How to Disagree Without Being a Numpty
Over the last few months I've been honoured to teach through the Letter to the Hebrews to a bunch of great young men. Now, if you know anything about Hebrews, you'll know this - it's got some challenging passages and, as with every passage that is tricky to understand, there have been a number of different interpretations. And yet, get this, even though we have been meeting together all these months and disagreeing with each other all this time, there have been no raised voices, no ugly personal attacks, no nastiness. We've ended every gathering together praying for each other, laughing together and looking forward to gathering again.
So how can we disagree with each other without being numpties?
Before we cover some principles let me assure you that, as we discussed Hebrews, we never once had a "well that's your truth" mentality. All of us were acutely aware that there was only one correct interpretation of the passage which meant that either one group of us was wrong or we were all wrong - not all of us could be right. So this wasn't "sacrificing truth on the altar of unity" or some kind of postmodern relativism.
1. They are the Image of God
Those I disagree with are made in the image of God which means that, amongst a whole plethora of principles, they are worthy of dignity and respect. Jesus says I should treat these people as I would like to be treated and that this, in fact, is one of the big summaries of the entire Old Testament (Matthew 7v12). I don't like being screamed at. I don't like being slandered. I don't like being misrepresented. I don't like being belittled. Neither do they.
2. They are Family in Christ
I have been called to love these people in the same way and to the same degree that Jesus loves me which is comparable to the way and degree that God the Father loves Him (John 13v34-35, 15v9). God is pretty adamant about this command; it gets repeated a lot. It's a big deal to Him and is one of the clearest ways we show the world that we are truly the followers of Jesus.
3. Christ Calls us to Unity
Christs prays that we would be one as He and the Father are one (John 17v11, 21-23). He's about to be betrayed, tortured and crucified and on His heart is the unity of His people. I should take this desire of our Saviour seriously. We are commanded to seek to live in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, this isn't just a desire, prayer and command of Christ. One of the massive reasons Christ was tortured and slain on a cross was to make peace between God and man and between man and man. Christ literally died and rose to unite me to Himself and to those I disagree with. More, the great goal that history is rushing towards is that everything will be united in Him (Ephesians 1v10).
Just as our LOVE FOR each other shows the world that we are truly His followers, Jesus makes it clear that our UNITY WITH one another is one of the clearest ways we show the world that the incarnation is true. In a world of divisive opinions and hateful attitudes, Christians loving each other and uniting together, even in our doctrinal differences, will speak volumes.
4. You don’t Know their Heart
One of the things that pains me most as I read and listen to people teach against other doctrinal positions is when they lay secret motives upon people.
"All Calvinists", for example, "are too lazy to share the gospel, so they want to remove human responsibility". "All Amillennialists are anti-Semitic and so don't want to believe there is a promised future for Israel". "People want to believe in Eternal Security so that they can do what they want without worrying about the consequences". "Pre-Tribulationists are just afraid of suffering for Christ".
Not only is this sort of talk open slander, but to make such a comment is to put ourselves in the place of God; we are claiming to know the hearts of other humans. Not only that, but we are claiming to know the heart of every person who holds to a certain point of doctrine, many thousands of whom we've never even met.
I have seen the opposite in each of these views. I have seen Calvinists sharing the gospel and pleading with God for the lost with more urgency than others. I know Israeli believers who hold to an Amillennial view. I have witnessed the doctrine of Eternal Security become the greatest motivator in living for Christ. I know Pre-Tribulationists in closed countries who have suffered more than I could ever imagine.
5. Iron Sharpens Iron
Being exposed to different doctrinal positions within the realm of orthodoxy, through mutually respectful, robust conversation is healthy. As we've chatted, taught and debated our way through Hebrews these last few months we've all been forced to go back to scripture to reexamine things in light of what others have contributed to the conversation.
James 1v19-20 says "let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God". During our study the others have waited patiently as I presented my view, with all the different arguments and passages for it, teaching something different than what they believe is the correct interpretation. They didn't interrupt. They didn't get mad and storm out of the room. They were swift to hear and slow to speak. After I spoke, one of the others would speak and, with the utmost respect for me, they would explain why they disagreed. In fact, sometimes we even tried to argue for the other side so as to show that the other side of the view did have good arguments for it. And so it went on. And so we were sharpened.
