Archives For Unity

Why Christians Can Disagree

Mark Beuving —  December 8, 2014 — 2 Comments

Christians often disagree. That’s why we have so many denominations. That’s why we have so many Christian books about every subject imaginable. That’s why we have so many commentary series. That’s why we have so many blogs.

Disagreement amongst Christians is common. But it’s unsettling. Doesn’t it bother you that we can’t all agree on how or when to baptize a person? Or how the sovereignty of God relates to the human will? Or how the world will end? There are a host of issues that Christians have disagreed upon for centuries.

Don’t you sometimes wonder how a group of people who are supposed to be united can disagree on so many topics?

It’s startling that we can worship the same God and read the same Bible and still come to so many disagreements. But there is a strange beauty in the whole thing.

disagreement

What unites all Christians is our union with Christ. What we all have in common is our shared commitment to following Jesus. When we “give our lives to Christ,” we are pledging our allegiance to a Person. We let go of our own ambitions and agree to do whatever Jesus tells us to do. A person of faith is a person who believes the words that God says.

So when a Presbyterian baptizes his baby, he does so because he looks at God’s word, sees a connection between New Testament baptism and Old Testament circumcision, and firmly believes that baptizing his child is an act of obedience to Christ. And when a Baptist waits for his child to mature before baptizing her, he does so because he looks at God’s word, sees adults being baptized in the New Testament as a confession of their own faith, and firmly believes that being baptized as a conscious believer is an act of obedience to Christ.

A Calvinist reads her Bible carefully and sees passages about God moving the hearts of men, about God working all things according to the counsel of his will, and about God’s involvement in even the most trivial or tragic of human affairs. She wants to understand God’s truth, and she believes and teaches about God’s sovereignty out of obedience to Jesus. An Arminian reads her Bible carefully and sees passages commanding human beings to repent and believe, passages that show human decisions and their real consequences, and about the responsibility of human beings to respond to God and his truth. She wants to understand God’s truth, and she believes and teaches human responsibility out of obedience to Jesus.

So we don’t agree on every point of doctrine. But for Christians, that’s okay. It’s okay because we know where we need to go for the answers. We’ll disagree on what those answers are, but we all know that truth is found in the Bible.

Scripture is sufficiently simple to ensure that we all know God and his truth as we read. But Scripture is sufficiently complex to ensure that we will never exhaust the rich themes, nuances, paradoxes, and genres it contains. This second feature of Scripture, it’s beautiful complexity, also ensures that we’ll all disagree at some point. We will all see a certain theme or nuance so clearly that we will lose sight of another equally important theme. Our interpretations differ, but we’re all mining the same source, a source that will never relinquish all of its unified complexity.

All of us will mine this book forever. To borrow some terms from Francis Schaeffer, we will all know biblical truth TRULY, but we will not know it EXHAUSTIVELY. And the simple fact that no single person on earth can hold every Scriptural truth, theme, and emphasis in mind at any given moment ensures that we will all disagree. For this reason, only God knows his word completely, knows it exhaustively. And it’s our joy to continually seek the mind of God as he has revealed it in Scripture.

So Christians can respectfully, joyfully, graciously disagree because none of us is (or none of us should be) studying the Bible so that we can be right. We are studying the Bible to know God and obey his will. And because we know the Christians across the street are doing the same, we don’t need to be troubled by their disagreement. It simply drives us to pursue God all the more and seek to understand him increasingly more until the day we see him face to face.

I can disagree with you because I am not the source of truth, and neither are you. If we remember that, and if we continue pursuing the source as an act of loving worship, then our disagreements can only make us stronger followers of Jesus and thereby increase our unity with one another.

 

 

 

churchMany of our towns are overflowing with churches. If you’ve ever tried to find a new church, you know how many options are typically available.

You can choose based on denomination: Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, Foursquare, Brethren, Methodist…you name it. And many of these broad categories actually refer to several denominations (e.g., there are multiple Baptist and Presbyterian denominations). And don’t forget the large number of nondenominational churches out there that don’t align with any denomination.

You can also choose based on the style of worship music. Do you prefer hymns or modern praise songs? If modern praise songs, do you lean more towards Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, or Maranatha?

You can also categorize churches based on their approach to preaching. Do you prefer expository, verse by verse preaching? Or do you like the topical approach with relevant sermon series?

How do you like to take communion? Weekly, monthly, or at a special communion service? Which is more “biblical,” juice or wine? Should communion be taken all at once or on an individual basis?

What’s your take on baptism? Full immersion? Sprinkling? Adult or infant? On the spot or after a lengthy baptism class?

The point is, church comes in many varieties. But should it? Aren’t we all worshipping the same God and reading from the same Bible? If that’s true, then why do we have so many denominations?

The simplest answer I have come across (from Tim Keller) is that denominations will always exist as long as Christians are concerned about both unity and purity.

If we were only concerned about unity, it wouldn’t matter what differences we encounter in doctrine or practice. One church per town would be enough. On the flipside, if we were only concerned about purity in our doctrine and practice, we wouldn’t be able meet together at all, because we all disagree with each other on some level.

Church2So every group of Christians is trying to walk that line between unity and purity. To love one another, even in the midst of significant differences, while still upholding the truth of Scripture. And that’s tough. Not only do we disagree about specific doctrines, we also disagree about which ones are “hills to die on.” Should you leave a church and/or start a new one because your church is/isn’t elder ruled? Because there is too much/little liturgy in the services? Because the doctrinal statement affirms/denies a premillenial, pretribulational rapture? These are all issues that have produced new denominations.

Throughout church history Christians have been navigating this tension between unity and purity.

