“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17 KJV)
Against the tremendous pressure that global society places upon us to have dogmatic personal views about life, politics, religion, and sexuality, I believe that there are noble reasons to practice generous disagreement.
I say “disagreement,” because it is simply impossible for two human beings to agree about absolutely everything.
I say “generous,” because it is greater to be loved than to be corrected.
It may seem to the reader that the verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that I have quoted is out of place in a post that is otherwise introduced by a call to maintain differences of beliefs with charity. If it is so, perhaps it is because we have lost St. Paul’s sense of “division.”
For Paul, one of the worst possible actions a Christian could commit was to rebuild the walls that the Messiah had given his life to destroy. The letter of Galatians describes an incident in which Paul was willing to go head to head with no less than St. Peter himself on account of this very issue. Peter refused to dine with non-Jews, and Paul called him to account.
I would argue that the reason why Peter’s offense was so painful for Paul is because by his actions, Peter actually rebuilt the division between Jews and non-Jews that was annihilated by Christ’s cross. It is no secret that the Jewish lifestyle, marked by strict adherence to Torah and its restrictive dietary and social rules, was a tremendous cultural barrier between Jews and non-Jews. No less so in the early Christian church. Acts 15 reports a controversy over one particular practice dictated by Torah, namely the circumcision of male adherents. Paul’s side of the argument insisted that the good news of the Messiah was being received in the power of the Holy Spirit by the uncircumcised. Therefore, circumcision is not necessary for salvation. (There is strong evidence in the letter to the Colossians that Paul believed that circumcision had actually been eclipsed by baptism.)
The point is that for Paul, divisions of that kind were not only unnecessary but demonic, for they threatened to nullify the very grace of God.
In his astounding letter 1 Corinthians, St. Paul reminds the church of Corinth that in the Messiah (the Christ) they are all one people. “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” (Rom. 12:5) “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) It would appear that the Messiah himself longed for the unity of the church. “And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.” (John 17:11) If in the church there is discord, how are we to make sense of it?
The church is not a homogenous mixture. It is composed of all kinds of people. Disagreements in the church are to a great degree a natural consequence of its diversity. There is natural division, what I have styled “diversity.” But there is also ungodly discord, that which it seems to me that St. Paul styled “selfish ambition.” I believe that Paul’s answer to the problem of disunity and selfish ambition is more radical than that of most people today, including often—more often than I would like to admit—myself.
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:3-5) St. Paul’s answer to selfish ambition, or “vainglory,” is no less than Jesus the Messiah himself. (The so-called “Sunday school answer” answers many more Pauline questions than one might think.) How does the Messiah constitute an answer to vainglory?
The Messiah, though worthy of glory and honor from the start, took the form of a slave. (It is almost impossible to overstate the gravity of this claim to a world that took slavery for granted and in which slaves were hardly considered human.) The Messiah became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Until we have died on a cross, we do not know the love and patience of God. What does this now mean for disagreements, specifically theological disagreements in the church?
It means that for me, what I have to say to others is not as important as what others have to say to me. If I as a convinced believer in God’s universal election for the salvation of all living beings is not shared by my sisters and brothers in the Lord Jesus, then for me in the emotional heat of that moment, it is not my view but the views of my sisters and brothers that truly matters. It is not for the one who would imitate the Messiah to “have the last word.” I who would imitate the Messiah must offer the last word to others, for it is not by my words that I am known—although it is true that I will be judged by my words—but by my love.
According to St. Paul, the way of Jesus Christ is none other than the “still more excellent way” of love of patience and kindness. It is concluded then that disagreement in the churches is no less than a call to carry the cross of Christ and die on it for the sake of love for others.
“…where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more.” (Rom. 5:20) There was a time when Paul himself did not circumvent division. Barnabas and Paul were divided, and through their division, the good news of Jesus the Messiah was taken to even more people. Paul and Silas went to Philippi, and Barnabas and Mark went elsewhere.
This story beautifully illustrates the kind of division that I’m talking about. Paul and Barnabas, in agreement concerning the surpassing worth of knowing the Messiah, are divided over what one may call a secondary issue.
How do we discern secondary from primary issues? To be honest, I am not sure that we can. To Paul, Mark’s inclusion on the journey seemed quite a primary issue. To the circumcision party of Acts 15, circumcision of male converts to the faith also seemed a primary issue, for they said unless you are circumcised according to the tradition of Moses, you “cannot be saved.” Sometimes, issues that are actually secondary can seem primary to us. In light of this disturbing possibility, how are we best to approach disagreements as the Christian church?
When I approach disagreements Christologically—that is, prepared rather to die than to “make my brother stumble”—I begin to forget the distinction between primary and secondary issues and to listen and reach out to those who disagree with me in love. When I approach disagreements in love, I realize that the true need of all people is to experience the love of God through the grace of the Messiah in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. When I approach disagreements in love, I remember that the Messiah “loved me and gave himself for me.” When I agree to disagree with grace, I am no longer concerned for my own rights but for those of my enemies.
If God so loves his enemies that the Messiah died for them, how am I to offer less than perfect love, which casts out fear, to those who claim the name of Jesus the Messiah and seek to do that which pleases him? Indeed, how am I to offer anything but love to anyone at all, regardless of their religious, social, sexual, and racial identities?
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)