When Theological Differences Divide the People of God
In John 17, Jesus prayed for unity for his followers in what is considered the greatest prayer recorded in the Bible. His prayer was for the disciples and immediate Christ followers and the Church through the ages. His prayer for believers today is a prayer for unity and a prayer for truth. In John 17:20-26, we read that Jesus prayed for his followers to experience a spiritual unity that exemplifies the oneness of the Father and the Son.
Yet far too often, the followers of Christ throughout the centuries have been characterized by controversy, infighting, arguing, disagreement, and disunity.
The Scripture warns us against arguing:
- Do everything without complaining and arguing. (Philippians 2:14 NIV)
- Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarrelling about words; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen. (2 Timothy 2:14 NIV)
- Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. (2 Timothy 2:23-24 NIV)
So how should we approach theological differences or disagreements without divisiveness in the Body of Christ? Here are some biblical principles and guidelines that come to mind:
1. We must love those who disagree with us. The foundational truth of all Christian ethics is that every person is made in the image of God and is deserving of basic human dignity (Genesis 1:26-28; 9:6). In personal and Church arguments, it is easy to forget that we are not merely addressing ideas but the hearts and minds that are attached to them. We must remind ourselves constantly that even those in theological error are men and women deeply valued by God. Loving includes praying for those with whom we have disagreements with. (2 Thessalonians 3)
2. We must watch the way we conduct ourselves. Disagreements over the things of God do not excuse us to commands about Christian behaviour, attitudes and speech. We should be slow to argue and quick to listen (James 1:19; Proverbs 15:18; Proverbs 6:16, 19 – The Lord hates discord sown among brothers).
Remember, the unbelieving world is watching. Our lack of unity as Christians affects the world’s understanding of the testimony of Jesus Christ.
3. We must be aware of our own limitations. We must be humble interpreters of the word of God because “we see in a mirror dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
4. We must be aware of our own motives. (1 Timothy 6:4) and we should seek to glorify God in our disagreements (Romans 15:5; cf. 12:6; 1 Cor 1:10; Phil 2:2, 5; 4:2)
5. Despite theological differences, we must maintain good relationships and unity in the Body of Christ.
Ephesians 4:3-6 says that we are to “3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6).
We may not be able to resolve all our theological differences on this side of heaven, but we must maintain unity in the Body of Christ. The unity of God’s people is important to the Lord. Our hope is that all disputes will eventually be resolved when the perfect comes (1 Cor 13:10).