Jesus wants his people to be unified (John 17:20-23). He wants us not to argue with one another (2 Timothy 2:23-26). And yet Christians argue and fight all the time.
Denominations Are Usually a Good Solution to Disagreements, Not a Sinful Response to Disagreements
Before we can really come up with solutions, I believe we first need to define what the real goal must be. One of the most common “rants” I hear by Christians is about the multitude of denominations within Christianity. While I believe once God makes all things new there will certainly be no need for denominational labels anymore, I am not here today to say denominations should cease to exist on earth.
Not trying to be rude, but people who rant about denominations are usually those who have never actually served or worked in the church in a committed way. While I agree denominations “should not be needed,” I only mean this in the context that they should not be needed because sin “should not” exist. I mean that sin is not a part of God’s original design. But the fact is sin does exist. All Christians are not yet fully glorified in the Lord, and thus there will always be real differences in our understanding and outlook on extremely important issues.
So because sin does exist and Christians will never be fully perfected on this side of eternity, I whole heartedly agree with the need for denominations. If you can’t get past the ideal and accept reality you will turn into a pessimist ranting about what the church “should be.” Yes, all Christians “should” be unified on every thought, doctrine, and biblical interpretation. And one day we all will be when God glorifies us for eternity in our new resurrected bodies. We will all then see the Bible the exact same way.
But right now that is not happening. That will never happen until Jesus returns. And yet God has called all Christians to be unified with all Christians so that the world knows God sent Jesus (John 17:21). So what’s the balance here? If Christians will continue to disagree on very important topics, how can there be unity and peace between us?
Sometimes peace happens through healthy separation. Denominations allow real work to continue rather than a deadlock on all progress due to differences on a few important issues. When people have the conversation to try and see eye to eye but then they still see an important issue differently even though they’ve tried to work it out, to continue to lock horns is counterproductive. Paul and Barnabas separated. This wasn’t “ideal.” But they knew it was “better” to separate and keep getting things done rather than stay together and argue while nothing gets done.
I believe the real solution we all should be working towards is not total unity of thought and total agreement on all biblical interpretation of every Bible verse. Of course we should try to help each other see what we believe the Bible really says, but again, we know this will not always happen. Therefore the real solution right now is not total agreement on every issue but learning how to disagree with one another well. How can Christians disagree while maintaining respect, love, and a unity that surpasses the issue at hand?
Christians Need to Grasp the Concept of First, Second, and Third Tier Issues
One of the challenges to the solution I am proposing is that there are certain truths in the Bible that we must agree on if we are to call each other Christians. While I believe the real solution to the fighting and discord amongst Christians is learning to disagree respectfully and maintaining love for one another in the midst of disagreeing, there are truths so crucial and important that division must occur if two people disagree about these truths.
In other words, certain biblical issues are more important than other biblical issues. Not all truths are of equal importance. I’m not saying that some truths are truer or less true. Truth is absolute. What I mean is that certain truths have more consequences if you believe or don’t believe them.
For example: If you believe the age of the earth is thousands of years old while your pastor believes the age of the earth is millions of years old, this is a big difference. One of you is right and the other one is wrong. However, if you believe marriage is between one man and one woman and your pastor believes two people of the same sex should be supported by the church in marriage, that issue has an immediate consequence to it far weightier that your disagreement about the age of the earth.
I believe there are at least three tiers of importance when it comes to Christian doctrine and truth:
Tier one issues are those doctrines which are core to salvation. In other words, if you get a tier one issue wrong, your eternal destination is in question. Issues like the divinity of Christ, the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, salvation through faith and grace alone, and many other similar issues are tier one.
Tier two issues are those issues which do not affect your salvation or identity as a Christian. But these issues will have an impact on how you live day to day, how you conduct the church service, and how you operate as a church body. While a male pastor and a female pastor may both believe in the core truths of the gospel and thus are both true Christians, their belief in who can and cannot be a pastor are so different that coexisting in the same church would be divisive and impossible. While a Baptist pastor and a Presbyterian pastor may agree on almost everything, their disagreement over infant baptism will cause them to operate their churches very differently.
Tier three issues are those issues which do not affect your salvation, the way you live your life daily, or the way you operate your church in significant matters. Explaining the outcome of the Tower of Babel is interesting and important, but if you disagree it probably isn’t going to change the way you live your life day to day. If you believe in the five points of Calvinism but your pastor only believes in four of those five points, it’s likely this disagreement will not be insurmountable to your continued partnership.
In summary, first tier issues should be dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians. Second tier issues should divide Christians into denominations so churches can function day to day. But disagreements over second tier issues should not hinder Christians from uniting over first tier issues and other shared beliefs that can help benefit society. Denominations should be able work together on shared matters of concern like abortion, social injustice, helping the poor, and reaching the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Third tier issues should not divide Christians in significant ways.
