Let’s Be Okay With Disagreement. The Bible Says We Can.

One of the Bible passages that most continually fascinates me is 1 Corinthians 8, maybe because the context of it feels so very contemporary.  Here we have Paul – busy, harried, starting-churches-all-over-creation Paul – forced to drop everything and deal with a trivial dispute among believers that seems to have gotten out of hand.

Sound familiar?

In Paul’s case, the matter revolves around the issue of whether or not believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols.  This was a common practice in Paul’s time: the remains of the sacrifice were sold at reduced rates to those who were willing to eat it.  Some of the Corinthian Christians had been engaging in this practice and, it is implied, defended their right to do so.  Other believers disagreed vehemently, believing that since the food has “been sacrificed to a god…it is defiled” (8:7).

Again: does this sound familiar?  Obviously contemporary believers don’t have to deal with the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols, but let’s call this what it really is: a debate over ‘best practices’ and how one ought to go about being a Christian and living out the Word.  That debate, we do have – about all sorts of things.  I’ve seen Christians engage in fierce debates over whether or not the Bible permits drinking alcohol, in what ways one’s faith should inform one’s vote, over how the Pauline dictates ought to be interpreted from denomination to denomination (i.e., the “woman pastor” question), what the Bible really says about tattoos and piercings and gambling, about worship, about Bible translations (you can really start a fire with that one), about dating…  The list goes on and on.And it all comes down to the same thing, really: believers arguing over which way is best, most godly, closest to the truth.

That’s why Paul’s response interests me so much.  He does offer a verdict on the debate, and when I was younger I was always surprised to see that he actually falls on the liberal side of the issue: “…food does not bring us near to God,” he points out. “We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (8:8).   He goes so far to refer to those Christians who object to the practice as having weak consciences, implying that their immature faith requires perhaps more rules than might be necessary in order to remain steady.

But then he offers a caveat.  “Be careful,” he warns the meat-eaters, “that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.  …if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (8:9, 13).  In other words: for those who do not consider the meat to be “tainted” by its proximity to sacrifice, it’s not tainted and is fine for eating.  But if those who perceive that meat to be “tainted” are coaxed to eat it by their brethren in spite of their convictions that it is defiled, they are sinning – and the meat-eaters bear responsibility for that.

What strikes me most about Paul’s response is that he doesn’t seem interested in resolving the disagreement in the sort of way that creates unanimous harmony about the issue.  Although he agrees that the anti-meat faction is interpreting the matter too strictly and that they should not prohibit their brethren from exercising their rights, he doesn’t persuade them to think otherwise; he allows them their convictions, and demands that the meat-eaters respect those convictions.  And although he agrees with the meat-eaters that they should be free of guilt over eating meat sacrificed to idols, he doesn’t demand that everyone else agree with them, and implores them to consider their brethren as they go about exercising their rights.

Here, then, is the summary of that text: a group of believers disagrees over best practices.  One part of the group, Paul agrees, is theologically correct; the other one interprets it too strictly.  But that’s fine; they can do as they like in consideration of each other and still go on together.  It’s okay for them to disagree.  They can still work together.  They can still all be believers.

I think we’ve lost some of that in the modern church.  We’re so invested in our arguments for or against minor points and interpretations of doctrine that we don’t understand why everyone doesn’t agree; the arguments can become fierce and protracted.  How can I, the Methodist wonders, deal with a Southern Baptist who thinks it’s okay to bar women from the pulpit?  How can I, the tee-totaling believer thinks, deal with a Christian who wants to throw back wine at dinner?  And why, the hapless Christian wonders, does the NIV vs. KJV debate make people so mad?

Arguments among Christians are particularly fraught because behind them always lurks the specter of salvation, of eternity, of Christ.  Losing an argument feels like you are doing it “wrong,” which can be frightening; no one wants to invoke God’s wrath or feel like a “lesser” Christian or believe that they are blind to a truth in God’s word.  And so we fight viciously about some of these things because our idea of our own Christian selves is so invested in them.

If that’s the case for you, then take comfort in this passage from Paul.  Yes, there are a set of inarguable Christian doctrines within the faith – you won’t and shouldn’t get far if you start questioning the resurrection or the existence of Jesus Christ on earth – but by and large, our arguments revolve over a million other minor things.  And that’s okay.  It’s fine to disagree.  There’s room for it.  So long as our focus is on loving and serving each other, on considering each other’s needs and situations, Paul says that we don’t all have to feel the same way about particular points of doctrine.  There’s no need to shame anyone or argue everyone into unanimous agreement.

As always, love and the work of love is what matters more than anything else.  In your disagreements with other believers, be considerate.  Be respectful.  Be kind.

And above all else, give grace.

 

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14 responses to “Let’s Be Okay With Disagreement. The Bible Says We Can.

  1. It is very interesting how Paul resolves this conflict. I think so often we as Christians focus on abstract rules, but Paul connects the abstract rules to relationship with our fellow believers. Even if we’re right theologically, but we neglect the conscience of those around us we are still ultimately wrong. How we deal with people seems to be more important than the abstract rules.

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    • I think that’s true, yes. Fundamentally it always comes down to relationship first, and how we are – or whether or not we are – acting in love and grace toward our brothers and sisters.

