Free to Disagree – Part 1

Posted: November 30, 2010 in christianity, church, theology

Truth Does Exist…

The New Testament is not “soft” in regard to standing for the truth.  The importance of truth perhaps begins with Jesus’s foundational declaration in John 14:6 that he alone is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father except by me,” but that is certainly not where it ends.  God’s people, all throughout Scripture, are encouraged to contend for the truth.  Right thinking is crucial.  Sound doctrine is necessary.  And no New Testament writer was more clear on this subject than the Apostle Paul.

The truth of the gospel was central to Paul’s thinking and life.  In 1Timothy 1:3-4, Paul urges Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.”  Later, in 6:2-5, he exhorts Timothy to “teach and urge…the sound (healthy) words of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and then in v. 20 to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”  Again, in 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul exhorts Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heart from me” and to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”  He warns Timothy in 4:3-4 that there will be a time when people “will not endure sound teaching,” but will rather “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”  In Titus 2:1, Paul instructs Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine.”  In Galatians 1:6-10, he says that anyone who preaches a false gospel should be “accursed.” Paul is not slow in encouraging his readers to teach, charge, avoid, correct, reprove, rebuke, and exhort those who advocate false doctrine.

…But We Are Still Free to Disagree

Clearly, Christians who believe that Bible is the Word of God have an obligation to contend for true and healthy doctrine.  However, we must also consider the fact that the Bible does not give us exhaustive answers to all of the questions that we may have about God, mankind, salvation, the end times, etc.  In his wisdom, God has not revealed everything to us.  There are some issues that are clearly revealed in the Scriptures, but there are some that God has left more vague.

Despite this fact, we sometimes pose questions to the Scriptures that the biblical writers were not trying to answer.  The task of the faithful interpreter is to seek out the author’s intended meaning, which entails ensuring that we are asking the right questions of the text.  We all have seen the wild interpretations and skewed applications that people can make from a certain passage when they have no consideration for authorial intent.

When these two issues are considered together – that the New Testament encourages Christians the defend the truth, but that Scripture does not answer every question we might bring to it – we are left with a certain tension that we must learn to navigate.  We must discover what is more clear and what is less clear.  We are left with the difficult task of separating the essentials from the non-essentials in regard to right doctrine.

Even Paul seems to acknowledge this point.  In Romans 14, he allows for Christians who think differently about the theological issue regarding the cleanliness of all food.  His purpose in writing is not to call for completely unanimous thinking, but to ensure unity in love between believers.  Paul writes,

“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. … Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” – (Romans 14:1-5, 13-14 )

Paul addresses a similar issue in 1 Corinthians 8.  We should understand that this is a theological issue.  Paul clearly states that “nothing is unclean in itself.”  However, his primary concern is not that everyone share this understanding, but rather that the Christians in Rome act lovingly toward one another despite their disagreements.  So it seems that there are some theological issues that are not worth fighting about and separating over (though, I don’t think this precludes loving discussion/debate).  With the Bible as our guide, we must discern when it is permissable to “agree to disagree” and when it is not.  As the old saying (often attributed to Augustine) goes, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Mark Driscoll agrees, using the terminology of “closed-hand issues” vs. “open-hand issues.”  In Vintage Church he writes,

“Every church must clarify what it considers to be primary, closed-hand doctrines, which require agreement among Christians in the church, and secondary, open-hand doctrines, which permit a range of beliefs providing they fall within a spectrum of evangelical orthodoxy and are held with a humble and teachable spirit.” (p.138)

Phil Johnson, from John MacArthur’s ministry Grace to Youwrites,

“When differences on secondary issues are magnified and used to promote strife and hostility between brothers and sisters in Christ, that is sectarianism. It’s the very attitude Paul condemned in Corinth when some of the believers there were dividing in groups loyal to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, and refusing fellowship to members of the competing groups. Such sectarianism is certainly sinfully divisive… There is room for brethren to disagree within the bonds of unity, and sometimes those disagreements can be sharp (cf. Acts 15:36-39). In fact, it is unlikely that there are any two Christians anywhere who will agree completely on the meaning of every passage of Scripture. Unity does not mean that we must agree up front on every point of truth.”

John Piper also comments on this issue in an article about unanimity in the church and his answer to the question, “Which grieves you more: bad theology or division in the church?”

In Part 2, I hope to look at one such issue, an issue that I believe is relatively vague in the Bible and “non-essential” in terms of the importance of uniform thinking concerning it.  However, it is an issue that has historically been a cause for division among believers, often to the detriment of love and unity among God’s people.

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