When Issues in the Church Divide Us

I recently met with an interdenominational group of missionaries and pastors who serve the persecuted church. They told me incredible stories about the way God was calling people to faith in a place where the evangelical church is only a few decades old. But they also spoke about doctrinal controversies which often hinder their work. This young church wrestles with many of the same doctrinal differences we have in the West—conflicting views on church leadership, salvation, and spiritual gifts. But they also differ about how to address the challenges which are unique to their persecuted context. They are learning how to practice gospel cooperation in an environment hostile to the faith.

On this side of heaven, theological disagreement is part of life. The apostles who wrote the New Testament settled such disputes in the first century. Today, we have a clear word from God preserved in Scripture but no magisterium to settle our disagreements over how to interpret it. Even when we share common convictions about the gospel and the authority of Scripture, we still argue about its meaning and how we should apply it to the unique challenges we face in our cultural context. Because doctrinal disagreement is inevitable, we must find healthy and God-honoring ways to deal with our conflicts.

  1. We can embrace disagreements and reject divisiveness.

Twentieth-century ecumenical movements encouraged Christian traditions to minimize the doctrinal differences between them. Consequently, many of the churches that came out of that movement hardly resemble biblical orthodoxy today. While we can celebrate unity in the gospel, we must reject the relativistic spirit of our age that says truth isn’t important. Biblical interpretation matters. Our convictions matter. Healthy theological disagreements can spur us on to a deeper and better understanding of God’s word, so we should be reluctant to avoid or ignore the theological differences between us.

But disagreements between the people of God should not, as they often do, become sources of contention. Such behavior is as destructive to the church as false teaching and heresy. Paul puts “rivalries,” “dissensions,” and “divisions” in the same category of “works of the flesh” such as “sexual immorality,” “idolatry,” “sorcery,” and “orgies” (Gal. 5:19–21). This is serious sin. Paul ranks divisiveness in the church up there with sins like orgy participation and idol worship!

  1. We must assess our motives before engaging in debate.

Some people have “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (1 Tim. 6:4–5). Paul warns about dissenters who imagine “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 3:5). In the twenty-first century, we just call this kind of pot-stirring “platform building.” Nothing is more satanic than planting seeds of discord to build your own brand.

Others enter disagreements with godly motives, like the desire to build up the body of Christ, to grow in our own understanding, or to offer loving correction to brothers and sisters in Christ. The inspiration of Scripture makes it profitable for these very purposes (2 Tim. 3:16). Doctrinal debates can also prevent the spread of false and destructive teaching. Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” with teachers in the church who changed the gospel and insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation in Christ (Acts 15:2).

  1. We must pray before, while, and after engaging in doctrinal debates.

Discussions about doctrinal disagreement are not speculative or purely academic matters. These are spiritual conversations which are sometimes met with real spiritual warfare. We don’t “wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). While we are usually mindful of this dimension when we evangelize or preach, we sometimes forget about this aspect of theological discourse. Paul’s instruction about putting on the whole armor of God is relevant for our discussions, particularly his instruction about “praying at all times in the Spirit” and “making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:19). Praying for—and if possible, praying with—our conversation partners will stir our affections toward them, no matter how serious the conflict may be. Spirit-filled prayer in our theological discussions can keep our responses out of the flesh and our focus on the glory of God and building up the body of Christ.

  1. Speak reasonably and charitably. Don’t be timid or patronizing.

When Paul defended the faith before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26:1–32, he did not succumb to the mirroring temptations of cowardly compromise or ungracious triumphalism. Instead, he made every effort to speak truthfully and reasonably with his challenger (Acts 26:25). He spoke boldly in the power of the Spirit, not in his own flesh. He appealed to the reason and good sense he perceived in Agrippa, even if the king was not yet a believer in Jesus: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27). Agrippa, somewhat stunned by Paul’s appeal and gracious demeanor, asked, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). Paul knew that a gracious and reasonable defense would be more persuasive than mean-spirited and impassionate rhetoric.

If we are truly under the authority of Scripture, we must practice humility and teachableness.

  1. Offer gentle and loving correction when necessary.

Priscilla and Aquila model gentle correction well for us in Acts 18:24–28. Luke begins this incident by introducing us to Apollos, who is described with a string of superlatives: he was “eloquent,” “competent in the Scriptures,” “instructed in the way of the Lord,” “fervent in spirit,” accurate in his speech about Jesus, and bold in his proclamation. Yet despite all these accolades, something Apollos said in his preaching needed correction. But note what Priscilla and Aquila didn’t do. They didn’t publicly embarrass Apollos. They didn’t write an epistle to another group of Christians about Apollos. Instead, “they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). This faithful couple did not seek to build their own reputation. They engaged him privately so that he would be more effective in ministry.

  1. We must handle constructive criticism and correction well.

Unless we are attributing to ourselves the divine perfections that belong only to God, we can acknowledge that none of us are all-knowing or all-wise. We can and sometimes should be corrected. Growth in our knowledge and understanding of biblical and doctrinal truth is part of our sanctification. Wisdom literature has much to say about loving correction and how we receive it: “Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Prov. 15:32).

Fools hate correction, but wise men love the understanding it brings (Prov. 9:7–9). But as a mentor once told me, we must choose the critics we listen to carefully. Not every angry voice out there vying for attention demands a careful hearing. Do not let critics who do not speak reasonably, charitably, or with biblical authority get into your head. But when someone who has earned your trust or who speaks faithfully from Scripture offering gentle correction or rebuke, listen carefully, for “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6a).

  1. We should know when to take the conversation elsewhere.

Though much of what I have said here directly relates to online engagement, I would plea that believers move some of these conversations offline completely. Online engagement can be dehumanizing, because we often forget fellow image-bearers are more than their avatars and tweets. But there is another reason why we should consider unplugging. We don’t have to air all our dirty laundry and in-house quarrels before a cynical and unbelieving audience. Long before the dawn of the glowing screen, the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus insisted not every theological spat is fit for public consumption: “If we cannot resolve our disputes outright, let us at least make this mutual concession, to utter spiritual truths with the restraint due to them, to discuss holy things in a holy manner, and not to broadcast to a profane hearing what is not to be divulged” (Oration 27.5).

  1. Our theological conversations should be characterized by the fruit of the Spirit.

Divisiveness belongs to the works of the flesh. Believers who walk by the Spirit must address their doctrinal differences in the fruit of the Spirit. We who belong to Jesus have crucified the flesh and its desires for glory, fame, and tribalism. We should be known for our “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). We must ask ourselves whether we embody this fruit in the tenor of our debates. Are we patient toward one another? Are we gentle in correction? Are we kind or do we stoop to insults and name-calling?

If we are truly under the authority of Scripture, we must practice humility and teachableness. We must recognize that not every point of difference between us is a matter worthy of breaking fellowship. We must let reason—not emotion—control the way we think through our differences. And we must recognize that what we have in common in the gospel and the Great Commission is much greater than the things that divide us.

Content adapted from When Doctrine Divides the People of God by Rhyne Putman. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.