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  2. As something of a devil’s advocate, disagreement is my process. I find that a roomful of people who all agree don’t often explain what they agree about or why they agree about it or why it’s better than the thing they don’t agree on. By representing the other side, I can get a better understanding of just what they agree on. Unfortunately, it can also backfire in that Christians that don’t tolerate disagreement tend to write me off of as a troll, delete my comments, or outright block me. Their loss, really, now they won’t have a chance to discern the weaknesses of the thing they agree on, won’t be able to explain it more clearly, and won’t be able to answer the tough questions about the thing they agree on. Disagreement is useful, as long as it’s not disrespectful or shut-down by having certain replies deleted rather than wrestling with the weak points of what was said.

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    • I do think it’s unfortunate to write off people when they disagree, especially when, as you put it, disagreement is a process that sometimes helps you clarify matters.

      Ultimately, Christians on “both sides” of a particular issue have a burden to the other side. From Paul’s reply, I gather that it can sometimes be irrelevant whatever side of the issue you come down on so long as you are keeping your fellow believers in mind, with respect and grace and love, during the process. If we can view disagreement as an act of service and love and approach it accordingly, it can be very fruitful.

      I do suspect that some Christians have been “burned” by disagreement before, though, and that’s why they might shut down debate instinctively. If you’ve been yelled at enough or treated badly for being on “the wrong side” of an issue, I think an innate fear that disagreement will lead to yelling/unhelpful conflict/disrespect can guide some believers to say “I don’t care; I’m not going to debate this.” The good news is that can change, especially through believers who are willing to model what loving and graceful disagreement can look like.

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      • Perhaps what’s missing is a refresher course in how to carry on a proper debate? Public school kids are taught how research their position, understand their opponents side, and told that if at any time they attack their opponent directly and not their position then it’s as good as losing then and there. It seems like only in Christianity will somebody say something on the internet and be genuinely bothered when somebody who represents the other side says something that doesn’t agree with them. It’s really concerning when so many don’t really seem to know very much about whatever position they hold.

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      • Hah, that may be it. Public school kids aren’t taught as much of that as we’d sometimes wish or imagine; I often deal with the fallout when I teach introductory freshman-level courses.

        That being said, I’ve come to recognize that there are some people who either don’t know how to carry on a debate and aren’t interested in/can’t/won’t learn how to do so. And nothing I can do is going to change that. In that case, the question is, what then? How do I serve and love this person in this moment rather than just throw my hands up and disengage? The onus is on us to figure out a way to be able to do that, regardless. In my journey I’ve certainly come across people arguing issues who just aren’t interested in a discussion or a debate or in learning or accepting other perspectives, and only want to offer up why their opinion is right and everyone else’s is wrong – my comment about Bible translations comes from such a hard-earned experience. Eventually I decided to just let go of my desire to change/teach people after a certain point. Opening people’s hearts and minds is sometimes something that God has to do, not us – often we can’t change people, only hope to love them. And while I let my opinion be known as respectfully and lovingly as possible, I then go about trying to figure out how I can serve or forgive or love that person *without* begrudging it – which is a difficult but necessary thing to do!

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      • I see a lot of that too – the degree of misinformation out there is staggering. Some people just can’t be reasoned with. The irony is that logical arguments was part of how past generations of Christians evangelized others, like Pascal’s Wager. I just wish it was easier to tell the difference between someone who says: “I believe X. (And that’s not up for debate.)” or “I believe X. (And I’m willing to hear your side out.)” Sometimes their posts are so similar, it’s impossible to tell them apart.

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      • I am actually mentioning that in a future post I am writing – the legacy of Christianity & intellectualism left to us by some other believers. There was a time when such things weren’t so divorced – and in certain places they still aren’t, fortunately.

        I wish it was easier, too, but in the end you’re stuck working it out mostly through trial and error. To be fair, some believers may not know whether or not a particular set of thoughts *are* up for debate until they get in the weeds, so to speak. And sometimes people will change their minds about issues over time even when they seem resistant. Another good reason to pray, forgive, love, and wait patiently. And to also place these things in context, as Paul did, and reframe what matters most.

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      • I will look forward to reading it, I enjoy learning what I can about Church history. I keep on thinking about what Paul said about ministry, how Jesus laid the foundation, another planted the seed, another watered it – I think debates can be like that, particularly if they are done well and properly. But ultimately it’s up to God to make it grow into a fruit-producing plant, regardless of which of us is right.

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  3. Interesting post here!! I just had a mess of a situation on social media (fb). Long story short…I am known for being diplomatic and gracious with differing views. But recently 2 people (one I know personally but from the far past and the other a stranger) and they were both on the attack – each in a bit of a different way – about a Christian issue I was posting about. The person I know sent me quite a terrible message saying I was running a “disgraceful hate campaign.” A hate campaign?! Good grief. Since you read my book, the issue was related to my book. Anyways…sigh.

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    • Oh wow. That’s a pretty strong accusation to throw out there! Although I’m not surprised to hear it happened on social media… It’s probably a whole other post, but it tends to magnify people’s worst tendencies and destroys any hope of nuance.

      It’s such a shame, because people seem to have lost the concept that *disagreement* is not the same as *attacking*. Disagreement is a thing that can happen between believers in love and with respect and, even without consensus being reached, can be beneficial to all. But ambushing people or hurling accusations around – like “hate campaign” is so counterproductive. Sigh, indeed!

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  4. Pingback: An Apology To Catholics, Or, A Meditation On Denominational Divisions | Samaritan's Song·

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