Is unity possible within the Body of Christ? Can there be unity without uniformity of belief? Are we able to enjoy fellowship in love even if we disagree about various doctrinal or practical matters? That was an honest question at a recent gathering of Christians, but it isn’t a new one. Certainly, we see little of civil disagreement in the world, not even when they deny absolutes and affirm relativistic ideas. However, can even Christians do this?
It is a fair question for the Church, given Christendom’s history of conflict and division. The antagonism within the family of God is a scandal, one that has rendered us powerless and robbed the Church of the influence it once had. In the first two thousand years, the Church turned the world upside down and created what we know as Western Civilization. Yet, during the same 2000 years, those bearing the name of Christ often fought with each other. Once they no longer faced persecution by the Roman Empire and achieved influential status, Christians, both nominal and genuine, began to seek earthly power. As the ideas of the Reformation began to challenge some of the worst distortions, charges of heresy, threats of excommunication, and even torture and execution became tools to force agreement, Catholic and Reformer alike. After experiencing the dangers of combined spiritual and civil authority together , the idea of separating the two became prevalent. Yet even with the lure of earthly power largely gone, Christians continued to seek control of the Church or at least some portion of it. Even the leadership of a small group of followers seems to be sufficient enticement to encourage division and strife.
Ego, what we often call pride today, tends to demand agreement. People find reassurance in the agreement of others. Being able to look down on those with other opinions strokes the egos, as well, giving opinionated people even greater cause to focus on the disagreements. In the worst cases, some count those who disagree as pagans, heretics, or unbelievers; in the better situations, they regard dissenters as second class Christians. Ironically, some of the strongest, most vitriolic arguments focus on ideas with relatively little conclusive support, let alone definitive proof that one position is superior to the other.
Let us also acknowledge that money contributes powerfully to division. Perhaps not as clearly as in politics, a party spirit becomes a tool for raising funds. “We must defeat the other side” is a terrible reflection on the mercies of our heavenly Father and the gracious forgiveness of our Savior. How dare any one, in Jesus’ name, intentionally divide what he created to be one? It is more than mere ignorance to ignore the plain words that say, “May they be one as I and the Father are one,” and “Love one another as I have loved you.” We all struggle with the urgings of our fallen pride, but to reject his clear and often repeated commands for financial gain is grossly repugnant. Furthermore, nothing is more likely to repel an unbeliever that religious profiteering.
Power, ego, and money are a potent trio driving believers apart. While it might be considered as mere ego, human nature tends to prefer agreement, what we often call compatibility. As both sacred and secular communities become more divided and hostile, even our most important relationships struggle to overcome disagreement. A person may be attracted to another who thinks and acts in different ways, but the passage of time often demonstrates that agreement is often preferred. God designed male and female to be complementary, so that together a couple would be more complete than either individual alone. Many other factors—personality, family history, education, experience—add to the diversity, which God intends to enrich individual lives through marriage, as well as friendship and Christian fellowship.
The Church, more than any other relationship or organization, should benefit from diversity of calling and giftedness. No believer should fear fresh ideas or find the various perspectives of others uncomfortable. God provides these numerous perspectives and personalities for the good of the ministry that serves him. No single person possesses all the gifts, is capable of seeing all insights without help, or knows all truth. God’s word is complex, even in its original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Translation adds further complexity and confusion because the very nature of language—definitions of words, the use of verb tenses, the presence of idioms, etc.—varies from one to another. Every translation has some degree of interpretation.
On the one hand, have many people seeking to understand the Bible helps all of us to get more of the truth from it. I rarely fail to appreciate the insights of another pastor, who has worked to comprehend the meaning of a text, even though I may disagree. Thus, on the other hand, the end result of a complex Scripture and numerous interpreters will unavoidably be disagreement. Dare we tolerate such a thing? Not only can we, but we must accept and love our brothers and sisters when we do not agree, especially with regard to something as important as God’s Word. Further, I believe it will be our choosing to do so, to remain as one family and, when necessary, to reconcile those relationships, that will enable us eventually and in many cases to find agreement that satisfies most of us. This, I believe, is God’s intent.
Not only is our natural variedness something we can accept and from which we may gain, but I believe God has alternatives to overcome that deadly trio of causes of division. To start, God doesn’t need money, and often we don’t need the money we think we must have to do his work. More importantly, we will fail at doing his work if money becomes the overriding consideration. How many very public ministries have taken in huge amounts of money, ostensibly for the purpose of evangelism, only to become a scandal to the ultimate harm of the Church’s outreach? This reminds me of Bob Briner‘s Deadly Detours, things that well-meaning Christians seek to do, but end up doing in a manner that violates love, grace, or integrity. I believe, however, that we are equally at fault if we allow or even support a money-grubbing phoney, especially one who pretends to be right while accusing others of being wrong.
