Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
Christians disagree with each other—a lot. People notice this about us almost before they notice anything else. Rare is the denomination whose leadership meetings are not filled with power struggles over theology. At this very moment, all over the world, Christians are gathered together singing “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”—in separate groups, of course, since each group finds it impossible to fellowship with the others.
We have these problems because we are seekers after a valuable but volatile commodity: the truth. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free. We want to know it, and we want others to know it, too. But truth by its very nature is divisive; if some things are true, other things are false. If you are right in your opinions about X, then everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. This cannot be avoided. Christians don’t believe that truth changes from person to person. Truth is truth, and anything other than the truth is a lie.
This leaves us confused about what to do with our disagreements. Yes, of course, if you disagree with me then at least one of us is wrong. What do I do now? Should I tell you I think you are wrong? Should I tell everyone else I think you are wrong? Are you so wrong that I should stop associating with you? One of the most troubling questions we face in our dealings with each other is this: where do we draw the line?
One thing is clear: we do have to draw the line sometimes. We do not, cannot, believe in “peace at all costs.” We are followers of the man who called the Pharisees white-washed tombs and drove the money-changers out of the temple. We are students of the Apostle Paul, who called down God’s curse on anyone who preached a different gospel, the man who publicly confronted Peter. In church history, the Reformation was a monster-sized split in the church, and yet many of us are grateful it happened.
However, it is just as clear that we can’t draw the line over every disagreement. We cannot believe in “total orthodoxy at all costs.” We are followers of the man who ate with tax-gatherers and sinners and called us to be peacemakers. We are students of the Apostle Paul, who urged us not to pass judgment on each other’s opinions. Church history is filled with dubious battles:
- The grand-daddy of all church splits, that between the western and eastern branches of the church, was partly motivated by a disagreement as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from both the Father and the Son.
- Martin Luther suspected that Zwingli, his deceased fellow reformer, might be rotting in Hell because of his views concerning the Lord’s Supper. (Zwingli believed that the Lord’s Supper was a memorial meal, and that the bread and wine did not become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.)
- A number of Anabaptists suffered the death penalty because, not believing in infant baptism, they were rebaptized as adults.
I am not suggesting that the doctrines that spurred these debates are unimportant; far from it. All truth is important, and all error costs us something. People with confused minds make confused choices, and that can hurt. But errors are inevitable in this life. Because none of us understands perfectly, all of us are living with a certain amount of confusion. Therefore, disagreements are bound to happen. Part of our great hope is that one day all our confusion will be gone. What we need to know is how to live with each other in the meantime. Unfortunately, we are confused about that, too. We have not even been able to agree on what is an important disagreement. One person’s mild difference of opinion is another person’s heresy. What sort of principles will tell us when to be quiet and when to fight?
LESSONS FROM AN APOSTLE
The Apostle Paul shows us how to think about these questions in his own handling of the divisive issues of his day. (See particularly Romans 14-15, I Corinthians 8-10, and the book of Galatians.) With a growing Gentile church, Paul had to cope with disagreements about the appropriate place of Jewish religious practices: circumcision, dietary regulations, special religious observances, etc. Since these issues aren’t hot topics today, we may pay little attention to these parts of Paul’s letters. However, although the issues themselves are dead, the principles Paul used to address them are very much alive. Those principles provide the foundation for understanding how we should disagree with each other.
At first glance, Paul may seem sadly inconsistent. Writing to the Romans about eating unclean foods and other Jewish scruples, he advised them to tolerate each other’s opinions and live with the differences: “Who are you to judge the servant of another?…Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:4-5). However, when he wrote to the Galatians about Jewish scruples concerning circumcision, he left no room for disagreement: “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Galatians 5:2). He also told them how he confronted Peter when Peter returned to a kosher diet (Galatians 2:14). Paul refused to allow Titus to be pressured into being circumcised, and yet Paul himself circumcised Timothy! (Compare Galatians 2:5 with Acts 16:1-3.)
THE DEMANDS OF LOVE
We want to find the overriding principle by which Paul operated. Sometimes he advocated patience and tolerance, sometimes he advocated all-out war on error. How did he decide? Faced with questions of values and ethics, Paul told us what he considered to be of supreme importance: love. “Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13). “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). This is the beginning of our answer, but it doesn’t solve our problem. Love was Paul’s operating principle, but clearly he thought that love dictated tolerance in some instances and confrontation in others. Love needs to be worked out differently in different situations. This makes sense; a cup of water in the name of Christ is great for a thirsty man, but not for a drowning one. Our question still remains: how did Paul decide?
WHEN WE MUST FIGHT
For Paul, love demanded confrontation when the truth of the gospel was at stake. He explicitly defended his own lack of compromise with phrases like “so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” and “when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:5, 14). Paul spent his life calling people to faith in the gospel, and he knew that unbelief comes in different flavors. An obvious unbeliever will deny Jesus outright, but there is a more subtle way to disbelieve: be a believer, but of the wrong gospel. Love can never be content to condone unbelief, no matter what flavor it is.
