By Johnny Stringer
“Behold, how good and how pleas-ant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). Unity is surely to be desired, but differences arise and interfere with unity among brethren. This article will discuss the various categories of differences and the scriptural ways of handling them.
Differences in Matters Pertaining
to Congregational Activity
We must agree to the point that we can worship and work together in the local church. Paul instructed the Corinthians that they were to have no divisions but be joined in the same mind and judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). He did not mean that they could have no disagreement about anything. Romans 14 shows that there is room for some differences within limitations. Paul was condemning the divisions among the Corinthians. He was requiring them to agree, therefore, to the point that they could avoid division, worshiping and working together in harmony. Similarly, the Philippians were required to strive together as one in furthering the gospel (Phil. 1:27).
Such agreement is possible when brethren look to the same authority to guide them (2 John 9; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Col. 3:17). If it were not possible, God would not require it, for God does not demand anything beyond our abilities.
There are two kinds of differences involving congregational activity:
1. Differences that arise because some will not be guided by the Scriptures. Some, for example, may insist that the congregation engage in an unscriptural practice. In that case, we must not yield to the advocates of error in order to have peace and unity. Truth must not be sacrificed or compromised (Prov. 23:23; Jude 3; John 8:32).
2. Differences in matters of personal judgment. In carrying out scriptural mandates, congregations must make decisions regarding specific details that the Scriptures have not spelled out. For example, in carrying out the command to assemble, decisions must be made as to the times the congregation will meet. Such decisions are matters of judgment. In making such judgments, meekness and the de-sire for peace must prevail (Eph. 4:1-3; Gal. 5:22-23; Heb. 12:14; Jas. 3:17). If it does, brethren will be willing to yield to the judgment of others rather than press their own judgment to the point of causing strife.
Differences in Private,
There are four kinds of differences in this category:
1. Differences of opinion about matters not vital to salvation. For ex-ample, some brethren have wasted their time arguing over what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. Such questions are of no consequence and should not be a source of strife. Brethren should heed 2 Timothy 2:23.
2. Differences in matters of judgment regarding one’s personal service to the Lord. As they planned a second journey, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement over whether they should take John Mark. This was a matter on which God had not revealed the truth; it was a matter of personal judgment. The disagreement resulted in each preacher acting in accordance with his own judgment. They separated, Paul taking Silas and Barnabas taking Mark. This was not a disagreement that affected whether they could worship in the same congregation. We have already seen that in judgments regarding congregational matters, there must be compromise, for without it, peace in the congregation cannot be preserved. In private matters, how-ever, each one may practice what he believes to be best without disturbing congregational unity. For example, one couple may think it best to home school their children and may try to persuade another couple to do so. The other couple may judge such not to be best. These couples may strongly disagree, and each couple may act in accordance with its judgment; but each couple continues to love the other couple and worship and work with them in the congregation.
3. Disagreements with brethren because they are teaching or practicing things that are clearly sinful. The congregation must not tolerate sinful conduct or teaching among its members (Eph. 5:11; 1 Cor. 5; Tit. 2:10; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). Romans 14 does not deal with things that are clearly sinful. If it did, it would contradict the above passages.
4. Disagreements with brethren regarding practices that are questionable. The practices discussed in Romans 14 were not condemned; yet some could not engage in them with a clear con-science. There are things some Christians today cannot do in good conscience; yet, there is no clear-cut condemnation of those practices in the Scriptures.
Some, for example cannot in good conscience observe Christmas, even in a non-religious way; some cannot in good conscience serve as policemen; some cannot in good conscience play cards even when no gambling is involved. Most brethren who cannot do these things, however, do not consider the scriptural teaching to be so cut-and-dried that they can bind their conclusions on others. We must recognize a distinction between cases of clear-cut sin and cases that are not so cut-and-dried. Certain scriptural principles may be clear as a bell, but devoted Christians may reach different conclusions regarding the application of these principles in all the varied circumstances of life. We must make allowances for differences in such matters.
Here is where Romans 14 must be applied. When practices are involved that are not clear-cut cases of sin, let each individual act according to his conscience, not condemning those who differ. Otherwise, the church will be endlessly splintered. If brethren get to the point that no brother can ever worship or have fellowship with anyone who can engage in a practice in which he cannot engage, enormous problems will ensue. We simply must recognize, whether we like it or not, that there are practices in the questionable category.
A question arises at this point. We have said that when the Scriptures clearly condemn a practice, we must not tolerate it, but when the matter is not so clear-cut, we must allow for differences. The question: Who decides whether a matter is clear cut or not? Is someone going to provide a list for us? No list is needed. Discipline is exercised on the congregational level. When a situation arises within a congregation, the brethren in that congregation must decide whether it is a matter of unquestionable sin that cannot be tolerated or whether it is not. It is the business of the congregation to deal with such situations to the best of its ability in the light of scriptural teaching.
What about the divorce and remarriage question? There has been much discussion lately as to whether the principles of Romans 14 should be applied when those who have unscripturally divorced and remarried seek acceptance in a congregation. I believe that as brethren in any congregation make this decision, they should consider the clarity of New Testament teaching. Matthew 19:9 and Romans 7:1-3 clearly teach that if one did not put away his first mate for the cause of fornication, his second marriage is adulterous. There is another point that cries out for consideration: In view of the seriousness and magnitude of the problem of divorce and remarriage in our society, it is vital that God’s people take a firm stand against unscriptural divorces. But how can a congregation exert a strong influence for truth on this matter if there are people in the congregation who are clearly living in adulterous marriages?
It should be pointed out, however, that the question of whether the first mate was put away for fornication is not always cut-and-dried. Some-times, when there is some doubt regarding that question, we must al-low an individual to act according to his conscience; we must leave the matter between him and God.
The fact is that if the truth about divorce is firmly preached in a congregation, it is unlikely that it will be necessary for that congregation to decide whether or not to accept those who are in adulterous marriages. Usually, when the truth is preached strongly and forthrightly, those in adulterous marriages will either repent or leave because they find the preaching intolerable.
I do not claim to have all the answers to all the questions that arise regarding fellowship and Romans 14. I only hope that this contribution to the discussion will be helpful.
Guardian of Truth XL: 7 p. 6-7
April 4, 1996