Over the past two thousand years of church history Christians have disagreed, sometimes harshly and violently, on almost everything from trivial matters to profound theological questions. Even deciding on what is trivial and what is not sometimes has led to major disagreement and breakdown of relationship. In the book of Acts we read about the sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas that led to them breaking fellowship and parting company.[i]
Some non-Christian commentators have described ‘disagreement and division’ as the modus operandi of the church. At the same time we are challenged by the words that Jesus prayed: ‘Father, that all of them (Christians) may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’.[ii] Jesus makes a direct link between Christian unity and the world believing in his divinity. This is hard to comprehend and even harder to put into practice.
There is a glaring contradiction between the perfect Trinitarian love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the story of division in the church down the ages. At the time of Prophet Mohammed the Christian believers he encountered, who belonged to Nestorian and Jacobite churches, were condemned by the official church of the Roman Empire as heretics and unbelievers. Might there be a connection between the divisions within the church at that time and Muhammad rejecting the Christian faith? Can it be the case that one of the reasons Muslims today don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus is because Christians are so divided amongst themselves. There are now over thirty thousand Christian denominations in the world and that number is growing.
Disagreement, Disunity and Misunderstanding
So what does it mean for Christians to disagree with fellow believers and at the same time to heed Jesus’ commandment to love one another and live in unity? While disagreement and disunity are certainly not the same thing, there are still some important issues to grapple with.
There are two phrases I’ve come across that are used, even by Christians, in the context of disagreement. One is don’t judge others and the other is let’s just agree to disagree. Both these phrases might at a superficial level seem to deal with the problem of disagreement, but they actually side-step the issues and marginalise the significance of the disagreement. The maxim don’t judge others is itself a statement of judgement. And any agreement with what is false and untrue cannot be considered an act of love. To disagree with someone can be an act of love and a step in the right direction toward knowing truth. Because truth matters, disagreements matter. But we cannot stop here.
What is the difference between disagreement and misunderstanding? For there to be a proper disagreement on something, there has to be a prior shared understanding on that thing, otherwise what we have is a mis-understanding. For example, if one person says that Queen Elizabeth is the greatest British monarch, and another person disagrees with this statement, we need to stop to find out whether both persons are referring to the same person. It is possible that one is thinking about Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) and the other is thinking about Queen Elizabeth II (born 21 April 1926). A disagreement assumes a shared understanding, and it is here that I think Christians can and need to improve how we disagree with each other.
Loving One Another in the Midst of Disagreement
Love for one another as Jesus commanded in a practical sense has to mean working to overcome misunderstanding and increase shared understanding. Shared understanding does not mean agreement, it means affirming what we hold and believe in common without letting the disagreement diminish its significance. Without a commitment to shared understanding, disagreements will magnify and inevitably lead to division, bringing the name of Jesus into disrepute. Seeking understanding in the context of conflict is a challenge because it goes against the grain of our human nature. The easy thing to do is to divide into camps, call names and use labels to describe Christians on the other side, deliberately ‘misrepresent’ what another person is saying, and then defend all this in a self-righteous way in the name of ‘love for truth’. Defending truth in an abstract sense takes priority over loving our neighbour in a concrete sense. The goal is no longer ‘how to increase shared understanding’ but how to win the information battle. Fighting these kinds of battles with other Christians we disagree with might, in a weird way, give us a sense of moral authority but hinders the realisation of Jesus’ prayer for unity.
When dealing with disagreement we must make a careful distinction between the issues and ideas we disagree with and the person who holds-affirms them. We make this distinction because we want to keep loving the person we disagree with. There is no commandment in the Bible to stop loving someone just because we disagree with them or they disagree with us. Love has to mean a willingness to communicate and working to increase understanding. A commitment to truth and a commitment to relationship are not mutually exclusive. Also, we have to ask questions about how we communicate our disagreements and judgements about another’s beliefs and opinions. Are we doing it in a way that communicates rejection and condemnation of the other person or group? Or are we doing it in a way that communicates a desire to improve the relationship and increase the possibility of shared understanding.
Whilst the Bible is based on and affirms the fundamental antithesis between truth and falsehood, the Bible does not affirm the distrust and division between Christians based on this antithesis.
Christians must not give up disagreeing with each other. For the sake of truth it matters that we disagree but how we disagree makes all the difference.
[i] Acts 15:36-41
[ii] John 17:21