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When Christians Disagree

February 3, 2008

Life in the church would be so much simpler if we all agreed.

But we don’t.

We all share some essential things in common. We all believe in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. We all repented of our sins and were baptized into Jesus. We all were added to his body, the church. We share in common the hope of heaven. We are brothers and sisters.

However, on many other subjects we have our differences. Some of those differences are the result of our differing backgrounds, and the different levels of knowledge about the Bible that we brought with us into the church. Other differences exist because some of us have been around longer and have learned things that others have yet to learn. And some of those differences are due to fully informed but different understandings on difficult topics. A congregation where everyone is in complete agreement on all subjects would be either very unusual, or very small; probably both!

The local congregation should be a place where Christians are safe to disagree with one another on many topics. It should be safe for a Christian to change his or her mind about a topic as he grows and learns — and then later, to change his minds back again! Without freedom to change, there can be no real growth.

Of course the church leadership has a role to teach the truth, helping the members to come to a common understanding on these subjects. But notice how the apostle Paul dealt with differing viewpoints:

Phi 3:15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

2Ti 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.
2Ti 2:25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,
2Ti 2:26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Paul did not demand uniformity of beliefs. Instead he gently instructed and patiently waited for the person’s understanding to mature, as God works in each person’s life.

The book of 1 Corinthians addresses several topics which are highly controversial in today’s world. Among these are divorce and remarriage, head coverings, and the silence of women in public assembly. Is there room in the church of Christ for different views on topics like these?

I think churches are obligated to accommodate different convictions on some topics. Few churches today expect women to wear head coverings. But some women still believe that the scriptures command it. According to Romans 14, it is essential that churches eliminate any social pressure to conform to the majority opinion on a matter of conscience. Those who have the conviction to practice an unpopular belief should be respected for their integrity and perseverance. Rather than feeling shame or embarrassment, they should be held up as examples of devotion. That must be taught and reinforced regularly in the church.

The topic of women speaking publicly is a bit different. Church leadership makes the decision about whether or not to permit women to address the congregation. But if the church decides to permit it, they still must honor the conscience of any member whose conscience does not permit her to speak. And the congregation must constantly be vigilant so that a woman is not tempted to violate her conscience in this matter in order to conform to the majority. It might be necessary to abstain from having any women speak, simply to avoid causing one of these sisters to stumble.

Differences about divorce and remarriage present a more difficult situation. Unfortunately it is no simple matter to come to consensus about how to apply the scriptures to all the particular situations that can arise. In some difficult situations, after teaching to the best of our ability, we must leave the final decision to the person whose soul is at stake. It is up to them to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. In other situations, the biblical madate is clear. Bible study, prayers for wisdom, and many advisors are the necessary ingredients for determining the correct counsel to give in a particular situation.

Teachers will be judged more strictly. Church leaders are responsible to teach the scriptures accurately. The church should teach sound doctrine on the subject as a matter of course, so that the members have solid convictions before an emotional situation arises to tempt them. Teaching “accurately” does not mean automatically teaching the most restrictive possible interpretation, nor the most permissive. Instead it means to communicate whatever ambiguity we see in the scripture, and to call the person to seek the Lord’s will.

It would be much simpler if we could just ignore the ambiguities on difficult subjects, and teach one side of the disputed issues as if that were the whole truth. But that would not be honest. Instead, we must build an environment in the local congregation that allows the diversity and freedom for people to learn and to seek the Lord’s will as individuals. The church needs to be a safe place to do that.

Now that would be a remarkable congregation.

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