When Church Leaders Disagree

Mark Beuving —  July 7, 2011 — 2 Comments

If you have even a minor interest in the Christian scene, then you’ve seen it happen. It’s only a matter of time until two Christian leaders that you look up to (you’ve been influenced by their books, sermons, conferences, etc.) come down on different sides of some important issue.

So what do you do? The most recent example I’m aware of comes from the controversy surrounding hell. First, Rob Bell comes out with a book saying that everyone will eventually spend eternity with God (though they may have to be painfully refined before they get there). Then, Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle come out with a book about the reality and horrors of a final judgment for those who reject Christ.

Chan and Bell came onto the Christian scene around the same time, and both have had some very profound things to say about a number of important issues. They are both rightly respected in a number of ways, and many of us have been positively influenced by both leaders.

Again, what do we do when church leaders disagree? I’ve come up with five quick points to help us process and respond to these situations:

1. Don’t be surprised.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised by how surprised people get over this. The church has never agreed on every point of doctrine. There has always been disagreement over some issue. In many ways, the ensuing debates and conversations are very healthy for the church. It teaches us that we can’t simply accept everything a church leader tells us. The Christian has no higher standard for truth than God’s Word, so we need to imitate the Bereans, who received Paul’s teaching eagerly, but weighed it against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).

2. Remain humble and respectful.
You may not have noticed it, but I’m shocked at some of the things Christians will say about other Christians on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. We seem to believe that biblical principles of loving and gracious communication do not apply to digital media. Is a Christian leader that God has created in His image, placed in a position of authority and influence, and used to influence the church in some amazingly positive ways really an “idiot” because he or she happens to say something you disagree with? Are you absolutely certain that the motivation was deception, wealth, fame, or an overwhelming desire to teach doctrines of demons?

I’m not saying those motivations don’t come into play, but I am appalled by how quickly we demonize godly men and women because we disagree with them in one area. Is false teaching dangerous? Yes. Should it be opposed and corrected? Absolutely. But does the need to defend sound doctrine give us license to ignore every other biblical principle and respond with pride, contempt, and a lack of respect? I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on that.

3. You don’t always have to choose a side.
Sometimes we get the impression that you can only support one Christian leader. I constantly pressured to consider a person all good or all bad, all right or all wrong. Theological bullies are everywhere, pushing us to dismiss every teacher who dares to disagree with the entirety of their theological camp.

What happened to discernment? Why can’t we evaluate each doctrinal issue based on its agreement with Scripture, rather than on who happens to hold that position? Why can’t we appreciate one leader’s teaching on this issue and another leader’s teaching on that issue?

In many ways, we have recreated the scenario that Paul warned the Corinthians about:

“When one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:4-6)

You can learn from more than one Christian leader. You don’t always have to choose a side. Cling to what is true; reject what is false. On this side of eternity, no teacher is all good, and no teacher is all bad. We have to be discerning, loving, and humble enough to change our position on an issue when we see the biblical teaching more clearly.

4. Learn from those you disagree with.
This point really isn’t very profound, but many will likely be shocked by it. Let’s be honest: there is only one Person with whom we can agree completely. At some point, we ought to disagree with every human being, no matter how accurate his or her teaching is in general. Even though God used Peter to write two inerrant books of the New Testament, Paul had to “oppose him to his face” at one point because he was being inconsistent with the truth of the gospel (see. Gal. 2:11-16).

If we’re not open to learning from people that we disagree with, we won’t learn very much. Not only that, but if you find that you’re not willing to learn from very many people, you can be certain that your heart is filled with pride.

5. Stay committed to Christ and allow God to work through whomever He sees fit.
At the end of the day, our allegiance is to Christ alone. He alone has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). He is our example in this life and the only hope we have of being transformed. But don’t overlook the fact that God uses broken vessels of all sorts to accomplish His will. If God can work through you, then He can work through the leaders you agree with as well as the ones you don’t. We have to do our part to be faithful to Him and to uphold God’s truth on every issue we encounter. But we must do so with humility and love, and we must be okay with God using imperfect people to strengthen His church and transform our world.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
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  • Yvonne

    I think one thing that will help us to discern through these issues is a commitment to the study of historical theology and the traditions of the church. By engaging with the authoritative voices of the past, we gain a greater understanding of the issues in the present. Alistair McGrath says, “Contemporary Western culture is dominated by an ideology of the ephemeral, based on philosophies and values that are not expected to endure a decade or so. To take the “great tradition” seriously is to anchor oneself in a community of reflection, to overhear their conversations and meditations, and thus be enriched, nourished, and above all, given stability.” (The Passionate Intellect, 32).

    I think something that is helpful in this discussion is understanding that most beliefs are not held as 100% in favor of the proposition, but there is proportionality in the degree of our acceptance. In other words, we can be 60% convinced of its truth, 80% convinced, 90%, etc. depending upon the degree to which specific arguments support the belief.

    If we are honest with ourselves, there are probably few things in which we have 100% conviction. (In some beliefs we should have close to 100% conviction; in the Church traditions these are generally considered to be essential doctrines.) Other ideas or beliefs are held to various degrees, and we must give even our leaders the wiggle room to wrestle with them.

    Mark, your article is encapsulated by the 17th century maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”