I learned today that my friend Joel recently passed away. Years ago, Joel and I pastored different churches, but we enjoyed a decades-long partnership in ministry.
Joel let our young church plant borrow his building frequently. He invited us to his events and occasionally showed up at ours. He supported my children annually in a fund-raising Walk for Life. And more than once he encouraged people to attend our church instead of his when ours was a better theological fit for them. Yes: you read that right.
Joel was more of a cultural fundamentalist than me, and much more conservative in style. His ever-present white shirt was always tucked, and he almost always sported a tie. He was a sincere teetotaling, KJV-preferring, taboo-keeping, and drum and guitar-rejecting brother with a very real non-charismatic and non-Calvinistic bent.
But despite our many disagreements, he displayed the grace of unity by welcoming us into his life. He turned me—a shirt-untucking, hand-raising, drum-loving, foot-tapping, liberty-enjoying, wine-sipping, ESV-toting, and TULIP-planting charismatic—into his friend, and our churches into partners.
Despite our differences Joel and I had too much in common not to be friends. We both loved Jesus, proclaimed the gospel of free justification by faith alone, cherished grace, preached all the true biblical fundamentals, worshiped a big God, and longed for authentic holiness. Unity needed nothing more. Thus we shared the grace of united division as he helped me learn how to differ in our separate churches to the glory of God.
AGREE? ON EVERYTHING?
Paul appeals to all of us who “bear the name of Christ . . . that [we would] agree . . . that there [would] be no divisions among [us], [and] that [we would] be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). He isn’t commanding us all to agree on everything, since that would require perfect knowledge of everything equally shared by everybody. In fact, Paul writes elsewhere about issues over which Christians may disagree permissibly (1 Cor. 8–10; Rom. 14:1–15:7), while being “fully convinced in [their] own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
The imperative in Romans 14:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:10 are that we not quarrel over our opinions. Paul’s concern is not that we have only one opinion about controversies to which the Bible gives no priority status or final definitive word (Rom. 14:5) but that we not quarrel over the opinions we have (2 Tim. 2:14, 22–24; Tit. 3:9–11; 1 Tim. 2:8). To put it simply, it is permissible to disagree; it is not permissible to argue.
GOD GETS THE LAST WORD
We need humility that does not need to be proven right or have the last word. John Newton of Amazing Grace fame writes: “I believe scarcely any thing has [contributed] so much to perpetuate disputes and dissensions in the professing church as the ambition of having the last word” (John Newton, Wise Counsel, 251). And the fact that I still have to hog-tie and gag my tongue to keep it from saying “just one more thing” reveals that at least for me (a 48-year veteran in the faith), the seduction of the last word is as powerful as ever.
But God alone gets the last word. Everyone will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:10–12). Disagreeing believers will stand or fall on their own before the only Judge who counts (Rom. 14:4). And we can be confident that others will stand in the same grace of God in which we stand (Rom. 14:4).
Knowing that God has this final word helps us not to insist on it ourselves. It helps us to know when to drop a disagreement and move on in grace. It reminds us that what matters when we disagree is not that others stand corrected by us, but that we pursue righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, and mutual up-building in the faith (Rom. 14:17, 19).
AGREE ON WHAT MATTERS MOST
So what is Paul calling us to in 1 Corinthians? First, he is calling us to agree on what matters most. Truths like: (1) Christ Jesus and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2); (2) the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1–5); and (3) love as the most excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31–14:1). All these and much more are non-negotiable ties meant to bind our hearts in united Christian love.
Second, Paul is calling us to handle disagreements about lesser issues with non-divisive grace. In our disagreements we are not to be partisan (1 Cor. 1:11–12), proud (1 Cor. 4:7, 18–19; 13:4), pig-headed (1 Cor. 8:1–2; 13:5); pugnacious (1 Cor. 11:16); personal (1 Cor. 13:5–6); prejudiced (1 Cor. 11:21–22; 12:21–25); preference-demanding (1 Cor. 8:1–9:22); prosecutorial (1 Cor. 6:1-8); or public (1 Cor. 6:6).
