By Mike Willis
Our common experience has shown that brethren do disagree, despite a desire to come to the unity of the Spirit. We are no more likely to eliminate all areas of disagreement than we can eliminate all sins from our lives, de-spite our desire to live godly. Therefore, we are forced to grapple with what our conduct should be toward those with whom we disagree. I would like to make some suggestions for more cordial treatment of one another.
Not All Disagreement Is Bad
One must begin by acknowledging that disagreements are healthy. Christians are not a bunch of mindless drones who yield to the ipse dixit of whoever speaks. The fact that there are disagreements is indicative of the healthy existence of such admiral traits as independent thinking, personal Bible study, and a refusal to submit to any authority except that of Jesus Christ.
Because no one is infallible, we need brethren who challenge what is said to see whether or not it is so. The wise said, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17). Unless one is so arrogant as to think that he is infallible, he should give thanks that thinking brethren examine what he teaches to test it in light of the Scriptures. This is a safeguard, not only to others, but also to one’s own salvation. One’s own salvation depends upon his abiding in the truth. Remember the words of Paul: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16).
Although disagreements may be unpleasant on some occasions, they are healthier than the alternatives available to us mindless submissive to some human authority, such as a pope, council, or creed. Brethren need to adjust their thinking about disagreements among brethren to see them as signs of life and health, rather than seeing them as works of the flesh (although disagreements can degenerate into works of the flesh).
How To Treat One Another When We Disagree
1. We should be willing to discuss our differences. Isaiah invited Israel to a study saying, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18). The Bereans were noble because of their willingness to “search the Scriptures” to see if what was taught was so (Acts 17:11).
When any group reaches the point that its members are unwilling to study to meet and discuss their differences division is inevitable. For that reason, Christian people must always remain open to discuss their differences with each other. Historically we have done this. We have invited our Baptist and Methodist friends to sit down and study the Bible together. We have opened our pulpits to debate because we wanted to see discuss our differences, in the belief that the common study of the Bible will bring us together as one. Controversy causes the truth to shine. False doctrine cannot grow where open examination of the things that are taught occurs.
I have been unwilling to provide an audience to close-minded people who are unwilling to listen to what another has to say. Our Jehovah’s Witnesses friends who refuse to take a tract that I offer to them give up any grounds for asking me to listen to anything that they have to say. If they are so close-minded that they will not listen, why should one listen to them?
2. We should listen to what our brother is teaching so that we can accurately reproduce what he believes. One should be able to state his brother’s position in words that he could endorse. If he cannot or does not reproduce what his brother believes, he has misrepresented him and may be replying to a “straw man.” I have read reviews of what I am supposed to believe. If I believed what was attributed to me, I would be opposing me as well.
3. We should accept one’s basic integrity until and unless compelling evidence forces us to believe other-wise. Paul taught that love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Basically, this is teaching that brotherly love believes the best about one’s fellowman until evidence points to the contrary, then it hopes for the best in spite of the evidence pointing to the contrary. When brethren disagree, sometimes brethren are quick to “evil surmise” and attribute bad motives to the other. This contributes to further alienation. So long as is possible, we should treat the brother with whom we disagree with honor and respect, believing that our brother for whom Christ died is a man of integrity.
4. We should avoid inflammatory language. There are times that differences are exacerbated by such inflammatory speech as accusing the one with whom we disagree with being a “liar” simply because he sees a point of disagreement differently. We should be hesitant to brand another as a “false teacher,” “heretic,” “sectarian,” and similar epithets. There comes a time to label what another believes as “false doctrine,” but let’s be careful to make rash charges.
5. We should follow the “golden rule.” Jesus said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Ask yourself how you wish to be treated when a brother disagrees with you, and use that rule to govern how you treat those with whom you disagree. Many years ago, I decided upon the policy of sending manuscripts that express disagreement with what another teaches to those whose doctrines are being reviewed. I began this when I was reviewing the teaching of another. I asked the brother to read the manuscript and let me know whether or not I had misrepresented him in any way. Then I offered him space in the same issue of the magazine to reply to what was being charged. This took extra time and effort, but I was convinced that I had treated him fairly. I have generally tried to follow that rule in subsequent disagreements, whether written by me or others. My thinking is this: if I were being reviewed, I would prefer to know it was coming and have an opportunity to reply to it in the same issue than to be blind sided and only become aware of it when some friend told me about reading it.
Perhaps you can think of other things that could be added to this list, but this should get us started thinking about how to handle our disagreements without further alienating us.
When A Brother Asks to Discuss Our Differences
What else can a Christian say when someone asks him to study about their differences than to say, “I am ready to study”? I have never learned another or better answer than to express my willingness to sit down with my brother, to listen to what he has to say, and to weigh what he says in the light of the Scriptures. We should always remain open to such exchanges. It appears to me that a person who is unwilling to sit down and reason with his brother gives up his right to be heard.
What fate can lie ahead of brethren who refuse to discuss their differences? When the bonds of communication are broken the gap between their thinking will quickly be-come larger. If we do not wish that to happen, men who love Christ and their brethren will work to keep the lines of communication between them open as together they search for unity based on the revealed word of God.
Guardian of Truth XL: 9 p. 2
May 2, 1996