How to Handle Disagreement

One thing Christians have done all down the centuries is to disagreed with each other. And in some ways I thank God they have. The early centuries saw major battles about who Jesus is. The church very nearly adopted a Jehovah’s witness-type view of Jesus. 

At the Reformation people were often martyred for opposing error. Thank God for those Christians who fought long and hard for the truth and won.
Some modern Christians think we should never express disagreement because its “not nice”. They ignore the fact that Jesus and the apostles expressed strong disagreement with others. 

However, there are right and wrong ways of disagreeing.  Here are a few guidelines. (Some readers might find one or two of these points demand a greater knowledge of theology than they possess. In this case they could convey these guidelines to their church leaders).

First, seek to let the Bible speak for itself on controversial issues. We are all influenced by our upbringing, culture, denominational allegiance and church tradition. So we see Scripture through tinted spectacles and we tend to read into it what we have always believed or experienced. For example, this can happen over sexual issues. 

So, for example, some can read into Scripture the one-man-ministry or a very individualistic view of Christianity or a rejection of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet these are unbiblical views. 

Or we can believe the way our denomination worships or the restrained way British people express themselves or the male chauvinism of our society are ordained by God!  For example, a good deal of the opposition to women priests is the result of prejudice rather than biblical argument. 

Second, it is vital to interpret Scripture correctly. We must understand the passage in context (ie the surrounding passage, the teaching of the rest of scripture and the historical circumstances of the writer). We must understand the OT through the NT and vice versa, and particularly ask how it relates to Christ. 

Third, we must recognise where Scripture is unclear. And we must also understand obscure passages in the light of clear passages and not base a doctrine on an unclear, isolated passage. For example, it is true that some of the passages about women’s ministry are not as clear as people make out. So it is legitimate to ask whether 1 Timothy 2:12 is a command for all time or only for the Ephesian church.

Fourth, it is important to take notice of the views of other Christians and scholars in history and today. It is irresponsible and rather arrogant not to do so. But they must be subject to the clear teaching of Scripture.

Fifth, we must have the right attitude to those with whom we disagree. It is legitimate to disagree strongly. Jesus did that with his disciples and particularly with the hypocritical Pharisees. Paul and John also use strong language to disagree with the false teachers. But we must always respect the integrity of those with whom we disagree and avoid resentment.  After all, we are called to love even our enemies. However strongly we express disagreement, there is no excuse for not showing courtesy and kindness to our opponents. (This is particularly relevant to traditional Anglicans now we have women priests).

Sixth, we must also be careful to check what our opponents views really are so we don’t misrepresent them.

Lastly, we must distinguish between primary and secondary issues. Christians have often wrongly fallen out over secondary issues, eg. the method of baptism, views of the rapture or the millennium, patterns of church government. 

So it grieves me that Anglicans who have kept fairly quiet over primary issues like denials of the virgin birth and empty tomb or sexual malpractice or multi-faith compromise are now making such a fuss about the less important issue of women priests.

Whatever our disagreements we must never create division in the church over secondary issues. Rather we should make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. However there will be disagreements over primary doctrinal and moral issues where we cannot and should not remain in fellowship.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction