Summary: Many doctrinal disputes within the Body of Christ are simply due to different uses of words.
For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you. (1 Cor. 11:18-19, ASV)
Controversies over Bible interpretation often cause divisions among Christians. Many of these could be avoided if we were more sensitive about the shades and varieties of meanings in words we use. Unless we cultivate such a sensitivity, we become hopelessly muddled when we try to understand the Bible.
For example, in John 14:7 Jesus says to His disciples, ‘You have seen the Father’... But John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12 both say, ‘No man has seen God at any time’. At first sight, it appears that Jesus is contradicting Himself. The contradiction is resolved when we recognize that is more than one sense of the word ’see’. For example, certainly no one can see an electron, to examine and describe it in detail. On the other hand, every time you watch TV you see electrons, because a TV picture is composed of millions of flashes of light produced by single electrons striking the phosphor paint on the screen.
Wouldn’t it be silly to argue about whether or not we can ‘see’ God, based on these passages? Unfortunately, many of the fiercest doctrinal disputes among Christians are equally senseless. For instance, some Christians insist that you receive the Holy Spirit when you first confess Jesus as Lord; while others are just as adamant that ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ refers to an experience subsequent to salvation. (John 7:38-39, John 14:16-17, John 20:22, Acts 2:33,38, Acts 8:15-19, Acts 19:1-2, Gal. 3:14). But aren’t these two parties simply using two different senses of the word, "receive"? In one sense, you "receive" a letter as soon as it’s placed in your mailbox, while in another sense you only "receive" it when you open it up, read, and understand it.
Another argument of this kind is the argument over eternal security. What about someone who at one time appeared to have a sincere faith in Christ, but later became vehemently opposed to the Gospel? Did he fall away from faith, and lose his salvation? Or was he never saved at all? Some Christians would make one claim, while others would claim the opposite. Isn’t it possible that they are using the word "saved" in two different ways--the one speaking of appearance at the present time, the other speaking of God’s final decision which He alone foreknows?
What is especially silly about these arguments is, they have no practical content whatsoever. As far as receiving the Holy Spirit is concerned, virtually all Christians agree that the Holy Spirit comes into a person’s heart when that person genuinely confesses the Lord; and virtually all Christians agree that believers have subsequent experiences where the Holy Spirit comes alive to them in a deeper way. Both sides agree, as far as actual experience is concerned -- so why are they arguing over words? Similarly, as far as security is concerned: all Christians agree that if someone presently denies Christ he needs to repent and be saved, no matter how devoted he appeared to be in the past. So practically speaking, where is the disagreement? There is none.
These examples show how clever Satan is. He easily gets us arguing over nothing, and this arguing does extraordinary damage to the kingdom of God. Think of all the time and energy which has been wasted over these arguments. Think of the deep divisions which have sprung up and prevented Christian brothers and sisters from working together.
We should learn a lesson from the persecuted Church. Richard Wurmbrand in his book "Tortured for Christ" describes the unity among true believers in Communist prisons in Romania. They forgot their petty differences, because they were involved in a life-and-death struggle to survive and continue in the faith. But, though we easily forget, no less are we involved in a life-and-death struggle for souls. If our eyes were opened to see this clearly, then we would never be able to bear the squabbling which occupies so much of our time and resources.
Prayer: Father, we are Your children, and are called by Your Name. Help us put first things first. Help us to identify our common ground, that we may build together as cooperatively as possible.
Help us not be deceived by surface differences. Show us when we are talking about the same experiences but are simply using different words and concepts to describe them. Help us learn each other’s spiritual language and to translate, that we may identify with each other and touch each others’ hearts through spiritual discussions.
Help us appreciate and learn from each other’s genuine spiritual experiences . When our experiences truly and substantially differ, remind us not to be so quick to label the other’s experience as invalid. By Your grace help us be respectful, that we may listen thoughtfully and attentively; help us be humble, that we may recognize that the other may know something I don’t; and help us be insightful to discern, together with the other, what is truly from You and what is insubstantial. Through our interaction with each other, help us attain spiritual richness which we might otherwise missed.