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Dealing with Differences

Unity Among Diversities


In my experience, dealing with non-essential differences within the body of Christ is pretty common. Not a week goes by that I must remind myself of those famous words coined by St. Augustine, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

But recently, I have had to face this even more than usual. There are some teachings, although non-essential, that have bearings on essential truths. In other words, some disagreeable matters largely influence and permeate essential matters in some way.

For example, while you are certainly permitted to believe that man does share some part in the work regeneration by simply making a good decision that God would not otherwise equip or effect you in a way that causes you to make such decision, you might be in a heap of trouble saying that God is not sovereign over your will.

Now, there is no hiding the fact that I believe in the “doctrines of Grace” by which it is taught that the entire work of redemption (from the death on the cross to the submitting to Christ as Lord). And so I may not be articulating the view of man’s small, but realistic, ability to do choose God for salvation without God’s divine moving. But I think you get my drift.

If you do not believe that God is sovereign in all things and at all times (even over man’s will), which is permissible, then you may also believe that God’s hands are tied for one reason or another. The full blooded Calvinist would say that God’s hands are never tied. The Arminianist would say that God’s hands are tied with regards to the will of man (although they may argue that He tied Himself up).

This is not intended to be over salvation debate. I only mention that to provide an example of where our non-essentials can leak into our essentials. Having God’s hands tied would set his ties in the realm of sovereignty. Thus, you no longer have God, by definition. This is an essential of the Christian faith.

I may not be thinking all of this through as careful as I ought. Sometimes, the line between essential and non-essential are a little blurry to me. And at the moment, I find myself meditating on how to deal with these things – namely, how to deal with differences.

In a recent TableTalk article, by the same title, Dr. Roger Nicole poses three questions that we must ask ourselves (and in this order):

  1. What do I owe the person who differs from me?
  2. What can I learn from the person who differs from me?
  3. How can I cope with the person who differs from me?

First, we owe all people love. Wether we are in disagreement or not, we are obligated to love them. And, as Rogers puts it, “We owe them to deal with them as we ourselves would like to be dealt with or treated (Matt. 7:12).”

How would I want to be treated? Primarily, I think that all people have a deep desire to feel as though their opinions have been heard and considered. There is little joy in being a part of a one-way conversation – especially when it is over different views. I can identify many times when I have been in such a conversation whereby my opponent dominates the “discussion” giving his or her views and never asking me of mine. I would like to be treated as one with opinions that matter as well.

Second, it is arrogant to think that we know it all, even if you agree with the theologians of past. Interpretation, often defined by how you explain something and not what you know of something, is often expressed in different ways. Semantics is everything. With so many different denominations and Christian people groups, terms and phrases mean different things to different people. So, at the least we could learn how to say something differently.

Still, there is always opportunities to learn from each other. We are not fallible. We have errors and we should be eager to change when these are brought to our attention. I have trained myself to be prepared to learn that I am wrong. This does not always happen, but it allows me to set my guard down for the sake of my brother. If I am wrong, then it is easier for me to adjust.

Lastly, and this is the big question, how can I cope with those who differ from me? If I am not sure whether a matter is essential or not, then it is probably not. I would never wonder over immediate essentials. I would never question their role in the Christian faith. So, if it is not easy to differentiate the two, then it is likely not essential. In fact, one of us may not be understanding it correctly or drawing out the full logical conclusion.

So how do I cope? I pray that God’s revelation be known. I am reminded of my need for God, both for understanding and for hope for full unity. I will argue in a manner that exalts God and His word and leaves my opponent sure of my own humility. I will join arms with them where we agree and make that our foundation of community.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is truth on paper. It is another thing to put this in practice. Lord help us all.

Posted by Jacob Abshire on May 18th, 2009 - 7:37 pm
Categories: Confessions
Tags: , , ,

One Comment on “Dealing with Differences”

  • Denny, February 4, 20107:40 pm

    Jesus’ response with dealing with differences would be, “For he that is not against us is on our part” (Mark 9:40 KJV). I am referring to the incident with the unfamiliar exorcist and the disciples obstructed because he was casting out demons in His Name. The incident has special irony considering that this unknown man apparently had success driving out demons while the disciples, who had been given special power to do so, had recently failed (Mark 9:18). St. Augustine once said, “Many whom God has, the Church does not have; and many whom the Church has, God does not have.”

    In the ancient world, exorcists used whatever name of deities they thought would work. It can scarcely be supposed that a man who knew nothing of Christ could be able to work a miracle in Christ’s name; we may therefore safely assume that this was either one of John the Baptist’s disciples, who, at his master’s command, had believed in Jesus, or one of the seventy, whom Christ had sent out, Luke 10:1-7, who, after he had fulfilled his commission, had departed from accompanying the other disciples; but still held fast to his faith in Christ and could cast out demons as well as the other disciples. Such a case is one for the application of tolerance since he believed in Jesus, and worked deeds that proved the power of the Name. Jesus catches the disciples by surprise when he does not commend them for their vigilance but instead reproves them: “Forbid him not:” (Mark 9:3 KJV) and implies if you meet him again, let him go on quietly in the work in which God owns him.

    This ambiguity creates problems in trying to apply the text today. What are the qualitative dealings with non-essential differences within the body of Christ we could translate? Two keys might help us in this task.

    (1) We must examine our own motives. Notice the reading of the text, “And John answered him, saying, ‘Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us’” (Mark 9:38 KJV). The greater fact that he and they followed Christ was overshadowed by the lesser that he did not follow them. The following excerpt is from the Matthew Henry Commentary:

    He that is not against us, is on our part РOr rather, Whosoever is not against You, is for You. Instead of ἡμων, us, I would read ὑμων, you, on the authority of ADSHV, upwards of forty others, Syriac, Armenian, Persic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Gothic, Slavonic, Vulgate, Itala, Victor, and Opt. This reading is more consistent with the context—He followed not us—well, he is not against You; and he who is not against you, in such a work, may be fairly presumed to be on your side.

    Do we oppose others because we are anxious to protect our own turf, or because we insist that others follow us?

    (2) We must recognize who the real enemy is. Our common enemy is the evil that maliciously destroys human lives. Perhaps when we lay aside our labels, we will recognize that our unity will be a sign of what God’s power can do to drive out the evil infecting our world.

    We need to recognize who the real enemy is who must be exorcised from our midst and from others. In 1265 ‚Äì 66 the Mongol Empire spanned Asia from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and Khubilai Khan asked Marco Polo to persuade the Christian church in Rome to send one hundred men to teach Christianity to his court. The Christians were in such disarray fighting among themselves that it was twenty-eight years before a single man – let alone a hundred – reached the great court. Already retired, the emperor said, “It is too late, I have grown old in my idolatry.”

    C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses (Macon: Smith & Helwys, 1993) 52-53