Thursday, March 28, 2019

Why Do Christians Disagree?

Religious skeptics, along with many sincere believers young and old, find the lack of agreement among Christians to be a most perplexing and off-putting fact.

Denominationalism is only one manifestation of its reality. Within virtually all denominations we can find numerous ‘minor’ convictions still considered significant enough by their proponents to justify breaches of fellowship with those who hold different views, amicably or otherwise.

Not to pick on any one group, but just by way of example, exactly how many kinds of Baptists are there? I mean, there are Fellowship Baptists, Convention Baptists, Southern Baptists, Strict Baptists, Union Baptists, Regular Baptists and dozens more, all within a single denomination. What they disagree about is not always clear to outsiders, but it is evident they are not on exactly the same page.

Further, even within individual churches one finds a plethora of variant opinions about doctrine and a larger number of voices clamoring to comment on how we ought to practice what we find in scripture.

There are even considerable differences among Christians for whom ecclesiastical authority supersedes that of scripture in matters of faith and practice. Changing your view of the way God has communicated his truth to us is no guarantee of doctrinal or practical unanimity.

So, in answer to the famous question:
“Can we all just get along?”
— Rodney King
... well, no, it seems we can’t.

Why is that? Is God’s word unclear? Surely God could have expressed himself so unequivocally as to leave no room for debate, couldn’t he?

That They May All Be One

Whether we have difficulty understanding it or not, the fact remains that he didn’t. And yet the Lord Jesus could offer this prayer:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
When the Lord Jesus prayed these words, he referred directly to us. These are not, like many words in scripture, merely concepts and ideas related to historical circumstances and believers that we, with appropriate justification, take and apply to our lives. No, in this case they are literally about you and me — assuming of course that we have believed the teaching of the apostles. He wanted US to be “one”, just as the Father and the Son are one. You, me, us … one.

Now this, it seems to me, is a tall order. It is not the subject of this post to speculate exhaustively as to what the Lord may have meant by us being “one” in his prayer, but what I would like to do is suggest three things that follow logically from the Lord’s request and from what we know of the character of God:
  1. If such a unity was unreasonable to request of his Father, the Lord would not have asked.
  2. If such a unity was impossible for his followers to experience, the Lord would surely have been fully aware of that when asking for it.
  3. If the first two statements are true, then either: (a) this desire expressed by the Lord Jesus has been consistently thwarted for almost two millennia; or (b) when he asked that we might be “one”, he was asking the Father for something other than universal intellectual agreement among his followers.
One thing we ought to all agree about: if doctrinal agreement was what the Lord was praying for here, then his prayer has not only failed, it has failed spectacularly. That being the case, I believe he was asking his Father for something more significant than a mere intellectual accord, but that’s a subject for another post.

Regardless, here we are ... in perpetual disagreement about what the Bible teaches and about how to practice it. But I can confidently affirm that our failure to reach agreement on these matters has not surprised the Lord Jesus in the slightest.

This is no mistake. In fact, he taught his followers this is exactly what to expect. There are numerous reasons for intellectual differences in understanding. Here are four of them, and there are surely more:

1. False Believers

You are no doubt familiar with the Lord’s parable set out in Matthew 13. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a field sown with good seed and later contaminated with weeds by an enemy. The owner of the field tells his servants, “Let both grow together until harvest.” Since the “harvest” is the end of the age, it is clear the Lord expected that for its entire history his church would be comprised of a mixed multitude made up of both his faithful servants and the servants of the enemy. Since servants and enemies naturally possess diametrically opposed agendas, it should not surprise us if sometimes the latter disagree with the former.

That is our first possible source of disagreement in Christendom: phony Christians. You cannot find common cause with the enemy, and the Lord does not expect us to.

In fact, we’d be committing treason if we did.

What the Lord was teaching here may not have been instantly understood by his disciples, but it is clear that by the time they began to write, it was no surprise to the apostles that intellectual unity among the people of God was a non-starter.

2. Immaturity

Then there is the maturity issue, which comes up in both Corinthians and Hebrews:
“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready …”

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food …”
What is the primary subject of the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians? Surely it is that immaturity causes divisions. Paul calls those to whom he writes “infants in Christ”. And the writer to the Hebrews must have been disappointed if he had any hope that a background in the Law and the Old Testament would somehow transform his audience of Jews into spiritual giants all in agreement with one another. But in fact he says that it is not all believers but only the mature “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” It is only mature believers who are suited to the study of the deeper revelation of God.

