When Christians Disagree

Disunity among Christians is often directly related to an inability (or unwillingness) to handle debatable matters properly. There are several reasons for this problem.

Consider three reasons

  1. Consider what I call the four “C’s” process.
  • A believer becomes Convinced about a particular issue. She has found “lots” of biblical support for her position (not a direct statement from the bible but plenty of principles “obviously” pointing in the direction of her viewpoint).
  • Next, she begins to Crusade concerning for her position. It is not enough to personally arrive at such a conclusion, it must become a cause for crusading.
  • Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) the crusader then begins to Condemn those who do not see it her way. “How could they be so indifferent?” she questions. This gives the crusader feelings of superiority for having attained a “higher” level of obedience.
  • There is one more “C”. The convinced crusader who condemns others is often Compensating for an area of inconsistency in her own life, —usually, an area equally obvious to others.

Have you ever witnessed the four “C’s” process?

This process has been used on many debatable issues. One thinks of debate over such things as: participation in Halloween, choice for schooling children, television programs like Barney and Sesame Street, drinking an occasional glass of wine, etc…… It is sad to see the things Christians will turn into causes for “in house” fighting.

The four “C’s” process is mostly motivated by ignorance and sinful pride rather than sincere and humble devotion to our Lord. Another reason for differences on debatable matters relates to our days before coming to Christ.

2. The Former kingdom Factor

Another reason Christians develop strong convictions on disputable matters is because of differences in pre-conversion lifestyles. When people receive God’s gift of salvation, they are taken out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred them into the kingdom of God’s Son (Colossians 1:13).

During membership in the kingdom of darkness, however, we develop lifestyles fitting to that kingdom. After coming to Christ, it is very common for believers to repudiate practices associated with their former lifestyle. The trouble often begins when those believers meet Christians who do not seem as concerned about the issues they have repudiated.

Sometimes, for example, believers who were very involved with rock music and dancing before coming to Christ, are confused to hear about a Christian dance with music sounding similar to their former music. They cannot identify a direct statement of Scripture on the subject but are “sure” it must be wrong before God. Associations with our life before faith in Christ can generate strong feelings of opposition.

It must be emphasized that a desire to please God and avoid practices that lead us away from our devotion to Him is good and evidence of God’s work in us. The Scripture teaches that God works in his people to create this desire (Philippians 2:13).

But some believers have difficulty understanding why different perspectives concerning what pleases God exist among equally sincere Christians. Here is another reason.

3. Applying General Commands

The biblical support used to “settle a debatable matter once and for all” is always based on general rather than specific commands of Scripture.

An example from history demonstrates how this happens. The fourth commandment requires one to: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy…in it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8-11). Violation of this command was a very serious matter for God’s people (see: Exodus 31:13-17).

When trying to obey this more general Sabbath law, one might ask, “What kind of work is forbidden?” The Scribes spared no ink answering this question. Their detailed applications of this more general law went beyond both the intention of God (as outlined in AScripture) and man’s ability to obey. We know this because of the confrontations Jesus had with the religious leaders over Sabbath conduct (see: Matthew 12:1-14;John 5:1-17;7:14-24).

These passages offer a clear example of the possibility of overextending God’s Law through human applications.

Originally, the detailed Sabbath rules were perhaps developed to guard against any possible infringement of the law as given in Exodus 20. But good intention does not justify legalizing personal application of a Law.

What about the appearance of evil?

For a New Testament example, consider I Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearances of evil” (KJV). The popular application of this verse suggests that it teaches us to avoid anything that looks like evil. This is not what the verse means. “Evil” in verse 22 is being contrasted with “good” in verse 21. “Good ” is used with reference to prophetic utterances (mentioned in verse 20) which upon examination (verse 21) are found to be genuine–i.e. good. In this light, “evil” likely refers to “counterfeit” prophetic utterances.

When studying Scripture, the immediate context must be carefully considered.  Many things have been condemned by using I Thessalonians 5:22 as an isolated injunction commanding us to abstain from anything that looks like evil. Elsewhere, the New Testament commands us to “Abhor (or hate) what is evil and cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9), but this is one of those general commands. All efforts to define evil, must be done based on explicit biblical statements.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for judging based on appearances. They were quick to label and condemn people based on superficial evaluation of externals. On one occasion, Jesus exposed this tendency saying, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’ ” (Luke 7:33-34).

