The Importance of Agreeing to Disagree Within the Life of a Church

arguing

by John Ellis

The comedian Bill Burr frequently points out that people should be allowed to disagree with each other. He will then add the lament, “That seems to be going away.”

With both statements, Burr is correct, of course. His initial assertion that we should be able to agree to disagree should be obvious. Sadly, it’s not, which is the reason for the comedian’s lament. At times, it seems like we can actually see the growing divisions within our society happening in real time. Tragically, many churches give testimony to the fact that they jettisoned the ability to agree to disagree generations ago.

The meme about church splits happening because “we ain’t never done it that way before” has ingrained itself into our cultural lexicon. And what a shameful testimony. Our King said the world would know we are his by our love for each other. Except, Christians are known by many for their infighting and refusal to interact charitably with each other. Lack of unity is often seen as a hallmark of conservative evangelical churches.

Surrendering our rights and agreeing to disagree is vital to the unity in which Jesus has called his people to live, worship, and serve him together. And the unity of God’s people in Christ is an important theme running through the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament.

The church at Corinth had a lot of problems, and Paul’s exasperation spilled over into his first letter to them. Instead of loving Christ and each other, the Corinthians were continuing to cling to idols. Some clung to the idol of their favorite preacher. Some to the idol of society’s respect. Some to the idol of sexual sin. By contrast, some clung to the idol of asceticism, denying that marriage is God honoring and pleasing. Still others clung to their idol of wealth and privilege and had established a tiered Lord’s supper in which the poor among the Corinthian Christians were effectively shut-out from celebrating Communion with their wealthier brothers and sisters in Christ. The underlying problem, of course, was a lack of unity around the gospel of Jesus Christ that was sinfully manifest by a love for self. By their words and actions, the Corinthian Christians denied the unity of the Spirit.

Within that context, in verse 10 of chapter 1, Paul writes his emotionally charged thesis, his reason for writing the letter, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

Prior to that, though, while opening his letter, the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” By way of emphasis, he ends that sentence with the pointed claim, “both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2).”

From the top, Paul is pointing the divided church at Corinth to the reality that those who are in Christ through faith are united by the gospel of Jesus Christ. All saints in all times and all places serve the same Lord – “both their Lord and ours.” Moving ahead into the oft-misused “Love Chapter,” Paul implores the letter’s recipients to focus on the building up of others – to serve the body of Christ through love. Leading into chapter 13, Paul declares, “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (12:27).” He then lists a series of giftings and callings that exist among the individual members and transitions to chapter 13 with the declaration, “And I will show you a still more excellent way (12:31).”

That “more excellent way” is mutual, selfless love rooted in our unity found in Christ’s resurrection. And the resurrection of Christ is expounded on in chapter 15 where Paul reminded the Corinthians, “of the gospel I preached to you (verse 1).” He concluded chapter 15 with the exhortation in verse 58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Living eschatologically – living in light of the coming resurrection in which those in Christ will reap the eternal inheritance earned by Jesus – requires a unity bound together by love for the members of the Body of Christ. This echoes Jesus’ words of John 13:35 when he told his followers, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The gospel work of churches is undermined when disunity and lack of charity is present among the members. Submitting to Jesus through repentance and faith includes a growing love for brothers and sisters in Christ and the desire to serve and bless them over and above ourselves. Failing to do that wreaks havoc to our ability to be a gospel witness to a fallen and broken world.

That may seem like a long way around to the point of this post – disagreeing charitably within the life of the church – but I assure you that it’s the foundation and, frankly, the entire frame for everything that comes next. As Martyn Lloyd Jones once urged, “Our first and chief concern as Christians should be to guard and to preserve this precious wondrous unity of the Spirit. … If we believe in God, we must ever feel that our first duty is to guard this unity, to preserve it at all costs, to strain every nerve and be diligent in endeavoring to keep it and manifest it.”[1]

Commenting on Ephesians, in his helpful and needed book on peacefully resolving conflicts that pop up in churches, Curtis Heffelfinger writes, “Nothing less than our very best will suffice when it comes to safeguarding unity in Jesus’s church as far as it depends upon us.”[2] Just a few pages later, Heffelfinger adds, “A life consistent with Jesus’s glorious calling strives to protect the treasure of unity in Christ’s church.”[3]

Having established (I hope) how vital unity is to the health of churches, not to mention that Christ commands it, and circling back to the title and opening paragraphs, the ability to disagree with charity and humility is necessary to preserving and fostering that unity. Rarely have I seen disunity within a church caused by actual sin or heretical teaching. In my experience, much of the infighting that happens in churches is the direct result of failing to agree to disagree.

Obviously, there are things that Christians can’t agree to disagree on. The divinity of Jesus, for example. If a church member begins espousing Arianism, that individual needs to be rebuked in love and called to repentance. However, if a fellow church member disagrees with other members over the age at which children shouldn’t be allowed in the nursery any longer, it’s a grievous sin to allow that disagreement to affect the unity of the church.

Those two examples occupy opposite sides of the extreme, for sure. Most Believers will undoubtedly recognize the need to appropriately and kindly call the first individual to repentance while recognizing the harm in allowing the second example to breed disunity. But what about things in the middle? Can we agree to disagree over doctrinal matters? And, if so, how? And this is where I believe the value and importance of a church’s statement of faith is revealed.

Like many other conservative evangelical churches, whenever someone joins my church, they sign both the statement of faith and the church covenant, expressing agreement with the first and a willingness to live according to the second. For many, that may sound overly restrictive, lending itself to the abuse of pastoral authority. Yet, without agreed upon standards, regarding both belief and practice, serious problems will emerge. If church members are allowed to believe and teach that Jesus isn’t divine, there’s really no reason for the church to exist. Likewise, members should not be allowed to live in a manner that brings disrepute to the gospel of Jesus Christ – for example, a church should confront and discipline a husband who is abusing his wife. There has to be agreed upon parameters that establish what the community believes and how they live.

