My father was a Congregationalist and my mother Anglican and after leaving home my brother joined the Baptists and I the Open Brethren. I married my Presbyterian wife in a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and during housejobs we were members of an Apostolic Pentecostal fellowship. Later we went to a house church made up of mainly first generation converts from the 70s hippie movement. After joining the Africa Inland Mission in Kenya as medical missionaries we spent two years at a multinational Bible college with 170 students from 40 countries and twice as many denominations. Now we are Free Evangelical.
Living in twelve different houses in five cities in three countries in your first ten years of marriage provides an interesting perspective on church culture; but one thing it has taught me is that Christians disagree. In this article, the first of two, I will focus on the major reasons why Christians disagree over doctrine and practice (what they should believe and how they should behave). In the second I will focus on how we can best resolve these disagreements.
Belief, behaviour, association
What makes a Christian? Is it about belief, behaviour, association or something else? It is clearly important to believe certain things about Jesus Christ, but belief is not enough. After all even the demons believe - and shudder. Also being a Christian does not guarantee that all our beliefs are correct; which is why the apostle Paul had to write so many letters to churches who had it wrong! Being a Christian involves repentance (change in behaviour) but there are people with good behaviour who are not Christians and people with bad (albeit improving) behaviour who are. And whilst Christians should associate with other Christians, going to church does not make a person a Christian. Belief, behaviour and association are important; but it is actually regeneration that makes a person a Christian: that is Christians are people who have been 'born from above', become a 'new creation' and have the Holy Spirit living in them.
Disagreement amongst Christians is normal
No Christian is perfect in either doctrine or practice, and disagreement is an inevitable consequence of imperfect people having to live and work together. We should not be surprised about it, but rather expect it. Our own doctrine and practice may be strongly influenced by selfish desires, pride or other temptations and sins to which we have surrendered. If a person adamantly sticks to a wrong position despite being shown the error of their ways, there will usually be a personal reason for it. This is why it is so important that disagreement is handled with patience, love and care. Often we are unable to see where we are wrong on an issue because of sin in our own lives or because changing our opinion or actions may be very costly for us. Even leading Christians disagree. Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott disagreed over whether evangelicals should leave the Church of England. Luther and Calvin disagreed on a variety of issues. Even the apostles Peter and Paul had a major argument over circumcision, and Paul and Barnabas had such a sharp disagreement about Mark that they had to part company and work independently. And it was not just the men. In the church of Philippi two women called Syntyche and Euodia had such a disruptive disagreement that Paul had to single them out for rebuke. The Epistles are all about disagreement between Christians. So disagreement is a normal part of church, marriage and family life and we should not be surprised or upset when it happens. Some people try to escape disagreement by trying to live their lives closeted with other Christians who think the same; but, as well as being doomed to failure, this is also failing to acknowledge the diversity of Christ's body the church, and the importance of love and unity.
What do Christians disagree about?
There are some Christian beliefs so fundamental to the faith that it is quite reasonable to assume that a person who doesn't hold them is not a Christian at all: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ; Jesus' death for our sins (the atonement); the last judgment and salvation through faith. These are 'primary issues', but there are also 'secondary issues' on which genuine Christians might disagree:
Baptism: Do you believe in infant baptism or believers' baptism or both? Should you be sprinkled, dowsed or immersed? And should the venue be a lake, river, the sea, or a specially designed and heated sterile bath under some floorboards in the church hall?
Charismata (gifts of the Spirit): Are they for the first century or all centuries, or have they just been restored to the church in the 'last days'? Are they all for everybody, or just for some?
Eschatology (theology of the 'end times'): Do you believe in the rapture, and if so do you think that it will come before, during or after the tribulation, if you believe in that? What about the millennium? Are you pre-mill (dispensational or not), post-mill or a-mill, or perhaps pan-mill (ie it will all 'pan out' in the end)? Or are you just confused?
Creation: Are you a six day creationist, a special creationist or a theistic evolutionist? An old-earther or young-earther?
