As he prepared to go to the cross, Jesus left his disciples with some important advice: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you completely agree with one another on every subject.” (John 13:35)
Actually that’s not what he said. I hope you spotted the blatant misquote of that verse, and I’m relieved that those words are not what he really said, because sometimes it seems that Christians don’t agree on very much.
There are so many issues that cause division: baptism, gifts of the Spirit, homosexuality, whether to celebrate Halloween, divorce, women in church leadership, Harry Potter… the list goes on.
But does this always have to be a bad thing? And how should we handle it when we disagree?
I think, first of all, it’s helpful to accept that, whether we like it or not, we are going to see things in different ways. We all have different experiences which influence our thinking and we may have interpreted, or been taught to interpret, certain passages from the Bible in different ways, but maybe this is okay.
Paul writes in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known”. The dictionary definition of the word “manifold” is “marked by diversity and variety”. If God’s wisdom is marked by diversity and variety, could this mean that we are not meant to fully agree on absolutely everything?
Romans 14:19 urges us to “Aim for harmony in the church.” I’ve written more about this in another post, but it’s interesting that we are called to aim for harmony, not for unison. Harmony means there will be moments where there is dissonance which then resolves; two parts may clash at times, but they complement one another in the context of the overall piece.
So if there are going to be times when we have different views, how should we handle it?
I think the key is humility- recognising that none of us are perfect, we are all on a journey and none of us have complete understanding. I fully admit that while some of my opinions, such as on the subject of baptism, are well researched and considered, my opinions on other subjects, such as women in leadership, are not thought through at all. Because I grew up knowing of women in church leadership it is something I have always seen as normal and never really questioned. (If you disagree with me, be assured that this is something I want to look into more.)
Our attitude when we disagree is so important. Even if our opinion is carefully considered, even if we are sure we are right, the way we respond to other people makes a big difference. I have heard people saying of those who disagree with them, “they just don’t care what the Bible says”. I’ve heard people question whether someone really is a Christian just because they had a different view about homosexuality. That’s really not helpful.
Sometimes I find that people’s attitude turns me against their point-of-view more than what they actually believe- and if that is the case for me, it is probably even more true for non-Christians. This is why it is so important that we get it right.
People need to feel safe to ask questions and express opinions without fearing that others are going to get defensive or jump down their throats or question their salvation. I don’t usually hold back from asking the awkward questions, but I know that when I was thinking through the issue of homosexuality I felt it was not something I could discuss with most Christians I knew. I was sure I would be judged just for questioning the issue- I had heard them talk judgementally about others. If I felt like that, as someone who wasn’t personally struggling with the issue but just wanted to understand it more, how much worse must it be for someone for whom it was personal?
On the contrary, one of the best discussions I ever had was with someone who held completely different views from me. We discussed the subject of baptism and we talked for about an hour, quoting different Bible verses, and explaining our understandings. At the end of our talk, neither of us had convinced the other- we still completely disagreed- but because there was respect and humility and willingness to listen, on both sides, we understood one another more and it actually strengthened our relationship.
Of course grace and truth are both important and the balance is tricky at times, but I think that if we can disagree respectfully and accept our differences, that is often a more powerful witness than attempting to argue one another into complete agreement.
Jesus did not say the mark of his disciples would be agreement on every issue. What he actually said in John 13:35 is, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
linking with Thought-Provoking Thursday