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ss nucleus - spring 2004,  When Christians Disagree

When Christians Disagree

In my last article[1] I looked at why Christians disagree. This one examines how we should handle disagreement.

Unity and truth

In the garden of Gethsemane, before Jesus went to the cross,[2] his mind was not on the rejection and suffering he was about to face; but rather on how his disciples were going to survive after his departure. He wanted them to be 'in the world' (v13), but not 'of the world' (v14); actively involved in the world, and yet distinct from non-believers in their beliefs and lifestyle.

He prayed two things for them: that they would be united as one, and that they would be sanctified in the truth.

First is a prayer for unity. 'Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name... so that they may be one as we are one' (v11). 'May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me'(v23). The unity amongst believers mirrors the unity between Jesus and God the Father, and will draw people to the truth of the gospel message.

Second is a prayer for truth. 'Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth' (v17). Jesus was asking God the Father to make his followers holy or 'saint-like' through the truth. The truth is God's word.

Christian unity is 'unity in the truth'. Some Christians emphasise unity to the extent that they are willing to sacrifice the truth to gain it. In other words they are happy to put up with a broad diversity of belief and behaviour, provided that people stay together. The result is syncretism; where unbiblical beliefs (heresy) are accepted, welcomed or embraced, and where ungodly behaviour (sin) is tolerated, affirmed or endorsed. 'It doesn't matter what we believe so long as we love each other.' This kind of church may be 'in the world' but it is also 'of the world' and therefore no witness at all.

Other Christians emphasise truth to the extent that they are willing to sacrifice unity to preserve it. They are so committed to 'guarding the gospel' and 'keeping themselves pure' that they separate themselves from anyone whose doctrine or behaviour does not measure up to their standard. The result is schism; where people retreat to their own isolated ghettos of like-minded believers. 'You can only work with me if you accept my theology in all its detail.' This kind of church may pride itself in not being 'of the world' but neither is it 'in the world'. Rather, outsiders see the people as being judgmental, legalistic, 'holier than thou' and unapproachable.

The church that Jesus prayed for was one that was fully committed to both truth and unity. And yet it was also to be one that was characterised by diversity with respect to race, social standing, gender,[3] personality and gifting. The diversity of the church is what gives it its strength, just as the different parts of the human body help it to function as an effective whole. 'Just as each one of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.'[4]

Paul's beautiful picture of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 demonstrates this 'unity in diversity', and reminds us that every Christian needs every other to grow to full maturity. Each of us has an essential role to play and, if any one of us fails in playing our role the whole body suffers. The greatest threats to the proper functioning of Christ's body are the attitudes of pride[5] ('I don't need you') and self-pity[6] ('I do not belong'). We are all needed and we all need everyone else.

The diversity of the church Jesus prayed for had a purpose; each member was to help every other member come to maturity. 'From him the whole body... grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work'.[7] Christians are meant to be bearing one another's burdens[8] and laying down their lives for each other,[9] just as Christ himself did for us. Loving each other means always being committed to each other's good, and being willing to sacrifice ourselves for each other. When we approach disagreement with a concern for truth and unity, and for building each other up, we are already a long way to resolving our difficulties.

Holding unity and truth together requires great patience, endurance, love, grace, mercy, humility and courage, which is why most people (and most churches) prefer to sacrifice either truth or unity for the other. But each of us as Christians has a responsibility to be committed to every other Christian, not just those who think like us, or who belong to the same branch of the church. Being a truly committed member of Christ's body means that every other Christian is my brother or sister to whom I owe responsibility.

Christian disagreement

In my first article I looked at what Christians disagree about, and came up with a long list including ethical and lifestyle issues and the different approaches to baptism, the gifts of the Spirit, worship, ordination, the role of women, the Lord's supper and creation that have divided churches throughout the ages. In a group as denominationally diverse as the Christian Medical Fellowship, we see a spectrum of convictions about these issues, and also about issues at the interface of Christianity and medicine: abortion, contraception, fertility treatments, cloning, euthanasia, alternative medicine, healing and the structuring of the health service. Disagreement is part of normal 'fellowship' life.