Worship: Are you more at home with 'happy-clappy' or 'smells and bells'? Do you prefer hymns from a book, or choruses from an OHP, pews or chairs, dancing or quiet? Is it to be the organ, or electric bass and drums?
Ecclesiology (theology of the church): What do you think about synods, councils and bishops? Should women be ordained? Should men? Should there be a clergy at all?
These issues have split churches and created the myriad of denominations we have today. And we haven't yet mentioned the Lord's supper, the role of women, Old Testament prophecy, sanctification, predestination, the relation between church and state and the theology of mission.
Then there are ethical issues. Take sex: how far is too far for unmarried couples? Should Christians ever break the law? Is it wrong to lend money at interest? And at the interface of Christianity and medicine there are a huge number of issues about which there is no full consensus, even amongst Christian doctors. Some are regularly covered in this journal: abortion, contraception, fertility treatments, therapeutic cloning, euthanasia, withdrawal of treatment, alternative medicine, healing. As CMF General Secretary I regularly receive letters from concerned members taking issue with views expressed in CMF literature; and often from both sides on a particular issue. One of the great strengths of CMF is that we are an interdenominational organisation; but this means that we do not agree on everything.
Why do Christians disagree?
Christians are 'disciples of Jesus Christ'. In submitting to him as our Saviour and Lord we accept his authority and seek to know, love and obey him. All Christians should accept this; but the disagreement begins when we ask the question, 'what does Christ require us to believe and do?' How are we to know what he requires of us?
1. Disagreement about the authority of the Bible
Many would point first to the Bible, but some Christians have doubts about its authority. Why should we believe it?
The apostles and early leaders of the church diligently recorded Jesus' teaching for us in the pages of the New Testament. We can be confident that what they recorded was what Christ said, not only because they were eyewitnesses of all that he said and did but more importantly because he personally commissioned them and gave them the Holy Spirit and the authority to teach in his name. So to doubt what they recorded is to doubt the very words of Christ himself. The fact that what is recorded in the New Testament is the testimony of eyewitnesses means that we can be confident that there were not errors of a 'Chinese whisper' type that have crept into the text. Nor can there be errors of written transmission, which alter the meaning of what they wrote, because we have copies of parts of the New Testament that date from the lifetime of those who knew the apostles personally, and can see that it has been faithfully transmitted.
So we have not only the apostles' testimony themselves that what they wrote were the words of Christ, but also Christ's own testimony that his Holy Spirit would 'teach [them] all things', 'remind [them] of everything [he] said', 'take from what is [his] and make it known to [them]' and 'guide [them] into all truth'. Furthermore we can have the same confidence about the authority of the Old Testament because Jesus believed and taught that it was equally the word of God. He treated its historical narratives as straightforward records of fact. Interestingly the stories that are the least acceptable to the 'modern mind' are the very ones he seemed most fond of choosing for his illustrations (eg Abel, Noah, Jonah). He repeatedly quoted it as the final court of appeal in debates, not only with his earthly opponents but with the Devil himself. He believed its prophecies were fulfilled in him and used them as proof of his claims to be the Messiah. He also obeyed its ethical teaching. So it follows that part of holding to Jesus' teaching and imitating him must involve having the same respect for the Old Testament that he did.
Jesus put his stamp of approval on the Old Testament as God's inspired word and commissioned the writing of the New Testament. In view of Jesus' own attitude is it then possible for a Christian who is aware of this not to accept the Bible's authority? If Jesus himself has underlined the authority of the Bible, can we claim to be those who live under his authority (because this is what having him as Lord means) and not have the same attitude to it? A logical corollary of being Christians will surely be that we will share Jesus' own high regard for the Scriptures. We will want regularly to hear, read, study and meditate on what God has revealed in the Old and New Testaments so that our thoughts and actions will be increasingly in line with those of Jesus himself. Some people argue that Jesus only pretended to accept the Bible in order to provide a bridge for communicating with first century Jews; but this calls his integrity into question in quoting the Old Testament as the final authority and we know that he also had no hesitation in challenging his contemporaries' other wrong ideas. Others say that Jesus simply shared the ignorance of the people of his time in accepting the Old Testament because he knew no better, but this calls his divinity into question. When Jesus didn't know something (because the Father had not yet revealed it to him), he knew that he didn't know.
