When Christians disagree

by Richard on October 20, 2005

How should Christians respond to one another when we find that we have deep disagreements that apparently cannot be reconciled?

One response is simply to shrug and say it doesn’t matter. You go your way and I’ll go mine. Live and let live. In my view, ignoring our differences this way is dishonest and unwise. We may be able to travel that way for a while, but eventually a point will be reached where to ignore the opinions of another would be a betrayal of our own integrity. Everyone, even a horrid namby-pamby, hoity-toity, keep-your-voice-down, don’t-upset-the-neighbours, pink’s a -nice-colour-isn’t-it liberal has their limit.

There’s another way, of course. Denigrate your opponent. Pour scorn on his arguments, but in no circumstances address them directly, because to do so concedes that there is a debate to be had. I’m right. I know, because God told me. If you disagree, you’re either a fool or an apostate or both. I must say, this is a very satisfying way to conduct an argument, because you begin with iron-clad defences and a fully-stocked ammunition cabinet. Shouting louder usually does the trick, and if you really want to press home a point, crank up the anglo-saxonisms a notch or two. You can emerge the victor every time and it feels great. I know. The trouble is, for every person that shouts “Amen!” there’s another shouting “No way!” The Body of Christ is divided and weakened. (”Can the eye say to the hand, I don’t need you?”) If we fall out of fellowship with one another, we all lose.

The better way is to face our disagreements openly, with the humility to be willing to learn from one another. Of course, in any argument I’m going to be sure I’m right. And I’ve got an opinion about everything. But I hope I’ve acquired sufficient wisdom to know that I won’t be right about everything. It’s in dialogue with one another that we learn and grow - that’s how the Church has always operated from its beginning. Talk to me. Say your piece and, I hope, let me say mine. The internet offers us more channels for communication than we’ve ever had before, more opportunities for individual Christians to “meet” across geographical and cultural boundaries. It’s up to us whether we use the opportunity to promote growth or deepen our divisions.

{ 1 trackback }

When Christians disagree (reblogged) | connexions
10.28.10 at 12:00 pm

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


Randy 10.21.05 at 1:03 am

I hope I am never guilty of denigrating someone with whom I disagree. I’m sure I have done in the past. I wish it weren’t true and I am sorry it is.

Richard, I have nothing but respect for you. Of course, we disagree over some things. But we are kin, and there is so much more on which we agree.

God bless you, my brother.


John 10.21.05 at 3:23 am

As I’ve noted before, you consistently do a model job of disagreeing with people without being mean-spirited, Richard.

But I’ll segway into a related issue that I’ve been pondering: how much does the Church avoid social justice issues because the means that different Christians within it would advocate in this area (to accomplish the same goal) would lead to division?


GOrd 10.21.05 at 1:52 pm

WEll said Richard. My hunch is that often we fall into your second way of handling disagreement when we make the mistake of thinking that there is only 1 “true” way to be a Christian.

In seminary I remember my NT prof responding to the question “was CHristianity ever a monolithic, undivided religion?” by saying “Well maybe for the first couple of days”


Eugene 10.21.05 at 6:46 pm

I think this is written because of my tirades against Kim Fabricius. We are both from the Reformed tradition, but I come from a more orthodox stance while Kim is comfortable exploring other ideas.

While I have called his sermon heretical and unbiblical I only said that out of love and care. I believe all sermons are to be Law/Gospel, Christ centred, and cross-focused. Kim may see Christology and the crucifixion slightly differently.

That which should unite us even when we disagree is Christ. Look at his disciples and the mess they were. God help us to stay united even when we disagree.




Richard 10.21.05 at 9:53 pm

You might think that, Eugene, but you’d be quite wrong. Compared to the savagery seen in some parts of the Christian internet, disagreements here are generally polite and good-natured.

And, yes, I intend to keep it that way.


Kim Fabricius 10.25.05 at 11:47 am

Nothwithstanding his Trollopean insistence of his “love and care” for me despite my heresies, three cheers for Eugene’s acceptance of theological disagreement! Insistence on theological consensus is indeed a form of salvation by works - which is surely one of the limits of that acceptable diversity which is canonised in the New Testament itself. Pluriformity does not mean “anything goes”.

I would, however, like to question Eugene’e claim to represent what he calls “a more orthodox stance” within the Reformed tradition, which he contrasts with my being “comfortable with exploring other ideas”. For is not the essence of the pluriform Reformed tradition “semper reformata - et reformanda”? That is to say, isn’t ongoing theological exploration, rather than adherence to any particular position, of the essence of the Reformed tradition?

