When Christians disagree

Quarrels in the early Christian church tell us that the apostles were human. They also tell us how we may best handle disagreements in the church today.

New Christians are often dismayed at their first encounter with genuine, heated disagreement within the Christians' fellowship. Some how, they thought, that was part of the "world" they expected to leave behind when they turned to Christ and entered a loving, Christian community.

The tendency, then, is to conclude that somehow the devil must have sneaked in the back door. This leads to precipitous attempts to distinguish the "bad guys" from the "good guys." And once we have everyone properly labeled, attempts at "reconciliation" may be conducted. These efforts—often backed by the imposing authority of special prayer meetings—may consist of well-meaning but usually unsuccessful at tempts to get the "bad guys" to re pent—of their "pride," "lack of submission," "carnal ambition," etc.

It's refreshing to turn to the Scriptures in the midst of such conflicts. How different is the approach and perspective on Christian disagreements in the Word of God! Two portions are outstanding: the fifteenth chapter of Acts and Paul's letter to the Philippians.

Acts 15 is important because it records not one but two sharp disagreements of quite distinct character. The first, of course, was the doctrinal dispute settled by the Council of Jerusalem. As often happens today, the Spirit-led missionary expansion of the church had raised some thorny questions that upset the theological apple carts back in Jerusalem: What about the Gentiles who had been converted? "Some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses'" (Acts 15:5).*

When such teaching reached the ears of Paul and Barnabas, the result was not sweet harmony, but—as Luke under lines with a brutal honesty we may find comforting—"no small dissension and debate" (verse 2). Evangelistic work ground to a halt (certainly to everyone's great frustration), and hours were consumed listening to reports, learned theological opinions, Biblical exegesis, et cetera. Finally a kind of compromise was hammered out, unity was preserved, the decree of the council was promulgated, and everyone hurried back with relief to his sphere of service and evangelism.

The second disagreement recorded in Acts 15 concerns Paul and Barnabas as they girded themselves for their second missionary journey. A visit to the struggling, persecuted churches founded on their first journey was long overdue. And beyond these churches lay countless nations, provinces, cities, and towns with no witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But alas, Paul and Barnabas, so wonderfully agreed in all theological matters, couldn't agree about Barnabas' nephew!

"And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord" (verses 37-40).

When we compare these two narratives of Christians in disagreement in Acts, several points are instructive. In the first place, Luke scrupulously avoids all tendency toward a kind of superficial moralizing—tagging one side or the other with the epithet "good guys" or "bad guys." True, in the case of the dispute between Paul and Barnabas it is Paul's journey he narrates, and Barnabas slips from view. But this may well be a result of his theological concerns and sources (Luke himself became a participant and co-worker with Paul on this second journey—note the "we" sections). Paul himself, however, eventually provides a kind of humble confession that Barnabas' patience and confidence in Mark was not ill-placed (2 Tim. 4:11). And certainly contemporary New Testament scholars—who exalt Mark as the creator of the literary genre of the gospel and an outstanding theologian of the early church—would agree.

One can only wonder how Mark him self must have felt as he heard (or surely heard about) Uncle Barnabas and the apostle Paul battling over whether to give him a second chance. Paul undoubtedly had a clearer view of the urgency of the work at hand, the need of the churches, and the necessity of a thoroughly dependable team in so important a ministry. Barnabas may have seen more clearly the tremendous potential in his talented nephew. Paul at this moment reflected more clearly the stern justice of God, who insists that it is required that His stewards be found faithful. Barnabas probably sensed more deeply the mercy of God, the importance of forgiveness and a second chance.

Often we feel frustrated and even let our ministry grind to a halt because of tension. And yet, may it not be that the tension God permitted in the life of Mark proved to be the turning point in his growth and character? Once he learned about the great confidence his uncle had placed in him, and at what cost, would he not be all the more determined to prove himself trustworthy this time? Had Paul facilely agreed to take him along, thoughtlessly giving him a second chance, perhaps Mark would have failed again! Tension, like any other kind of tribulation, can produce character, if we open ourselves up to all God would say to us and do in us.

Let's note too the very different conclusions of the two disagreements in Acts 15. In the case of the doctrinal dispute, unity was preserved through a kind of compromise. But in the case of the dispute over John Mark, the end result was division—or perhaps more accurately a multiplication—of minis tries, and undoubtedly an acceleration of church growth. Silas was drafted by Paul as a co-worker in place of Barnabas, and soon Timothy was added to the team to take the place of Mark. New leadership was given a chance and developed in a way that could never have happened had Paul and Barnabas not stuck to their convictions.

One wonders how often Christians of lesser boldness allow themselves to stifle the promptings of the Holy Spirit and so short-circuit the work of God in multiplying leadership and outreach. When you hear of Christian groups and organizations that go on for years with no serious disagreements, you should ask yourself, Have they stopped growing or just stopped thinking? By Biblical standards, sharp disagreements are one mark of a vital, growing, thinking, mission-oriented church. Static uniformity is a sign of death, dearth of qualified leaders, and paternalistic domination.

Paul, then, was no stranger to disagreements—he was not one to shrink from a sharp debate, paper over his deepest convictions, or smother his Heaven-sent visions with a facade of unity, sweetness, and light. One suspects that in his prayers the apostle might appropriately have echoed the little boy's revised version of the Negro spiritual: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been"!