In Galatians, Paul addressed his opponents, the Judaizers—Jewish Christians who believed that a person must keep the Jewish Law to be saved in addition to believing in Christ. But this addition is fatal to the gospel. Faith is not merely believing the facts about Jesus.
When we say Jesus died for our sins, we are really saying that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. I can’t win God’s favor by my religious practices or my obedience, because my heart is still dripping with evil. Faith in Jesus means giving up the pretense that we are righteous people and admitting that, unless God has mercy, we are doomed.
By adding religious requirements to the gospel, the Judaizers were selling people the illusion once again that they could please God with their works. They were talking out both sides of their mouths, like a son approaching his father and saying, “Dad, I know I drove the car through the dining-room window, and you have every right to ground me for a decade. I know I have no right to ask, but would you forgive me and let me borrow the car again? AND ANYWAY, I DON’T SEE WHAT THE BIG DEAL IS, AND I’M A GOOD KID, AND I DESERVE IT!” The Judaizers talked faith, but they had their fingers crossed: “Father, give us your salvation; we don’t deserve it (but we really do—just look at how religious we are!).” Only God can overpower our corrupt selves and make us good. Our obedience and righteousness are not a gift we bring to God; they are a gift we receive from Him through faith.
Love demands, above all, that we preserve the integrity of this gospel because it is the doorway to all that is good. Sin has captured our hearts, and we can hope for nothing but to go on hurting each other and ourselves, to taste the dust of death, and to finally earn our just destruction. But in the gospel, God has granted us forgiveness for what we are and restoration to what we are not. To point someone in the direction of the gospel is the most significant act of love possible. To lead people away from it is the worst thing we could do. That is why those who peddle a bogus gospel must be resisted. A bogus gospel is like giving a thirsty person a cup of sea water, or throwing a drowning man a concrete life preserver.
THE TIME FOR TOLERANCE
Paul takes a very different approach when the truth of the gospel is not in jeopardy. As long as the gospel that a person embraces is the real gospel, other errors are not life-threatening. The real gospel ensures that any errors we make now are temporary and cannot hinder God’s grace. We who have put our trust in God and His promises are assured that we cannot fail to arrive at life, understanding, righteousness, wisdom, and joy. God can and will overcome our foolishness, failures, and misunderstanding. Paul argues this very thing when he urges the Romans to accept each other’s shortcomings: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:3). I can trust God to do for you the very thing I am trusting Him to do for me: to heal us of the disease of sin and lead us into wisdom and righteousness. If the gospel said, “Here are God’s rules; now don’t make any mistakes,” then we would have no choice but to constantly police each other about every perceived failure of theology and ethics. But God has actually said, “You have a serious problem; trust Me to solve it for you.” Because of this, we can entrust each other to His mercy, just as we trust Him for ourselves.
God is not asking each party in theological debates to keep quiet; it can be a loving thing to try to persuade one another of the truth, and it is always a humble and appropriate thing to listen to those who disagree with me, in case I might be wrong. But in many cases God is asking me, when all the words have been said and the disagreement remains, to accept my fellow believers with whom I disagree.
Look at Paul’s instructions to those who disagreed about the eating of “unclean” foods. Paul acknowledges that one side of the debate was right: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself…” (Romans 14:14). But each side in such a debate can easily look with disdain on the other. Those who feel free to eat whatever they choose may look on those who do not eat as theologically ignorant, hung up, and immature. Paul’s message to them is, “Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat…” (Romans 14:3).
On the other hand, those who think it immoral to eat “unclean” foods can easily believe that those who eat such foods are disobedient, licentious lawbreakers. Paul tells them, “…let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). He is saying, in effect, “Look, I know from your perspective these others are being disobedient, but remember! They are your fellow believers, and God accepts them just as He accepts you. If they are imperfect (and who isn’t), God can and will deal with that in time. Meanwhile, love one another.” (Paul doesn’t say so, but we have to assume that no one in this debate was claiming that salvation was at stake; rather, they disagreed about ethics, about whether God was for or against eating certain kinds of foods.)
GOING BEYOND TOLERANCE
Love demands not only that we tolerate each other’s opinions, but that we actually limit our own behavior at times. Two of the most loving things we can do are: 1) to point each other to the gospel, and 2) to encourage each other to live faithfully in this fallen world. Because this is so, there are at least two kinds of situation where love would lead me to change my behavior: first, I can limit my own freedom so that others will be able to hear the gospel without distraction. Paul says, “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews…I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22).
Second, I can limit my own freedom to avoid seducing my fellow believers into doing something they believe to be wrong. Paul says, “But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?” (I Corinthians 8:9-10). My actions depend on what kind of message I want to send. Modeling Christian freedom can be a compassionate thing to do if the other person understands what I am doing. But I might suspect that the other person doesn’t understand and is watching me and thinking, “Wow, how cool and daring it is to be so worldly and disobedient.” Now I am not modeling freedom but rebellion, and it is time to stop.
