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May 30, 2017

A (Brief) Biblical Theology of Disagreement

By Ben Connelly

Her eyebrows were raised nearly to her curly hairline; her fists balled and her arms straight down. “Say ‘Will you forgive me?’!” demanded Maggie, age four, of her six-year-old sister. “I don’t need to,” Charlotte replied. My wife gently explained that while Charlotte had hurt Maggie, it had been an accident. Charlotte hadn’t sinned, so she didn’t need to ask Maggie’s forgiveness.

Maggie was referencing a family “discipline liturgy” that—though they’re young—each of our kids already knows by heart: after any punishment, a parent talks to the offender, hopefully pointing our kids to human inadequacy and our need for Jesus. Then our accused offspring apologizes to whomever was wronged and gives them a hug. Then, and only if there seemed to be actual sin involved, in action or motive, do they ask for forgiveness.

This may seem like a silly ritual for our kids’ young ages, but my wife and I are trying to teach our kids a lesson that many adults, even Christians, don’t seem to understand: all conflict and disagreement doesn’t require forgiveness. Because while all sin leads to division, not all division is inherently a matter of sin.

Conflict, division, and dissension live everywhere, even within churches, communities within a church, and Christian households. But the Bible shows us three categories of disagreement: sin, folly (or, since that’s not a common word in 2017, “un-wisdom”), and preference. The Bible also gives us right and different responses to each category. Too often we assume all disagreement to be the same and respond the same way to every issue. But knowing different types of disagreement helps us know how to respond rightly (and helps us avoid compounding the issue with our own sin).

Matters of sin are met with rebuke and discipline. 

The most obvious type of disagreement is sin. Sin is conflict based on someone doing something objectively contrary to God’s commands and Scripture. The Bible’s response to sin within relationships is clear: sin deserves rebuke and discipline from fellow followers of Jesus. In love and grace, yes. But from the first instance of sin in the Bible, God disciples those who are disobedient to his words and commands. Some form of “rebuke” or “reprove” is found over 100 times in the Bible. And “if a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault …” If he refuses to listen to increasing rebuke, eventually the Church is called to treat the one being rebuked as if he does not act as a follower of Jesus. That’s rebuke and discipline (see Matthew 18).

On one hand, it’s helpful to remember that the goal of discipline isn’t vengeance but restoration. On the other hand, for the one who being rebuked, the right biblical response is confession and forgiveness. Whether that happens or not (between my children or the other church member you’re fighting with) aren’t the issues we’re tackling in this article. The issue at hand is discerning the type of disagreement and knowing how to respond rightly. Paul rebuked Peter for the sin of hypocrisy, which was leading other Christians astray: “I opposed him fto his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11). When sin underlies a disagreement—greed, lust, anger, or any of the myriad seen in the New Testament—sin rightly receives rebuke and discipline.

While sin may be the most obvious type of disagreement, it isn’t the only one. So like Maggie, we have to be careful not to automatically assume that just because we disagree with someone, that the other person’s opinion, view, or decision is inherently sinful.

Matters of preference are met with humility & deference. 

On the other end of the spectrum from sin exist disagreements over personal preference: if the Bible doesn’t address an issue, it’s left to God’s people to determine the best decision in that area of life. And as it turns out, whether related to home, work, family, or even church, not every follower of Jesus thinks the same as I do, on every issue of preference under the sun. It seems common for conflict to arise over certain rhythms of diet, some financial decisions, methods of discipline or bedtime, or specific ways of engaging spiritual things. These might be “matters of preference” (but for the record, don’t always; they may be matters of “folly”, addressed below)

Paul addresses two different matters of preference in Romans 14. In the early Roman church, some Christians were fine eating meat; others stuck to veggies. And some seemed to set aside one day for specific forms of worshiping God, while others believed that every day can be treated the same as it related to worship. Paul addressed both issues as preference. Rather than allow division, Paul encouraged his Roman friends to “be fully convinced in his own mind” (v. 5), then charged, “the one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (v. 6). Essentially, “in matters on which the Bible is truly silent, let’s each what we think most glorifies God”! Rather than divide, “let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (v. 3).

The biblical response to others whose preference differs from our own is essentially to shrug, agree to disagree, and let it be. I don’t get to label their decision as sin. In fact, God doesn’t allow me to make it into an issue at all! The biblical response to issues of preference is to, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2). One translation helpfully commands in Ephesians 4:2 as “tolerate one another.” I wonder if that applies here!

So, on one end of the spectrum is sin; on the other end is preference. But between those two extremes, exists a huge gray area where division also loves to reside, called “folly.” And our response to folly is different than our responses to the other two categories.

Matters of folly are met with warnings & exhortations. 

Old Testament wisdom literature doesn’t specifically prohibit the proverbial “son” from walking through the a city’s Red Light District at night, but it definitely warns against the obvious unwisdom therein: “For at the window of my house, I have looked out through my lattice, I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart” (Prov. 7:6-10).

What comes in the next verses does devolve into outright sin, but this warning itself fits a theme that runs not only in the wisdom literature but the whole Bible: wisdom leads to blessing, while folly leads to ruin. Simply put, some decisions people make cannot overtly be labeled sin but are far more important than being labeled as mere preference. These are matters of folly.

Maybe the issue is leaving a church. Maybe it’s entering (or leaving) a dating relationship. Maybe it’s a parenting or financial decision that goes deeper than the preference mentioned above. Whatever the issue, folly stems from many sources. Sometimes people don’t know that the Bible speaks to an issue, and they simply need to be shown that it does. Others might not know the wisest choice in a given situation. Still others might not see specific prohibitions against a decision, so they swing to the other end of the spectrum and assume they have freedom. Finally, some people may be blinded to the unwisdom of a certain decision—by their own desires or passions, by the forces at work against godliness in the world, or by some combination of both. And yes, some are just plain belligerent. Whatever the reason, Christians are called to encourage, exhort, warn, help, and serve each other. We’re to one another “as yourself.” We’re to “speak the truth in love” and to care about each other’s holiness and godliness as much as our own.

Disagreements don’t remain in the gray forever. As we warn and exhort our brothers and sisters—again, in love and grace!—we may understand their motives and actions better and realize that it’s actually a matter of preference. Or like the fool in Proverbs 7, unwisdom may eventually (and sadly) lead the person into sin. If either of these take place, the issue has entered a new category and the biblical response changes.

A call to unity.

Types of disagreements matter. Categories of response matter. God’s church is called to be one: without ongoing dissension, division, conflict, bitterness, or disagreement. In all of this, by God’s grace we “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3).

Sometimes that looks like accepting varying preferences and “tolerat[ing] one another”. Sometimes it looks like living out the many “one another” commands in the Bible and warning each other against unwise choices. Still other times, it indeed looks like calling sin “sin” and addressing it boldly. But to be sure, we don’t always get to demand of the person with whom we disagree, “Say ‘Will you forgive me?’!”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben Connelly

Ben Connelly (@connellyben), his wife Jess, and their kiddos Charlotte, Maggie, and Travis live in Fort Worth, TX. He started and now co-leads The City Church, part of the Acts29 network and Soma family of churches. Ben also directs church planting for Soma churches across North America, has taught university classes, and has published a few books. With degrees from Baylor University and Dallas Theological Seminary, he writes for various publications, trains folks across the country, and blogs occasionally at benconnelly.net.

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