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Dr Peter Saunders

Disagreement amongst Christians is normal and unity does not mean uniformity

Dr Peter Saunders was, until December 2018, the Chief Executive of CMF. Prior to that he was a general surgeon in New Zealand, Kenya and the UK. He is now the CEO of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA), a global movement uniting national Christian medical and dental organisations in over 60 countries,
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

My father was a Congregationalist and my mother Anglican and after leaving home my brother joined the Baptists and I the Open Brethren. I married my Presbyterian wife in a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and during house-jobs we were members of an Apostolic Pentecostal fellowship. Later whilst working in another city we were members of a charismatic Anglican and then, following another move, went to a house church made up of mainly first generation converts from the 70s hippie movement.

After joining the Africa Inland Mission in Kenya as medical missionaries we spent two years at a multinational Bible college with 170 students from 40 countries and twice as many denominations, during which time we attended an Elim church. Now we are Free Evangelical.

Living in twelve different houses in five cities in three countries in your first ten years of marriage provides an interesting perspective on church culture; but one thing it has taught me is that Christians disagree over doctrine (what they should believe) and practice (how they should behave). In this, and other articles, I will explore why Christians disagree, and consider how they should handle disagreement when it happens.

Belief, behaviour, association, regeneration

What makes a Christian? Is it about belief, behaviour, association or something else? It is clearly important to believe certain things about Jesus Christ, but belief is not enough. After all even the demons believe – and shudder.[1] Also being a Christian does not guarantee that all our beliefs are correct; which is why the apostle Paul had to write so many letters to churches who had it wrong! Being a Christian involves repentance (change in behaviour) but there are people with good behaviour who are not Christians and people with bad (albeit improving) behaviour who are. And whilst Christians should associate with other Christians,[2] going to church does not make a person a Christian. Belief, behaviour and association are important; but it is actually regeneration that makes a person a Christian: that is Christians are people who have been ‘born from above’,[3] become a ‘new creation'[4] and have the Holy Spirit living in them.[5]

Disagreement amongst Christians is normal

No Christian is perfect in either doctrine or practice, and disagreement is an inevitable consequence of imperfect people having to live and work together. We should not be surprised about it, but rather expect it. Our own doctrine and practice may be strongly influenced by selfish desires, pride or other temptations and sins to which we have surrendered. If a person adamantly sticks to a wrong position despite being shown the error of their ways, there will usually be a personal reason for it. This is why it is so important that disagreement is handled with patience, love and care.

Often we are unable to see where we are wrong on an issue because of sin in our own lives or because changing our opinion or actions may be very costly for us. Even leading Christians disagree. Martin Lloyd-Jones and John Stott disagreed over whether evangelicals should leave the Church of England. Luther and Calvin disagreed on a variety of issues. Even the apostles Peter and Paul had a major argument over circumcision,[6] and Paul and Barnabas had such a sharp disagreement about Mark that they had to part company and work independently.[7]

And it was not just the men. In the church of Philippi two women called Syntyche and Euodia had such a disruptive disagreement that Paul had to single them out for rebuke.[8] The Epistles are all about disagreement between Christians. So disagreement is a normal part of church, marriage and family life and we should not be surprised or upset when it happens. Some people try to escape disagreement by trying to live their lives closeted with other Christians who think the same; but, as well as being doomed to failure, this is also failing to acknowledge the diversity of Christ’s body the church, and the importance of love and unity.[9]

What do Christians disagree about?

There are some Christian beliefs so fundamental to the faith that it is quite reasonable to assume that a person who doesn’t hold them is not a Christian at all: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ; Jesus’ death for our sins (the atonement); the last judgment and salvation through faith. These are ‘primary issues’, but there are also ‘secondary issues’ on which genuine Christians might disagree:

Baptism: Do you believe in infant baptism or believers’ baptism or both? Should you be sprinkled, dowsed or immersed? And should the venue be a lake, river, the sea, or a specially designed and heated sterile bath under some floorboards in the church hall?

Charismata (gifts of the Spirit): Are they for the first century or all centuries, or have they just been restored to the church in the ‘last days’? Are they all for everybody, or just for some?

Eschatology (theology of the ‘end times’): Do you believe in the rapture, and if so do you think that it will come before, during or after the tribulation, if you believe in that? What about the millennium? Are you pre-mill (dispensational or not), post-mill or a-mill, or perhaps pan-mill (ie it will all ‘pan out’ in the end)? Or are you just confused?

Creation: Are you a six day creationist, a special creationist or a theistic evolutionist? An old-earther or young-earther?

Worship: Are you more at home with ‘happy-clappy’ or ‘smells and bells’? Do you prefer hymns from a book, or choruses from a data projector, pews or chairs, dancing or quiet? Is it to be the organ, or electric bass and drums?

Ecclesiology (theology of the church): What do you think about synods, councils and bishops? Should women be ordained? Should men? Should there be a clergy at all?

These issues have split churches and created the myriad denominations we have today. And we haven’t yet mentioned the Lord’s supper, the role of women, Old Testament prophecy, sanctification, predestination, the relation between church and state and the theology of mission.

Then there are ethical issues. Take sex: how far is too far for unmarried couples? Should Christians ever break the law? Is it wrong to lend money at interest? And at the interface of Christianity and medicine there are a huge number of issues about which there is no full consensus, even amongst Christian doctors.

As CEO of CMF I not infrequently receive letters from Christian doctors taking issue with views expressed in CMF literature and often from both sides of a particular issue.

One of the great strengths of CMF is that we are an interdenominational organisation; but this means that we do not agree on everything. Unity does not mean complete uniformity in belief and practice.

References

 

1.Jas 2:19
2.Heb 10:24,25
3.Jn 3:3
4.2 Cor 5:17
5.Rom 8:9
6.Gal 2:11
7.Acts 15:39
8.Phil 4:2,3
9.Jn 13:34,35, 17:23

Posted by Dr Peter Saunders
CMF Chief Executive

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