WHAT MESSAGE ARE WE SENDING?
Knowing when to draw the line comes mostly from caring enough to think about what message is being sent. This was Paul’s motive in the seemingly contradictory instructions he gave to his two friends Timothy and Titus. Paul urged Timothy, who was half Jewish, to capitalize on his Jewishness so that he could go into the synagogues with the message of the gospel. The message was “I am not ashamed of my Jewishness; listen, my fellow Jews, to the message of the Messiah.” However, for Titus, who was totally Gentile, to be circumcised would have meant he was agreeing with the Judaizers in their proclamation that salvation came through obedience to the Law. The message would have been, “You are right; faith in Jesus is not enough to save us.” Paul would never submit to that corruption of the gospel message.
Because this is a difficult issue to explain, perhaps I should make clear what I am NOT saying:
- I am not suggesting that we should ever condone sin. Anyone teaching or living a life of rebellion must always be resisted. The principles I have been discussing apply to disagreements, not outright disobedience. These principles are relevant to people who agree (in theory, at least) that following God is important, but disagree about what that means. For those who flaunt their disregard of what God has said, there is no question: their teaching must be resisted, and if they call themselves Christians the church should discipline them. This is Paul’s clear teaching in I Corinthians 5.
- I do believe, however, that I should accept as my brother or sister those who embrace the gospel, but who are teaching or doing what I consider wrong because they understand God’s commands differently than I do. They may be mistaken, and they may be doing wrong because of it, but forgiving His children when they do wrong is one of the things God does best. And of course, I hardly need to add that all of us at one time or another fall into sin not because of confusion but because of weakness; any believer who is caught in sin, even the most depraved of sins, but who mourns over and struggles with that sin, deserves my pity and encouragement, not my condemnation.
- I am not suggesting that it is always obvious when the truth of the gospel is at stake in a disagreement. It would be easier if unbelief always showed its true colors, if people strutted around saying “I’m a great person, Jesus didn’t need to die for ME!” Usually that doesn’t happen. Often the real issue is hiding behind a decoy. Paul didn’t care whether men were circumcised or not, but he urgently warned the Galatians against it because they thought they could win God’s favor if they were. We must use the same kind of thinking. Should we draw the line over issues like tongues or baptism? It depends; as issues in themselves, I don’t think our disagreements about them should keep us from embracing each other as fellow believers. But many people on both sides of these issues imply in their teaching and practice that God is pleased with them precisely because they have the right doctrines on these matters. We must condemn such thinking, for it overflows with the pride that characterizes unbelief.
- I am not suggesting that we should stop teaching about difficult issues just because other Christians disagree with us. Everything that God has given us in the Bible, every scrap of truth that we can get our hands on, is precious and worth proclaiming. If we love each other, we will continue to urge each other in the direction of the truth, even if that means we will bump heads at times. Paul is not urging us to stop proclaiming the truth as we see it, but rather to stop condemning our fellow believers who see it differently.
IT COMES DOWN TO THIS
Like everyone else who has ever studied and taught the Bible, I have often wrestled with this issue of where to draw the line. Teachers encounter controversy; it is inevitable. I can’t think of a single issue I have ever examined where there wasn’t someone ready to disagree with me, whatever I concluded. Some people take us to task at the Study Center for being too critical about certain aspects of the church today; other people think we are too lenient about other issues. Personally, I hate disagreements; I have been studying how Paul dealt with them so that I might understand better how to deal with them myself. I have become convinced of two things:
1) Any teacher who isn’t aware of the dangers of arrogance is a fool. After you spend some time standing up front and giving your opinions, you can easily start to think that everything you say is valuable just because you said it. Every teacher has to take to heart Paul’s warning that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” Teachers are people, and people are proud, and pride is always ready to fight just to prove itself right. The pursuit of knowledge is good; I don’t apologize for it. But good things can be used in bad ways. When Paul told us to put on the full armor of God, he didn’t mean that we should use it on each other.
2) I am equally convinced that there are still those who distort the message of the gospel and that it is not arrogant or unloving to say so. Paul was speaking to people who believed all the right things about Jesus, but who smothered the message of grace under religious requirements. This is a terrible error. At its heart is the sneaky, unrepentant pride that says, “After all, I am basically a good person.” The Judaizers were not the last people in history to make this error. Circumcision is no longer an issue, but Paul could still say today, “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive X, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” X could be anything that we try to add to the message of salvation by faith, any religious practice or behavior about which we say, “This is what makes me one of the good guys.”
When people look at the church today, they see people busy drawing the line, but often in the wrong places. We are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. We are ready to fight and condemn each other over every imaginable doctrinal deviation. Meanwhile, the message of God’s grace by faith alone is becoming encrusted with additions and qualifications, and we don’t even blink. Look around and see if it isn’t true. Then love each other enough to say so.