Unity is very important.
In John 17:20-23, we read:
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (NASB)
Jesus prayed that all who follow Him would be one. This tells us that having unity among His followers is very important to Christ. However, unity is not an event that happens when at some point in time everyone understands everything perfectly. Look at what Jesus said about His apostles in John 17:6-8:
“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. “Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.” (NASB)
The apostles kept His word. This was true even though they did not understand everything Jesus had said. One thing they did clearly understand was that whatever Jesus said was from God. Without this understanding, we cannot even begin to keep God’s word or have any basis for unity.
Again in John 17:12, we read:
“While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.” (NASB)
When we read about the apostles, it is difficult to miss their misunderstandings and incomplete knowledge that we see in many of their questions. Not one of them was lost by having an incomplete understanding. We all have to grow all the time. We learn new things all the time. We need humility to realize that we do not know everything. Without humility, there is no basis for open discussion and without allowing open discussion, there can be no unity. We must be willing to question even our most basic understandings and see what Christ has actually said. On many subjects, we will find that what we already understood is correct, but at least with digging for the truth, we will have a deeper understanding.
What Causes Disagreements?
Misunderstandings: you use language that means one thing to the hearer, but you mean something else.
This happens a lot with discussions about the Holy Spirit. When someone says they are “guided by the Spirit,” there are a lot of different possible meanings for that. They may mean that they are inspired and the Spirit directly talks to them. They may mean that they have feelings that guide them in some mysterious way. They may mean that they have the teachings of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures to guide them. They may mean that through the providence of God, they wind up in different situations where applying the teaching of the scriptures turns into great things.
The point is, don’t start arguing with someone until you actually know what they mean. On the other side, I can listen to some preachers and say “Amen” to all that they say because they use Biblical statements, but I cannot say “Amen” to what they mean by those statements because it is not the same meaning that is in the scriptures. We have to ask questions and dig if we want to have a healthy discussion that will lead to agreement.
Trying to prove a point and not really being honest with ourselves over the meaning of the scriptures.
This is easy to do without realizing we are doing it. As an example, Amos 5:23 says:
Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.” (NASB)
I read a debate in which a brother in Christ was arguing against instrumental music in the worship of God. He used Amos 5:23 which says that God does not listen to songs that are accompanied by musical instruments. I have also heard other preachers use this verse the same way. There is a small problem with this argument. That is not what the verse says! If you look at the context, God’s problem is not with the harps, but with their lives. There is no verse that says instrumental music in worship is wrong and we do not need to twist the scriptures into saying what we want them to say.
As a side note, I do believe instrumental music in worship is wrong, but not because there is a verse that says so. I believe it is wrong because God clearly commanded it in the Old Testament (as we will examine shortly) and said nothing about it in the New Testament. He did not forget to mention it. If He left it out, it was for a purpose.
Previously taught ideas about what a passage means.
Although we are discussing brethren disagreeing, there is an easy to see example from the denominations. Many people are taught in their denominations that Acts 2:38 teaches us that we are baptized because we are saved. That is drilled into their minds.
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 NASB)
When they read “for the forgiveness of your sins”, they cannot see anything other than “because your sins are forgiven.” That explanation does not fit with verses 40-41:
And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. (NASB)
They still needed to be saved. But that is something that difficult to see when we have a specific understanding taught to us over and over again.
Not fully investigating the scriptures.
One argument that someone might use to defend instrumental music in worship today is that God never commanded instrumental music in the Old Testament, but He accepted it then, so He will accept it now even though He has not commanded or indicated in any way that He wants it. If you read when it was introduced into the worship by King David (2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 15:16), nothing is said there about God commanding it.
2 Chronicles 29:25, however, clearly tells us that it was commanded by God through the prophets. But when we are looking at the establishment of musical instruments in the Old Testament worship, who would think to look at the story of Hezekiah?
The more we read, the more we can understand. Much of a proper understanding about God and what He wants from us will come from simply reading the whole scriptures and learning from Him in His way, rather than only searching for what the scriptures say on a particular topic.
They trust their feelings rather than the text.
In all of the reasons for disagreements that we have looked at so far, we can still reason with one another come to a better understanding of the true meaning of the scriptures. But when people trust their feelings rather than the scriptures, there can be no unity there.
Yet in the same way these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. (Jude 1:8 NASB)
Jude says that there are people who trust their dreams and so they reject authority. Many of us have spoken with people like this. They are convinced that because of a dream they had, whatever they have chosen to do is right, regardless of what you can show them in the scriptures. Jude says these people are ungodly and dead (Jude 1:12-15). There can certainly be no unity with them.
See my article about Jude for more.
A desire to have people follow you
If your motives in being a Christian are wrong and you are thinking of what you can get out of it in this life, it seems like the one with the power in the church is the preacher. People listen to him. So if you want people to listen to you now, you have to come up with something that everyone else has missed–after all, who is going to follow someone who says what everyone else is saying?