Third tier issues are to me the area where Christians need the most maturity. Simply put, many, many Christians are just terrible about getting angry over disagreements that are not that important in the big picture. Because we don’t see eye to eye on this smaller issue, huge problems arise. This should not be. Another big problem Christians have is rightly identifying what tier the issue should be categorized in. This takes a lot of biblical maturity, humility, dialogue, and reliance on the word of God.
In summary of this point, people argue and disagree so often and so poorly when they put issues in the wrong tier. For example: I recently wrote a blog about how to know when God is leading you to marry this certain person. Well, someone read that article and disagreed with one of the four points I had. You would have thought I denied Jesus by this person’s response to me. They were so upset by the one piece of advice I mentioned that they felt I should never write another book again.
While knowing who you should marry is really important, this topic is definitely a third tier issue. It’s important, but we should be able to disagree about this very specific issue without getting emotional and argumentative.
Explosive Disagreements Happen When Idols Are Present
I believe there is a difference between a disagreement and an argument. A disagreement is when two people don’t see things the same way. An argument is when two people are upset at one another because they don’t see things the same way.
Disagreements are going to happen, but emotional outbursts, putdowns, and arrogant responses don’t need to happen. I believe people get emotional about certain issues when they have an idol somehow involved in the argument.
I’ve talked about identifying idols before (Read: Freedom From the Riot or Identifying Idols of the Heart). The main point I’ve made in those articles is that you can know what you idolize by what you get mad about. When Paul preached the gospel in Ephesus and then the people stopped buying the local idol statues, a riot occurred because the statue makers got mad (Acts 19:23-29). Likewise, when you threaten to tamper with someone’s idol they get very mad at you.
If you challenge someone’s beliefs that are wrapped up with an idol of theirs, watch out. They are going to argue with you and hate you. So what should be done? If you suspect you can’t have a calm and logical conversation with someone because they have personal, idolatrous motives involved, your only option is to address the root issues or not address anything at all.
If they are willing to hear they should not live with their boyfriend, act on their homosexual desires, or use alcohol as a coping mechanism, then continue to dialogue. If they just want to argue and defend their position because they are personally offended and all tied up inside because they are clinging to their idols, the way to promote peace is to stop talking with them otherwise the argument will certainly continue.
Disagree, Play Fair, and Move On
In summary, I believe Christians, especially American Christians, need to learn to disagree without feeling like our identity as people are being attacked. People attack when they feel attacked. If you are leaving emotional comments all over the internet every time you disagree with what someone said, you are going to ware yourself out emotionally. The solution to your inner turmoil is not getting every Christian to see everything the exact same way as you. The only way you will have inner peace even when someone disagrees with you is by having your identity deeply rooted in Jesus and not in what other people think. People get mad when they are afraid their beliefs are false. Fear exposes our shallow faith.
We have to learn to play fair. It’s not fair to read one line from something someone wrote and then assume everything that person ever wrote is obviously wrong even though you’ve just skimmed one article they wrote. It’s not fair to call into question someone’s salvation when the issue you are talking about is a tier two or three issue. It’s not fair to try and win by yelling louder. It’s not fair to demonize those you disagree with. It’s not fair to see Christians as all right or all wrong. Only Jesus deserves that standard. It’s not fair to feel like you can be rude and disrespectful to people just because your Christian camp disagrees with their Christian camp.
You might get praised for bashing the Christian across the aisle by those on your side. But God is not smiling. God wants Christians to be unified, and to do that we need to stop clinging to our idealism, hoping every Christian will see every tier two or three issue the exact same. We need to grow up and learn to not feel threatened by those who see things a little different even though they see Christ the same way as us. We need to learn how to have healthy disagreements, to talk about it, to share our biblical evidence, and then to move on. We need to learn when to stop trying to convince other Christians to see everything like us and start loving them even though we disagree about some stuff. Mature people accept the differences others have and then they keep moving on with life, not forever stuck because of that one disagreement. We need to learn to glorify God together over the first tier issues while lovingly separating over the second tier issues and not feeling like failures because we really can’t function together in the same church.
One day God is going to destroy all disagreements between Christians. But in the meantime, we all need to learn not to be destroyed by our disagreements (Galatians 5:15).
Lastly, let’s not expect most people will show us the same courtesy I am proposing in this article. Mass change occurs when individuals decided to change themselves. So expect angry comments on your blog even though you are just doing your best to help people by giving them free advice you have spent a lot of time creating. Expect people to leave an angry comment because you were not able to express every point possible in 140 characters in your tweet. Expect people to get mad and offensive when they disagree with your biblical interpretation. Expect people to claim they are “debating” even though they are really trying to argue which is against God’s desire (2 Timothy 2:23-26). Share what you believe, but refuse to get sucked into a verbal fight when someone responds in anger to you. If you feel they are not listening, do what Jesus said and don’t waste your time (Matthew 7:6).
In short, don’t be controlled by others. Follow God, share your best understanding of the Bible, be willing to adapt when someone teaches you something new that is true and confirmed in Scripture, and learn to disagree well. Unity amongst Christians is dependent upon loving even when we don’t see eye to eye.