Let’s face it, we’re going to have disagreements. As a Christian I expect to have disagreements with other Christians and with non-Christians. Some of these disagreements will be a big deal, and others will be small potatoes. There are a number of cases where we can respectfully agree to disagree. What do those look like?
We don’t know everything
Some things are simply not revealed in scripture. This can range from spiritual mysteries that we have no access to, to facts about the physical world that are not dealt with in scripture. When we conclude that something is not revealed in scripture, we should give consideration to whether it is knowable at all.
One thing that is knowable, but not revealed in the bible is the size of the earth. The size of the earth is not given anywhere in the bible, not even in cubits. Any disagreement on the subject would be based on our exploration and reasoning about the natural world, not on scriptural interpretation. Coming to an accurate assessment of such things is less a matter of faithfulness to Christ and more a matter being capable in math and science.
We experience little disagreements about natural facts all the time. We could disagree over how much milk is left in the fridge. That wouldn’t be a bible issue. Just go check. Disagreements like this aren’t doctrinal, but they can reveal something about our hearts, especially if someone is getting unreasonably upset.
Another thing that is not revealed in the bible is the date of Christ’s coming return to the earth. This is a different category of unrevealed knowledge, because it is not possible to measure it or figure it out by observation of the natural world. Knowing this would require revelation. And that revelation has not been given.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)
When it comes to unrevealed spiritual things, our discussions should be short, since they are necessarily unfruitful. But it isn’t forbidden to wonder. Old testament prophets wondered about things not revealed to them about Christ. (1 Peter 1:10-12) They had just enough information to be really intrigued, maybe even puzzled, but not enough to answer all their questions. God’s decision of what to reveal and what to leave hidden put hard limits on their knowledge. We face similar limits today.
The timing of Christ’s return is a uniquely interesting example of this. We have been told that no one knows the timing, not even Christ. (Mat 24:36) We’ve also been told that it isn’t our business. (Acts 1:7) Despite that, it has been much too common for Christians to speculate, and we even see leaders in the church make reckless predictions from time to time. Of course, they are always wrong.
What we have here is a situation where people are not being humble and admitting the limits of their knowledge. This is an example of being unfaithful to the bible. The bible tells us that it is not knowable, and we rebel against that. This should be a warning flag for any Christian, since our spiritual life depends on our submission to God’s authority.
But we do know some things
It’s important that we don’t give up on what God has revealed simply because there are disagreements over it. Let’s be careful about that. The things that have been revealed belong to us, as Deuteronomy says. The fact is that God has set himself the task of communicating himself and his will to us. He intends us to learn from the bible. Many, many things are knowable.
We considered a moment ago that it is a lack of humility to claim spiritual knowledge that God has not revealed. The opposite error would be to take something that God has revealed, and say that it is unknowable. This would be a real shame. It is no virtue to surrender God’s revelation. That would be ignoring and denying the word of God.
An example here is that God has revealed the way to salvation, and some say we can’t know for sure. The bible tells us that the only way for a human to be reconciled to God is through faith in Jesus Christ. People naturally find this problematic. Some people will say you are arrogant and blah-blah-blah if you hold to the truth that God has revealed. Let them. It has been revealed. This truth is ours, and we will never let it go.
Now, just because something has been revealed doesn’t mean I know it. I may not have read it. I may never have been taught. There’s a big difference between saying “I don’t know” and saying “we can’t be sure.”
Unfortunately, rebellion against God’s revealed will sometimes disguises itself as humility, saying “we can’t be sure.” If you don’t have a scripture reference for “we can’t be sure,” you might want to stick “I don’t know,” or even “I’m not sure that has been revealed.” The reality is that more has been revealed than any of us have yet grasped. And the asnwers to many of the most contentious questions have been put down in black and white.
Some things don’t effect how we live
Some questions have a direct practical application, and some don’t. If God has commanded us to offer ceremonial sacrifices, or keep the sabbath religiously, we’d better do that. (pro tip: Christ is the end of the ceremonial law) But suppose one person thinks that God created the earth in seven days, and another thinks it was all done in a single day. What’s the difference in how each person lives day by day? Not much that I can see.
We could think of all kinds of boring examples of questions that don’t effect our practice. How tall was Jesus? What color was Samson’s hair? Was Abraham bald? Did Aaron have a beard? We wouldn’t want to make a big deal out of these kinds of things. It’s easy to agree to disagree about things like this, even if we can actually know the answer. For example, Aaron did have a beard. (Psa 133:2)
Sometimes how we answer questions like these can point at deeper disagreements. For example, two people who disagree on how long it took God to make the earth (which is recorded in Genesis 1) would almost certainly have differences in how they interpret scripture, or the authority that they believe it has. Our relationship with scripture has tremendous effect on how we live, so you may want to dig a little deeper into some disagreements.
How important is it?
The most challenging type of disagreement is when something is clearly revealed and also effects our practice, but which is less important than confessing the lordship of Jesus. The trouble here is that when it comes to revealed and practical truth, there is an entire spectrum of importance. I know of no hard line distinguishing between absolute deal-breakers and things we can agree to disagree on.
What we can say is this: no one should act contrary to what he or she believes to be the will of God. So even if I can agree to disagree, I can’t just ignore what I sincerely believe to be God’s will. This is such a crucial point. Romans 14 tells us that everything we do should be done with confidence that it is allowed by God. Anything not done with this confidence is sin.
We would never want to cause someone to act against their conscience, since that we be sin on their part. Similarly, we should never compromise and act contrary to what we believe God demands of us. Maybe in the future we will learn differently, and gain the confidence to act on our new understanding. But in the mean time, we must be faithful to do what we believe God requires.
At times this means that we can work with other Christians in certain ways, but not in other ways.
As I said, I think this is the hardest category of disagreement to handle. There are subtle things to be considered. We don’t want to give false impressions that would lead people astray, but we also don’t want to be overly divisive. It can be a tough question, which segues into my last category of disagreement…
I understand how you can be wrong about this
There are a lot of people who are sincere in their error. And we can sympathize with the reasons for their lack of understanding. They may have been taught incorrectly. They may not have given much consideration to the question. They may face a lot of pressure to come to the wrong conclusion. Each of these are weaknesses that we can have compassion on, although they still can’t lead us to act contrary to God’s will.
You might notice that there is a definite assumption of superiority here. That is, I can have compassion on someone who is wrong, without giving even a little on the fact that they are wrong. My compassion should not lead me to doubt the truth, or to question my knowledge, or cause me to pretend uncertainty.
In order for me to have compassion on someone’s weakness, I really have to recognize that it is weakness. I do this from a position of superiority. You can see this in effect in Romans 14. The apostle’s writing doesn’t waffle about whether it is lawful for a Christian to eat every kind of food, it clearly is. There is no question as to who is right and who is wrong. The brother who holds to mosaic dietary restrictions is the weak one. In contrast, the one who understands his freedom in Christ would called strong, or mature. But there is the matter of charity towards those who are in error.
Everyone makes mistakes. We’re all human and we can make pretty silly mistakes. Somethings are not as obvious as others. We should be charitably and generous in the face of other people’s weakness. We also are weak, and Christ is strong on our behalf.
We should always remain humble. Our confidence should be based on God’s greatness, and the glorious reality that he has revealed himself to us. We are never confident in our own greatness. But we have great confidence in Christ.
But we don’t want to confuse this with uncertainty. We don’t want compassion and generosity in the face of disagreement to cause us to surrender God’s revelation. Nor should we hesitate or qualify everything we believe. Faith means being convinced, and confident. Faith means confidently trusting, not in ourselves, but in someone else.