Disagreement is to be expected when imperfect people get together. Each one of us is on a journey of faith, and none of us is perfect in what we believe and do. We are all influenced by pride, selfishness and the desire to avoid costly commitment. None of us like to be told that we are wrong, or mistaken in our beliefs, let alone sinful in our actions. We all have a natural tendency to protect and defend ourselves against attack, and to be critical or judgmental in our assessment of others. But disagreement, like all conflict in our lives, is actually an opportunity for maturity and growth. It may also be an opportunity for us to discover God's truth on a particular issue; to learn that we may be wrong and others right, or vice versa. On the issue of the Lord's supper, Paul says, 'No doubt there have to be differences amongst you to show which of you has God's approval'.[10]

Handling disagreement

The Bible gives us many key principles for handling disagreement.

Seek the truth

If we are to be united in truth, then we must first know the truth. We can know the truth, as argued in my last article, by careful study of God's word in the Bible. This is not to discount the possibility that God may speak to us also through our consciences, through wise advice from other Christians, or even through words of prophecy. But everything has to be tested ultimately against the Old and New Testament Scriptures.

I argued in the last article that there are primary issues that are non-negotiable for Christians. These include the great foundational truths that our faith is built on like the deity of Christ, his death and resurrection, salvation by grace through faith and the centrality of the cross. Anyone denying any of these core truths is simply 'plain wrong', and it is legitimate to doubt whether they are Christians at all.

But there are many other issues on which Christians, who believe in the authority of Scripture, disagree. In my last article I called them 'secondary issues'. This does not mean that they are unimportant nor even that God's word is unclear about them; simply that we should not let our different views on them divide us. All truth is important, but some truths are more important than others.

Pick your battles

All truth is important. If a secondary issue threatens to separate God's people then it is essential to debate it so that a way of moving forward together can be clearly identified. I personally believe that we should be debating secondary issues amongst ourselves and vigorously supporting our views on them from Scripture. We should not be sweeping them under the carpet. But we also need to realise that secondary issues are not central to the gospel, and it is wrong to accuse others of 'preaching another gospel'[11] when they simply differ from us on some things that are not central.

We should always approach debates of this kind with a humble attitude, equally willing to be shown that we are in the wrong. It is not unchristian to debate and argue. Jesus and the apostles did it all the time! But it is wrong to quarrel and there is a difference between the two. There is a huge difference between 'gentle instruction' and 'laying down the law': 'Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they products quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.'[12]

Paul tells us to 'avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.'[13] There are some battles that are simply not worth fighting. There are rather far more constructive ways to spend our time. As Christians mature in their faith they become far more concerned about the big issues and less concerned about minutiae. It was a characteristic of the Pharisees to spend an inordinate amount of time 'tithing herbs' whilst ignoring 'justice, mercy and faithfulness'. Jesus accused them of straining gnats and swallowing camels,[14] and I'm sure he would say the same about the petty disputes that go on between many Christians today, whilst a lost world perishes without Christ. Let's try to make sure that when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we will not be judged as having had all the wrong priorities.

There are issues we should be prepared to 'go to the stake for', and other issues that are not worth fighting for. Let's not sweat the small stuff!

Don't judge or patronise

The apostle Paul was frequently having to arbitrate between Christians who disagreed and, whilst he had his own strong convictions on most things, on secondary issues he was far more concerned to resolve interpersonal disputes than he was to 'put people right'. If he thought the gospel itself was at stake however, as in his letter to the Galatians,[15] he did not back down.

Paul laid out his principles for dealing with disagreement in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14. The arguments are similar in each passage, so I will concentrate on Romans 14.

The immediate context of the passage is that the Christians in Rome were disagreeing over eating certain kinds of food, and keeping certain kinds of days special. These were big issues for them. Paul identified two different groups of Christians, calling them the strong and the weak. In general, the weaker Christian is the one who has the more 'sensitive' conscience, while the stronger Christian has the greater freedom. The natural tendency is for 'weaker' Christians to be judgmental of those who exercise greater freedom, and for 'stronger' Christians to patronise or look down on those who are pickier. Paul gave some underlying principles and practical guidelines.

He started by affirming that Christ is our real master (v7) and that ultimately we are answerable to God, not to anyone else (v4). It is he and he alone who will eventually judge us (vv10-12). Therefore we should live with a view to pleasing God (v6). If we believe something is wrong, then it is wrong for us to do it. If others believe it is not wrong, it may be perfectly all right for them to do it, but it would still be wrong for us (vv14,23).

We should however be determined not to put obstacles in another Christian's way (v13), or to cause them distress (v15) by what we do. So at times the stronger Christian may voluntarily give up some of his or her freedom in order that the weaker Christian will not be tripped up (vv15-23).