This tendency was rebuked by God when he told the godly prophet Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).

How easily we slip into this form of Pharisaic judgmentalism!

We must avoid judgmental conclusions based on superficial evaluation of outward appearances.

Many of God’s commands for Christian living are given in more general terms. Consider some of the well known ones:

  • Matthew 6:33 “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness”
  • Matthew 22:37 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…and mind.”
  • Romans 12:2 “Be not conformed to the world”
  • I Corinthians 10:31 “Do all to the glory of God”
  • II Corinthians 6:14 “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”
  • Ephesians 5:11 “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”
  • Ephesians 5:16 “Make the most of your time”
  • I Peter 1:15 -16 “Be Holy in all you do”
  • I John 2:6 “Be Christlike”
  • I John 2:15 “Love not the World…”

All of these commands are important for pleasing God. We must examine our lives in light of each one. Yet equally sincere believers will arrive at different applications from these more general commands. To further clarify matters, consider:

Conclusion

Three Categories for Christian Standards

It is important to note three categories for setting Christian standards:

  1. Things clearly commanded.
  2. Things clearly forbidden.
  3. Things permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.

Categories 1 & 2

In categories 1 and 2 (things “commanded” and “forbidden”), God provides specific instructions dealing with actions and attitudes.

Christians do not need to debate the morality of murder, adultery, sexual immorality, greed, outbursts of anger, slander, showing partiality, drunkenness, sowing strife in the Church, and doctrinal heresy.

We can and must be very clear in areas specifically addressed in Scripture. Attitudes like jealousy, bitterness, envy, arrogance, and unforgiveness are clearly forbidden. Other things, however, are not as clearly defined. For example, we may confidently conclude that a person is being worldly if he or she engages in one of the actions or attitudes just mentioned.

Yet we cannot as easily determine worldliness based on clothing, hairstyle, mode of transportation, or a number of other less clearly defined issues. When applying the command, “do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2), we must define worldliness ONLY as the bible defines it.

Sadly, among Christians, sometimes you will encounter a carnal brand of conservatism. It comes with self-appointed judges who are more than ready to define things Scripture does not specifically define.

This is not a new struggle for the Church

It is simply one that takes on different shades in varying cultures and periods of Church History. Paul had to instruct the Colossian believers to “let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day – things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

If we are honest we would probably need to confess that Christians have not done as well as they should attending to the clear issues.

Consider Galatians 5:19-21 – four categories of sinful behavior

At the end of this text, the apostle Paul wrote, “those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

  • Three categories deal with sexual sins, sins of worship (idolatry and sorcery), and sins of excess (drunkenness and carousing).
  • The largest category, however, is relational sins (“hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy”). 
  • Much too often Christians denounce with great conviction the sexual, worship, and excess sins while allowing the relational sins to corrupt their Churches. 
  • I suspect many churches would experience a badly needed revival if they opposed the relational sins as vigorously as the others.

Category 3

Moving to less clearly defined matters, the primary area of debate among Christians is the third category: “Things permitted, or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge, and conscience.”

When a person establishes a conviction in the third category (which we are at liberty and often responsible to do), the problem arises when he treats his preference as something clearly commanded or forbidde, i. e. something belonging to categories one or two. Ironically, when a believer does this (and crusades for the issue), he runs the risk of violating the clear command to maintain unity in the Church and show deference to his brother (Romans 12:10; Phil 2:3-5; Eph 4:1-3;Romans 14:3).

We need to recognize that Scripture does not always demand uniformity of opinion among Christians, but it always demands unity of disposition (see: I Peter 3:8; Eph. 4:1-3). Although we will come to different conclusions in category three, we are always required to maintain unity of disposition— evidenced in mutual respect (Romans 14:3).

Here we face the challenge

When Christians divide over things clearly forbidden or commanded it is understandable. But in areas of freedom, we are responsible to relate together in a unified and loving way. Thus two questions deserve careful consideration.

  1. How do we develop convictions in areas not specifically addressed in scripture?
  2. How do we relate in unity with those who do not share our convictions?

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Atheism, Conflict, Debatable Matters, Unity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Christians Disagree

  1. Milehimama says:

    I would be quite interested in how Evangelicals determine doctrinal heresy, and your view on what should be done about it.

  2. Pingback: Battles Among Christians « Ministry of Reconciliation

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