Yes We Can Differ

Does our oneness in Christ mean thinking exactly alike?

A phrase you will find often in my writings is ‘we need to get the biblical balance right’. That is something all Christians always must strive for. It is all too easy to go off on one unbiblical extreme or another, causing much harm. In terms of both beliefs and behaviours, most of the cults and heresies in good measure arise because of doing this very thing.

So care is always needed to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26), and seek to be a good Berean (Acts 17:11), as we compare scripture with scripture, study each passage in its context, and so on. One passage which all believers would know and love is Philippians 2:1-2, but it is one which can be misunderstood and misused.

It says: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

Obviously Christian unity is so very often discussed in the New Testament, and seeking to be of one accord is certainly important. But a text like this is not saying that we are to be cookie-cutter Christians who think in identical ways, and never differ from one another.

We know this is not the case from other passages. For example, Paul spoke of how we are all part of one Body, but are all different members with different gifts and callings and abilities (1 Corinthians 12). Diversity in unity is the biblical ideal. You and I need not be just like a Billy Graham or a C. S. Lewis or a James Dobson or an R. C. Sproul.

Yet some believers think that if we all have the Holy Spirit, we will all have the same understanding of truth. But as I have written elsewhere, this is simply not the case:

I dare say that if just one of these [difficult] 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. billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/

Indeed, I wrote recently about when Jesus said that the Spirit would guide believers into all truth. Again, that does not mean fallen, finite and fallible Christians will all have perfect understanding of all things, and never differ from each other in so many ways. billmuehlenberg.com/2022/11/03/difficult-bible-passages-john-1613/

Let me look at just two passages which make it clear that godly believers can and will differ on all sorts of things. Consider what we find in Acts 15:36-41 for instance:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

This conflict had to do with missionary strategy, and a big disagreement took place between two men of God. And recall that both were called by the Holy Spirit, as Acts 13:1-3 makes clear. Yet on this matter they differ greatly. The immediate text does not tell us if one was right or one was wrong. They just differed.

Of course we have other instances of God’s mighty men differing. There were probably no more mighty men of God in the New Testament than Paul and Peter. Yet at one point they had such a big difference that Paul had to publicly rebuke Peter. Galatians 2:11-14 tells us the story:

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Of course in this case Scripture DOES make it clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Peter needed to be rebuked by Paul on this very important issue. So again we see real men of God who can and do differ. It happens. So let me return to the Philippians 2 passage.

Being of one mind does not mean seeing eye to eye on everything, from lesser matters such as your favourite flavour of ice cream to much more weighty matters, like how one understands the best form of church government or what might be the preferred view on eschatology.

On these secondary doctrinal matters there is room to move. Sure, on core Christian beliefs there must be uniformity, or one places oneself outside of orthodox Christianity. So doctrine matters, but because we are still finite creatures who see through a glass darkly, none of us will have complete truth, and so we should not expect all Christians to think exactly alike.

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Philippians (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Dennis E. Johnson (Author) Amazon logo

As Dennis Johnson says in his expository commentary on Philippians:

Because none of us has yet reached full and clear knowledge of Christ, we need not and must not make our oneness contingent on 100 percent agreement on every issue, large and small. Later in this letter, Paul himself will admit that he has not yet arrived at the final goal for which he is striving, and he urges all who are mature to “think this way.” Then, demonstrating how this humble recognition that we are all “in process” applies to the differences of conviction that remain among us, he comments, “If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3;12-15). United in the essentials of the gospel, we can wait patiently and expectantly for God himself to bring our minds into unity on other matters, as we continue to search the Scriptures together, humbly and prayerfully.

Good words indeed. Of course it is not just unity of mind alone that Paul is focusing on here. Johnson goes on to note that many believers might be in real agreement on various theological matters, but still might have real trouble getting along with one another. He writes:

Actually, “being in full accord” represents a single, rare Greek word, sympsychoi, which speaks of souls in harmony with one another. Our English expression soulmates captures this wonderful word well. It’s as if Paul is saying, “It is not enough to agree with each other theologically: God actually calls you to care for each other deeply, in love that binds souls together so strongly that differences of perspective cannot pull you apart.”

Hmm, if getting real concord on what we believe can be a big ask, getting believers to really love each other as Christ would have us do is a bigger ask yet. I for one have such a long way to go here. All the more reason for us to pray for one another so that the admonition of Philippians 2:12 can become a vital reality in our lives.

[1330 words]

2 Replies to “Yes We Can Differ”

  1. Despite his somewhat confused ideas and unhappy life, I have found the comment by the 17th Century Croatian theologian, Marco Antonio de Dominis helpful in this discussion – “In essentials, Unity; In non-essentials, Liberty; and in all things, Charity.”

  2. From Crisis Magazine today:

    The debate is about to start. The moderator takes the microphone and begins to prepare the television audience for the event: “On one side of the stage we will soon be joined by Jesus Christ, and on the other, Satan. This will clearly be a divisive debate. It is unfortunate that neither political party has been able to find a more centrist candidate.”

    Offered as a complement to your fine observations.

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