2 Timothy 3:1-7 talks about people like this:
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (NASB)
If we have this kind of attitude, we will never come to a knowledge of the truth and neither will those who follow us. There can be no unity when this is the cause of disagreement.
Now that we have looked at some of the causes for disagreements, let us turn our attention to…
What Kind of Disagreements Are There?
Disagreements over things that do not matter.
But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. (2 Timothy 2:23 NASB)
We don’t need to argue about things that we cannot know. There are debates about how much Jesus was human and how much He was God while on earth. This is stupid. He was both. We cannot understand those things, we must just accept them.
The same thing can be said about what happens to us at the point of death. Should we debate whether we go to sleep, to Paradise, or to Heaven? It is not wrong to discuss what the Bible says about it, but the scriptures simply are not clear (at least not to me) and it does not make any difference. Since it is dealing with the spirit, we may not even be able to comprehend what happens. What the scriptures are clear about is what will happen in the day of judgment and that will be based on what we did in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). So what happens in between really makes no difference. It is not worth arguing about.
Disagreements over things that matter but are alright to disagree about as long as we deal with our disagreement properly
Romans 14 talks about some issues that Christ had spoken about and therefore are important, but He is happy even if His followers do not understand what He said about it. These things are alright to disagree about because no sin is done either way. These are disagreements where someone does not understand about a freedom Christ has given us.
Romans 14:1-3 talks about eating meat:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. (NASB)
Is it important to know what God has said about eating meat? In a sense, it is important. There is quite a bit of teaching about it in the scriptures (although I’m not sure how much teaching on it these brethren had at the time Romans was written). God had clearly spoken on the matter, but He says that it is still OK to disagree about it. They were not to pass judgment on those who did not understand what God said about the issue. That does not mean they were not to teach about it, but they were to accept their brother regardless of whether he ever understood that it was alright to eat meat or not.
Then again, look at 1 Timothy 4:1-3:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. (NASB)
Here he talks about men teaching to “abstain from foods which God has created” and calls it the doctrine of demons. What is the difference here from what Romans 14 talks about? Are they not both saying the same thing–it is wrong to eat meat? As best as I can tell, the difference is that some are teaching that this is clearly what God has taught–they also are liars and have their conscience seared. There is a difference between lying and doubting. Romans 14 talks about those who doubt. They are not convinced that it is alright with God for them to eat meat and even think it is sinful. But they are not lying, saying that God has said something that He has not.
Their motives are different. One is trying to promote his false doctrine, the other is just trying to please God.
He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:6 NASB)
Motives make a big difference in whether we please God or not. It is not always clear what someone else’s motives are. But as for us, let us make sure that whatever we do, we do it out of a desire to please God. Some people try to use Romans 14 to tell us that we should let them do whatever they want. That is not the point here. We must do whatever we believe God wants.
So how can we deal with this type of disagreement? One Christian is convinced that God gives them a freedom to do something. The other Christian is convinced that it is sinful to do that thing.
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5 NASB)
Each one is fully convinced in their own mind. Which one is right? The one who understands that Christ gives us freedom to regard one day above another and to eat meat, etc. Now many people who understand the truth on these issues love to use Romans 14:3-4 in order to say that the others must not judge them and just let them do it.
The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:3-4 NASB)
I’m afraid that they do not read the rest of the chapter though. The point of Romans 14 is not those who believe their brethren are sinning to let them continue doing it, but rather those who understand better giving up their freedom for the sake of peace.
Romans 14:14-19 says:
I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. (NASB)
Other verses in Romans 14 tell us to give up our freedom so that we do not encourage our brethren to do something that they believe is wrong–which would be sinful for them. But these verses talk about the pain it causes Christians to see other Christians doing things that they believe are sinful. Notice in verse 16, Paul writes that we must not let what is good for us be spoken of as evil. That does not mean telling those who are saying it is sinful to be quiet. It means we should keep from doing it so that our brother will have no reason to say we are sinning. Paul says we don’t need to eat meat. If doing something that we have freedom to do or not do will hurt our brothers by doing it, we should give it up.
We do not have many brethren today who have a problem with eating meat, but what situations do we have today that would fall into this category? This a difficult question because some Christians will fall on either side of saying it is allowed or it is sinful–and those who believe it is sinful do not believe it belongs in this category of things that are alright to disagree about! But even when there are things that I believe are sinful, there are brethren who will disagree and so I can say that the principle should apply to those issues from their point of view anyway. These are just a few:
- “Social drinking” - Romans 14:21 actually mentions drinking wine as something to give up when it will cause your brother to stumble and I believe from the previous verses we looked at, it would be something to give up if your brethren were convinced it is sinful as well.
- Instrumental music in worship - Some brethren are fully convinced that they have the freedom to worship God with musical instruments today. But the scriptures are obvious that it is also right to worship with singing only, so when your brethren view it as sinful, why not give up your liberty you believe you have?
- Churches supporting or even operating organizations, such as universities and old age homes - While I am fully convinced this is outside the authority Christ has given the church, there are brethren who for one reason or another are convinced that it is allowed to do so. But again the scriptures are clear that all the work of the church can be done without these organizations, so why not give up your perceived liberty for the sake of peace with your brethren?