However, a church’s statement of faith (and church covenant) needs to allow room for people to obey their conscience in full faith before God on disputable matters. This is where the freedom for church members to agree to disagree and their willingness to do so with charity and humility act as a balance and a protection against the abuse of authority. To see how this works, I’m going to start with a negative example.

After declaring that the King James Bible is God’s preserved Word and the only acceptable translation, many KJV-only churches will add something like this to their statement of faith – all matters of interpretation are decided by the pastor. In other words, whatever the statement of faith doesn’t codify, the pastor decides for the congregation. That’s dangerous and I would highly discourage anyone from covenanting in membership with a church that places that much interpretive authority in the hands of the pastor.

Besides the threat of the abuse of authority, requiring submission to the pastor (or anyone else in the congregation, for that matter) on every interpretative issue is a huge obstacle to spiritual growth. As the ministry of God’s Word molds and conforms God’s people into the image of the Son, different Christians will be at different stages of spiritual maturity, for one thing. What’s more, allowing church members to grow in the faith is hindered if they’re not allowed to ask questions and come to differing conclusions under the umbrella of the statement of faith.

A church’s statement of faith protects orthodoxy in the life of the church, or, rather, explains what that community of Christians believes the Bible clearly teaches. Some statement of faiths are strict; some loose. A friend of mine and fellow member of my church (who “stole” this from a friend of his) makes the helpful assertion that it’s best practice for churches to expect a strict adherence to a loose statement of faith.

Both my friend and I signed our church’s statement of faith that says, among other things:

“We believe that the first day of the week is the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath; and is to be kept sacred to religious purposes, by the devout observance of all the means of grace, both private and public; by preparation for that rest that remaineth for the people of God.”

By signing it, my friend and I have publicly declared that we believe that to be true and that we will order or lives in accordance. However, my friend and I disagree with how that looks. He and I differ on what we believe the Bible commands of new covenant Believers regarding the “Christian Sabbath.” We also both recognize that it is a disputable matter and that our statement of faith allows both of us the freedom in Christ to obey our conscience in full faith before God regarding the interpretation.

To drill down even deeper, church members need to be free to disagree with things that are said from the pulpit or in a Sunday school class. Granted, they should strive, by God’s grace, to disagree with charity and humility. Again, of course, how and what members should feel comfortable publicly disagreeing with will be shaped by the statement of faith.

Eschatology is often one of the more divisive matters within evangelicalism. Many churches codify specific views on the end times with the wording of their statement of faith, as is their right. I hold to the view of the end times called Amillennialism. I couldn’t sign, in good conscience, a statement of faith that required adherence to a premillennial interpretation. The statement of faith I have signed attempts to say nothing more than what the Bible explicitly says concerning the end times and allows for a variety of interpretations as to the specifics. Along with my fellow members that make up Arlington Baptist Church, I agree that:

“We believe that the end of the world is approaching; that at the last day Christ will descend from heaven, and raise the dead from the grave to final retribution; that a solemn separation will then take place; that the wicked will be adjudged to endless punishment, and the righteous to endless joy; and that this judgment will fix forever the final state of men in heaven or hell, on principles of righteousness.”

I know for a fact that I have covenanted in membership with those who hold to premillennialism, even what’s called pretrib, in some instances. I praise God for their desire to rightly interpret God’s Word. We can agree to disagree on the specifics of the Final Day. In fact, if I were to preach Revelation 20:1-3, those members who disagree with me would be free to disagree with me. I would welcome their comments at the door. Furthermore, I would welcome their disagreements during discussions about the sermon. No doubt, the ensuing discussions would be profitable and edifying for all. We can agree to disagree.

Schooling options for children is another potentially contentious issue that can cause disunity within a church if members aren’t willing to agree to disagree.

At our previous church, when we lived in South Carolina, the elders wisely had faithful Christians who had made differing education choices for their children come and speak to the congregation during Sunday school. The overall point that my wife and I took away from those sessions was that we should be willing to agree to disagree while obeying our conscience in full faith before God.

Different families are going to have different variables that help determine the schooling choices they make. Likewise, different families are going to have different convictions about what they believe is the best way to obey God with the schooling choices they make. And here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

At the moment, my kids go to public schools. After prayer, discussion, and the counsel of others, my wife and I believe that not only are we free in Christ to send our kids to public schools but it’s the wisest choice for our family at the moment. There are members of our church family who disagree with us. And they are free in Christ to do so. In fact, during conversations about schooling choices, they are free in Christ to express that disagreement. On our end, my wife and I need to receive that disagreement with charity and humility and not with hurt feelings nor the desire to defend ourselves. That doesn’t preclude having healthy conversations about our disagreements. There’s a difference between an honest conversation and an argument driven by the need to prove you’re right while defending yourself.

There are many, many more possible examples of disputable things that threaten the unity of Christ’s Body if Christians are unwilling to agree to disagree. By God’s grace and through the power of the Spirit, followers of Jesus need to jealously guard the unity of the church. Allowing arguments and division to creep in over issues and things we should be willing to agree to disagree on is sin. It damages the effectiveness of the church’s gospel witness to the community as well as hinders the ministry of the Word in the hearts and lives of the members. Agreeing to disagree with humility and charity is evidence of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and brings God glory.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Christian Unity: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:1-10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 41.

[2] Curtis Heffelfinger, The Peace Making Church: 8 Biblical Keys to Resolve Conflict and Preserve Unity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 23.

[3] Heffelfinger, The Peace Making Church, 31.

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