane hearing what is not to be divulged.” The well-being of our brother and the effectiveness of our gospel witness is on the line.