We all have to wrestle with this question: How do we balance unity and purity? I can’t imagine the fragmented state of the church today makes Jesus happy. And yet, I’m sure that he is pleased when someone takes a courageous and gracious stand for the truth of Scripture. I’m also sure he is pleased when someone chooses to love and serve together with people who disagree.

Maybe the point of it all is that simply getting all of the churches together under the banner of unity isn’t the obvious choice. Doctrinal purity matters too. Nor is splitting churches over minor doctrinal issues the right approach. Unity is important. Perhaps it’s more about the way we view and interact with the other denominations in town. Even if you’re not sitting in a pew with the Baptists or Presbyterians or whomever, do you still consider them fellow workers for the sake of the gospel? Brothers and sisters in Christ? Co-recipients of the command to make disciples of all nations (including your own town)?

Here in Simi Valley, most of the pastors in town meet regularly to pray together. These are pastors of churches that belong to a variety of denominations and hold significantly different views over many doctrines. They are each trying to be faithful to what Scripture teaches about baptism, the return of Christ, communion, and so on. But they see themselves as part of the same team, so they pray together. I love that picture of godly people working to preserve both purity and unity.

It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t have a solution for the “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) of denominationalism. But I will say that unity and purity are both important. The way we relate to one another matters. So be sure to wrestle with that question: How do we balance unity and purity?

(By the way, if you’re trying to choose a church or denomination, here are some wise words from C. S. Lewis.)

This past week I had the privilege of taking part in a weekend conference for the Chinese Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. Like many Chinese churches, this church consists of three congregations: English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Though the whole conference was great, perhaps the most impactful moment came on Sunday morning as all three congregations worshiped together. We sang the same songs, and words were displayed on the screen in both English and Chinese. We were told to each sing in our own language, and the worship leaders shifted between singing in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin (or maybe just between English and Cantonese OR Mandarin—I have no idea).

Here’s what this was like from my perspective as a visitor. The tunes were familiar. The instrumentation and setting were familiar. I had sung these songs before and genuinely worshiped God through these words.

But around me: a kind of controlled chaos. It’s almost like being at a concert where everyone’s trying to sing along but doesn’t quite know the words. Or being in a church service when the worship leader introduces a new song: everyone wants to sing, but they don’t quite know when to sing which words. I could hear others singing in English, but I could hear other sounds mixed in as well.

A touch disconcerting? Yes. Initially. But highly moving? Absolutely. The thing is, the slight challenge of continuing to sing when all of the sounds don’t match exactly was quickly drowned out when I considered what was happening.

We all had the same love for God in our hearts. We all had the same basic concepts that we wanted to communicate in song. And when we pushed those words through our vocal chords and out into the room, the sounds didn’t match. But God heard our voices and the cry of our hearts. He was worshiped in three languages simultaneously.

If you think about it, that’s an extremely simplified version of the praise he will receive when people from every nation, tribe, and language praise him in unison (Rev. 7:9). God loves diverse praise, and this was a small taste of the full reality.

That morning, our mismatched words didn’t fight each other as though two people were trying to sing different melodies at the same time. They complemented each other, like a well-sung harmony—not identical, but creating a fuller and more beautiful sound.

For me, it was a reminder that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

I don’t understand Cantonese or Mandarin, and I wasn’t the only one. Others could not understand much English. I was very different from many in that room in terms of my national heritage, my cultural assumptions, my communication style, and the overall look and feel of my everyday life.

And yet I stood there with hundreds of people who were more profoundly like me than not. The color of our skin didn’t match exactly, but we had all received matching hearts, compliments of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25-27). We couldn’t all communicate directly, but the Spirit was producing the same fruit in all of our lives (Gal. 5:22–23). Our lineage stems from different continents, but we are all citizens of the same country—and I’m not talking about America (Philip. 3:20). We walk different paths every day of our lives (aside from this one weekend), yet we are all following the footsteps of the same Man.

This was a powerful reminder that I am inseparably connected and eerily similar to people I have only briefly met (and multitudes I have never and will never meet) and who externally are almost nothing like me.

The Office Sumo SuitsIt doesn’t. Not always. Not often, even. It seems that the more we know, the more condescending we become. We study the Bible to gain theological insight, then we set out to prove other people wrong. Theology becomes ammunition for debate rather than food for our soul. Rather than allowing God’s truth to shape our souls, we use it to sharpen our insults.

But listen to what Paul says about all of this:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think…Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”

These are powerful words. Don’t think of yourself too highly. Love other people, find ways to honor them, bless even your enemies, hang out with the outcasts. Don’t even begin to think that you’ve become wise.

But here’s what I find most compelling about Paul’s statements here: Paul says all of this in Romans 12. Which means that this comes immediately after Romans 1–11 (deep, I know).

In Romans 1–11, Paul lays out some of the most detailed, profound, and tightly reasoned theology in the whole Bible. Several intense theological debates are drawn from interpreting these chapters. But in Romans 12, Paul tells us how to behave in light of the theology he has just described. These statements in Romans 12 are the practical outworking of the theology of Romans 1–11.

We seem to think Romans 12 reads like this:

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers, in light of everything I have said, oppose those who disagree with your interpretation of these things. Question their intelligence, avoid listening carefully to their arguments. Be strong and insensitive in this, for in putting them down you show yourself to be great in the kingdom of heaven.”

But, of course, Paul didn’t write that. So we shouldn’t act as though he did. When Paul laid out his most complex theological argument, he explained that it ought to lead us to humility. It should cause us to worship, not argue. It should cause us to love our opponents, not slander them. It should increase our unity, not undermine it.

Theology is not more important than unity, nor should we promote unity at the expense of theology. Rather, theology ought to lead us to unity. Paul seems to think that theology produces humility. Perhaps we need to become more passionate about theology—not just its intellectual contours, but its practical implications as well.

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