How are we to deal with those who strongly differ with us?
This is a topic that comes up often, so it is something that I write about now and then. Here I want to discuss two sorts of differences that can arise (and I deal with Christians and their differences in this piece). The first concerns doctrinal differences and the like, where believers disagree with one another over how a passage is to be understood and interpreted.
Let me discuss this matter before mentioning the second. In regards to this, I recently did an article on eschatology, tribulation and related matters. In it I said that Christians can legitimately differ on these things, and we need not all have the same theological stance on such things.
As I do, I posted a link to this piece on the social media. There one gal replied and gave her preferred view on the tribulation. She then went on to say this:
But you’re right everyone interprets the bible the way they want to interpret it
It’s funny how we all claim to be christians yet have different interpretations of the bible yet we are supposed to be filled with the same spirit (the Holy Spirit)
Hmmm I really wonder if we are all filled with the same spirit ? Coz if we were we would all agree on the same thing and interpret the bible the same way
‘Yes and no’ is what I said to her in response. Since I have dealt with these issues before, I directed the gal to this article where I cover such things in some detail: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/
Here is one of the 20 points that I had raised therein:
Eighteen. If the Bible really is so clear and simple to understand, then presumably the meaning of the following passages and ideas should be apparent to all:
What is baptism for the dead? 1 Cor. 15:29
Should women teach? 1 Tim. 2:11-12
Who are the spirits in prison that were preached to? 1 Pet. 3:19
How do you explain the Trinity?
How can people make free choices if God knows the future in every detail?
Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?
I dare say that if just one of these passages were given to a group of twenty people, and they were told to go away and come back with the meaning, there may well be twenty different understandings and interpretations of the passage given. Being a spirit-filled Christian, in other words, is no guarantee that one will always interpret Scripture properly. The tools of theology help us as we approach God’s word.
But a few more things can be said on this. Even as Christians, we are STILL three things: fallen, finite and fallible. We do not become perfect in every way just because we become a Christian and are given the Holy Spirit. We are all works in progress. We are all – hopefully – gradually developing, maturing and becoming more Christlike. And hopefully that means gaining maturity in our understanding – including our understanding of God’s Word.
Moreover, despite the various calls in the New Testament for unity among God’s people, that does NOT mean God wants us all to be clones of each other. Cookie-cutter Christianity is not what is being called for here. God made each and every one of us unique and distinct. We are all different.
So we will have plenty of differences – different tastes and preferences and likes and so on. And that also means we will have some differences when it comes to how we understand Scripture. We do NOT need to all have the exact same views – certainly when it comes to secondary doctrines and beliefs.
If you have a strong adult baptism stance, for example, while another believer is committed to infant baptism, well, there can be room to move there. We do not all need to have the exact same views on such matters. The same with so many other less vital doctrinal matters.
Sure, on the core beliefs, such as the deity of Christ, and salvation only in Christ, etc., then we should have much more agreement. Yes, we may differ in varying degrees on some fine details of these key biblical truths, but we should more or less be of one mind on them. So we can think differently while being Spirit-led Christians.
Now let me briefly speak to a second sort of difference – one that involves actual animosity and/or enmity between believers. For whatever reason, a falling out has occurred, and one or both parties are angry with each other, or are not talking to each other, or are wanting nothing to do with each other.
So how do we proceed in those sorts of situations? This too I have dealt with from time to time. As I have said before, some relationships we just need to let go of. That may be the wisest course of action. But often we should seek for reconciliation when and where possible.
As an example of the need to seek such reconciliation and forgiveness, I had posted the following on the social media just recently:
In Genesis 32-33 we read about how Jacob feared his brother Esau would still be angry with him after many years. But he was not. That was a good outcome. But I know of too many folks who claim to be Christians who still harbour hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness about things and people many years after something happened. They need to seriously consider 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
I got a few responses to that post. One person who is a professional counsellor replied by saying that sometimes it may take years of counselling and therapy to help a person get to that place of dealing with the hate and anger. This is what I wrote in response:
Thanks ****. Yes, certainly in some hardcore cases (rape, eg) there may well be need for lengthy counsel and therapy before any breakthroughs in healing and forgiveness can occur. But I guess what I had in mind here really had to do with much lesser incidents; eg., a FB friend disagrees with you on some political or theological point, gets angry, and unfriends you. Years later you learn this person STILL hates on you and is bitter and resentful. That is the scenario I mainly had in mind. And in that case, the normal and biblical way to proceed is for that embittered person to get on his face before Almighty God, repent, and ask the person that was hated on for so long for forgiveness. That is why I included that Bible verse: real-deal Christians can NOT claim to love God if they continue to hate their brothers and sisters in the Lord. But thanks again for your thoughts.
So yes, in some really dramatic and heavy-duty cases, there may need to be periods of counselling and so on to help that person get over the devastation and hurt they have suffered. But again, what I had in mind was much more your everyday garden variety of cases; people who get ticked off with you and bear grudges often over rather frivolous things.
Just because I happen to have a different slant on eschatology, or the Trump presidency, does not mean a fellow Christian should go on a hate bender and treat me like dirt for years on end. They need to get over it and repent and start acting like a genuine Christian.
(BTW, as a relevant aside, as I was writing this, a person who had gotten upset with me on one social media platform some years ago and unfriended me just sent me a friend request on another social media platform. While I immediately recalled that unfortunate spat of some years ago, it took me about five seconds to accept his new friend request. My choice was simple: harbour a grudge or forgive and move on.)
The Bible makes it clear: those who prefer to remain in bitterness and unforgiveness are in a very precarious place indeed. It is not just John who warned about this, but Jesus himself. Just one well-known verse on this: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
So Christians need to take these things seriously. An unforgiving spirit is a good indication of a person not really being a forgiven Christian. That is a scary place to be in. But this too I have written about before. Those wanting more on this can see this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/07/10/on-forgiveness/
In that article I quoted from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “The man who knows he has been forgiven, only in and through the shed blood of Christ, is a man who must forgive others. He cannot help himself. If we really know Christ as our Savior our hearts are broken and cannot be hard, and we cannot refuse forgiveness. If you are refusing forgiveness to anybody I suggest that you have never been forgiven.”
In sum, Christians can and will differ from each other on a whole range of things – including our understanding of various biblical passages. There is a place for diversity in our thoughts and beliefs. We need not all have the exact same views on many matters – including some Scriptural matters.
As to differences that involve animosity and resentment against others, those things really need to be dealt with. They cannot be allowed to simmer and stew and fester and get out of control. Christ showed us mercy, grace and forgiveness even when we did not deserve it. We need to be willing to do the same to others.