Summary: Christians disagree about almost everything. And when we disagree, we usually start a new church.
When Christians Disagree
Christians disagree about almost everything. And when we disagree, we usually start a new church. Which reminds me of a story I heard a few years ago. A Scottish Presbyterian is rescued after many years of living alone on a desert island. When he is picked up, the captain says to him, "I thought you were stranded alone." "I was," replied the castaway. "Why are there three huts on the beach?"
"Well, the first one is my house, and the second one is where I go to church."
"What about the third one?"
"Oh, that’s my old church."
Although we like to sing, "We are not divided, all one body we," and "We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord," Christians are mostly united about our love of dividing. If you doubt this, check out the Wikipedia article called List of Christian Denominations. The article lists hundreds of different denominations, including various branches of the Orthodox Church, various kinds of Catholic churches (some in communion with Rome, some not), a great many Lutheran denominations, a very long list of Methodist churches, then there are the Anglicans, Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, the Charismatics, and many, many other branches and twigs on the Christian family tree. I spent a little time studying the Baptists. You have the major groups listed--Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Baptist General Conference, National Baptists and the Progressive Baptists. Then there are some groups that are a bit more esoteric: Old Baptist Union, Old Regular Baptists, Old Time Missionary Baptists, General Association of Baptists, General Association of General Baptists, General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, General Six-Principle Baptists, and my personal favorite, the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. The article also lists the Christian Unity Baptist Association and the Independent Baptists, two groups that probably don’t do much together. Given the wide diversity of opinions, the phrase "independent Baptist" is a redundant statement if you think about it. I’m teasing the Baptists because that happens to be my own spiritual heritage. But you could say much the same about all the other groups on the list.
For all our talk about unity, Christians not only disagree, we enjoy our disagreements. How else can you explain so many different "flavors" marching under the "Christian" banner?
Not a New Problem
In light of that reality, the question in this message is quite narrowly focused. How do you go discover God’s will in areas where Christians disagree? As we begin our discussion, let’s start with the observation that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. In fact, the New Testament itself records some of the early arguments among believers. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, and on whether or not to drink wine. In Colosse the church was torn by controversy over the proper role of angels, New Moon celebrations, and the proper diet for spiritual Christians. In Thessalonica the young church was deeply confused about the Second Coming of Christ. In Philippi there was evidently a major power struggle within the church, which is why Philippians contains such a strong plea for unity.
I should stop at this point and say plainly that there are some doctrines that Christians have always believed. These are fundamental issues having to do with the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ—His virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death and bodily resurrection, the nature of the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, salvation by grace through faith, the certainty of the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the reality of heaven and hell, and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. While the precise wording has often differed, and while some groups have emphasized one doctrine over another, true Christians have always affirmed these doctrines. You can find these things, said in various ways, in the earliest creeds of the church.
In this message I am not speaking about disagreements over these fundamental, non-negotiable doctrines. These truths are not “up for grabs,” as if we could decide whether or not we believe that Jesus is God or whether or not we believe in the Second Coming. Those truths belong to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). In this message we are looking at what we might call Category 2 disagreements--areas of doctrine or practice not involving the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Reflections on an Ancient Quarrel
That brings us back to the basic question. How do you determine God’s will in those areas where Christians disagree? In order to help us answer that question, let’s study the record of an ancient quarrel between two old friends. Acts 15:36-41 tells the story of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas. We pick up the story in verses 36-38: