Godly Disagreement – A Biblical Case Study
There will inevitably be disagreements among us, even about how to live a godly life. There are two challenges for us in dealing with disagreement. The first is to discern how important the issue is. The second is to know how to conduct ourselves. There is plenty of guidance for us in the Scriptures but we can’t find much better than Romans 14:1- 15:7.
THE EXCELLENT IDEAL OF UNITY
The apostle Paul exhorts us to be of one mind, perfectly joined together:
It is a wonderful ideal, captured poetically by King David, a man after God’s own heart.
Perhaps in writing this, David reflected on his own experience of fellowship and love with his best friend, Jonathan. How blessed we are when we experience such unity; we fervently hope that each of us has a Jonathan in our life. Beyond that, it is also hoped that such a spirit can characterize our ecclesial lives.
It is a delightful and attainable ideal— that is, if we have a clear view of what it means to be “of one mind, perfectly joined together.” Some would argue that unity means absolute conformity of thought, in every detail. Bro. Robert Roberts recounts being
“called upon by a man in dead earnest who contended there were no such things as ‘first principles,’ and that every detail of truth, down even to the date of the expiry of the Papal 1260, should be insisted on as a condition of fellowship,” a view that Bro. Roberts described as an “outrageous extravagance.”¹
Being of one mind does not and cannot mean agreeing on everything.
Being of one mind does not and cannot mean agreeing on everything. On the surface, the proverb about “iron sharpening iron” (Prov 27:17) has at its heart the image of friction and sparks flying. Nevertheless, the proverb is about friends who desire mutual edification and growth. It is iron sharpening iron, that is, equal partners improving each other. The proverb isn’t about a whetstone sharpening iron and generating uncontrollable heat, strife and friction to the detriment of a healthy relationship.
There will inevitably be disagreements among us, even about how to live a godly life. There are two challenges for us in dealing with disagreement. The first is to discern how important the issue is. Scripture tells us to have no fellowship with darkness, and we must be able to discern whether a wrong view of the issue at hand constitutes being in darkness in the Scriptural sense. If it does, we must take a stand (2 Cor 6:14; Eph 5:11).²
On the other hand, it is intriguing and instructive to hear Paul’s warning to Timothy to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” (2 Tim 2:23). Some issues matter and others don’t, and Paul expected Timothy to know the difference.
Some issues matter and others don’t
The shame is that needless strife results from disagreement about things that don’t matter, simply because we refuse to acknowledge they don’t matter. Folks will jump through all sorts of hoops, turning intellectual back springs and somersaults to insist that the right view of an issue (their view) MATTERS. I can’t recall someone saying: “This is a foolish and unimportant topic, but let’s fight over it anyway.”
But there are gray areas or topics where it might be genuinely unclear how strongly we should insist on a right understanding. Here is where the second challenge arises: we must know how to conduct ourselves in disagreement. This is the topic of the present article. There is plenty of guidance for us in the Scriptures, in general terms, but we can’t find much better than Romans 14:1- 15:7 for instruction about handling disagreement.
A CASE STUDY IN UNITY
Romans 14:1-15:7 is a case study in how to think, and how to conduct ourselves when disagreements challenge the brotherhood. Paul mentions two issues of controversy: one having to do with dietary restrictions arising from conscience (14:2-3) and one having to do with the observance of Jewish holy days (14:5-6).
For most of us, these two issues are far enough away from our personal experience that we can approach them dispassionately; we could likely argue either side of each issue.
We could imagine ourselves as former idolaters that had turned away from the hedonism of cultic worship. Then we would think with horror of the evil associations of eating meat offered to idols and shudder at the atrocities of that past way of life. It would all seem pretty obvious to us! We’d want nothing to do with meat offered to idols and would cite Paul’s warning to “abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thess 5:22 ESV).³ We might look down our nose at those that couldn’t see something so obvious.
On the other hand, we could imagine ourselves arguing that “an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no God but one.” (1 Cor 8:4 NKJV). This view would be especially appealing if we had never worshipped idols. Why should we impose unnecessary constraints on ourselves? It would all seem pretty obvious to us! We would argue rationally and conclude with Paul that every food “is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Tim 4:4-6 NKJV). We might look down our nose at those that couldn’t see something so obvious.
What is the correct perspective on these issues? What is the solution to the controversy?
Paul’s response might surprise us. First, he says “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom 14:5). It was essential that brothers and sisters had the matter well thought out in their minds. Indifference was not the solution. Nor was a hasty taking of sides driven by or based on personalities.4 The Apostle Paul reminds us that the primary outcome is to present ourselves as
Our Lord teaches us to love the Father with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. So, the believers were to think through the issues carefully, and to be fully convinced in their own minds. Paul says that he himself had firm convictions on these matters: “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus.” (v. 14).
If we have all carefully, prayerfully, and Scripturally reasoned through things, we will all reach the same conclusion, right? No, apparently not! Paul anticipated that there would be contradictory conclusions:
Brothers and sisters fully convinced in their own minds might reach different conclusions. But what mattered was that their convictions were acted on “to the Lord,” in his service. Let him who “observed the day” do so to the Lord; for the one that refrained, let his non-observance be “to the Lord.”
