College freshman Bob becomes convinced of the doctrine of election and has a burning desire to convince everyone else. He's in the early "cage stage" of Calvinism.

Imagine his conversations with his friends, in his campus fellowship, in his church.

Everything becomes an illustration of God's sovereignty. It's all he wants to talk about. And if you disagree with Bob, watch out!

The question for you and me is, when we teach others the truth, do we do it with condescending pride and arrogance—we know something they don't? Or do we teach with the humility of one beggar sharing his bread with another?

Compromise is bad. Cooperation is good. But how do you tell the difference? What are the primary doctrinal positions for which we need to contend, and what are the secondary doctrinal positions about which we can disagree with charity and love?

I'd like to consider how we can encourage each other to hold the truth with humility by setting out six questions:

  1. Do we follow commands to purify or to unite?
  2. What are some common fights Christians have?
  3. What's the specific purpose for cooperating?
  4. What must Christians agree upon? (Essentials)
  5. What may Christians disagree about? (Non-essentials)
  6. How can Christians disagree well?
     

1. DO WE FOLLOW COMMANDS TO PURIFY OR TO UNITE?

First, do we follow commands to purify or to unite?

The Basic Problem

I trust most Christians recognize the problem confronting us: We live in a fallen world, where the truth will not always find a home. What's true is not necessarily the same as what's popular.

As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, "There have been periods in history when the preservation of the very life of the Church depended upon the capacity and readiness of certain great leaders to differentiate truth from error and boldly to hold fast to the good and to reject the false. But our generation does not like anything of the kind. It is against any clear and precise demarcation of truth and error" (ital mine; from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Maintaining the Evangelical Faith Today (1952), 4-5).

We shouldn't be surprised at times such as ours, when people oppose distinguishing truth from error. In Paul's last letter, he warns, "the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths" (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

Was Paul simply paranoid—overly focused on ideas of truth? I don't think so. The Lord Jesus teaches us to be on our guard. It was he who taught, "False christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible. So be on your guard" (Mark 13:22-23).

How do we be on our guard? We must admit that we all tend to be either too inclusive (thus slighting God's call to purity and undervaluing his truth) or too exclusive (thus slighting the width of God's love and the amazing examples of his work).

Do you see how this happens? By pitting God's Word against itself; by playing off one aspect of God's character against another—say, his holiness against his love—we actually confuse ourselves and harm others. What we should do, instead, is grow in our knowledge of God's Word and our own hearts. Then we will be more attuned to his truth as he has revealed it—both his call for holiness and for love.

Truth and humility shouldn't be enemies. The fact is, they're great friends, and truly growing in one should lead to growth in the other.

Too often, however, we find ourselves becoming a caricature of our tendencies. We either become a unity person or a purity person.

The Unity People

The unity people love Bible chapters like John 17. They perceive clearly that our unity with one another testifies to our unity with God in Christ, and that our love for one another shows God's love for us (as Jesus taught in John 13:34-35). They love the love passages in the Bible:

  • "Make my joy complete by being like-minded" (Phil. 2:2);
  • "agree with each other in the Lord" (Phil. 4:2);
  • "all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1:10);
  • "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love" (Col. 2:2).

There have been many unity movements among professing Christians in the last few decades. There is old-line liberal ecumenism—"let's bring all the denominations together." There are the parachurch ministries which rally people from different churches to share the gospel—from Billy Graham to Campus Crusade. There is the charismatic movement, which has helped to create fellowship across old church divides. More recently there has been what we could call Great Traditionalism, which relies on an "oldest-common-denominator." You see this in the current fad among some evangelicals to use methods and objects associated with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as aids to piety.

The popular T-shirts among the unity crowd say things like "Doctrine divides" or "Love unites" or "Mission unites." It was from this camp that one bishop came who, not too long ago, said, "Heresy is better than schism." These doctrinal minimalists want "No creed but Christ; no law but love."

The Purity People

The opposite of the unity people are the purity people. They want purity of doctrine and purity of life. They want purity in our churches, in our Christian colleges, and in our seminaries.

These people take the Bible's command to separate seriously. They know 2 John well: "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house [church] or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work" (vv. 10-11).

Or John's warning from his first letter: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (4:1).

And then there is Paul's warnings: "keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us" (2 Thes. 3:6).

And "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? . . . ‘Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord'" (2 Cor. 6:14, 17).

Add to these all the passages on church discipline (e.g. 1 Cor 5.) as well as Jude's command, "contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).