The immature have been a long-standing source of disagreement in Christendom. Not all of them, of course. But some among the untaught may be convinced they know more than they do, and consequently open their mouths and sow confusion wherever they go. Paul says, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.”

3. False Teachers

Paul told the Ephesian overseers that “after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” This was not an aberration. It was not unexpected. Paul’s solution? “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace.”

This was also what he told Timothy: the workers who have no need to be ashamed are those who rightly handle the word of truth, which suggests that it is not only possible but sadly common to mishandle it.

Elsewhere, Paul insists that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

The word “genuine” here has, to most translators, the sense of “approved” rather than “counterfeit”. The idea is not so much that those on the wrong side of the argument are unbelievers, but that they have failed to accurately understand and practice the word of God.

Disagreement among the people of God is not only anticipated, it is inevitable.

4. Ignorance and Instability

Peter, speaking about the writings of the apostle Paul, points out that there are any number of teachings in the New Testament that are just plain tough. He says, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand,” but he goes on to add that it is these things that cause divisions between believers. He tells us the “ignorant and unstable” twist these things to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures, and warns of the danger of being “carried away with the error of lawless people.”

Those of us who have been in churches all our lives have almost certainly encountered this sort of individual. They are not immature in the sense of being unfamiliar with the word of God; in fact, they may be intensely involved in its study and occupied with its content. But they are obsessed with some particular hobby-horse and bent out of normal spiritual shape. Their inability to let go of their preoccupations and their lack of solid foundation make them unsuitable for teaching, leadership or any significant responsibility among the people of God.

It is hardly surprising when it becomes necessary to rebuke such individuals sharply, but those who observe such things may well wonder as to the source of disagreement.

What Christian Disagreement Means

With all of these factors and more contributing to the difficulty of reaching agreement with our fellow believers, and we may well ask why Christ would choose to build his church is such an apparently haphazard fashion. Such questions may cause us to speculate about the motives and purposes of the eternal God, but what is indisputable is this: until the “harvest” at the end of the age, this is the way it is.

When Christians disagree, several possibilities exist. Logic dictates that it is impossible for two parties on opposite sides of a question to both be entirely correct, but it is certainly possible that each party has some aspect of the question right while failing to grasp other elements at issue. A further possibility is that both parties are completely wrong, having misunderstood the question entirely.

What scripture never, ever suggests is that there is no right answer to questions that are the cause of disagreement between believers, or that finding it does not matter. The Lord tells us “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” It was true in Jeremiah’s day. It is true today.

Two remaining thoughts:

One, as others have pointed out, God could change this if he chose to. He could pull back the veil and show us his plans and purposes in such an unequivocal way that no argument might be raised. And yet he doesn’t. This is not an insoluble mystery, but it requires a close look at the character of God and the nature of his dealings with man throughout history.

Two, if it is the unity between believers that causes the world to believe that the Father has sent the Son, and if the fact that we will inevitably have disagreements over doctrine was anticipated by both the Lord and the apostles, then HOW we argue is very important indeed. Maybe more important than we realize.

Both of those may be subjects for another day.


  1. A veritable tour de force, Tom. The closest you come to offering an explanation for all this (what I had called a seeming mess) though is with:

    "Paul insists that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized".

    Isn't that simply another way of saying that free will and choices based on it are what drives everything and will determine where we end up? I am always fascinated by the seeming variety and different ways in which people approach life with its daily routines and its more exceptional tasks. I have concluded that that variety is probably essential and needed to move mankind forward and ensure our survival. The drawback is that there will be this disagreement that you are addressing here. The lesson is that the disagreement must not be arbitrary but must be based on morally as well as intellectually supported insight. The trouble is that it often is not and that's when Paul's observation applies.

    1. Agreed, Qman. I think, with you, "that variety is probably essential". It's certainly part of the plan of God in the church. I think of spiritual gift and its exercise as one really well-articulated expression of this endless variety in the work of God, and I love these words of the apostle Paul in Corinthians:

      "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone."

      There you have Father, Son and Holy Spirit all active in the expression of gift for the building up of believers ... but variety, variety, variety.

      Monotony is not characteristic of the kingdom of God.