There are very stern warnings in the Bible about adding to or subtracting from what God has already revealed. But it is also clear that the Bible does not tell us everything - there are things that God has revealed and there are things that he has chosen not to reveal. As Christians we must diligently seek to know what lies in each category - and then be dogmatic about what the Bible says and agnostic about what it doesn't say. This requires great wisdom and maturity. If we let the revealed encroach upon the secret we add to Scripture and risk schism, cutting ourselves off from other Christians because we claim certainty about things that in fact the Bible does not teach. If we let the secret encroach on the revealed then we subtract from Scripture and risk syncretism - compromise with the world. Either way we hinder the work of the gospel, which according to Christ is dependent both on the unity of true believers and the preservation of truth.
2. Disagreement amongst Bible-believing Christians
As I have argued above, some disagreement amongst Christians is because of disagreement over the authority of the Bible. But Christians also disagree for three main reasons.
First, not all people who accept the authority of the Bible have necessarily studied it sufficiently hard enough to know what it says. Second, some believe that Jesus Christ exercises his authority and rule in ways other than through the Bible - for example through the teaching of the church, through reason and conscience or through contemporary revelation. Third, Christians claim to interpret the Bible in different ways.
a. Knowing what the Bible says
The Bible is of course not one book but a collection of 66, written by 40 different authors in three languages over a period of 1,400 years. It consists of historical narrative, law, poetry and proverbs, as well as prophetic and apocalyptic literature. It takes over 50 hours to read through, let alone study. There may well be things about which we are ignorant simply because we are not properly familiar with what God's Word says, and this will lead to disagreement between Christians. This should really encourage us to ensure that we read, listen to, study, meditate on and even memorise the Bible so that it really informs all our thoughts, beliefs, decisions and actions. No Christian should stay ignorant for long.
b. Christian authorities outside the Bible
Some Christians believe that Christ may speak to us in ways other than through the written Word that has faithfully been passed down to us. There is good support for this belief in Scripture itself but also much that should lead us to exercise caution. Everything must be carefully tested against the Bible and anything inconsistent rejected. The three main extra-biblical categories through which God may speak are church teaching, conscience and contemporary prophecy. Each of these deserves consideration.
i) Church teaching: In this category I am including everything from church creeds and councils, ecclesiastical authorities and great Christian teachers throughout history to respected contemporary church leaders and Christian friends. Now there is no doubt that God can speak to us through the writings and words of all of these but it does not follow that this teaching is infallible. The Bible tells us that even prophets and apostles can be led astray at times, so we should take warning about our own susceptibility to error and be continually on our guard about teaching that comes from any lesser authority than the Bible itself.
Helpful as the writings and words of great Christian teachers are, our study of them must never take precedence over our study of the Bible itself. All human beings are fallible and can be misled and deceived. The apostle Paul was humble enough to recognise his own vulnerability and the possibility that he was not immune from being led astray: 'Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!' (emphasis my own). It follows that we should carefully weigh all we hear, even from those we most respect within the church, having the attitude of the Bereans who when they heard the teaching of the apostle Paul 'examined the Scriptures every day' to see if it was true. All church teaching should drive us back to the Bible knowing that if any Christian teacher and the Bible ever disagree, then the teacher is wrong and the Bible right.
ii) Reason and conscience: God expects childlike faith and obedience from us but he also expects us to use our minds in applying his Word to the specific decisions we make. Reason and conscience are God-given gifts he expects us to use. But problems arise when we trust our own judgment or insight over and above God's revelation. Reason may be a gift of God but it is not infallible if it starts from unbiblical premises or disregards logical principles. Conscience, like reason, is a God-given faculty through which God can guide us but we need to ensure that our consciences are being continually shaped and moulded by exposure to God's Word. Christians who claim to 'have a peace' about a certain course of action may simply have consciences that are uneducated through lack of exposure to God's Word or blunted through habitual disobedience. Similarly those who 'feel convicted' may actually have oversensitive consciences that are more informed by human authority than God's Word. So whilst we should use reason and take notice of conscience, both have their limitations and must always be tested against the Bible. If not given their proper place, both can lead people astray.
iii) Contemporary revelation: Christians disagree about the contemporary function of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. At one extreme are those who hold a 'cessationist' view that the use of certain gifts such as prophecy ceased in New Testament times. At the other extreme are those who have jettisoned the Bible and rely entirely on 'prophetic words and pictures' for guidance. The first group despise all prophecy, the second group capitulate uncritically to everything claiming to be 'from the Lord'.