- Women speaking in Bible classes that are organized by the church - While I believe there is a difference between a time set aside specifically for discussion and what 1 Corinthians 14 terms “in the church,” I have no problem restricting women from speaking in these classes when there are brethren who believe it is sinful.
One of the main causes of division is people unwilling to follow this principle, especially where you not only do what others think is sinful, but force them to either participate or leave. This is true about the introduction of instrumental music into a church, forcing brethren who believe it is sinful to worship that way to leave. It is also true of supporting organizations from the church treasury. The division that was caused by these things was from brethren refusing to follow the teaching of Christ in Romans 14 (and other places).
We can have unity while disagreeing about many things, but when brethren demand their liberty that others do not believe they have, that destroys the peace.
Disagreements where there can be no unity.
If someone disagrees about the basics of the gospel, there can be no unity with them because they have no unity with Christ.
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-10 NASB)
This makes sense also from the standpoint of growth. When someone becomes a Christian, how much do they need to know? They must understand the basics of the gospel–who Christ is and what He has done as well as what He requires of us to enter into fellowship with Him. But what must they know beyond that? There are many things they will not understand and so cannot be in agreement about, but does that mean that there is no unity? Certainly not. We all have to keep learning and growing.
If someone has a sincere desire to follow Christ, they can have unity with those who also share that sincere desire. That does not mean that they will always agree, but on important, clear issues they can be taught what Christ has said and will change because they are sincere.
Principles for dealing with disagreements
Especially within a church
Allow debate (not quarreling), but end with someone who really knows what they are talking about presenting a clear argument.
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:7 NASB)
The apostles and elders in Jerusalem already knew the answer to the question about whether Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved. They could have simply stated it and that would be the end of the issue. Instead they allowed debate so that those who disagreed would know that their arguments had been heard and addressed. God approves of good, healthy debate on issues, but He never approves quarreling. We must ensure our debates do not turn into that.
Many arguments may be persuasive, but we must make sure that our arguments come from Christ.
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument. (Colossians 2:1-4 NASB)
We can use many arguments that seem reasonable to us and others, or we can be convinced by someone else’s arguments, but we need to keep in mind that just because something sounds reasonable does not mean that it is. We need the wisdom from God, not from men, to know what God wants.
Do not allow someone to keep bringing up arguments when you see that he is divisive.
This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:8-11 NASB)
Here is where we see someone’s motives are not right. Notice that we are not to make that judgment about their motives right away. We give them a couple of warnings that what they are doing is bringing division and nothing good. We assume at first that their hearts are good but they need correction. If they continue bringing up issues to be divisive, then we can see their true motivation is not godly and we must reject them. There can be no unity with them.
We must all be patient when dealing with those who are ignorant.
But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:23-26 NASB)
Do not let speculations lead to arguments. Just make it clear that speculations are not worth discussing and move on. In this case, he is even talking about those who are held captive by the devil and need to repent! He still says to be patient.
Sometimes our intentions are misunderstood. We need to be patient in dealing with those who misunderstand us.
Read Joshua 22 for a good example of how to respond to those who misunderstand your intentions. It talks about the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh when they settled on the other side of the Jordan River from the rest of Israel. They built a large altar that could be seen from across the river. Verse 16 shows a little of the reaction of the other Israelites:
“Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘What is this unfaithful act which you have committed against the God of Israel, turning away from following the LORD this day, by building yourselves an altar, to rebel against the LORD this day?” (Joshua 22:16 NASB)
They said this after they had already gathered for war! They continued talking for a while and Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh listened patiently. Then in verse 21-23, we see how they began their response:
Then the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh answered and spoke to the heads of the families of Israel. “The Mighty One, God, the LORD, the Mighty One, God, the LORD! He knows, and may Israel itself know. If it was in rebellion, or if in an unfaithful act against the LORD do not save us this day! “If we have built us an altar to turn away from following the LORD, or if to offer a burnt offering or grain offering on it, or if to offer sacrifices of peace offerings on it, may the LORD Himself require it.” (Joshua 22:21-23 NASB)
They fully agreed with how the other Israelites reacted based on what they thought was going on, then calmly explained what their true intentions were, which everyone was happy with. We should accept that those who misunderstand us are trying to do right and calmly explain ourselves. There is no reason for misunderstanding to turn into quarreling.
So what do we see regarding disagreements among brethren over the teachings of Christ? There are some things we cannot disagree about and still have unity. There are, however, quite a lot of other teachings that we do not all have to understand at any point in time to be pleasing to God and have unity with one another. Christ has given us instructions on how to dwell in unity even when there are misunderstandings, doubts, and disagreements.
We must all work together to all agree with Christ and thereby, each other. But we can still work together in Christ when we are in disagreement on some issues because we do what we do out of a genuine effort to please God. Only with that motivation can unity be maintained. Let us keep an eye on ourselves and our motivation and keep seeking God every day.