Written By Leslie Koh
Is it okay to pray for a miracle healing? Can we speak in tongues? Can a woman preach at the pulpit? Should the church support anti-homosexual laws? What’s the church’s stand on abortion? What should we do with an errant pastor? Is there a “correct” version of the Bible? Can we play the drums in worship? Should Christians drink alcohol?
Controversies can be interesting when you’re having an intellectual debate. Or reading the news. But not when they divide a church and split the Body of Christ into those who think they’re right . . . and those who think the other side is wrong.
Coming from a church that traditionally takes the middle ground and hosts a wide range of practices and beliefs that are not fundamental to the Christian faith (or what it sees as non-fundamental, anyway), I was quite taken aback when I recently joined a group that appeared to hold strong opinions on some of these issues.
What was vaguely disturbing was how seriously some of the members of this group stuck to their stands. I was used to hearing people attribute the differences in opinion and practices to a generational gap, personal preferences, or maturity of faith (“Oh, we’re too old for this modern worship songs”). But it seemed these people were a lot more rigid about their stands. For them, it was nothing less than doctrinal. “Well, the Bible says so” was something I kept hearing.
Which made me want to retort—“So everyone else interpreted the Bible wrongly?”
Some of the “Christian” practices that I was used to myself came under fire, and the frowns I received left me feeling confused and defensive at the same time. On one hand, I began to wonder if what I had understood all this time was actually wrong. On the other, I wondered if these people were just being too dogmatic or narrow-minded in their interpretation of the Bible.
(I haven’t actually figured this out, but it’s made me go back to double-check my own understanding of doctrinal issues and also made me wonder: Am I just as guilty of being dogmatic?)
What struck me, however, was not their actual justification for their beliefs. Rather, it was what they thought about the people holding the opposite views. And how they expressed these thoughts.
There were the insensitive jokes. (“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to heaven.”) There were the stereotypes. (“All charismatics/conservatives are like this.”) And finally, the misperceptions of the other camp’s views. (“All pentecostals insist we must worship this way.”/ “All conservatives are dead-set against this.”)
Which made me wonder: Should some topics be kept off-limits to jokes, unless we’re sure they won’t offend? And do we know what the other side does and thinks as well as we think?
To be sure, there will be extremes in both camps. Thankfully, I’ve also met charismatics and conservatives who aren’t as dogmatic as they’re portrayed to be, and kept their minds open. A Bible teacher I know once reasoned it this way: “I’ve seen godly people on both sides, so I’m going to reserve judgment.”
Amen to that! Incidentally, that statement changed my view of the “conservative” crowd. Confession: Yes, I’ve been just as guilty of stereotyping people I don’t agree with, and this Bible teacher reminded me how unfair and prejudiced I was.
The real problem, I believe, is not what people on opposing sides think of each other’s argument. It’s what we think of each other. And it’s what we think the other side thinks.
We speak the truth . . . but do we speak in love?
I guess we’re never going to resolve any of these issues. Not when some of them involve interpretation of God’s Word, which I guess makes them important enough to stand by. We’ll probably only know the actual answer when we meet God. (I sometimes imagine God, when asked who’s right and who’s wrong on these non-salvation issues, would just chuckle gently and say, “My dear children, you’re both right! As long as you believe in Me, follow Me, and honor Me in your personal convictions and live consistently by them, you’re fine.”)
But perhaps we can still do something about these differences. Perhaps we can try our best to talk it out and attempt to reach a consensus in a godly manner. Perhaps we can find ways to continue worshiping and working together without letting our convictions divide the Body of Christ. After all, how we go about doing it is just as important as what we do.
Ephesians 4:2-3 speaks of a God-honoring way when dealing with fellow believers. “Be completely humble and gentle,” says Paul, “be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
The Bible doesn’t say anything about trying to reach agreement on everything. It just talks about having the right approach and attitude. It means bringing our arguments to the table with the greatest humility, gentleness, patience, and love. And it means aiming, ultimately, not to force others to accept our point, but to maintain a unity among believers.
Do we enter a conversation determined to win an argument? Do we put down the other person in order to get our points through? Do we walk away from a debate angry because the other person wouldn’t budge? Do we try to clobber each other with God’s Word? Do we seek to draw lines in the church and divide the congregation into those who agree with us and “the unbelievers”?
Or, do we explain our stand gently and patiently, willing to let God convict their hearts in His time and His way—and be ready to accept that we might not be completely right, either? And are we more concerned about the other person’s growth and relationship with God, than about making sure he understands everything in the right way (i.e., our way)?
In a recent post commenting on an ongoing debate over an anti-homosexual law in Singapore, William Wan, who heads the Singapore Kindness Movement, noted most aptly: “Everyone on both sides of the divide believes that he is speaking the truth. But the question is whether it is spoken in love.”
More often than not, we get so riled up over an issue because we believe it has to do with false teaching that needs to be corrected. Even if that’s true—and that’s a huge “if”, remembering that the other camp probably thinks the same way—can we still not speak in love? When a dispute broke out in the New Testament church over the circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15:1–35), the apostles and elders made sure to guide the new believers gently, using words like: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements . . . You will do well to avoid these things” (vv. 24–29).
Jesus, too, distinguished between those who were genuinely misguided, and false teachers who sought to confuse and mislead. While He didn’t mince His words in rebuking the latter, He remained gentle and compassionate with the former. His ultimate aim was not so much to tear down an argument, but to build up a person. Paul, too, says: “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).
Ironically, we’re sometimes even more careful and patient with non-believers than with fellow believers. We’re willing to engage with seekers and hear them out even when we disagree with them completely—but not with fellow believers who seem to have a different interpretation of the Bible. Why?
And if we still can’t come to an agreement, perhaps we need to look at what we do agree on, and move on from there. Paul goes on to say, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
It’s almost as if he’s saying: “Don’t focus on what you disagree on, but on what you have in common, and you’ll remember why we are ONE family in Christ.”
It could mean ending a debate with a peace-making conclusion like, “Okay, we still disagree on this. But we can agree on this. Let’s see how we can worship and work together based on our common faith in Jesus.”
We aim to speak the truth, but let’s also speak in love.