We ought to be convinced in our own minds (v5) - not letting ourselves be shaken by what someone else does, or does not do, and should accept each other, even though we disagree (v1). We should not quarrel about these secondary issues (v1). In addition the strong must not look down on the weak (vv3,10) and the weak must not condemn the strong (vv3,10,15).

Respect authority

God raises up Christian leaders to care for his people in the same way Christ did: 'Be shepherds of God's flock... not because you must, but because you are willing... not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.'[16]

They are not infallible, but have been given wisdom to help younger Christians, and they will have to answer to God for the way they handle their responsibilities.

Respecting their authority means following their guidance, even if we sometimes feel they are being overly petty or controlling. This does not mean that we should not challenge their teaching from the Scriptures if we believe they are mistaken, but this should always be done with gentleness and respect.

'Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.'[17]

It should go without saying that if any religious leader asks us to do something contrary to the teaching of God's Word, then we should refuse.[18]

Know yourself

Every Christian is different; we have different personalities, temperaments, gifts, passions, strengths and weaknesses. And each of us brings to every human interaction the baggage of past experience, as a result of our family backgrounds and the life situations we have faced. We all have our own unique ways of responding to disappointment, criticism, threats, opportunities and conflict. Disagreement often occurs simply as a result of people different from one another clashing. Opposites do not always attract, and many disagreements, especially those where emotions become inflamed, could avoid escalating into real conflict if we were more understanding and forbearing of each other's differences.

We need first to know ourselves, and to be aware of how this influences both the things we regard as most important and also the way that we react in pressured situations. We need to appreciate and be thankful for the people we are, but also to be aware of our own failings and weaknesses. This will help us in being more understanding of those who are different from us, and more forgiving of their faults. With regard to any Christian we are having trouble getting along with, it's good to remind ourselves that, like us, they are a 'work in progress'. God has not finished perfecting them yet. And like us, they are on the way to heaven only because of the grace of God.

Have the right attitude

If we remember that God has forgiven us first of all, it will help us have the right attitude towards others. The apostle Paul urged the Ephesians to 'live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.'[19]

Our calling is to follow Jesus Christ who 'made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant'[20] and we are called to have the same attitude. 'Therefore, as God's chosen people... clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other... Forgive as the Lord forgave you.'[21]

Jesus warned that we would be judged with the same measure we use to judge others.[22] So before taking the speck from our brother's eye we should take the plank out of our own.[23] It may be that we are guilty of the very same thing as our Christian friend. But more often the plank is actually our reaction to our Christian brother's or sister's failings. We imagine that we would never fall into the same error or sin that they have, and as a result we are judgmental, dismissive or proud. If we then try to remove the 'speck' we will end up doing more damage. The Bible teaches that pride leads to quarrels[24] and comes before a fall.[25] The wrong reaction to sin in another person can be worse than the sin itself.

Be self-controlled

Part of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control,[26] and self-control should characterise Christian disagreement. It is not helpful to try and work through our disagreements when we are angry, or we may well end up saying things we regret. 'Reckless words pierce like a sword'[27] and a few seconds of thoughtless speech can destroy a relationship for years. 'The tongue is a fire',[28] and just as a small spark can set a whole forest alight; a few rash words can cause damage that may never heal. It is better never to say them than to try to patch things up afterwards.

But anger should not be kept in either. 'Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.'[29] If some disagreement we have with another person is making us boil inside then we need to deal with it or it will continue to fester and cause us to become bitter towards that person. Some people harbour bitterness for years towards others because they lack the courage and grace to deal with it. 'Never let the sun set on undrained pus', is a famous surgical axiom. And like pus anger must be dealt with, or it will either explode later, or cause damage to the one holding it in. In some circumstances it is right to be angry, especially when injustice is being done or dishonour is being brought to Christ's name by the way Christians are behaving. But it needs to be channelled into effective action - not allowed to fester or explode.

Grasp the nettle

Some Christians quote the 'don't judge' passage as an excuse for never confronting another Christian with the fact that they are doing or saying something that is wrong. But in such circumstances it is wrong to remain quiet. Jesus was very direct about it: 'If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.' The disciples' response was to say, 'Increase our faith'.[30] 'Repent' and 'forgive' are easy words to say, but they are two of the hardest things to do. Yet both are Christian obligations.

