It’s Not Been Our Finest Hour
Let’s face it. This has been a bad couple of years for the American church. It’s not that things were all good before. They weren’t. Politics, COVID, racial tensions, justice questions, views on our national history, and debates about whether or not to wear masks don’t create divisions; they just expose them. COVID doesn’t create proud, dogmatic, and divisive opinions; the heart does.
But I’m afraid an unprecedented number of divisive opinions have been flying around at viral warp-speed, with collisions everywhere. And I would argue that, far from our finest hour, this has been an hour of profound sin and shame within the church. If James were present, he would tell us to feel wretched and mournful over how we have treated each other (James 4:8-12).
Agree? On Everything?
In his first letter to Corinth Paul offers us a better way than the one we have taken. At first glance, Paul’s appeal in 1 Corinthians 1:10 stretches faith to the limit. And upon further review, appears to ask the impossible. How is it possible for everyone to agree on everything; to be united in the same mind? This simply cannot happen unless everyone has absolutely and equally perfect knowledge and wisdom. And that won’t happen this side of heaven.
Besides, Paul writes elsewhere about various matters over which Christians will disagree, and gives them permission to do so (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8:1-10). We are even told to hold our differences firmly—“each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). So we not only are permitted to have different opinions; we are exhorted to strengthen them in our own hearts before God. Contrary to calling us unrealistically to agreement on everything, God permits us to have strong personal convictions upon which we base our own personal decisions in life.
The command in Romans 14:1 is that we are not to quarrel over disputable “opinions”—matters not explicitly and emphatically taught in Sacred Scripture. Paul’s aim is not that we have only one opinion (Rom. 14:5), but that we not quarrel over the opinions we have (2 Tim. 2:22-24; Tit. 3:2). It is permissible to disagree; it is not permissible to bicker like verbally pugnacious adversaries. When matters of personal faith and conscience vary, God commands us to keep our faith private; between us and God alone (Rom. 14:22).
Both divisive disagreement and united disagreement exist. It is a safe bet which one the Lord wants us to practice. It is unity in disagreement in the week-in, week-out life of the church to which we are called as the holy and loving people of God—and for which we must earnestly contend (Eph. 4:1-3).
The Problem of the Last Word
In Romans 14 Paul wants all spiritual brothers and sisters to learn how to handle their differences. To that end, when disagreement happens, Paul would call us to the humility that does not need to be proven right, or win an argument, or have the last word.
Over two centuries ago John Newton faced the same problem that Paul confronted many centuries before; this problem of the last word: “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, cited by Grant Gordon in Wise Counsel, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009, 251; bracket update added).
The fact that there are still times—4.7 decades into my Christian life, 4.3 decades into my marriage, and 3.9 decades into my ministry—when I still need to put a stranglehold on my tongue to keep it from saying “just one more thing” reveals that at least for me, the seduction of the last word has hardly weakened with time. And from what I’ve seen in others, I’m guessing that I’m not alone in the struggle.
God Gets the Last Word
We gain traction against this selfish arrogance when we understand that God alone will have the last word. This is Paul’s emphasis in Romans 14. Each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:10-12). I will not give an account of you; nor you of me. If you disagree with me—and happen to be wrong in the disagreement—it’s not really any of my business. That’s between you and God on the Day to come. And if I am wrong, well—and I mean no flippancy—God will have a serious little That Day last-word chat with me about that, too. You need not fret over it at all.
We are to be willing to let our disagreeing fellow believers stand or fall on their own before the only Judge that counts (Rom. 14:4; James 4:11-12); being confident that they will stand in the same grace in which we stand (Rom. 14:4). Having this confidence means that we do not have to fix their opinions for them to be okay. They already stand before God in Christ; and correcting their allegedly wrong opinions won’t make any difference. They’re okay without our alleged superior wisdom and insight!
That everyone will answer to God and be subject to his final word should effectively close our mouths when the last-word urge surges within—even when quitting the argument may cost us dearly (1 Cor. 6:1-8). We don’t need to be right, to prove others wrong, to set them straight, or to get what’s ours. Brothers and sisters: when it comes to our disagreements, God will sort it out. And that should be all the assurance we need.
United disagreement is not for the faint of heart. But knowing that God has the final word helps us to know when to drop a debate, when to say no more, and when to move on in grace. When different opinions surface, we must not take the bait. It is far more important that we keep the peace than that we say our piece. It is vastly more important that we edify others and glorify God, than that we satisfy our urge to argue down precious ones for whom Christ died. And when it comes to opinions, it is always more important that we prove our love than that we prove our point (Rom. 14:15-19; 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 10:31-33). While not for the faint of heart, this is for all who truly follow Jesus (1 Cor. 11:1).