Divisions & Differences: How Should Christians Respond?
Divisions and differences of opinion in the church, in the community and in the nation can be so stark that we’re unable to even agree to disagree. What can Christians do when they disagree?
By Leslie Koh
Over the past few months, we’ve had a slew of news and issues that have been dominating the media headlines and conversations: from Covid-19 and Singapore governance, to the war in Ukraine and tensions between America and China.
Recently, it struck me that apart from the news—which are bad enough on their own—another aspect that has been somewhat troubling (to me, at least) is the differences of opinion that have arisen over these local and global developments.
These differences have been stark, and have resulted in divisions at all levels—between and within countries, communities, churches, and even individual families.
Should everyone in Singapore be vaccinated against Covid-19? Is Russia justified in attacking Ukraine? Who’s right and who’s wrong in the U.S.-China trade war? How should the church respond to advocates of same-sex marriage?
Even the phrasing of these questions could be controversial, so please let me emphasise: I’m just citing them as examples. You’ve probably heard these and other similar issues being discussed around you—and possibly leading to heated debates, arguments, and quarrels between the closest friends, within families, and even in churches.
So what happens when brothers- and sisters-in-Christ find themselves falling on one side or the other in such debates? Even if we can avoid getting embroiled in actual arguments, we might hold personal opinions on the matter, and think—even if we don’t say it out loud—“The other person is just so wrong. How could he think like this? Why does she say that?”
It’s easy to say, “We can agree to disagree”, but the truth is, there are some issues that are so complex and big that it seems impossible to find any point of agreement or even concession. Hence the schisms that have divided churches and communities.
Is there a godly way to respond to such disagreements? Is there a way fellow believers in Christ can live with these differences?
Discord and Divisions: Deadly and Dangerous
The Bible is pretty clear on what God thinks of discord in the Christian community. From Solomon to Paul, strong words have been used against those who seek to divide, though in different contexts. For example:
There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him . . . a person who stirs up conflict in the community. (Proverbs 6:16-19)
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. (Romans 16:17-18)
But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned. (Titus 3:9-11)
The warnings and words of condemnation are stern. Clearly, those who try to divide communities and the church will not be spared God’s wrath.
Yet, interestingly, a closer reading of the warning shows that the words are mostly targeted at the people who seek to cause divisions in the community. There is generally less said about the differences in opinion, beliefs, and practices themselves. Which begs the question: Is it wrong to disagree with each other?
Differences: Just How Important Are They?
In the Bible we can find instances of differences in opinion and practices. Acts 15 records how arguments had arisen over whether Gentile converts were expected to obey certain elements of the Mosaic law, including circumcision. These were important issues to the early church.
How the elders of the church responded is instructive. They reviewed the issue in a spiritually mature and godly manner—not just with their own wisdom, but relying on guidance from the Holy Spirit (“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .”, Acts 15:28).
Then, they narrowed the issue down, focusing only on the most critical elements of the practice of faith. In this case, they dealt with a debate—that was probably long and protracted—in just one verse: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell” (Acts 15:29).
What a simple—and almost abrupt—resolution to what must have been a fiery debate! Instead of getting caught up in the details, the leaders of the Jerusalem Council sieved out what really mattered . . . and simply did not comment on the other things.
You might have seen the modern version of that principle in the question: “Is it a salvation issue?” In other words, if an argument does not affect our understanding and receiving of salvation, then perhaps it’s not worth arguing so much about.
It’s interesting that the Bible seems to spend less time dwelling on the differences of opinion, than it does describing how people responded to the conflict. Might that also suggest that differences in opinion and (non-fundamental) beliefs are a fact of life, and that what matters is not so much how we resolve them, but how we live with these differences?
What . . . and Whom Really Matters?
Another notable detail in the account of the debate in Jerusalem is the motivation behind the elders’ brief response: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements” (Acts 15:28).
The desire to keep the concluding instructions short and simple is very much in line with Paul’s instruction to believers about how they should approach differences in 1 Corinthians 10:23–33, when arguments arose over what foods were clean or unclean.
His principle of not stumbling the faith of weaker brothers and sisters has become a practical basis of how we are to behave when fellow believers differ over what they think should or shouldn’t be done. As Paul says, “‘I have the right to do anything—but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23) At the heart of this principle is the idea that we are to put others’ feelings before our “right” to believe or behave in the way we think is correct: “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others . . . So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way” (1 Corinthians 10:24, 31–33).
How Can We Stay United?
With these principles in mind—determining how critical a difference is, and how important it is to others—perhaps we can look at our differences of opinion in a new light.
To begin with, we need to remember that differences are a reality of life, and are not wrong in themselves. After all, as God has given us different personalities and talents, it is only natural that we would have different interests, approaches to life, and areas of focus. And therefore, different opinions on how to look at things or how things should be done.
Though it centres on a different context, 1 Corinthians 12:12–31 observes the beauty of unity in diversity in the body of Christ. “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be,” notes Paul. “If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (vv. 18–20).
In the same way, I believe there is value in us having differences in opinion and approach. But this value will be diminished if we let these differences cause conflict within the community of believers. Though we may find it hard to agree to disagree, let us not allow these differences—no matter how strong they are—to divide us as a body. We can ask ourselves: How critical is this to our faith and our walk as Christians? How can we behave such that we do not put down or stumble others?
Of course, these are not easy questions to answer. And it will be equally challenging to come up with practical solutions that will not sound trite. Some debates are more intense than others, and some controversies too complex to dismiss or paper over easily. There will be differences that we will feel so strongly over, that we may never be able to find common ground.
What we can do, however, is to remember that we worship the same God, that we are fellow believers in the same gospel who are holding on to the same hope. Where issues threaten to divide, may love conquer all and unite. Ephesians 4:3–6 offers an inspiring reminder:
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Father of all, may we remember that all of us worship You, the same God who gives us the same hope in Your Son. Give each and everyone of us a heart of unity, forgiveness, and forbearance, that we may not let anything divide us as a body of Christ. Let the love of Christ fill our hearts, that we will always put each other’s interests before our own.
Author: Leslie Koh Leslie Koh spent more than 15 years as a journalist in The Straits Times before moving to Our Daily Bread Ministries. He’s found moving from bad news to good news most rewarding, and still believes that nothing reaches out to people better than a good, compelling story. He likes eating (a lot), travelling, running, editing, and writing.
This article was first published in Spotlight Singapore ©️ Our Daily Bread Ministries. For more articles like this, visit: https://odb.sg/spotlight/