The folks contending for the faith are the Fundamentalists and conservative Mennonites among us. These brothers and sisters will contend more quickly than they cooperate.

If you're tempted to quote Jesus in Matthew 7:1 to such contenders—"Do not judge, or you too will be judged"you should look a little further down the same page at verse 15 of the same chapter, where Jesus taught "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (7:15). And, of course, it's Jesus in Matthew 18 who commands the church to eject unrepentant sinners from its fellowship!

The purity people seem to have a prophetic ministry of correction, just like the Puritans are stereotyped as having. Maybe their shoes were too tight. That made them grouchy. Their approach to everything can feel like, "Shoot first; ask questions later."

As we consider the unity people and the purity people together, the question we want to ask ourselves is, how do we take the best of both? The biblical desire for unity and cooperation as well as the biblical desire for truth and holiness?

2. WHAT ARE SOME COMMON FIGHTS CHRISTIANS HAVE?

For now, let's consider another question: what are some common fights among Christians?

There are just so many to chose from! Should we pray for the dead? Is the Protestant Reformation over? Should we support city-wide evangelistic meetings that send the reported converts to the nearest church? Does the Fourth Commandment concerning the the Sabbath still apply today? Should we use hymns or choruses? Organs or guitars? Does God elect those that he foresees will believe, or does he simply elect? Are the supernatural gifts still active today? Is prophecy still happening today? Should churches accept repenting Christians who denied Christ in times of persecution back into their fellowship? Should churches be led by elders, a single pastor, a city-wide bishop? What does baptism do? Who should be baptized? Who should baptize? How should they baptize? Must baptism precede church membership? Is the Bible the church's sole authority? Is it sufficient? Is it inerrant? Are there gender roles in the Bible that we are supposed to follow today? Are women supposed to be elders in a church? What's an appropriate salary for a Christian minister? Should Christians tithe to their local churches? Should children be present throughout the whole morning service? Should Christians send their children to Christian schools or public schools; or should they homeschool them? Should ministers wear clothes that distinguish him from church members? Should church gatherings include performed music? Should churches hire non-Christian musicians to play for our public services? Should we believe before we belong, or belong before we believe? Is helping the poor a necessary part of evangelism?

Suppose you're in the midst of such a disagreement with other leaders or members in your church. What should you do? I would move on to the next question, question number 3.

3. WHAT'S THE SPECIFIC PURPOSE FOR COOPERATING?

Purpose Matters

What's the specific purpose for which you are considering cooperating with other Christians? The kind of cooperation we are aiming at determines how much agreement is necessary. I can be friends with someone whom I wouldn't marry. I can buy something from an individual I wouldn't hire. I can pray with someone whose church I wouldn't join. I can read a book by someone with whom I disagree. I can believe that someone would do a good job at some things, but not at others.

When it comes to religious questions, we must consider what the purpose is of a proposed agreement. For the purpose of salvation? For the purpose of belonging to the same church? For the purpose of attending the same conference or working together on the same project? What is the circumstance, the need, the purpose of cooperation?

Circumstances May Matter

Along these lines, Christians have found that the circumstances of the occasion matter. If you live in an area where Christians are persecuted, there is more motivation to cooperate. The number of Christians may well be small and fellowship hard to find. Christians in these circumstances may find far more encouragement in sharing and using the gifts of thirty people than in six or seven each establishing their own separate assemblies. Circumstances like these have led many Christians to work with people of other denominations more than they would have back in the United States. In other words, Baptists and Presbyterians are more likely to meet regularly together in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia than in Raleigh, North Carolina!

As Christians in America become more and more of a "cognitive minority"—a group which thinks differently than the majority culture—we, too, may find ourselves becoming more aware of our commonalities with other Christians than previous generations of American Christians have been.

Still, different kinds of cooperation require different levels of agreement. The requirements for church membership are more comprehensive than the requirements for planning an evangelistic outreach. The level of agreement needed between fellow church planters is greater than what's needed for initiating college student fellowships together. We can recognize other people as Christians, in other words, even though we might not think it wise to plant a church with them.

Conferences and one-time events can be pulled off with even less agreement, and Bible translations with perhaps even less. (I can imagine that Bible translators are able to agree in matters of translation even when they don't agree on the content of the gospel.) And, of course, Christians can practice co-belligerency with non-Christians on some public issues involving law and moral standards.

Creeds & Confessions

Throughout church history, Christians have composed written creeds like the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed in order to state clearly what beliefs they hold in common. Confessions like the Westminster Confession or the New Hampshire Confession do the same. So, too, with the statements of faith of individual churches and parachurch ministries. All such creeds, confessions, and statements express the basic level of agreement necessary for pursuing a common goal.

