When Christians Disagree
In the past few years, our nation has been struck by the desperation of people caught in devastating hurricanes. We’ve seen people stranded on rooftops, diabetics in urgent need of insulin and parents who can’t find their children.
We long to see those who are suffering receive help, and we want to see families reunited. So we’re glad when thousands of National Guardsmen—brave individuals trained to make a difference—head into ravaged areas.
Imagine this, though—a squadron of Guardsmen is preparing to leave camp in a convoy when arguments break out among its members. They’re debating which bottled water is better, Evian® or Arrowhead®. Or if Tylenol® is more effective than Advil®.
And then one guy says, “I am absolutely not driving in that truck if they play country music.” And another one says, “I refuse to go unless I can sit in the front.”
Lives are hanging in the balance while the rescuers are busy arguing about inconsequential things. Is this what Jesus sees when He looks at those He’s entrusted with the job of rescuing people who are lost without Him?
I’m grateful to be part of a church that seeks to follow Paul’s instruction to the first followers of Jesus “to preach the gospel where Christ [is] not known” (Rom. 15:20). Our mission unites us. It keeps us focused on representing Jesus wherever we go. It helps us to overlook areas where we might disagree with one another. Yet, a committed follower might ask, “What disagreements can we allow while still maintaining our unity?”
In Romans 14, Paul offers us helpful guidance in achieving the mission he holds high in Romans 15. In his day, the mission was threatened by three stubborn disagreements among Christians on issues of conviction: dietary practices, Sabbath observance and alcohol consumption. Today, he might include conflicts over worship style, Bible translation, schooling of our children, observance of Halloween or our political persuasion or view of war.
For Paul, it was important to distinguish convictions from beliefs. We agree that there are core beliefs clearly and plainly spelled out in the Bible, truths that are commonly seen in a statement of faith. For instance, Jesus came as the Son of God, He lived a perfect life, He died in our place and rose again, He gifts us with His Spirit and He is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Our core beliefs are firm and unchanging (1 Cor. 15:1–4).
However, Paul grants us more freedom in the area of our convictions, or “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). These are decisions we make—based on principles in the Bible—about certain behaviors. They’re not at the level of belief but instead are a personalized application of Scripture.
Then there are preferences. Some people like jazz; some like classical music. Some like short hair; some like it long. Some prefer pews, and some prefer chairs. They’re preferences, with little or no related teaching in the Bible.
Paul’s teaching is clear. While he calls for agreement in the area of belief, he urges us to “accept one another” despite our disagreements in conviction and preference (Rom. 15:7). Christians with a “strong” conscience are to avoid a condescending attitude toward those with a stricter conscience, and Christians with a “weak” conscience are to avoid a critical attitude toward those who appear more open (Rom. 14:3). Paul’s teaching is clear: neither of these outer rings of personal conviction and preference should divide Christians in their mission.
Unfortunately, our tendency is to let the enemy divide us in these lesser areas. We have a strong urge to turn our preferences into convictions and to push our convictions into beliefs. When we do that, we end up with more disagreements than we ought to have.
From Jesus’ perspective, this is a huge issue. Remember what He prayed in His longest recorded prayer, just before His torture and death? “‘I pray . . . that all of them may be one Father’” (John 17:20–21). He prayed for unity. Why? “‘to let the world know that you sent me’” (v. 23).
If unity matters to Jesus, shouldn’t it matter to us? For the sake of our mission, let’s agree to cling tightly to our beliefs, accept those who differ in conviction and hold our preferences very loosely.
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