Christian leaders often have strong personalities—I know that I do! Perhaps it takes such strength to take up the challenges in a call from God. However, those with big egos need to see the temptations they face and resist them, temptations like demanding agreement from followers. God has no interest in cults of personality among his people. Ordinary Christians need to have the wisdom to avoid allegiance to men, whom we should follow ONLY as they follow Christ. I believe leaders should all have mentors to whom they are accountable, and I also think it good if there are believers under their teaching who have the grace and courage to “pull the rug” from under those whose egos get too big. It never hurts to remember that God uses “the foolish in order to confound the wise,” and sometimes even the weak to do what we imagine only human strength can accomplish. In other words, God doesn’t need egos any more than he needs money, and he surely is displeased when ego-driven men or women divide his people.
What about power? Frankly, power offers false security in earthly reckoning. So many of us fall into the trap of believing that power is the key to safety, thereby trading earthly, human power for God’s limitless power. Bad men use people to gain power, and I doubt it is ever truly for good. God says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” The only legitimate power God offers, the only power that is true power, comes through and by his Spirit. When a person disobeys, using strife and division to gain power, in any measure, he grieves the Spirit and loses true power. I might fear the power of a Hitler or Bin Ladin, but I prefer the power of a godly man. In the end, those who use power to oppress–an almost impossible temptation to resist–will find themselves standing in judgment before the very power of God. That’s a place I would hope to avoid, except in the loving embrace of the Savior and shielded by his forgiving grace.
So, obedient followers of Christ will avoid recruiting followers to gain power, satisfy their egos, or get money. They will strive to be a force for unity, even when the personalities and ideas of some threaten to drive them crazy. I have been working to do this for a while, and it works. We can get along and work with people with different opinions, especially the issues are relatively minor. I am not a charismatic, but I relate to and work with many who are. I have fairly strong Calvinistic beliefs but accept those who don’t. I have many reservations about how the end times will play out, but it rarely ever is an issue in my associations. I have music preferences, I try to find worship that fits my tastes, but I worship when other kinds of music are used. Indeed, the unity already exists; we only work to preserve what God has already done!
How should Christians relate to Christians who disagree about major theological matters? Jesus taught that we should love one another, love our neighbors as ourselves, and love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Is there any category of people we are not to love? If not, then the task is to deal with disagreements constructively, beginning by loving those who disagree–kindly, patiently, and respectfully. If a believer concludes that another confessed believer is seriously in error, then the task is to reason and persuade lovingly. If unsuccessful, then pray that God will reveal error wherever it may be (Of course, prayer is not the last resort; believers should pray for the lost, those in error, brothers and sisters caught in sin, and for other believers). Nowhere is there justification for anger, rejection, or strife.
Is there ever a time when believer should “separate” from other believers? After all, Paul says, “Come out and be separate from them.” The primary intent of this principle is for believers, especially new converts, to separate themselves from the immoral activities of unbelievers or, to be clear, make a clear break from their sinful behavior and those who shared in it, not to be yoked to things contrary to faith, especially idolatry. Once adopted into God’s family, our primary fellowship and our deepest connections will be with our brothers and sisters. However, if anything, we love our former companions even more, seeking their salvation. If a fellow Christian falls into sin, he or she should be lovingly confronted in order to urge them to stop, repent, and be reconciled. At a certain point, the Church may agree to take the step of treating the unrepentant sinner as an unbeliever, denying them of the normal fellowship of believers; we then pray for them, seek their salvation, and continue to love them.
Believers naturally gravitate toward those who share their opinions and tastes. I’m not convinced that this is wrong, unless it is accompanied by antagonism and harsh criticism of others. The reality of our current situation suggests Christians can no longer afford to be divided into hostile camps, which are, in fact, not Biblically justifiable at any time. Many congregations have removed the denominational labels from their public names, seeing that they discourage interest. That only helps if the corresponding hostility is also removed.
In the end, we serve one God. We are members of one family. God has called us to be one, to stand together in unity, and to love one another. The answer to the question, “Can we agree to disagree?” must be a concerted effort to love each other regardless of our differences and to present a harmonious Church to the unchurched world. In the end, differences and a variety of opinions help us more than harm us, leading us to broader understanding and better, more productive relationships.