Nitpickerus: We seem to have reached an impasse Dionysius. We have two Christians who accept the Bible's authority; and have made every effort (at least so they claim) to interpret it correctly. They have been careful to seek out the original meaning of the text and to consider it in its proper context; and yet they still disagree about how they should act in a given situation. Moreover both claim to have been guided by the Holy Spirit. Who ultimately decides which one is right?
Dionysius: Have you considered the possibility that they may both be right?
Nitpickerus: But isn't God's truth absolute and unchanging?
Dionysius: It is; but we are not clones. God can say different things to different people in different situations. We have different gifts, roles, temperaments, personalities, priorities, responsibilities, relationships... Furthermore there are specific times and seasons for doing one thing and not doing another. God has a plan for each of his people, and each plan is different. Christ was flexible in his own life; there was a time to pray, to heal and to preach; there was time to spend with the crowds, with his disciples and alone with God; there was even a time to die.
Nitpickerus: Yes, but you'd agree that he didn't use his flexibility as a licence to do anything at all. There were also boundaries he didn't cross. He knew how God's commands applied to each situation in his own life.
Specific and general commands
Dionysius: He did. He upheld the law of God, but he also dealt with people where they were. He had a different approach to everyone depending on where they were at. Not everyone was told 'Sell everything you have', or 'Come down immediately' or 'Return home'. Of course, all his commands amounted to the same thing:'Follow me'. But there were specific implications for each person. Guidance was individual as well as general. In the same way God guides us individually today, and we should seek his guidance.
Nitpickerus: So we need to ask what God may be saying to us specifically in any situation?
Dionysius: Yes. Otherwise we can fall into the trap of obeying him in all the ways that are convenient for us; while not really putting him first in our hearts. This was the Rich Young Ruler's problem. He obeyed God selectively, and in so doing didn't obey him at all.
Nitpckerus: Isn't there a danger of relativism here. Might not we say that murder or adultery or theft could be right for us in certain situations?
Dionysius: We could, but we would be wrong. God's specific guidance to one person will never contradict his general commands in Scripture. If it does then we need to ask who it is that's really talking to us. The Devil, or our own evil desires can mislead us. Sometimes God will allow this to happen in order to test the genuineness of our faith. We need to be constantly alert.
Nitpickerus: So God can give different people different orders?
Dionysius: Of course, but only within the limits we've discussed. This is one reason why it is pointless to spend time in endless debate over the minutiae of the law. This can be a symptom of a loss of love for God: obeying the letter of God's commands while ignoring their spirit. Jesus didn't do this. He was too busy getting on with the task in hand. Controversy merely for the sake of it is a waste of time. It can distract us from what's really important. We should avoid it along with those who indulge in it.
Balancing unity and truth
Nitpickerus: So we're not supposed to spend long hours sorting out each others particular heresies?
Dionysius: Generally no. Of course there is false teaching and blatant sin. We are obliged to challenge those. It's our Christian duty. But there are also 'disputable matters', issues over which Christians disagree that are best left alone. If we look down on one another, or condemn one another, we can end up destroying the love and unity which are essential for witness. Peace and mutual edification are far more noble aims.
Nitpickerus: But what if the price of unity is compromise? Shouldn't we be committed to both truth and unity? The apostles were.
Dionysius: They were and so should we be. I'm not saying that we should ever do what we believe to be wrong; but equally we shouldn't do things which distress or tempt others in the body of Christ, even if we personally see nothing wrong with them. That's not compromise. That's being 'all things to all men' for the sake of the gospel.You know how angry Paul got over the circumcision issue. He accused the Galatians of preaching another gospel when they forced people to be circumcised. Yet that same Paul chose to circumcise Timothy, so as not to create unnecessary division among believers, and to promote the gospel.
Nitpickerus: Surely you're not saying that Christians shoudn't ever disagree with each other?
Who ultimately decides?
Dionysius: Not at all. But it's possible to rebuke and restore one another without judging one another. We have to be so careful that we do not have a log in our own eye. That's not to encourage an independent arrogance, a 'no-one can teach me' attitude. Even a clear conscience doesn't mean innocence. But we need to be constantly examining ourselves, being aware of how easily we can be lead into error and sin. Ultimately it is God who judges us. We are his servants.
Nitpickerus: Is this then the answer to our original question about who decides between disagreeing Christians?
Dionysius: Yes! God does. Error which leads to sin may not be obvious at all at first; but sooner or later, in the course of history, or on the day of judgement, it will be seen for what it is. God will make his judgement, and there will be no further discussion. On that day we'll all be called to account. If we keep that in the front of our minds, we'll make every effort to live holy and godly lives now.
Nitpickerus: Let's get back to seeing how to be holy and godly in medicine. How can a Bible written 2,000 years ago speak to the ethical situations we face in the late 20th century?
Dionysius: Nitpickerus, I believe that's a good discussion for the next issue of Nucleus.