6. Purpose of Doctrine = Christlikeness
When we are numpties in our disagreements we are essentially saying that believing right is everything but doing right is optional. We have forgotten that the revelation of God in scripture is meant to renew our minds, transform our hearts and radically impact our daily living. Doctrine is not an end in itself. God's great desire and goal for us is that we would be like His Son (Romans 8v29).
I run a great risk in asking this question, but let me ask it anyway; If you had to choose - would you rather your brother be wrong on a few secondary/tertiary doctrinal points but fully in love with Christ and growing more like Him each day or exactly right on all doctrinal points but cold and lifeless?
You may think your dogmatic zeal for doctrine is an Elijah-like calling. It isn't. As someone who has been-there-done-that I would venture to say that, even though doctrine is important, if your zeal for doctrine is leading to cutting, sharp, ugly, divisive attitudes then it is all rotten flesh and stinking pride. I have used truth as a sledge hammer to smash brothers and sisters in Christ. I have used my doctrinal positions as a barometer of godliness and spiritual maturity when, in fact, Christlikeness is the true mark. I know I am not alone. We can be so quick to point the accusatory finger at our brother or sister for believing something different from us, while ignoring the issues of the heart in our own lives (Psalm 139v23-24).
7. You Don’t Know Everything
Do you really believe you have mastered the entire scripture? Do you really think that you are completely correct in every single point of doctrine? Maybe you do. In that case, wait up for the rest of us, we're still stumbling over some points. No, in humility, we can acknowledge that there are still areas that we still need to study more on. Maybe that brother we smashed on a social platform, or behind his back, or in a sermon is right on another point that we are wrong on. How would you like him to help you learn and grow in that area? Maybe that's the same way you can help him grow. Crazier still, maybe that brother you disagree with is actually right on the very issue and could be a tool of God to help you grow in your understanding of it. How would you like him to do that?
8. It's Different, it isn't Heresy.
Not every doctrinal difference from ours is a heresy. We need to be careful about using that word. I have heard Calvinism and Arminianism, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, Cessationsim and Continuationism all labeled as heresies. True Christianity flows around a few solid points; God is Triune, Jesus is God, Jesus took on Flesh, Jesus lived a perfect life, died and rose again, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, scripture is the inspired word of God, Jesus is coming again. These are primary or first order doctrines. To gravitate away from these views is to leave the realm of orthodoxy and enter into the murky waters of heresy, where the false teachers lurk.
After these first order doctrines we fall into second and third orders. I am by no means saying that these doctrines aren't important, they are. And I am certainly not saying that we shouldn't discuss them and debate them, we should. What I am saying is that we need to be careful with our language and attitude. Paul commands Timothy to instruct with gentleness, humility and patience, with the hope of seeing people come away from error and into the truth (2 Timothy 2v25).
9. That's a Liberty Matter
Reading through the New Testament it is amazing that certain believers from certain backgrounds practiced certain things while others didn't. One of the big reasons for Romans and 1 Corinthians being written was to tell the believers that they needed to live in their God-given, blood-bought unity while also allowing for the diversity of views and practices within the assembly. Paul didn't encourage them to start a We-Keep-One-Day-Holy-Church or the others to start the We-View-All-Days-Equally-Chapel. Instead he calls them to respect, prefer and love one another as each grew at their own pace. Some of our doctrinal differences are simply points of liberty that we must simply move along on.
Keep your strong opinions but lose the bitter edge. Keep your desire to know the truth but lose the ego. Keep your passion for doctrine but lose the divisive attitude. Engage, debate, disagree, but do it in a gracious, humble, respectful way. It is good to have robust, rigorous, vigorous doctrinal positions and discussions. But will you take the commands of Christ as serious as you take your doctrinal positions?
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! - Psalm 133v1
Alan Campbell is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came to Christ as a young adult and trained for ministry at Bethesda Free Church, Sunderland. Alan ministered in Bethesda as the Associate Pastor until 2019 and now ministers at Union Chapel, Bath. From time to time he teaches at North Cotes (NTM/Ethnos 360) College and The Theological College of North Staffordshire. Alan travels across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the States speaking at universities and equipping churches and campus ministries to share the gospel in a post-modern context. He is passionate about helping the believer to root their identity more and more into the person and work of Jesus Christ. Alan is married to Victoria.