When Christians Disagree – Prof Gareth Jones

Diversity or conformity?

30 MINUTE READ

from Luke’s Journal 2018 | Hot Topics #1 | Vol.23 No.3

Road surface painted with a cross on the centre broken line and diverging arrows

Consider this group of Christians, all of whom want to be, and consider they are, faithful to Scripture:

• One believes in a six-day creation about 6000 years ago

• One is pro-life and anti-abortion

• One believes in male headship in the church and opposes any female leadership 

• One is a premillennialist and is at loggerheads with post-millenialists

• One considers that homosexuality is sin and opposes any place for gay people in the church

• One considers that human life commences at conception and therefore opposes any manipulation of the embryo

• One believes that speaking in tongues is essential to salvation

• One believes in the baptism of believers and opposes the baptism of infants

• One believes that the only true translation of the Bible is the King James version

• One believes that the soul is a distinct part of the human person

• One believes that a certain form of church government is the only legitimate one.

There is nothing amiss about this range of beliefs, except when one or other of them is made a central tenet of the Christian faith, and that all who oppose that particular stance are not true Christians and may not be Christians at all. Evangelicals have long held to the notion of ‘unity in diversity’, but in practice this sometimes looks more like ‘unity in conformity.’ And this is the reason why we so vehemently disagree with each other and castigate all who disagree with us.

Is it inevitable that Christians act in this way, and does this stem from their biblical faith? Why this emphasis on one issue, whether abortion or creation or male headship? And is this topic a central topic within the Christian faith? Is it sufficiently important to separate one Christian or one Christian group from another?

What is central and essential, or peripheral and non-essential?

To attempt to answer this question I shall look at the central beliefs of a range of evangelical organisations and some church organisations. But let’s begin at the beginning, with the Nicene creed, dating from 312AD, and the Apostles’ creed, from probably the first or second century but later influenced by the Nicene creed.

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ,
his only Son, our Lord, who was
conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died,
and was buried; he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven and is
seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

Whichever way you want to look at these creeds, the essentials that come through are the essentials of the historic Christian faith; they are bedrock beliefs on the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the church, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. These are fundamental biblical truths.

Once one turns to modern lists of fundamental beliefs you get many of the same features, but with more on the sovereignty of God, the divine inspiration of Scripture, and less stress on the details of what happened to Jesus during his time on earth. These are taken for granted.

International Fellowship of Evangelical Students

A representative example is the doctrinal basis of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). This is aiming to assert what is regarded as essential for an organisation based on Scripture, and to emphasise what it is that unites biblically-based Christians rather than what divides them. Unity is the fundamental driver in this and all similar cases.

• The unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Godhead. 

• The sovereignty of God in creation, revelation, redemption and final judgment. 

• The divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of Holy Scripture, as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. 

• The universal sinfulness and guilt of all people since the fall, rendering them subject to God’s wrath and condemnation. 

• Redemption from the guilt, penalty, dominion and pollution of sin, solely through the sacrificial death (as our representative and substitute) of the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. 

• The bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and his ascension to the right hand of God the Father. 

• The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration. 

• The justification of the sinner by the grace of God through faith alone. 

• The indwelling and work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. 

• The one holy universal Church which is the body of Christ and to which all true believers belong. 

• The expectation of the personal return of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is beliefs such as these that I view as central, core beliefs for Christians. They are the essentials.

John Stott put it like this:
“Although it is not always easy to distinguish between [essentials and non-essentials], a safe guide is that truths on which Scripture speaks with a clear voice are essentials, whereas whenever equally biblical Christians, equally anxious to understand and obey Scripture, reach different conclusions, these must be regarded as non-essentials… In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”

Of course, this does not solve the problem of which is which; neither does it tell us ‘the truths’ on which Scripture speaks clearly.

The one point of contrast between modern statements and the creeds is the reference to Scripture. It is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct. What is included in all matters of faith and conduct? This is where we start to diverge from one another, and this is where conflict creeps in.

The perceived centrality of Scripture

Listen to these examples:
“The Bible is without error not only when it speaks of salvation, its own origins, values, and religious matters, but it is also without error when it speaks of history and the cosmos. Christians must therefore submit to its supreme authority, both individually and corporately, in every matter of belief and conduct.” (The Christian Institute, UK)

This appears to be opening the door to the Bible becoming the fundamental source of stances in science and one imagines numerous other areas of human thought and endeavour.

“The one point of contrast between modern statements and the creeds is the reference to Scripture. It is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

Just how much information do the biblical writers provide on the cosmos, and what exactly do the framers of this statement mean by ‘the cosmos’? For me, we obtain most of what we know about the cosmos from scientific studies and not from Scripture.