4. WHAT MUST CHRISTIANS AGREE UPON?

So here's the million dollar question: what must Christians agree upon?

This is a dangerous question, and we must proceed very carefully. We don't want to be like the teenager who asks, "How far can I go with my girlfriend?" which is to say, "What can I get away with?" In our case, we are not asking, "What's the least that I need to believe and still be considered a Christian?" True Christians will find themselves growing in the desire to pursue God's truth over every matter in which he has revealed himself in his Word.

The Apostles Teaching

To begin with, Christian fellowship can only be shared with those who share the Christian faith, that is, that body of teaching which articulates what Christians believe. In Acts 2:42, Luke describes the fellowship between the first Christians by saying, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship…" Notice that Luke says they shared the apostles' teaching before it says they shared fellowship.

Doctrinal choices that destroy and damn are called "heresies." The word "heresies" comes from the Greek word for "choice," and though we today are accustomed to using the word "choice" in a positive context, the apostle Peter showed how it can be used in just the opposite: "But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false prophets among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves" (2 Peter 2:1). A doctrinal heresy or choice is a departure from the accepted rule of faith. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is the right teaching of the Word of God.

As we're looking to cooperate with other believers, we want to make sure we share the apostles' teaching, not destructive heresies.

There is no agreed upon list of which errors should be called heretical, and it's probably not useful to refer to all errors as "heresy." Doing so just ratchets up the emotional heat without adding light to a conversation. Not all errors are the same. In fact, it's dangerous to treat all errors as the same. A misunderstanding of church membership is less important than a misunderstanding of the person of Jesus Christ! Some errors must be corrected; others can be endured for a lifetime.

Determining which errors can be borne with and which require separation requires us to understand the significance of the doctrine in which the disagreements occur, and even of the days in which a particular doctrine is in dispute. Just like some organs are more important than others, so some doctrines are more central than others. Our understanding of Christ's work on the cross is more important than our view of the Sabbath, just like our heart is more important than our appendix. A human can survive the removal of his wisdom tooth or his appendix, but not his heart!

How To Learn

How do we learn what we must agree on? Let me suggest three ways: through the Bible, through our church, and through our conscience.

We learn the truth fundamentally, supremely, finally, and mostly through the Bible. This is God's Word written. Study your Bible. Get to know God's Word well. Always be growing in your understanding and your love for it. Read Psalm 119 in your quiet times for a month in order to meditate and grow in your appreciation for the great gift to us of God's Word.

But God does not intend us to be earthly orphans, self-taught, self-regulating, self-centered. God has called us to belong to local churches that teach the Bible accurately and that are full of people whose lives show the fruit of his Spirit. Good teaching should bear good fruit. The elders in our churches should be able to teach us God's Word, which means we should submit ourselves to them and their teaching. When teachers teach as they should, Christians together in a church will have a clear grasp on the gospel that saved them. (Paul assumes in Galatians 1:8-9 that this would be the case.) Ultimately, then, it is the duty of the local church to define what we must agree upon to be a Christian, and to be a member of that congregation.

We learn also through our consciences. Each of us has a conscience. By the Fall, the conscience was radically harmed, but this important aspect of God's moral image has not been eliminated from our character. We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong. But that sense is inherent, not inerrant. Many people today treat their internal moral sense as their own unique god within, but the conscience must be corrected, trained, and taught, and it is our duty to do that according to the Scripture.

Clarity and Agreement

How can you tell if a doctrine is important and worth seeking agreement upon? Here are several tests for answering this question:

  • How clear is the doctrine in Scripture?
  • How clear do others think it is in Scripture (especially those you respect and trust as teachers of the Word)?
  • How near is the doctrine (or its implications) to the gospel itself?
  • What would be the practical and doctrinal effects of allowing disagreement in this area?

The people of God have always recognized that both summarizing and teaching the heart of the truth is important. So God gave his people a summary of his law in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20). Moses in Deuteronomy 6 provided another summary on how they were to teach their children. And Christians from the earliest times have used the summaries provided by catechisms to prepare individuals for baptism—which is how the Apostles' Creed was originally used. The church father Vincent of Lerins said in the fifth century that we should believe what has been believed always, everywhere, by all.

Right News, Right Views

One of the best words for Christian is "evangelical." An "evangelical" is one who is defined by certain specific news. "Good news" is what evangel means. Jesus says in the Gospel of John that the correct belief or views about his identity is necessary for someone to have eternal life; otherwise they will die in their sins (John 8:24).

