When Christians Disagree

After the year we have just weathered, few would dare to argue that we are not living in turbulent times and challenging days. Few of us can recall events within our lifetimes that have proven as unsettling and disruptive to life as we have known it. For months, facts have been scarce but opinions have proven plentiful. Sadly, many well-meaning and otherwise-likeminded brethren within the church of Jesus Christ have been increasingly divided on many of the issues that have arisen during this ‘season of COVID.’ One does not need to listen long to the debates taking place within most churches today in order to discover that many if not most of them are simply over matters of wisdom. What is the wisest thing to do next? How do we move ahead? Should we meet? When should we meet? Where should we meet? How should we meet? How many of us should meet? What precautions should be taken for meeting? Add to these other vital questions like: Who has authority to make these decisions for the church? What about testimony? What about the gospel? Though these are clearly biblical matters, how we work through them often proves to be a matter of wisdom. In light of all this, we would do well to stop, consider, and ask ourselves the question: How are we to handle our brethren when they come to a different conclusion on a matter of wisdom—not a clear, biblical mandate, but something that the Scripture is not as clear about? How are brethren to handle one another when the opinions on multiple sides of an issue are as strong as they are varied? What are we to do particularly when what is being discussed, what is being considered, what is being weighed, and what is being debated is not ultimately and unmistakably addressed definitively in Scripture? In short, we must ask and answer this question: What are we to do when Christians disagree?

Thankfully, our God has not left us without answers to this question. In fact, His Word is very, very plain. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is especially helpful on this subject. The first 11 chapters of the book are profoundly and robustly doctrinal. They stand as an astounding treatise on the gospel of Jesus Christ that applies the mercy of God to rebellious sinners—religious and irreligious alike. Then, chapter 12 begin with words that serve as a hinge of sorts swinging wide the door to the immensely practical applications that flow to us from the rich doctrines of the previous eleven chapters. Paul pleads with his readers: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.[1] Beginning with these pivotal words, Paul fills the remaining pages of the book with instructions that flow from the implications of the rich theological teaching of “the mercies of God” he penned in the first half of the book. Romans 13 is well-known for what it teaches concerning the Christian and government, and Romans 14 is filled with much-needed teaching on how believers are to handle one another when they come to differing opinions on disputable matters. It seems rather fitting in light of all the kinds of  disagreements and disputes that continue to surface in the church that these two chapters would be found back to back in Paul’s rich and profoundly helpful letter.

To understand the point of all that the Apostle writes about this topic, it’s important to go back just a bit in the text. In the first half of chapter 13, Paul argues that when it comes to government, we must pay everyone what is owed to them—respect, honor, taxes, tribute, etc.[2] In the second half of that chapter, He goes on to apply that same principle to the church when he teaches that we are not to owe anyone anything except to love each other “for the one who loves one another has fulfilled the law.”[3] Next, he explains the specific applications of that principle that are spelled out plainly by God: do not commit adultery, do not murder, you shall not steal, etc.[4] In light of all this, He then writes: “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” Notice what he links together here. Most of us would agree that orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality and the like are bad, but far too many in the church today would defend quarreling. After all, what’s more American than a good fight? That’s what we do, we argue. Paul is clear, though. It is not proper for true believers in Jesus Christ to walk forward in quarreling. That is wrong. It is a wrong mindset, and it is certainly a wrong way of life. It does not honor Christ. That is why he lists quarreling right alongside an orgy in measure of wickedness. Instead of those kinds of wicked practices, Paul instructs true Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.[5] Clearly, a quarreling and argumentative spirit is one of the desires of the flesh that faithful believers are to avoid. Our flesh may naturally gravitate in that direction, but we are to put such desires to death and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul follows all of this with an entire chapter of instruction for what happens when brethren disagree on things that God has not explicitly spelled out as evil or wrong. In fact, there are three key instructions found in just the first paragraph of chapter 14 that should ground, guide, and guard the way we think and speak whenever we find ourselves in a disagreement with our Christian brethren over a disputable matter…

Welcome One Another in Love

The first guiding principle Paul lays out in Romans 14 is that we are to welcome one another in love. His words are clear: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”[6] Sadly, far too many Christians in our day are willing to ‘welcome’ people into their lives and their churches as long as those they welcome are willing to listen to all their arguments to support all the opinions they hold, but this is not the way Christians are to treat one another. Verse two goes on to say: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.[7]  The point is plain on the surface—Christians are not to sit around and argue about their preferences and strongly held opinions about what they each should or should not be eating, what diet they should be on, or whether they should eat meat, be a vegetarian, or eat meat offered to idols. Instead, Paul says that we should leave each other alone on such matters and welcome one another in love. We are to have a spirit toward the brethren that welcomes those who differ from us genuinely, non-judgmentally, and without pride in our hearts that says, “I know better than you, and until you agree with me, you are not really welcome around here.” According to Paul, none of us are to leave this kind of prideful impression on brethren who hold different opinions from us on non-essential matters. Simply put… when it comes to matters of wisdom, we welcome one another in love.

Refuse to Judge One Another in Pride

We know that the welcoming spirit commanded by Paul is the opposite of pride because of what continues in the passage. The next three verses instruct us not to judge one another in pride. Paul writes:

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.[8]

Just pause for a moment and think about that. How many times do we find ourselves in situations where that is exactly what’s going on?

