Years ago, a Christian friend said to me, “Unity doesn’t mean we have to agree on every little thing. Unity means that we agree on the most important things, and we choose to remain together even if we disagree on the smaller things.”
I think this is brilliant. And godly. And loving. And biblical.
Image via Pixabay
“In a culture so divided…”
Words like that have been around forever.
Political divisions, social divisions, economic divisions, gender divisions – the opinions we hold in life give us endless opportunities to fight and judge and condemn and divide from one another.
For Christians, throw in “theological divisions” and we’ve got a whole new world of battlegrounds to engage in.
Anabaptism began as a splinter off of the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists are generally Protestant in theology (we explored this previously here), but they found some differences that caused them to move in a different direction. Ever since, both Protestants and Anabaptists have a long history of churches splitting off and starting new movements and denominations over theological differences.
You gotta hand it to the Roman Catholics – from the Reformation on, they really kept their Church together!
When we hold theological disagreements, it can be easy to want to split – to break fellowship, to leave, to denounce those who disagree with us, to treat opposing views with contempt, to stop listening.
The instinct to do so is natural and real.
But, as with so many things, natural instincts need to be subdued in order to walk in the ways of the Spirit (Gal 5.13-18).
There is a much harder but much better path, a biblical one, that helps us to navigate disagreements within the Church.
It comes from Romans 14, one of my favourite passages of Scripture. We’ll look at a few pieces of it today:
1Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Rom 14.1-4)
My church uses that term a lot, as we seek to be a “Romans 14” church.
What does it mean?
It means that there are certain elements of the faith that are up for debate.
Sincere Christians who revere Scripture can nonetheless come to different conclusions about how to interpret certain passages.
Some things are not in dispute, and I would generally define those matters as the key elements of the traditional creeds of Christianity: One God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture, the Second Coming, the Final Judgment, etc.
These matters are clearly and unambiguously established in Scripture, and we are not debating those.
They are indisputable for us.
But what of other matters, like spiritual gifts, predestination, the role of women in ministry positions, issues of church governance, worship styles, evangelism methods, etc?
In issues like these, one can sincerely come to different conclusions on how to interpret the Word concerning them, and often there can be biblical evidence found to support multiple sides of an argument.
Add to this things like political opinions, conversations about how to engage with the culture around us, what is the role of a church in the public sphere, how does one feel about COVID, etc., and all of a sudden there are many matters where Christians may find themselves on opposing sides, with both sides holding up some Scripture to justify their views.
In this Romans 14 passage specifically, the church was apparently arguing over dietary rules for the Christ-follower. Did one need to still follow Old Testament dietary laws, or was one free from them in Christ?
Some had a biblical understanding that they needed to eat only certain things; others had an understanding that they could eat anything.
But both sides were doing it out of their biblical conviction and devotion to the Lord, and fascinatingly, Paul says that both sides are OK.
And we are told clearly: Accept people on the other side of the debate, even if their faith is weaker than yours (e.g. even if they are less mature in the faith than you).
No quarrelling on these things.
No contempt is permitted for those “on the other side,” no judgment allowed against those you disagree with.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Rom 14.10-13)
If I’m wrong on a disputable matter, I will give an account to God.
If you are on the opposite side and you are wrong, you will give an account to God.
He is the judge.
And so we are commanded to stop judging one another, looking down on one another, acting contemptuously towards those we disagree with.
How dare we question another’s commitment to God?
How dare we attack another’s devotion to Scripture?
How can we break these commandments regarding how we treat one another?
If a fellow believer holds an opinion that we disagree with, but does so out of biblical conviction and worshipful devotion to God, then may God have mercy on us for ever looking down on them.
14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. (Rom 14.14-15)
We’ll close with perhaps the most fascinating part:
Paul is not denying that there is a “right” answer on these things.
“To be clear, in Jesus you can eat anything you want – no more dietary rules. That is the truth. But if someone isn’t there yet in their understanding, then for them, in their convictions, they should eat accordingly as their worship to God.”
So there is still an absolute truth – we are not suggesting that there is no truth or that opinions on these things simply don’t matter.
But Paul urges grace and acceptance for the person you disagree with, noting that love calls us higher than simply dismissing and dividing over disputable matters.
You love that person where they are at, even in disagreement, not wanting to do anything to “destroy someone for whom Christ died,” (v.15).
That person you’re annoyed with is a brother or sister in Christ. They are created in the image of God. Jesus loved them enough to die for them.
So how can you treat with contempt the one that Christ loved so dearly?
How would you feel if someone treated your own child that way?
All churches need to make a call on these matters – how do we feel about women teachers? Spiritual gifts? What’s our theological position on predestination?
A church does need to prayerfully and biblically decide what it is going to teach, how it is going to structure things, how it is going to live out its convictions, etc.
But the Church at its best is a place where brothers and sisters come together, discuss and debate these matters, have some grace to hold to differing views on the less-clear tenets of the faith, love each other in the disagreement, and remain united, even if not in agreement on every lesser thing.
We can do this because we know that our agreement on the major things is so important and amazing that other things can be held in tension alongside the big stuff.
When I teach on this, occasionally a concern is raised that such an attitude might make us wishy-washy in the Word, choosing love over the pursuit of truth.
But it’s not one or the other, it is both-and. Paul was not concerned about losing truth as he instructs us on how to love one another as we pursue truth.
And far from being flippant in the Word, this approach is simply trying to take the Word seriously, all of it, including Romans 14, which calls us to such a path.
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