WHEN CHRISTIANS DISAGREE
by Mike Robinson
The Apostle Paul accused the Apostle Peter of hypocrisy? Surely not!! Are you seriously telling me that the two top leaders in the early days of the Church had an issue over which they disagreed? I mean, I can reluctantly accept that disagreements may exist with some Christians but not those two. Please, not those two! Well, it's true. This is what we read in Galatians 2/11-14 (NIV)
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement that caused them to part company? How can this be? They are Christian missionaries. They have served God and seen wonderful results. Surely they were beyond disagreement. Please tell me this is a mistake! No mistake. Acts 15/36-40 (NIV) tells what happened
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.
The truth is that there are occasions and issues over which well-meaning, sincere, God-loving Christians will not see eye to eye. That fact has been a reality in the Church since its inception and it will continue to be the case until the King comes back. Maybe it should be otherwise but it isn't. Perhaps we want to deny it but we can't.
The purpose of this article is to recognise the reality that there are issues over which Christians disagree. However, beyond that recognition, the main aim is to examine how we disagree and to offer the perspective that God is more interested in our attitudes to each when we disagree with each other than He is interested in the issues that we debate.
FACING THE REALITY
Every generation of Christians - from Pentecost until now - faces its own issues. Some issues of disagreement seem common to most generations. But each generation has specific issues that are unique to that generation.
For example, the first generation of Christians faced (and disagreed) over issues that we will probably never have to face in the western world. Whether or not we should eat meat offered to idols is not an issue that is the subject of too many books at the local Christian book store!
Conversely, those early Christians did not spend a lot of time debating whether or not they should have a television set in their homes!
Sometimes in our eagerness to be true to the Word of God, we fail to distinguish between what might be called primary and secondary issues. When Paul confronted Peter and his hypocrisy, this was a primary issue because the nature of the gospel of grace was being compromised and, if left unchecked, the situation could have arisen whereby God's grace was denied altogether.
Yet, there are other issues that are secondary in that are not critical to fundamental Christian doctrine or one's salvation. In Romans 14 Paul calls these issues "disputable matters".
"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.......One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind". (Romans 14/1,2,5 NIV)
Here are two secondary issues. Should Christians eat meat or be vegetarians? Should Christians observe special or sacred days? We will have occasion to return to this passage in fuller detail shortly but, for now, let's note that Paul seems to be saying that these are not primary issues that threaten Biblical truth or undermine one's relationship with God.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES OF OUR GENERATION?
They are legion ie. there are lots of them!!. Perhaps a short list will prompt you to think of others. In my earlier years, we debated about issues like whether or not Christians should go to the theatre, wear cosmetic make-up (that had more to do with the ladies!), play cards, dance, smoke, play sport on Sundays...the list is a long one. In more recent times, issues over which Christians disagree include
 Music in the Church. Should it be traditional or contemporary...or both?
 To speak in tongues or not to speak in tongues
 Alcohol - yes or no?
 Christian schooling verses State schooling verses Home schooling
 Birth control - a blessing from God or a denial of His sovereignty?
 Stem Cell Research - playing God or seeking cures for disease?
If we compared notes I have no doubt that we could increase the above list considerably. In many of the above examples, the question may not be one of which conviction is right and which is wrong but rather recognising that two convictions are simply different. Each may contain elements of truth and value.
But if we read the same Bible and worship the same God, surely we should be in agreement on these matters.
When we get to heaven, we will be! But before that great and glorious reality, we are still people who perceive truth through the many influences that shape our view of the world and our understanding processes eg. our education, background, upbringing together with our previous religious experience and teaching. We are all at different stages of our Christian journey towards maturity.
The truth of God never changes but our understanding of that truth does and should change because we ourselves are being changed from one degree of glory to another.
Then what hope have we ever got of being in one mind and of one accord? Doesn't the Bible teach us that we are to agree with one another?
Yes, it does. But does that agreement refer to a uniformity of conviction on any and all issues? I think not. The very fact that the Apostle Paul acknowledges and allows for the reality of "disputable matters" suggests otherwise.
Think of agreement not in terms of every believer thinking the same way on all issues but in terms of harmony. An understanding of "agreement" that has God "cloning" us all is a denial of the very diversity of the Church and the individuality of each and every believer.
Harmony comes about when the very different musical instruments of an orchestra are under the guidance of the one conductor. Each musician may have his or her own opinion and preference as to which piece of music ought to be played and how it ought to be played. That's difference. But each musician is committed to follow the lead of the conductor and allow him to co-ordinate it all so as to produce harmony. That's agreement. Each musician is primarily responsible to the conductor, not to the other musicians. Their experience of agreement comes about not because they all think alike but because they are all respectful of their differences and are trusting the conductor to utilise their differences in a way that produces harmony.