Being “Reformed”, I am suggesting, is not adhereing to some imagined “orthodoxy”. I say “imagined” because, well: Bucer’s theology was not Zwingli’s theology, Puritan Calvinism was not Calvin’s Calvinism, the Westminster divines were not Princeton fundamenalists, and look at the disputes between Barth and Brunner. No, being “Reformed” is, if you like, “a habit of the heart”, which certainly includes a reverential attitude to the past, but also maintains a critical postureto the past. Otherwise we become tradition-fundamentalists, and turn tradition, which is the living faith of dead people, into the dead faith of living people. To try to “freeze the frame” is a quite un-Reformed thing to do. It is only through change that we remain faithful to the past; to try to hang onto the past is to both lose the past and to betray the furure. Rather, our relation with the past, as with the present, should be conversational, heuristic - and expectant: “The Lord has yet more light and truth / To break forth from His Word.”

And any real conversation must also be intrinsically open - and open not only to other Reformed Christians, or even all Christians, but open to truth wherever truth is found. Calvin himself, remember, adored Plato and Seneca, and called Zwingli superstitious because he was afraid to borrow from pagan sources. Indeed, as the Scotish Reformed theologian Brian Garrish observes: “A part of the precious heritage of the Reformed church is its firm commitment to secular, as well as sacred, learning.” We certainly do not honour the truth we find in Christ by belittling or even ignoring the truth we find elsewhere in the world.

Which, it seems to me, points to an area of neglect in the Reformed traditon (for contingent historical rather than essential theological reasons) - and an area which, today, needs urgent attention: we have driven a wedge between nature and grace; and if we have not said too much about salvation, we have certainly said too little about creation. The implications for church-world and inter-faith dialogue are self-evident.



Kim Fabricius 10.26.05 at 7:43 am

I posted something here yesterday, and it showed up on my old computer, which, however, was dying at the time,; and as it didn’t show up on the site down at Swasea University, nor on my new computer, please bear with me as I have another go (an improved go, I hope) - at Eugene!

With a sideswipe at his rather Trollopean profession of “love and care” for me despite my “heretical and unbiblical” sermons, I begin with a cry of “Three cheers!” for the lad’s concession that our unity in Christ is not based on theological agreement, which indeed would be a form of works-righteousness, stretching the limits of acceptable diversity beyond those encoded in the New Testament itself. Sola Scriptura indeed!

However, I want to go on to question Eugene’s claim to a Reformed pedigree, as in his contention that “We are both from the Reformed tradition, but I come from a more orthodox stance while Kim is comfortable exploring other ideas.” For not only is there no such thing as a Reformed “stance” - to be Reformed is to be inherently ecumenical - but just what might an “orthodox” Reformed stance look like? Bucer’s theology was not Zwingli’s theology, Puritan Calvinism was not Calvin’s Calvinism, the Westminster divines were not Princeton fundamentalists, and just look at the acrimonious disputes between Brunner and Barth.

To be Reformed is not to have a “stance”, to be Reformed is, if you like, a “habit of the heart”. We certainly need to know our past, indeed to have a reverential attitude to the past, but it is equally certain that we have to have a critical attitude to the past as well. As Calvin himself wrote to a Roman Catholic opponent: “The safety of that person hangs by a thread whose defense turns wholly on this - that he has constantly adhered to the religion handed down to him from his forefathers.”

To be Reformed, I am suggesting, is to be inherently self-questioning - and precisely by being open to “exploring other ideas”! It is to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the past - and of course with the present. And a conversation to which all seekers of truth are invited - not just the Reformed, nor even all Christians, but pagans too. For we do not honour the truth we find in Christ by ignoring or rubbishing the truth we find extra muros ecclesiae. Remember how much Calvin himself loved his Plato and Seneca; remember that he accused Zwingli of “superstition” for refusing to engage with ideas from pagan sources. And the point is not just theological, it is moral, for as Coleridge famously put it: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own Sect or Church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.”

The saying is true: Traditon is not the dead faith of living people, it is the living faith of dead people. To try to freeze the frame (at Dort perhaps, Eugene?) is a futile gesture: it is, indeed, to lose the past and betray the future. Loyalty to the past in demostrated precisely in trajectories of change, for “The Lord hath yet more light and truth / To break forth from his Word.”

One theological locus, it seems to me, that it is urgent to revisit is the vexed relationship between nature and grace. For contingent historical rather than essential theological reasons, almost all Reformed theologians, even if they have not said too much about grace (that is not possible!), have said to little about nature; i.e. we have tended to drive a wedge between creation and redemption. Bring them together - nature as graced by the incarnate and risen One - and think of the implications for a robust ecological theology, for the practice of generous inter-faith dialogue, for (dare I say?) peace-making in its most comprehensive sense.


Richard 10.26.05 at 10:33 pm

I apologise to Kim that his comments sat in the moderation queue for a few days - hence his double comment.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>