The Bible tells us that in addition to the apostles there were 'prophets' in New Testament times and gives us no reason to believe that this ministry should not operate today. There are detailed instructions about both the functioning of prophetic gifts within the church and also about the discernment of true and false prophecy. God clearly did speak to his people directly, to warn them, to encourage them and to direct them specifically. However Jesus and the apostles also warned repeatedly about the dangers of false prophecy and throughout the whole of Scripture we are given principles for assessing it: prophets who make false predictions are not speaking God's word, but neither are those whose true predictions are accompanied by false teaching. True prophecy exalts Christ, edifies the church, is consistent with existing Scripture and is accompanied by a godly life and a teachable spirit - for even those who have been used by God as his mouthpiece may be misled. What the speaker sincerely believes to be a prophetic word may in fact have its origin in his imagination or worse still, in some ungodly source. This is why it is so important that all 'words from the Lord' be carefully weighed and tested.
The same principles apply in assessing other 'supernatural phenomena'. Whereas God clearly did speak at times through dreams, visions and visitations during the New Testament era (and can do so equally today), all such manifestations need to be 'tested' using the above criteria. They may have their origin in human imagination or psychology, or even worse, may involve demonic spirits. As the apostle Paul warns, even the Devil can masquerade as an angel of light. Even if an angel preaches us a different gospel, we are not to believe it. We need to be particularly wary of 'visitations' from people who have died as Scripture clearly forbids communication with the dead. The appearance of Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration was unique, as God 'took' the bodies of both at the end of their earthly lives. In all these matters we should exercise caution and seek the confirmation of others with gifts of prophecy and discernment, wiser Christians, and most importantly the words of Jesus and the apostles in the Bible. Any 'word' that is inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible cannot be from God and must be firmly rejected. Similarly any Christian who claims 'the Lord told me' something contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible is simply wrong, regardless of the depth of their conviction.
c. Different interpretations of the Bible
The Bible was written in a cultural setting quite foreign to us and long before the modern era. Applying it to contemporary situations is no easy task; but there are principles we can apply that will help us to avoid distorting its meaning. We first need to ask what a particular text meant in its original historical context and often commentaries that can give us insight into the cultural background and meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew words can be very helpful. An in-depth review of principles of Bible interpretation is beyond the scope of this article but the following key points are useful and are explained in more depth elsewhere:
- The Bible is authoritative 'as originally given'; so we need to ensure we have an accurate translation from a faithfully transmitted text.
- The Bible is authoritative in all that it affirms as right; not everything good Bible characters did is good for us to do.
- The Bible is sufficient but not exhaustive; it tells us what we need to know but not necessarily what we want to know.
- Bible truth is objective, not subjective; it doesn't mean one thing for me and another for you.
- The Bible needs to be understood in its historical context; not all commands given for any time are for all time.
Christians will not always agree, at least not in this life, but at the very least being a Christian involves having Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and from this flows belief in the Bible as God's word. Bible-believing Christians may disagree on issues of both belief and behaviour (doctrine and practice); but in working out our differences we need to realise that the Bible always takes precedence over tradition, conscience and extra-biblical revelation, and that we need to work hard at both knowing it and interpreting it correctly. Having our deeply-held convictions challenged and changed by interaction with God's truth may at times be very painful. But it is also a very necessary part of growing into maturity in Christ. Therefore it is essential that we come to the Scriptures, and to each other, with a readiness to be convicted and reshaped to be more like Jesus Christ, so that we can live in a way that brings glory to God and a powerful witness, through our love and unity, to the world.