There’s much talk nowadays about Christians who don’t get along. They’ve become highly publicized and often criticized. Arguments among Christians can sometimes be of the most passionate and hurtful type, causing deep divisions between friends and family–and everyone has a different approach to disagreements. Some are firm in their convictions and won’t budge a bit, not even to maintain healthy friendships with others. Others are more relaxed and often agree to disagree, maybe to a fault. We know that we should stand firm in our beliefs, but how firm? And what issues should we be willing to die for? What issues are peripheral?
Well as the universal church we too often break communion over minor issues, issues that hurt the body of Christ rather than encourage it. Most in our circles shove doctrine down the throats of others and are quick to label a person as “heretical” rather than hear them out (the statement, “The best way I know how to love them is to make them believe in the gospel” is good but often abused). Rather, here are some questions you can run through the next time you deal with a situation concerning doctrinal disagreements:
1. What is the relational context?
Is this a brother/sister in Christ? Do they profess to be a believer? Is this really an evangelistic opportunity? We should aim to treat someone in accordance with their profession of faith.
Do you have spiritual oversight of this person? Is it a member of your flock? Your responsibilities are different if the sheep is a member of another flock; we should not try to shepherd a member of someone else’s flock if they attend a gospel-believing church. You don’t want them to begin to question or turn against their own pastor.
2. What is your goal?
What is your motivation for perpetuating the disagreement? Too often our goal in a debate is to assert our own superiority or to put our knowledge on display. I encourage you to consult the following passages of Scripture: 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Eph. 4:15; and 1 Tim. 1:5.
3. What kind of doctrine is at stake? (Taken from Dan Wallace at http://bible.org/article/my-take-inerrancy)
Probably the most important question as to whether we should be in disagreement. Here are varying levels of doctrines that should be upheld and others that are peripheral.
- Doctrines necessary for the life of the church (e.g., the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the Trinity)
These are important doctrines that define the Christian. These are issues that are most worth dividing over and should be held firmly in all situations.
- Doctrines necessary for the health of the church (e.g., paedobaptism, “lordship” salvation, spiritual gifts, women in eldership)
These are important for living out healthy biblical convictions. These also vary in degree and should be taken examined on a case-by-case basis.
- Doctrines distinctive to the practice of the local church (e.g., millennial position, covenant theology, spiritual gifts(?), women in eldership(?), church polity)
There is much disagreement here, but these are not essentials issues of salvation.
- Doctrines that are more speculative and should not divide any local assembly (e.g., areas of Christian liberty, timing of the rapture, order of the divine decrees, ordo salutis)
In all cases, we owe people understanding, a listening ear, and patience (one of the fruit of the Spirit). We should also be willing to learn from other people, to hearing them out and loving them first rather than constantly searching for a rebuttal. My prayer is that this helps us to live our the Ephesians 4 model of unity in the body of Christ.
*Material here was mostly taken from Professor Andy Snider’s Lecture in Theology I at The Master’s Seminary.