What each one believes and the musical ability of each is important. But neither of those aspects is anywhere near as important as attitudes to each other and to the conductor.
ISSUES OR ATTITUDES?
It has to be at least 20 years since I heard the following words at a conference but they have stuck in my heart and mind with tenacity ever since.
It is not issues that divide Christians and Churches; it's attitudes!
So let's go back to Paul's teaching on this subject of "disputable matters". It may be that he would warmly endorse the above statement. The following is a selection of verses from Romans 14 & 15 in the NIV)
"He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God".
"You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat." "..........So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died........." "So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God........." "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God . Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand........
........One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind..........
While the issues change from generation to generation, the attitudes with which Christians must deal with them and resolve them are not open to negotiation. We do not have any option but to love one another in the midst of our differences.
In the verses above Paul only briefly touches on the issues at hand. What he majors on are the attitudes being expressed among believers towards each other as they disagree about the issues. Consider the relational negatives that were emerging among the Christians in Rome when Paul says that they were (1) judging one another, (2) condemning one another, (3) looking down on one another, and (4) not acting in love towards one another.
Paul calls on those disciples there in Rome to accept one another, to love one another, to stop passing judgment on one another. He reminds them that God alone is the Master and each of His servants will be judged by God Himself, not by the other servants.
When we presume to make judgments on the personal convictions and choices of our brothers and sisters, we inevitably create a "them" and "us" mentality that is totally opposed to what God has called us to be as the people of God. The next step in that judgmental process is for some to experience a sense of being isolated and marginalised within our Church Family. Some may then feel that their convictions are being made the basis for acceptance or rejection by others. As these dynamics intensify, there is usually a good deal of misunderstanding and uncertainty that leads some people to withdraw from others or maintain a distance because they are unsure about how their convictions will be viewed by others. This means trust is severely compromised and, if unchecked, even betrayed.
When we allow ourselves to become the judge of our fellow believers' convictions on "disputable matters, we have taken to ourselves a prerogative that belongs only to God and we are no longer acting in love towards them. "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls".
When we become aware of such attitudes, we do well to ask this question: Is Satan employing a strategy here? Is he subtly weakening friendships and driving wedges between people? Is he dividing the Church against itself? If so, the enemy chalks up another success for himself!!
I believe it is wonderfully possible to hold different opinions on disputable matters and still love one another as Christ has loved us. In fact, such love is all the greater when it is seen against the backdrop of differences. As Paul says above, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind".
What I am appealing for is an examination of attitudes. It is possible that our convictions are right but our attitude are wrong. Which one do you think most interests God - attitude or issue?
"HOW'S YOUR ATTITUDE?"
One of the most fulfilling & challenging experiences of my life was learning to fly (in an aeroplane, that is!). In the 12 months that I spent with my instructor the question he most asked me was, "How's your attitude?" It was not a question about my mental state or outlook on life but about the attitude of the aircraft in relation to the horizon. Was the nose too high or too low?
In the aircraft used for my lessons the central instrument on the panel in front of me was called the "Attitude Indicator". A pilot checked all the other instruments routinely but he monitors the Attitude Indicator constantly. If the nose gets too high for too long, chances are that the aircraft will stall and fall out of the sky. Not a desirable outcome! If the nose gets too low for too long, chances are that the pilot will bend it by crashing into the ground. Another not-so-desirable outcome!
I couldn't help but see the parallel between that question asked by my flying instructor and the same question applied to my Christian life and Christian relationships.
Well, that's the key question when we examine the reality of disagreement among Christians.
PUTTING PRINCIPLES INTO PRACTICE
Has this article addressed in principle some current issue or attitude for you? Do you need to do something specific as a result of what you have just read?
Do you need to confess to the Lord that you have allowed a less-than-edifying attitude towards another disciple to be at home in your heart?
Do you need to make a 'phone call to someone and apologise for an unloving attitude? Do you need to write a note and invite another person or couple over for coffee because you have tended to withdraw from them?
There are always going to be issues - disputable matters - about which we shall disagree. That's OK. What's not OK is when differences drive out love and then those differences become divisions. A difference handled poorly or immaturely leads to a division. There is no excuse for that in God's Family - ever!!
I pray (I really pray!) that all that I have written above will be used by the Lord as a positive contribution towards resolving areas of disagreement to the glory of God and the enriching of your Church Family.