Likewise, Paul tells us exactly what Christians should stand for—what is of first importance:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Do you feel uncomfortable prioritizing some truths over others? Apparently, Paul wasn't.

Are you clear in your understanding that you must believe certain things in order to be a Christian? Paul was clear: "if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

Paul specifically urged the Romans to keep to the teaching they had already received (see Rom. 16:17). The Galatians, to "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:8; cf. Eph. 4:14).

He referred to "the truths of the faith" (1 Tim. 4:6) and encouraged Timothy to "devote himself to teaching" (1 Tim 4:13).

Paul warns that "if anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing" (1 Tim. 6:3-4). This is why heresies can be so destructive, because knowing and believing the truth is necessary to our salvation (see 2 Peter 2:1).

In fact, the apostle John taught that "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood" (1 John 4:6). John also says,

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ, as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house [meaning, I think, the local church] or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work (2 John 7-11).

Jude refers to godless men "who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our own Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 4).

In the letter of Jesus to the church at Pergamum, Jesus called those who held to a particular teaching—the teaching of the Nicolaitans—to repent (Rev. 2:15).

Do you see how often godlessness and falsehood go together? We Christians are those whose understandings and whose lives are shaped by the Good News of Jesus Christ! That's why Paul writes to the Corinthian church: "you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat" (1 Cor. 5:11).

Peter quotes Leviticus to remind Christians that "just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16).

Throughout the Bible God declares that his people must not worship false gods or live lives devoted to them. John concludes his first epistle by writing, "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). The idols he is talking about, I think, are the false gods of a christ who is not God incarnate, or a christ who tolerates immorality or a lack of love.

We are justified by faith alone, but a justifying faith produces Christians who look more and more like the God they worship.

Believe that God Is One

So what must Christians agree upon? I would say that Christians must agree upon God, the Bible, and the Gospel.

First, we must believe that God is one. He is triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is uncreated, self-existing. He is morally perfect. He is characterized by holy love. He is our sovereign Creator and Judge. He is the one we are called to believe in (Num. 14:11). As the LORD says to his people in Isaiah,

"You are my witnesses," declares the LORD, "and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior" (Isa. 43:10-11).

We also read in Acts 16 that the Philippian jailer's family rejoiced "because they had come to believe in God" (Acts 16:34).

And we read in Hebrews 11:6 that "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists…"

This essential belief in God is the sincere acknowledgement of a fact. But it's also more than that. James tells us, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19). A saving belief in God transforms us increasingly into a reflection of his character. So John writes, "love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).

Believe that the Bible Is God's Truth

Second, we must believe that the Bible is how we know the truth about God. The Scriptures are God's revelation of himself and, therefore, have authority in our lives and teaching. The verse right before the one just quoted says this: "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood" (1 John 4:6).

John's words seem to match what Jesus taught in John 10:4—that the sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd. They recognize his voice and follow it.

Likewise, Paul commanded the Thessalonian Christians to follow his instructions and to ostracize those who did not (2 Thess. 3:6, cf. 14-15).

Believe in the Gospel

Third, we must believe the gospel. The Good News is that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God incarnate (see 1 John). Without understanding this, we could not uphold the truth of God's triune nature. The Trinity and the incarnation support each other. One cannot be attacked without attacking the other. As Paul said, "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9).

But the gospel includes not only Christ's incarnation, it also includes his substitutionary death on the cross, his bodily resurrection, and his return in power and great glory.

Again, remember Paul's summary of what Christianity is in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians had been dividing over all kinds of wrong things, which Paul spent fourteen chapters addressing. But now he turns finally to what they should contend for!

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Do you see the facts here associated with the gospel? Christ has died for our sins. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. There it is! And make no mistake: clarity on the centrality of the cross will promote fellowship theologically (as the relative importance of doctrines is clarified) and experientially (as humility is encouraged in our character).

As we lift up the cross, the gospel appears. It contains the News of a Holy God. It contains the News of man made in God's own image, yet tragically fallen into terrible rebellion against God and under God's judgment (cf. Gen. 3; Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10; 5:12). It contains the News of Christ, the Son of God, who suffered for us and in whom we are to believe for eternal life (John 3:16, 18; 12:44; 17:20; 20:31; Acts 15:11; 16:31; Rom . 3:22; 10:9; Gal. 3:22; Phil. 1:29; Col. 2:9; 1 Thes. 4:14; 1 John 2:22-23; 3:23; 4:2-3, 15; 5:1, 5, 10). And it contains the News that we can be forgiven by God and reconciled to him through the gift of repenting and believing. Our repentance, moreover, will show itself in loving commitment to each other in the fellowship of the local church (Matt. 16; 18; Mark 1:15; Rom. 16:26; Heb. 10:25, 1 John 3:23; 4:19-21; 5:3, 13).