Similarly, with history; I doubt that the Bible makes the work of historians (including church historians) redundant. And if we go in this direction, who has the authority to determine exactly what the Bible says about matters that for most people are far removed from fundamental gospel truths?

“Every word was inspired by God . . . so that the Bible as originally given is in its entirety the Word of God, without error and fully reliable in fact and doctrine. The Bible alone speaks with final authority and is always sufficient for all matters of belief and practice.” (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches FIEC)

It is obvious from these quotes that the way in which Scripture is interpreted is crucial, as well as what we expect to get out of it. What do we envisage is included when they speak of all matters of belief and practice? In what sense is every word inspired and what do we mean by inspiration?

I have no intention of going into these, especially since I am not a theologian, but you should see some of the issues for us living in a secular and pluralistic 21st century Western culture.

And where does science enter the picture, or for that matter where does historical interpretation, or political analysis? And, of course, what relevance does the Bible have for modern medical practice?

Stances allegedly based on Scripture

Some church groups work out in considerable detail what they view as the implications of these positions. Others may not be nearly as explicit as these, but assume certain viewpoints.

Some examples.

“The unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate.”

“The rightness of sexual intercourse in heterosexual marriage, and the wrongness of such activity both outside it and in all its homosexual forms.” (Reform, within Anglicanism)

“The role of pastor and elder is open only to suitably qualified men.Women are to have a significant ministry in areas such as care and hospitality and also in teaching other women.” Suitably qualified men in leadership does not include those “presenting as male by virtue of gender reassignment.” (FIEC)

“[The church’s] scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

“Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.”

“We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” (Southern Baptist Convention)

Besides these church bodies, there are many parachurch organisations that specify in intricate detail what one should believe as a Christian.

It’s not my task in this talk to comment on what I see as the rightness or wrongness of any of these positions. The point I wish to emphasise is that these positions have come to assume centrality in Christian belief systems. Anyone in these particular churches has three options: accept these positions; reject them but remain quiet; reject them and leave the church. The first option is straightforward, but the latter two indicate that there is no room within that Christian body for a dissenter, at least if the dissenter is of a mind to raise objections.

The question for us is how do we live with each other when we agree over basic theological truths, such as those outlined in the FIEC statement, but do not see eye-to-eye over male headship, those who experience same-sex attraction, the status of the embryo, or climate change? Do we castigate anyone who does not think how we think on one of these issues, and is that the response that Jesus taught in the gospels?

Two people sitting on seperate parl benches and facing in opposite directions

How do we live with each other?

An immediate response one encounters when people do not agree with someone on any of the contentious issues I have referred to is to label them false teachers who are leading people away from Christ.

In a recent incident in the United States when a prominent evangelical writer expressed some cautious sympathy with LGBT relationships, she was denounced as a false teacher who was divisive, was guilty of serious error, and was leading people away from Christ. One commentator noted though that she had not denied a line in the Apostles’ Creed, and had not promoted a historical heresy.

Her books on other topics were immediately banned by a large chain of Christian stores. (Jen Hatmaker, see Religion News Service May 2017). Why? Because she had, as another commentator wrote, placed herself outside the historic church. Where then do we go from here?

Let me look at some principles found in the New Testament.

Unity in the Body of Christ

This is the bedrock principle to be affirmed by Christians when confronted by individual and group interrelationships within the church. This was attested by Jesus in His high priestly prayer (John 17:20-23) and by the repeated emphases made by the writers of the New Testament letters (Ephesians 4:1-6). Paul, in writing to the Ephesians, urged them to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

The picture presented by this concept is of a body: all the parts of which are essential for its normal functioning. In exactly the same way we all need each other within the Body of Christ. It is in these terms that we are to view the gifts of the Spirit, since the various gifts given by Christ to His church are to be used for the strengthening of the Christian community. To keep them to ourselves is to deny them to other Christians and weaken the Body of Christ.

Similarly, Christ’s Body is weakened when we prevent a Christian from ministering to other Christians, and much more so when we deny that this other Christian is even a member of Christ’s Body.

“We are making a peripheral issue… into a central one, and in doing this are displacing Christ from the centre of Christianity.”

The unity of the Body of Christ implies that we are to be open to having fellowship with all others who acknowledge the saving work of Christ on the cross and who demonstrate that work in the quality of their lives. These other Christians will undoubtedly include those with whom we haveprofound disagreements on a whole range of matters. Nevertheless, if we have a high view of the unity of the Body of Christ, we can neither downgrade nor ostracise other Christians on the ground that we differ from them over political, ethical, or even certain theological questions.