All the more surprising, then, in his letter to the Philippians, to see him on the other side, profoundly frustrated by the disagreements of two dear fellow workers: "I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you also, true yoke-fellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel" (Phil. 4:2, 3).

Like Luke, the apostle refrains from taking sides (he entreats both, not just one or the other) and from all superficial moralizing. At no moment does he suggest that there are good guys and bad guys: he accepts both as fellow workers "whose names are in the book of life" (verse 3), recalling their years of faithful service.

You can but wonder what Paul had in mind when he asked the Philippians to "help these women" to come to the place of agreement. Hadn't the author of Proverbs made the danger clear? "He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears" (Prov. 26:17)!

And yet Paul's letter glows with counsel that, if taken to heart, is exactly what is needed when Christian leaders dis agree. When everybody starts taking sides, rushing to identify the good guys and the bad guys, exalting the virtues of the "good guys" and exaggerating the faults of the "bad guys," Paul says, "Wait a minute."

"Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:2, 3).

Sure, pride is a problem, and a pretty universal one at that. But you're more likely to find its grosser manifestations precisely in the one who goes around accusing everyone else of pride (and implicitly suggesting his own humility). Thus, out of a situation marked by disagreement and tension comes the classic Christian definition of genuine humility: it's not so much thinking yourself worse than others (that, indeed, is introverted, egoistic, and a kind of inverted pride); rather, it's a positive, outgoing, extroverted attitude that "counts others better," concentrates on their virtues, appreciates and praises them.

It's particularly hard to do that with a fellow Christian who disagrees with you. The devil is not slow to insinuate that our brother disagrees with us because he has erred theologically, morally, politically—or simply because he lacks our own keen sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, intellectual integrity, depth of consecration, breadth of vision for the Lord's work, and of course our sweet, humble disposition!

Swamped by negativism

When Christians disagree, then more than ever do we need to make every effort to heed the apostle's exhortation to "think about" whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, et cetera (chap. 4:8, 9), because it's precisely when Christians sharply disagree that we all tend to get swamped by negative thinking about one another. But there is clear apostolic justification for a kind of "positive thinking"—it's precisely that kind of thinking that is needed when Christians disagree.

The same may be said for other exhortations that occur in this context: "Rejoice in the Lord always. . . . Have no anxiety about anything. ... The peace of God, which passes all under standing, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (verses 4-7).

Did you ever notice how unhappy most Christians get when there is disagreement in the ranks? Not to mention anxiety! Some even manage to convince themselves that the gates of hell are in deed about to prevail against the church if the "bad guys" get their way—and this may tempt those on all sides and in the middle to resort to tactics and strategies that opponents with some justification label political "manipulation." When some Christians begin to suspect that the "communists" or the "fascists," the "fundamentalists" or the "modernists," the "ecumenicists" or the "separatists," are about to take over the ship, Machiavelli is suddenly baptized and his book treated as canonical Scripture!

In the light of our often petty tactics, the apostle's example looms over us like a great ocean liner overshadowing her little tugs: "I entreat Euodia and I en treat Syntyche to agree in the Lord." Paul not only refrains from taking sides, he also refuses to dictate the terms of agreement. Neither will he shuttle from one side to another a la Kissinger seeking to elicit acceptable terms. To do so would be paternalistic. He respects the integrity and capacity of these women and fellow workers to work their way through to a satisfactory agreement with the help of the church. And he exhorts them all to adopt the kind of basic attitudes, openness to the Holy Spirit, and trust in one another that will make that agreement possible.

The book of Revelation includes a description of a church closed up and bolted shut with Jesus outside, knocking patiently at the door. It is a picture we evangelicals are exceedingly prone to apply to unbelievers—or, in our more exegetically oriented moments, to our "lukewarm" theological opponents. But recently, when venturing into the book without the help of such preconceptions, I began to get an uneasy feeling that it was a pretty good picture of me! Especially me in the face of disagreement. Doors slam shut, shutters are barred, and I peer suspiciously out at the intruder.

And yet, haven't we learned countless times that God teaches us through those who disagree with us, those who do not share all our convictions? But still, often the last thing we want to do is listen.

Equal time for "bad guys"

Perhaps that's why we get a bit impatient as we read Luke's account of the doctrinal dispute in Acts 14—he makes us listen to everybody's own presentation of his point of view, and it threatens our security when the "bad guys" are given equal time. Things get particularly sticky, of course, when the disagreement has to do with things that have happened—who said and did what and why. Especially when the future direction of a Christian organization or institution is at stake we easily become paranoid!

Paul, out of his deep experience—and participation—in Christian disagreements, counsels another course. Love, he says in 1 Corinthians 13:7, "believeth all things" (K.J.V.), is "full of trust" (Weymouth), and is "always eager to believe the best" (Moffatt).+

Inside and outside the church the devil can find people who are eager to believe the worst. When Christians disagree, if by God's grace you can follow the Bible's counsel, "you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in" (Isa. 58:12). When confidence is painstakingly reestablished, community life is again possible and the church of Christ can get on with its mission.



This article is reprinted by permission of Eternity Magazine, copyright 1976, Evangelical Ministries, 1716 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103.

* Unless otherwise specified, all Bible texts in this article are taken from the Revised Standard Version.

+ From: The Bible: A New Translation by James Moffatt. Copyright by James Moffatt 1954. Used by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated.


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February 1979

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