How Christians Can Navigate Conflicts with Grace

How Christians Can Navigate Conflicts with Grace

Must Christians agree on everything? If not, how should they disagree? Few dynamics regarding conflict are more important to understand in our fractured culture yet are so seldomly taught. Let’s get some language around our conversation.

First, the word orthodoxy, which simply means “right thinking.” It has a sister word, orthopraxy, which means “right living.” Throughout the history of the Church, hammering out what constitutes those two words has been critical. It’s what led to the great councils of the Church, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325, which determined orthodox thinking about the nature of Jesus as being fully God and fully man.

There are two other words that are critical: the word primary and the word tertiary. Primary issues are essential issues, matters critical to historic Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. They are so “primary” that rejecting these ideas, watering down these ideas, or misrepresenting these ideas would be considered heresy and no longer representative of the Christian faith.

Heresy comes from the Greek word hairesis, which essentially means to choose for yourself over and against orthodoxy. Or more specifically, over and against apostolic teaching as found in the Bible. Rather than submitting to the transcendent truth of the Christian faith, you make up your own truths and beliefs. Tertiary issues are non-essential issues. Christians disagreeing on those things is not debating orthodoxy but rather debating points that are non-essential to the message of the faith.

So when it comes to what we understand to be the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, we want to have absolute unity. There are certain things involved in being a Christian church—certain beliefs and convictions and doctrines. If you cease to hold to those beliefs, you cease to be a Christian church.

But having said that, on the non-essential beliefs, we want there to be liberty or freedom. Paul talks about this in the fourteenth chapter of Romans, reminding us not to pass judgment on other people over disputable matters. He then goes on to say that whatever you believe about disputable matters – meaning those things not central to the Christian faith nor in direct conflict with the central core of the Christian faith – should be kept to yourself.    

And quite frankly, much more falls under this category than we may want to admit. Tertiary issues would include such things as the various views about the unfolding of the end times or styles of worship. Primary issues revolve around such things as the Person and Work of Jesus, the nature of God, and the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. 

This is why creeds were created—to state definitively what the primary issues are and to spell out the exact nature of historic Christian orthodoxy. The same kind of distinctions can be made when discussing the nature of orthopraxy.

In the essentials, we have unity; in the non-essentials, we have liberty; but in all things, we have charity. So, what to do when there is disagreement with another Christ follower? I would suggest you put whatever the issue may be through a bit of a matrix.

First, is it a matter of orthodoxy or orthopraxy? Second, within those categories, is it primary or tertiary?

If it doesn’t really fall into orthodoxy or orthopraxy, it’s not worth engaging. If it does, but it’s not primary, then I would limit the amount of energy you put into the disagreement about it.

But if it is a matter of orthodoxy, and it is primary in nature, then yes, you need to take a stand. Lovingly engage with another Christ follower because it matters and they matter. I would also engage if they were taking a matter that isn’t orthodoxy or true orthopraxy, or taking something tertiary and elevating it to the level of primary orthodoxy and the test of what it means to be a Christian.  

That is precisely what Jesus condemned among the Pharisees.

Yet as you engage with fellow Christians, even when it involves a disagreement about a matter of orthodoxy/orthopraxy that is primary in nature, it must, as mentioned, be done with charity. The use of our tongues – whether in person or online – must reflect Jesus. That means our speech must be controlled.

Before you say something, ask yourself four things:
- Is what I am going to say true?
- Is what I am going to say helpful?
- Is what I am going to say being said to the right person?
- Is what I am going to say loving?

If you are not sure the answer to any of these questions, my suggestion is simple. It’s Proverbs 10:19: “Too much talk leads to sin.  Be sensible and keep your mouth shut” (NLT).

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The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.