The unity of Christ’s Body should constitute the prime impetus to a resolution of conflict between Christians. This is because nothing is of sufficient importance to cause schism within the church, as long as the essential integrity of the gospel concerning the person and work of Christ is maintained. Everything else should be regarded as peripheral in nature and open to honest debate.

It is only when the unity of Christ’s Body is accepted that we are in a position to learn how to live with one another, and such living in turn entails learning how to disagree with one another in love.

Disagreeing “in love” involves entering into dialogue with one another, while retaining respect for the integrity and spirituality of the other. It involves praying for those Christians with whom we disagree, speaking with them, reading their books, and sincerely seeking to learn from them. It involves being prepared to test all our views on social and spiritual matters against the general principles found in Scripture. Sometimes, we will be wrong and then we must admit that we have been wrong. But even if convinced that we are correct, we may still have a great deal to learn from our adversaries, and we always need each other within the Body of Christ.

happy and sad emoticon faces on yellows balls
Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

One of the foremost obstacles to an outworking of these principles is the existence of factions (Galatians 5:20); groups of people who narrow down what they have in common to one issue or one area of agreement. The motive for this may be exemplary, and yet all too easily this move becomes associated with a party spirit, with selfish ambition, with dissension, and with envy. Very readily, what becomes important is allegiance to the group, and outward impressions become crucial (Galatians 6:12). It is in this spirit that secondary matters are elevated so that they become issues of primary concern. This occurred in the early church with regard to circumcision, and it can happen today with any secondary issue. If, for instance, we are prepared to be separated from fellow believers on questions such as those of nuclear warfare, feminism, apartheid, or abortion, we are claiming that these questions are more important than the work of Christ on the cross. We are making a peripheral issue, no matter how important it is in its own right, into a central one, and in doing this are displacing Christ from the centre of Christianity.

Humility

Few themes are as dominant in the New Testament as that of humility (Luke 14:7-14; Romans 12:3,4; Philippians 2:3,4). We are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3). We are to be realistic, and remember that what we are comes from God. Whatever we have in the way of abilities, gifts (both natural and spiritual), and position in society comes from God.

To think highly of ourselves is, therefore, a contradiction in terms for Christians, who are to realise their dependence upon God’s mercy. Consequently, it is entirely inappropriate to strive to advance our own interests; rather, we are to live for others – acknowledging their interests and seeking to advance them.

In a conflict situation, therefore, we are to put the interests of our antagonist first. This does not mean we are to demean ourselves and our arguments, as though our arguments are worthless and our antagonist’s valuable. It is, rather, a matter of seriously considering the stance and attitudes of the other person, and seeking to understand why he/she holds that particular position. It is an attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of our antagonist, so that we can begin to appreciate the essence of this alternative perspective.

“Consequently, it is entirely inappropriate to strive to advance our own interests; rather, we are to live for others – acknowledging their interests and seeking to advance them.”

We are no longer living for ourselves but for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and therefore, for His people including those of His people with whom we disagree in certain areas. Even more generally, we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Such principles lead inevitably to the concept of servanthood, a concept demonstrated by Christ who came to serve and not laud it over His fellow beings. (John 13: 4-17). His supremacy lay in the quality of His self-giving, in the extent to which He put the claims of others above the claims that were rightfully His. He lived, not for His own satisfaction, but in order to bring fulfilment and wholeness to others.

The life of Christ was the essence of humility, and it is to be clearly expressed in the arena of conflict and disagreement. As we find ourselves in opposition to others, our chief concern is not to win an argument but to see that truth prevails and that the welfare of those opposing us is upheld.

These were the points stressed by Paul as he instructed the Ephesian Christians to speak truthfully to their neighbours, to be kind and compassionate to one another, and to forgive one another, because God had forgiven them in Christ. (Ephesians 4:25,32). Moreover, Paul warned against any talk that would destroy others and that failed to build them up (Ephesians 4:29). James warned us, in considerable detail, against envy and selfish ambition and diagnosed the cause of fights and quarrels as self-centred desire (James 3:9-4:3).

A poignant illustration of self-centred ambition is provided by Diotrephes, who sought leadership in the church at all costs (3 John 9,10). His ambition led to malicious gossip and lies, and an unwillingness to welcome and accept fellow Christians. Diotrephes loved to be first, and inevitably this desire led him to ostracise other leaders in the church. The end result of such desires is the institutionalisation of unresolved conflict.

When disagreement comes

Whatever our ideals may be, we rarely live up to them. We fail; we fall into sin, and sometimes we are wrong. Inevitably, therefore, there will be disagreements among the followers of Christ.