So also, with regard to dietary scruples: let him who eats, eat to the Lord, giving God thanks; and let him who does not eat, refrain for the sake of the Lord, and give God thanks. Paul himself was convinced that there was nothing wrong in itself of eating meat offered to idols:
It wasn’t merely personal conviction; it was conviction received from the Lord Jesus himself. But the matter did not stop there with an assertion of intellectual rectitude and personal rights. It goes further.
BEING FULLY CONVINCED— WHAT NEXT?
Despite his absolute conviction that there was no defilement in eating meats offered to idols, Paul wouldn’t eat, if in so doing he might cause his brother to stumble. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.
While Paul would not condone those who went about imposing blanket prohibitions on foods (1Tim 4:1-3), neither would he take the risk that his liberty would compromise another’s faith. Leviticus 19:14 says
This commandment comes as the law reaches its most sublime instruction about godly treatment of others: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 18 NKJV).
Just as Paul wouldn’t put a stumbling block in the path of a literally blind man, neither would he risk putting a stumbling block before the man blinded by his scruples.6 Paul would deal with him in love. He would sacrifice his own rights for him, dealing with him in the spirit of Christ, treasuring him as “one for whom Christ died.”7
STRONG AND WEAK
Paul refers to the brethren with unnecessary scruples as “the weak” (14:1-2). I would bet they thought of themselves as “the strong,” and of those that disagreed with them as “the weak.” The grating sanctimony of some that would paint themselves as “the strong” because of their unnecessary legalistic scruples may antagonize us and lead us to misbehave.
Perhaps we should step back and reconsider, mercifully and sympathetically, whether that “strong brother” is in fact, weak; to “receive him” and avoid “disputes over doubtful things.” (14:1). Regarding those “weak” brethren, Paul says,
Notice the verb “please” in there, three times. There’s no getting around what it means: it is perfectly translated “please,” and consistently so among all but the most interpretive modern translations. It is the word used repeatedly in passages about our duty to please God (among others, Rom 8:8 and 1 Thess 4:1).
It is the word used of a soldier’s responsibility to his commander (2 Tim 2:4), and of a married man to his wife (1 Cor 7:33).
Our goal in dealing with our brethren should be pleasantness “for his good, leading to edification.” That spirit and godly principle should govern our conduct in disagreement.
What conclusions can we draw from this case study? Let each be convinced. Solomon said, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him.” (Prov 18:13).
Integrity calls on us to gather and carefully weigh facts and to prayerfully compare Scripture with Scripture. It won’t do to take positions based on traditions, the opinions of others or personal prejudices. There is an adage which implores people to “first seek to understand before you are understood.” Even Jesus told his opponents, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51 ESV).
It is possible for reasoned thinking to lead to distinct conclusions. We can disagree and still be of one mind. In such cases, our attitude ought to be one of tolerance and patience, self-sacrifice with the goal of edification. We ought to do our best to understand and applaud whatever good principles are embraced by those with whom we disagree.
We began with Paul’s exhortation that we all speak the same thing, that there be no divisions among us, that we be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. Clearly this cannot mean that we are in 100% agreement on every topic, or that there are no gray areas where the strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak. Rather, unity of mind means having the mind of Christ.
Such are Paul’s thoughts as in Romans 15:5-7. He concludes his instruction on handling disagreement. His lovely benediction hearkens back to 14:1,3 about “receiving” our brethren and being “received” by God:
1 Bro. Robert Roberts, True Principles and Uncertain Details, or The Danger of Going Too Far in Our Demands on Fellow-Believers. May 1898 issue of The Christadelphian Magazine
2 Note that each of these is directly linked to behavior, rather than opinion.
3 In the KJV, 1Thessalonians 5:22 says “abstain from every appearance of evil” – not just evil things, in various forms, but even things that “appear” evil. Most modern versions, substitute “kind” for appearance, some arguing that worrying about appearances falls into the category of “doing our works to be seen of men.” Nonetheless, the KJV reading cannot be lightly dismissed. Cambridge Bible Commentary says, “It is difficult, however, for the Greek scholar to justify the reading of evil in this sentence as a substantive, and the rendering of the governing noun by kind instead of appearance (rendered form, fashion, shape, in Luke 3:22; 9:29 and John 5:37).”
4 1 Corinthians 1:12-13; 3:4-6. In these passages, Paul argues against the tendency for believers to follow respected leaders, quoting some as saying “I am of Paul” and others “I am of Apollos.” Reading on to 4:6, it appears that the parties weren’t followers of Paul and Apollos themselves; Paul has substituted his name and that of Apollos to illustrate the folly of such partisanship, while delicately refraining from naming names.
5 Some modern versions render “reasonable” (Gk. logikos) as “spiritual.” Strong arguments can be presented in favor of the KJV translation. But even if “spiritual” is correct, Paul urges this sacrifice saying “I beseech thee therefore…” Self-sacrifice is encouraged as a reasoned consequence of the preceding doctrinal arguments.
6 Romans 14:13. The Greek for “cause to fall” (NKJV) is the same word as “stumbling block” in the Septuagint (LXX) of Leviticus 19:14.
7 1 Corinthians 8 is familiar as dealing with the issue of meat offered to idols. It is noteworthy that 1 Corinthians 10:27-33 concludes with comments on the same topic, suggesting that the intervening arguments be read as relevant to the topic. Thus, Paul’s decisions to support himself financially, and to remain unmarried are examples of “rights” (sw 8:9; 9:4,5,6,12,18) foregone for love of the brethren.