Christians, it seems, love to disagree. Maybe not ‘love’ but we tend to disagree over all sorts of issues. The why is simple: As Christians we want to please God. Scripture says so much, and yet it often doesn’t say enough! So we do our best to think and live honoring to him. (Also, we still deal with sin inside of us, which leads both to errors and to stubbornness. This also causes disagreement!)
This blog post serves to follow-up “Grace is the Grease in the Gears”. Click here to read that. This will help us think through where we can disagree, where we cannot, and why.
Consider the following questions. They require different answers and for different reasons: Did Christ really rise from the dead? Can I sleep with my girlfriend? Should you have a beer? Can they use guitars, drums, etc., to lead worship? Is Christ the only way to God? Should I speak in tongues? What schooling for our children? Can I use ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV?
They each fit into one of four levels of processing.
Level 1: Matters of truth and error, of reality itself.
Christ’s resurrection is a matter of reality, and thus of truth or error. There’s no margin for a believer to discount the historicity of it. All of eternity hangs on whether or not Christ rose from the dead. Also, “is Christ the only way” falls in this first level. If you believe there are 10 ways to God, one of which is Christ, then you are not within reality.
The Classification here is Truth / orthodoxy / reality. The central tenets of our faith: Trinity, Authority of Scripture, Incarnation are good examples.
When someone disagrees on a matter of truth: Deal with them with grace. Since they are claiming Christ, ask them to use Scripture to make their case. Scripture is all that matters.
Level 2: Matters of doctrine
One step down from “truth/error” are matters of doctrine. These are extremely important in every believer’s life and each church body. Doctrine is “what the whole bible teaches us today about some particular topic.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. P.25)
The goal here is pleasing God by putting the puzzle together properly. The Puzzle being the teaching of Scripture. Rodney Stark explains that Scripture—written as it is by ~40 authors—is an anthology. It demands that we think as we piece together the nuances in teaching between the different authors. (He lays this out in The Victory of Reason.)
Doctrine is extremely important, but Christians can come to different understandings on doctrinal level questions and still be one in Christ. For instance: speaking in tongues—equally devout Christians come to different conclusions about Scripture’s teaching on this point.
The “sleep with your girlfriend” question is ultimately one of doctrine: Scripture is clear that sex is God’s gift reserved for marriage. However, the believers engaging in pre-marital sex have not lost their salvation. Their actions are deeply displeasing to God, are endangering their souls, and require his gracious discipline. But this is ultimately a question of what their beliefs are and how they are living them out.
Other doctrinal questions are: “Reformed” or “Arminian” answers to questions of salvation? What roles and offices are open to men and to women? What are the events of the End? What happens at Communion? What is the church’s stance toward Politics and Government? My answer to each of these is a reflection of what I believe Scripture is teaching.
Level 3: Matters of conviction or conscience
The third level is even more practical: how we make decisions in life. The classification here is “wisdom”. Mike Pence recently made the news for his ‘life-rule’ of not having dinner alone with a woman, other than his wife. (It’s the “Billy Graham Modesto Manifesto” rule). This is his conviction; he wants to protect his marriage, his heart and his wife’s. For him it’s a choice based on Wisdom.
A Christian’s use of Alcohol or school choice fall in this area. It’s where Christians live out their faith in the day to day. And we will come to different conclusions. It’s what Romans 14-15 (and 1 Corinthians 8) are all about.
How do we disagree here? We remind ourselves that differing is to be expected within the body, that everyone is living to honor God, and trust that he is leading someone to a different conclusion than he led you to.
Level 4: Matters of taste or preference
Finally, there are matters of taste: which translation of Scripture, musical style, or dress for church. Or, some guys just might not like to go on men’s retreat—does it mean they are sinners or lacking conviction? No, they just are so uncomfortable that they don’t do it.
You get the idea. Level 4 items that matter for eternity, nor even really for someone’s discipleship. I remember one grandfather saying to me, “I don’t love the loud music of today’s worship, but I figure I get to set aside my preferences for the younger generation’s growth.” I suspect there are many grandparents who are living into Ephesians 5:21 like this: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Notice is that there is some overlap between the levels. What for one is a matter of taste, for another is a conviction: one may not drink alcohol because she doesn’t like it while another convictionally abstains. Or, what one classifies as a ‘truth/error’ issue, another may consider a Level 2 doctrine issue.
By the way, the more a church demands full agreement on Levels 3-4, the more ‘fundamentalist’ they are. The more a church discards unity on Levels 1-2, the more ‘liberal’ they are. The dance is to keep the right balance of full unity on Level 1, deep cohesion on Level 2, true mutual respect on Level 3, and a generous spirit on Level 4.