When we fail to understand each other, or resolutely adhere to our own position, difficulties ensue. Christ was well aware of this possibility (Matthew 18:15-17). According to His advice, if you consider that your brother has offended, speak to him quietly and point out where you consider he has erred. He may listen to you, agree with you, and determine to change his ways or modify his views. Of course, the person in the wrong may be us, and it maybe we who are approached to change our lifestyle or attitudes.

Failing a response, the second step is to approach the erring person accompanied by one or two others, who also consider that an error has been committed. More specifically, these others should be leaders in the Christian community. Bringing in other responsible and respected Christians is what we might refer to as group consultation, and is the next level at which debate is to take place.

A couple sit together outside sharing their open bible
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

When Paul was confronted by the warring Euodia and Syntyche, he pleaded with them to agree with each other in the Lord, and he asked one of the church leaders to help heal the rift between them (Philippians 4:2,3).

If the supposedly erring Christian is still adamant, the matter should then be brought before the church at large. This is when the debate becomes public. Even at this level though, there is to be discussion. When there are issues of disagreement within evangelicalism, major church leaders should be brought together to discuss matters and to engage in serious dialogue. There needs to be considerable agreement at this level before a person or viewpoint is condemned as lying outside evangelicalism.

Group dialogue was the function of the Church Councils in the early years of the church, as with the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15. In that instance, Paul and Barnabas disagreed sharply with some others in the church on the role of circumcision. As a result, they with some other Christians, went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders. There was dialogue and ardent debate, as a result of which agreement was reached. Subsequently, a course of action was adopted to let other churches know the decisions that had been reached.

These ways of dealing with disagreements all involve discussion and dialogue, commencing at the personal level and working up to public discussion. All are characterised by a desire to find the mind of Christ, and all treat the erring party as a responsible participant. There is never autocratic condemnation. If agreement appears to be impossible, the parties may have to go their separate ways, as happened when Paul and Barnabas disagreed (Acts 15:36-41). Even when this occurs, however, respect for the other party is essential, with an acknowledgement that, as far as one is aware, the other party is seeking to be faithful to the Lord.

“Our chief concern is not to win an argument but to see that truth prevails and that the welfare of those opposing us is upheld.”

Judgement

Implicit within the previous principles is a refusal to judge others. Even if we consider other Christians to be in error, guilty of sin, or promulgating heresy, it is not our prerogative to judge them by ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold: God alone is judge, and we are sinners (Matthew 7:1-5). Whatever errors we may detect in others are likely to be small compared with the errors that characterise us, even if these errors are in a totally different area from the one in dispute. In other words, we, too, may be wrong. Under no circumstances, therefore, are we to set ourselves up as judges of others within the Body of Christ.

This does not mean we can do nothing about sin or error within the Church; rather, we have to adopt the appropriate procedures, namely, employ consultation rather than indulge in judgementalism.

A fascinating approach to rivalry was provided by Paul when dealing with those Christians who were preaching Christ, and yet in doing so were attempting to embarrass Paul himself. Even though he considered their motives suspect, he still rejoiced because Christ was being preached (Philippians 1:15-18). He could well have condemned those people, judged their motives, and entered into public conflict with them. However, because they were making Christ known, he acknowledged the positive rather than negative aspects of their preaching. In doing this, he recognised a major difference between those particular people and the many false teachers, who were distorting the essence of the gospel and preaching a false Christ. In similar vein, it behoves us to distinguish between differences that strike at the heart of the gospel and those that are not central to it.

“For Christians, judgement is to be replaced by accountability; we are accountable to each other, just as we are all accountable to God. It is in accountability, rather than in judgement, that we learn to discern the mind of Christ.”

A major obstacle to moving in this direction is that we readily erect rigid rules encompassing details of beliefs, attitudes and practices. Those who obey these rules are accepted; those who reject them or disobey them are judged and rejected. Quite apart from the fact that rules can readily detract from the freedom and responsibility found in Christ, they all too easily lead to judgementalism, since they are the basis on which judgements are made. It is no wonder, then, that Paul instructed the Colossian Christians not to “let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16).

All these rules are based on human commands and teachings, and will disappear. They appear to be wise, but ultimately are valueless (Colossians 2:21-23). Tragically, they enable people to judge one another. Not only is it unjust, since it implies higher standards for others than we accept for ourselves, but it also demeans all that Christ has bestowed upon us, replacing His wisdom by sinful human standards.

For Christians, judgement is to be replaced by accountability; we are accountable to each other, just as we are all accountable to God. It is in accountability, rather than in judgement, that we learn to discern the mind of Christ.