If we know that someone is doing something wrong, then we need to tell them so. Of course this needs to be done gently and humbly and in the right spirit: 'Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.'[31] A true friend is willing even to risk a friendship to restore someone from sin. The person who fails to challenge another for fear of the reaction it might bring is not acting in love: 'Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.'[32]

Seek to understand

If we disagree with something another Christian is doing or saying, it is far better to be sure of our facts first, rather than jumping to hasty conclusions. Gossip can do terrible damage to relationships and undermine trust. If we hear something disturbing about someone else, we need first to gather evidence. Rather than making accusations it is far better to go to them and ask about the truth of the rumour. If they are the victims of malicious slander it can be put right there and then. If not, and they seem not to have insight into the fact that what they are doing is wrong, then it is best again to ask them their point of view about it.

By asking questions gently we are far more likely to get the truth in a way that enables us to challenge the person in a constructive way. It may be that we are the one in the wrong rather than they. But if they are in the wrong then asking questions will also help us to understand why they have been tempted in the way that they have, and to be appropriately sympathetic. We all have weaknesses and are all susceptible to different temptations.

Follow the guidelines

Jesus himself gave us clear guidelines in Matthew's gospel about how to deal with Christian brothers or sisters who have fallen into sin.[33] We are first to go to the person ourselves and talk to them alone. If they listen and repent then we have won them over. If not we should take one or two others along so that there are more witnesses to what is said. Only after they have refused to listen to you all should the issue be given wider exposure before the church. If the person refuses to listen to the church then they are to be treated as an unbeliever. This does not mean shunning them, as is practised by some churches, but rather seeking to win them again to Christ.

These steps should be worked through gently over time giving the person every chance to respond. They may be struggling with very strong temptation, and to make a person's 'secret sin' widely known without giving them a good chance to change can do extraordinary damage, both to that person and the church. We all know the sins of our own hearts, and are grateful that most of them are known only to God and ourselves. So especially if a person has had the courage to share their private struggles with us, we need to be gentle with them, and treat them in the way we would like to be treated ourselves,[34] with patience and prayer.

Know your limits

We will not resolve all disagreements, even if we do everything possible on our part, because full reconciliation always involves the consent of two parties. And in many situations as Christians we simply have to agree to disagree. I find it comforting to know that even Paul and Barnabas, those gifted and godly apostles, 'had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company'.[35] This resulted in them taking other partners and going on different missionary journeys.

Ideally they should have resolved their disagreement, but they did not, and in fact God, in his grace, used it to get another missionary team on the road, ensuring that more people heard the gospel. God's purposes are not thwarted by our petty disagreements and mistakes, but he works through all things for good.[36] Much later Paul and Barnabas were reconciled to each other, but it could not be done at the time of the disagreement.

We may find also that we need to wait for a better opportunity, or God's good time, particularly if people are still bearing wounds. Paul advised the Romans to do what they could personally to resolve differences, but also to recognise that that might not be enough: 'If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.'[37]


Disagreement between Christians is normal. The New Testament is full of it and as Christ's followers we should actually expect it. Dealing with our disagreements requires maturity and skill. We will all make many mistakes because none of us is perfect and God has much work still to do with all of us. But when Christians work out their disagreements in a godly way, it is a wonderful testimony to the truth of the gospel, and as a result many more people will be drawn to Jesus Christ.

  1. Saunders P. Why Christians Disagree. Nucleus 2003; April:21-29
  2. Jn 17:6-26
  3. Gal 3:28
  4. Rom 12:4-6
  5. 1 Cor 12:21
  6. 1 Cor 12:15
  7. Eph 4:16
  8. Gal 6:2
  9. Jn 10:11
  10. 1 Cor 11:19
  11. Gal 1:8-10
  12. 2 Tim 2:23-25
  13. Tit 3:9
  14. Mt 22:23,24
  15. Gal 2:11-21
  16. 1 Pet 5:2,3
  17. Heb 13:17
  18. Acts 5:29
  19. Eph 4:1-3
  20. Phil 2:7
  21. Col 3:12,13
  22. Mt 7:1,2
  23. Mt 7:3-5
  24. Pr 13:10
  25. Pr 16:18
  26. Gal 5:22,23
  27. Pr 12:18
  28. Jas 3:6
  29. Eph 4:26
  30. Lk 17:3-5
  31. Gal 6:1
  32. Pr 27:5,6
  33. Mt 18:15-17
  34. Mt 7:12
  35. Acts 15:39
  36. Rom 8:28
  37. Rom 12:18
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