Within the last year, I was on a call with some pastor friends of mine and one of them recounted an experience he had in a store after the local government had advised all patrons to wear masks. This pastor was trying to follow what he had been told was best, so he was wearing a mask and some gloves. He also said he found himself looking at all the people around him who weren’t wearing masks and thinking, “These rule breakers!” He was doing what his conscience told him he needed to do, but he was also judging everybody in the store who wasn’t doing what he was doing. Though there were no laws or mandates in place and they had all simply been advised that masks were a good idea, his inner lawyer was working overtime. Then, he said that the judgment in his heart turned into fear because he was suddenly worried that everyone else was judging him. He started convincing himself that they all thought he was a fool. He thought, “I bet they’re all laughing at me. I’ve got a mask and gloves on and they’re all mocking me.” Finally, he got back to his car after he left the store, and something dawned on him: He had imagined the whole thing! None of it was real. No one had said a word to him, he had not said a word to anybody else, and he had just spent the last hour in inner turmoil over nothing. Through this incident, however, the Lord showed him the insidious tendency in his own heart toward the kind of pride that says, “I know better, and others are not doing what I believe they should be doing. They should be doing what I’m doing.” Can you relate to his ordeal? I know I can.

Let’s be honest, the spirit of “I know better, and you better do what I do” subtly and regularly creeps into all of our hearts, but Paul’s words remind us that Christians must not treat their brethren so. We are not to think about each other like this, and we are certainly not to respond to each other like this. Listen again to the specific argument Paul makes: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?[9] What was he saying? Simply put, your brethren do not serve you, they serve God, and God has welcomed them. In other words, your brother is not a slave to your preferences. He is God’s servant. Your sister is not in bondage to your judgement calls on matters of wisdom. She is God’s servant. Since that is true, we need to ask: Who do you and I think we are to pass judgment on those who are not accountable to us on these matters? Our brethren are the servants of Another, and “it is before [their] own master that [they] stand or fall.”[10] Now, this is where some of us go astray because we convince ourselves that those who are doing it differently than we are will actually and ultimately fall, but keep reading the text. Paul writes: “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.[11] Don’t miss the glorious reassurance of these words. Paul tells us that the Lord Himself is the One Who is upholding all of us. In the midst of all the disagreements over our personal preferences and strongly held opinions, none of us who are truly in Christ are ultimately going to fall!

In days like these, this is very, very good news, because we are all wrestling with questions about what to do next, we are struggling with what is the best and the wisest course of action, and the church is filled with a myriad of very different opinions. The reality is that some of us may have to learn what is truly best the hard way. We may make choices that prove not to be the best option. That always happens in times like these. We live and we learn, but no believer will ultimately fall if he is truly the Lord’s. God has welcomed him, and the Lord sustains him. So, what does that mean for you and me who may differ with the choices made by another on a disputable matter? Leave them alone! They don’t answer to you, and they don’t answer to me; they answer to the Lord.

The final verse in this section reminds us that each of us is ultimately responsible to do what our Scripture-informed, Spirit-guided conscience demands. Verse five says: “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.[12] The language here is abundantly clear… each one of us must be fully convinced in our own minds about the best course of action. At the end of this same chapter, we read this reiterating statement: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[13] This is why Martin Luther quoted as saying once: “…to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.[14]

Entrust One Another to God

The language of these verses is plain. As we’ve already noted, believers are to welcome one another in love (v.1-2), and we are not to judge one another in pride (v.3-5). There is a third and final instruction found in the next seven verses of this passage, though: We must entrust one another to God. Let’s continue reading…

The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.[15]

As a pastor, I must confess that one of the hardest parts of the last year has been knowing exactly how to lead our congregation well in the midst of a season marked by so much uncertainty and disagreement. I have wrestled hard in these days with how to lead a group of varied consciences and minister before neighbors, friends, and a watching world filled with saved and unsaved alike. I’ve done my best to lead without violating my own conscience or challenging others to violate theirs. At the same time, I’ve sought to speak truth in a time filled with much misinformation. I have certainly not led perfectly and have struggled repeatedly with keeping all of these principles straight in my own mind, but whenever my heart has begun to respond with anger or frustration, I have sought to remind myself of this guiding reality: We each will ultimately give account to God, not each other. Every one of us is going to give an account to God for how we have chosen to walk through this life in matters like these. Remember, we are not talking about matters that are clearly right or wrong according to Scripture. We’re talking about matters of wisdom. So much of what we are dealing with in these days falls into this category. Brethren, we must understand and remember that we are each going to give an account to God for whether or not we got in our car and went out when others thought we should have stayed home. We are going to give account to God for whether or not we wore a mask when others thought doing so was foolish. We do not and we will not give account to each other on these things. I don’t give account to you; you don’t give account to me; instead, we all will give account to God.

In light of all this, we must strive with all our strength, all our heart, and all our mind to do whatever best in every one of these matters. If we are going to err, we must err on the side of love, humility, and faith. Always love, humility, and faith. That, after all, is what Paul teaches in this passage: When brethren disagree on matters like these, we welcome each other in love, we refuse to judge one another in pride, and we entrust one another to God, Who will uphold each and every one of us who is truly His.

[1] Romans 12:1-2

[2] Romans 13:7

[3] Romans 13:8

[4] Romans 13:9

[5] Romans 13:14

[6] Romans 14:1

[7] Romans 14:2

[8] Romans 14:3-5

[9] Romans 14:4a

[10] Romans 14:4b

[11] Romans 14:4c

[12] Romans 14:5

[13] Romans 14:23

[14] KDG Wittenberg. “Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms.” 1997. https://www.luther.de/en/worms.html.

[15] Romans 14:6-12