Some further comments

The principles I have just touched on lead to discussion on more general issues. These include:

  • the scope of evangelicalism
  • public polemic and serious debate
  • the dangers of dogmatism
  • freedom of expression
  • censorship
  • mutual interdependence

Let me pick up on just one of these, freedom of expression.

Differences of opinion are to be expected within evangelicalism, and that we have to learn to cope with such differences. This, in turn, is based upon another fundamental assertion, an acceptance of the necessity of freedom of thought within Christian circles. In these terms, it is imperative that we learn to distinguish between criticism of ideas and criticism of the people holding those ideas.

Strong disagreement with the views of a fellow Christian does not give us the “right” to question that person’s motives or assault his or her character and reputation. This is character-assassination, an activity that always emanates from the supposed superiority of one person over another. It is the opposite of the Christian virtues of servanthood and humility, denigrating as it does all that the other person stands for.

It is imperative that we learn how to disagree with one another in a positive and supportive way. This attitude is essential for the emergence of genuine tolerance, by which we are enabled to take seriously the sharply conflicting views of another.

We need to beware of turning friends into enemies because we cannot agree on everything, and of fragmenting the Body of Christ because we cannot agree on some matter peripheral to the essentials of our faith in Christ. This is schism, no matter how important the matter may be in its own right. This of course gets us back to the relationship between the essentials of the faith and matters peripheral to the core of the faith. The question we always have to ask ourselves is whether the central message of the gospel is destroyed by this matter over which we feel so strongly.

Within Christian circles, the principle of dialogue based on respect for each other’s position and integrity is crucial. When this is lost, it is replaced by an unyielding harsh legalism that is prepared to destroy people and institutions in order to win a political battle. Even when confronted by notoriously difficult dilemmas, constructive ways forward are possible for those who have been redeemed and made new in Christ.

This is one of the outcomes of the new life in Christ, and hence should characterise the life in the community of the redeemed. Constructive ways forward are based on debate and serious dialogue. The only alternatives are piously packaged solutions that have the appearance of providing assured answers, and yet will be ignored by ordinary Christians when confronted by difficult choices.

Debate over complex ethical issues, therefore, is essential for the health of any community. There is no other way of tackling issues over which no (evangelical) consensus has been reached. The presentation of representative evangelical viewpoints is the essence of any community based upon a belief in the priesthood of all believers. If this right of presentation is not safeguarded in the Christian community, we have chosen dictatorship and have lost any semblance of the freedom and responsibility that are found in Christ alone. Intellectual honesty and spiritual integrity are basic ingredients of a Christian community, and are integral to the moral burden placed upon us as Christ’s representatives.

Difficult as it may be to allow, let alone encourage, freedom of expression, it is made possible by the Christian’s ultimate belief in the triumph of truth over error. This, again, should be one of the characteristics of the redeemed community. It is integral to the hope of the church, stemming as it does from Christ’s triumph over death. We are made free in Christ, and we are to express this freedom in our relationship with others, and supremely with other Christians. Inevitably, there are dangers: we may misuse this freedom and exploit it, or we may impose rules as a means of ensuring safety. Despite these dangers, either in the direction of libertarianism or of legalism, we cannot ignore it. To do so is to turn our backs on one of God’s richest blessings, namely freedom.

Running throughout everything I have said there has been an underlying theme: This is the silence of Scripture, or more accurately, the silences of Scripture, on certain topics.

Our mindset is to want answers to every question we ask, expecting God to do the work he has given us to do. We are created in His image, we are rational beings, with superb brains capable of a great deal of understanding, no matter how much we regularly fall short. How do we cope with these silences on a host of issues ranging from slavery and the use of drones in modern warfare, to IVF and gene editing? Or think of splitting the atom and the demands raised by genetically modified crops. These silences would not bother us if we were not committed to taking the Bible seriously, and knowing how best we can be faithful to its revelation.

Our temptation is to interpret the silences on the basis of viewpoints we already hold on other grounds, and claim that our position is biblical. In these situations is any one viewpoint solely biblical? Does that question even make sense?

“Biblical silences serve as a warning against undue dogmatism and triumphalist interpretation on issues of little concern to relevance to the biblical writers. Humility of interpretation and speculation is the only way forward for Christians”.

(Jones, Valuing People, 1999, p69)

Prof Gareth Jones
Prof Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago. After qualifying in medicine at University College London (UCL), he held positions in the Anatomy Department there, and subsequently at the University of Western Australia. For 20 years he was Head of Anatomy at Otago, after which he became Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International) for 5 years. He was then Director of the Bioethics Centre for three years. He has written extensively on a range of biomedical topics from a Christian perspective. Some of these have resulted in considerable controversy and this led him to write Coping with Controversy in 1996.


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