As Alexander Strauch observes: “In many church disputes, believers fight for so-called truths that are not explicitly revealed in Scripture while egregiously violating clear and repeated teaching of Scripture on godly conduct and attitudes” (Strauch, If You Bite and Devour One Another, 18). Something is amiss when Christians argue for what they believe the Bible commands in ways that clearly violate what the Bible commands.
There is a better way. God wants us to disagree with a transcending love that enables us to live together—or apart—in ways characterized by grace. To that end we will need the following.
Purposeful Unity. Disagreeing Christians must resolve to agree in essentials (Rom. 16:17–18; Eph. 4:1–7; Phil. 1:27–2:5). The historic adage, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity” is a time-honored call to pursue intentional one-mindedness, an eager and unflinching unity in gospel essentials (Eph. 4:1–6), and a commitment to agree on core Christian truths as emphatically and publicly as possible.
Gospel Priority. People with whom we disagree may have deficient character or doctrine. Their motives may be suspect, their judgment may be flawed, their application may be inconsistent, and their politics and protocols may seem ignorant. But the essential priority question is this: are they preaching Jesus and giving him to others? It should affect our heart and tone if they are.
Impossible Humility. Paul calls believers to profound humility (Phil. 2:1–5). He exhorts us “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Tit. 3:2). Speak evil of no one, and show perfect courtesy toward all. The words are categorical. “No one” means no one. I am not to malign anyone at all—even if someone offends me.
I’ve heard this called “impossible humility”—an apt phrase indeed! Sometimes humble self-control feels impossible. Surely under these circumstances, in the face of these offences, and when confronted by these sins we must fight back. Truth has to be heard. Right has to be done. Wrong has to be exposed. A defense has to be mounted. I’ve got to make them pay. But no. You don’t.
God calls us to humble grace no matter what. While not preventing us from ever correcting others’ sins (Gal. 6:1) or defending ourselves and our ministry (see 2 Cor. 10–13), this does prescribe our tone and heart in doing so. Paul urges the Corinthians (and us) to walk with all humility toward everybody by making at least five seemingly impossible choices:
Assume you are at least partly wrong. (1 Cor. 8:1–2).
Repent of your divisive sins and confess them to others (2 Cor. 7:10).
Forgive readily the errors and sins of those who have confessed (2 Cor. 2:5–11).
Do not presume to judge people’s hearts—something only God can do (1 Cor. 4:3–5).
Brotherly Charity. Humble love believes and hopes all things, refusing to interpret others’ actions in a negative light unless absolutely compelled to. Love is not cynical or suspicious, but ever-inclined to think positively of others and to read the best intentions into their actions (1 Cor. 1:4–7; 13:7) within the bounds of prudence and safety. Just as we would hope others would show charity and grace to us, we should show it to them.
Peaceful Civility. We must not malign, lose patience, or treat any other human being with anything but civility and courtesy. “The Holy Spirit does not lead believers to speak evil of others, or to be self-righteous faultfinders or harsh critics.” (Alexander Strauch, If You Bite and Devour One Another, 79). In other words, I can be sure that if I am harsh or shrill, I am not Spirit-filled or humble.
THE GRACE-WAY TO LIVE
Strong disagreements are going to happen—and they may even lead to united division, a peace-motivated parting of the ways. Here are some suggestions to ensure that whether together or apart, we walk in unity and grace.
Let us pray for one another—committing to talk to God for one another much more than we talk to others against one another.
Let us make sure that those offended by or differing with us have been, and have felt, heard.
Let us confess sin where needed and forgive sin when asked.
Let us highlight the agreement that unites us rather than the opinions that divide.
Let us choose to forebear when wronged rather than vilify wrong-doers.
Let us judge others’ intentions charitably and thank God loudly for any good done by them.
Let us pursue ongoing meaningful fellowship and partnership—even when we disagree.
I once heard a preacher charge Reformed-types like me: “Brothers, it is good that we love the doctrines of grace. But it is better that we live the grace of the doctrines.” These contentious times are our times in which to live that grace. We are called to walk in love and unity, even if not under the same theological roof or political banner. If we choose otherwise, it will not be because our differences are too large, but because our hearts are too small. Let us commit to better things with one another, all because we believe far greater things of God.