And the faith which alone justifies is faith in this God (Num. 14:11). It is trusting in his deliverance (Ps. 78:22). He has acted so that we may believe in him (Isa. 43:10). So Jesus' first words in Mark's gospel conclude with this call: "Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).

John also wrote, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16; cf. 3:18; 11:26; 19:35; 20:31; Acts 16:31, 34; Rom. 3:22; 4:24; 10:9-10, 14; 16:26; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:7, 22; Phil. 1:29; 1 Tim, 1:16; Heb. 10:39; 11:6; 1 Peter 1:21; 1 John 2:24).

We are justified only by trusting in this Jesus. Someone who doesn't believe this gospel isn't a Christian. Even people who call themselves "Christians," "church members," or "evangelicals" are not truly Christians if they don't believe this gospel! Calling yourself something doesn't make you one. 

God, the Bible, the Gospel. You cannot have true Christian fellowship with someone who disagrees with you on these matters.

5. WHAT MAY CHRISTIANS DISAGREE ABOUT?

What then may Christians disagree about?

Again, I want to be very careful about this. I'm not giving you permission to not care about things that God has revealed in His Word. Nor am I trying to teach you how little you must believe and how much you can cooperate.

The answer to the question of what Christians may disagree about is best determined by the Bible and with the agreement of a Bible-preaching church.

Practical Matters

Christians can certainly have disagreements about practical matters. And some of these disagreements will, of practical necessity, cause local divisions. You cannot do something in two different ways. If this group of people are convinced that something should be done this way, and that group of people is convinced it should be done in another way, and it can't be done both ways, then the simple answer may be to work separately, but with love and cooperation.

So in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas came to opposite conclusions about the way of wisdom in their work. Paul thought that they couldn't work with John Mark; Barnabas thought they should. Instead of fighting about it, they "parted company" (Acts 15:39). We have no reason to think that either stopped believing the other brother was a Christian; it's just that they knew they couldn't continue working together because of this practical disagreement.

True or False

As we think specifically of gatherings that claim to be a "church," we may categorize them as either "true" or "false." By this I don't mean that a "true church" never says anything false, or that a "false church" never says anything true. Rather, I mean that a "true church" preaches the true gospel, and is following Christ's commands to baptize and celebrate the Lord's Supper (including the practice of church discipline). A "false church," on the other hand, is one which has forsaken the preaching of the true gospel.

Regular or Irregular

Churches that preach the same true gospel we may classify as regular (according to the rule/Scripture) or irregular.

For example, it is my and my church's understanding that the Bible teaches that baptism is only for believers. Any church who preaches the same gospel as we do but who practices infant baptism we would call true but irregular churches (my Presbyterian brethren, of course, would return the compliment).

But the point is, if we call them true churches, we can fellowship with them in the gospel, even if we wouldn't agree with them on everything. We must have unity in the gospel to recognize each other as Christians.

Disputable Matters

But it's clear from the New Testament that there are a number of other issues that true Christians differ about. For instance, the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a burning issue in many of the churches. But Paul was not overly concerned about Christians disagreeing with each other over this issue because they were not maintaining that a certain conclusion was necessary for salvation. They could work together so long as they wouldn't be distracted by their disagreement. His sage advice? "Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God" (Rom. 14:22).

Paul also faced questions in the church about Christians regarding some days being more holy than others (see Rom. 14:6). But he called this issue a "disputable matter" (Rom. 14:1).

What are our disputable matters today? They are many. Questions about the particular practices of church membership are disputable.

Or consider the question of what the millennium is in Revelation 20. Some Christians would say we need to agree on this in order to have a church together. What do you think? Let's run this through the tests I suggested earlier:

Test 1: How clear is it in Scripture? It's mentioned in the two verses in Revelation 20 and nowhere else. And evangelical, Bible-believing commentaries are not in agreement about what John was referring to.

Test 2: How clear do others think it is in Scripture (especially those you respect and trust as teachers of the Word)? Again, I find a variety.

Test 3: How near is it (or its implications) to the gospel itself? I think it is unrelated. As long as we agree that Christ is returning, what he does during the Millennium seems to be of little significance to me right now.

