By Steven Clark Goad
But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean (Romans 14:14, NIV, 1984).
All Christians belong to the same spiritual family, bought and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. To be siblings in Christ is the grandest relationship souls can have in the physical realm. Sadly, the body of Christ has splintered and split into multiple warring factions that do not associate with one another.
It seems to me the first order of business is to admit it isn’t a sin to hold an opinion. It may not even be a sin to be misguided or to misunderstand certain doctrinal matters, for if it were, we would all be held accountable. How can we be faithful to God and loyal to the truth without being judgmental and harsh toward others who may not share our views?
Paul on Opinion
Paul’s instructions about dealing with one another in matters of conviction and opinion impact the issue of unity profoundly. The book of Romans is a primer on how to get along with each other, even when we disagree. Many seem to have forgotten the plea: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” Paul echoes the sentiment found in our Savior’s prayer in John 17. Our unity is vital so that “the world may believe” (v. 21).
If Christians can agree to love each other and share in the glory of Christ when they disagree over meat offered to idols, we certainly should be able to rise above the trivial matters that have turned many of us into sectarian protagonists.
We hear about those who are “living in error.” What does that mean? All of us are in some sort of misguided state of mind—that is, unless we have perfect knowledge. This kind of thinking is derived from a woeful misunderstanding of fellowship. We have even taken a lovely noun, fellowship, and turned it into a negative verb, disfellowship, to use when we disagree with someone on some nuance of doctrinal understanding.
The Tyranny of Opinion(ism)
Joseph Joubert observed, “Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth.” Does truth matter? Of course. Yet opinions on various aspects of truth have been with us since the dawn of human history. Differences of opinion have led to magnificent discoveries and engendered some of the most heinous of crimes and passions. We are surrounded by opinions of all shades and sizes, not only in the world, but in the body of Christ.
I was preaching a sermon series on a controversial subject when, after my second sermon, a good sister approached our elders and said, “Stop him from teaching this error. He is merely teaching us his opinion.” A wise elder said to the sister, “Dear, all Steve can teach is his opinion of what Scripture offers us. But if his take on biblical subjects is correct, then it is no longer merely his opinion.” He went on to say that she wanted her opinion of the subject taught instead of mine. Ah, one brush fire extinguished. Jeanne-Marie Roland said, “The feeble tremble before opinion; the foolish defy it; the wise judge it; the skillful direct it.”
When We Disagree
Is Sunday school “scriptural”? Should the Communion cup contain grape juice, or wine? May I sing “The Old Rugged Cross” while a piano helps maintain the melody and tempo? Should we pay full-time preachers or engage in mutual edification alone? On and on the issues come to the fore and a multiplicity of opinions and disagreements ensue. It is a never-ending dilemma.
No person, group of persons, elders, preachers, or editors have a monopoly on truth. We all sift our understanding of God’s Word through our mental sieves. And these filtering systems are guided by what we have been taught, plus our life experiences. What one Christian may consider a black-and-white matter may be gray for another or not a matter of contention at all. I know of congregations that split over which version of the Bible was “authorized.” We should be way beyond such immature thinking.
Barton W. Stone observed,
The Scriptures will never keep together in union and fellowship members not in the spirit of the Scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for unity with all Christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions.
Vain men! Their soul is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit of Christ. There is a day not far ahead which will declare it. Such anti-sectarian sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause and advancement of truth, the unity of Christians, and the salvation of the world than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they make skeptics.
This prophetic insight was written a century and a half in the past.
Should we not purge ourselves of the notion that we can’t be mistaken? Before we can presume to “skin the sects” who don’t have it figured out, we had better be displaying genuine love among ourselves. It might even be liberating, as Dr. Leroy Garrett has goaded us to do, to actually confess out loud we don’t get everything right. Wanting to be correct is one thing, perfect comprehension quite another.
Some of our discord has been over preferences. There is not a thing wrong with a preference that doesn’t get in the way of the spirit of the Word. These preferences are choices church leaders must make all the time. Our “worship wars” have been terribly destructive. I may prefer a guitar as accompaniment while others seem to relish a loud band blasting away. I suppose you can see my bias in the way I
Who Is Right?
Jesus is right. If I can model his life to the best of my ability, I will learn to accept all those who love the Lord and obey him to the best of their ability to understand biblical truth. Does this make truth malleable and not absolute? Absolutely not! But it will allow our treatment of one another to be kinder and gentler as we display the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, NIV).
We must admit we have no more monopoly on truth than anyone else who holds the Scriptures as inviolate. Why do we even presume others must be wrong since they disagree with us? Why could we not be wrong? Why can we not admit we are able to learn truth from others from differing backgrounds and traditions? Unity and brotherhood will never be obtained by way of unanimity of opinion. Our fellowship and unity can only be found in the Christ of God. Unity in diversity is what the apostles enjoyed. Why can’t we? Unity will always be in diversity, never in university.
Accepting others as brothers and sister in Jesus doesn’t mean we admit anything and everything they might believe about God and discipleship. It means we are blood-bought citizens of the kingdom of God. And one other thing we must admit—fellowship does not equate with endorsement.
Steven Clark Goad is a minister and freelance writer in Blythe, California.
Building Unity Amid Disagreements
1. Know Scripture first. Study Scripture related to the issue at hand, but also study Jesus’ life, ministry, and interactions with others. View
everything through the framework of the Word.
2. When comparing your views with someone else’s, look for commonality rather than differences. We often say we want unity, but our actions and attitudes speak a different message. In all you do and say, show that you favor unity.
3. Address conflicts instead of letting resentment simmer. Even if it’s a small matter, talk with the person before the deep roots of anger take over your ability to honestly evaluate the situation.
4. Relentlessly follow James’s advice in James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Have someone hold you accountable to this process.