Finally, test 4: What would be the doctrinal or practical effects of allowing disagreement in this area? We have not found any effects in our church—other than providing opportunities to practice charity toward each other. For that matter, the elders in my church disagree on this matter, and I cannot perceive any unfaithfulness or practical problems flowing out of these differences.

Non-Essential ≠ Unimportant

Now don't misunderstand me. Non-essential does not mean unimportant. It may sometimes; but at other times, what at first seems non-essential may prove to be important.

For instance, the question about prayers for the dead may at first seem non-essential. But as you come to recognize that this particular practice undermines justification by faith alone, you begin to see how important the topic is. Praying for the dead assumes that any decision they made in this life does not stand. It says we can directly affect the eternal states of others, when Scripture is clear that our eternal state is determined only by our faith in Christ alone.

6. HOW CAN CHRISTIANS DISAGREE WELL?

Finally, how can Christians disagree well?

Perhaps you have heard this helpful statement that came out of the German reformation: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things, charity (or love)." We must agree on the essentials in order to have unity, which we've discussed. And we allow for diversity in non-essentials, which we've also discussed. But how do we achieve that daunting command to love in all this?

Roger Nicole has suggested that we answer these two questions:

What do I owe the person who differs from me?
What can I learn from the person who differs from me?

Let's think about these questions for a moment.

What Do I Owe?

What do I owe the person who differs from me? First, I owe love. We should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Second, I owe respect. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Matt. 7:12). When you are in a disagreement, make it evident that you care about the person you're disagreeing with as a person, more than care about winning an argument. Listen carefully to what they're saying. Clarify anything you haven't understood. Always go for what people mean, even beyond what they've said. One of my theology professors always wrote out the pros and cons of the differing views.

The principle here is that you want to represent the opposite perspective as well as you can, so that the proponents feel satisfied with your presentation. After all, debates tend to harden proponents in their own ideas.

In all of this, consider what goals you share. Can you see what your friend is aiming at in what he's saying? One way I try to explore differences is to use what I call a "decision tree." I try to begin where we both agree, and then trace out the point at which we diverge and ask why he made one decision while I made the other. Your goal should always be to avoid alienating people, but instead to encourage them. That will usually get farther in persuading them anyway!

What Can I Learn?

The second question to ask yourself in learning to disagree well is, "What can I learn from the person who differs from me?"

After all, perhaps it's the case that I am wrong. Certainly I can learn something of my own assertiveness, and the temptations I face in discussion. Are we more interested in winning a discussion and safeguarding our reputation, or in discovering truth and leading it to triumph?

A couple of years ago I was reading a biography of John Wesley and I ran across this brief account:

It was customary for the itinerant and local preachers to take breakfast together, on Sunday mornings, at City Road. On one occasion, when Wesley was present, a young man rose and found fault with one of his seniors. The Scotch blood of Thomas Rankin was roused, and he sharply rebuked the juvenile for his impertinence; but, in turn, was as sharply rebuked himself. Wesley instantly replied: ‘I will thank the youngest man among you to tell me of any fault you see in me; in doing so, I shall consider him my best friend.'" (L. Tyerman, Life and Times of Wesley (Harper & Bros; 1872), III.567.)

Now that takes humility! And without humility, we can't learn. We can't learn the truth about ourselves or the truth about the Bible. According to the ancient Greeks, the opposite of a friend was not an enemy, but a flatterer. Our pride is our greatest enemy in all this.

Welcome correction as a good enemy of your pride. And appreciate the way in which those who differ with you can sometimes help to fill out or better balance the picture you're presenting. It can be good to have Christian friends that disagree with us on some things—it gives us the opportunity to learn and to exercise our love.

CONCLUSION

How can we summarize everything we've considered? Handle Scripture carefully and in context. Know the Bible well. Love God by loving his Word. Meditate on Psalm 119. As Paul told Timothy, "the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Put it all in perspective. If you're a Christian, you're an heir of heaven! God has called you to be a messenger of his gospel more than any other message. And what is your witness? Do people think of you as argumentative or quarrelsome? We want to be known more by what we are for than by what we're against. And we always want to be for the gospel, and for being reformed by the Word of God.

In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things love.

Mark Dever leads 9Marks Ministries, which exists to equip church leaders with a biblical vision for displaying God's glory through healthy churches.

 

Pastor Dever (Ph.D. Cambridge) is the Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and has authored several books including Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Mark also serves as one of the principles of Together for the Gospel.

 

 

 

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