Managing Our Differences, Part 6
Here’s a quick snapshot of the rearview mirror:
- God uses only flawed vessels; that’s all He has. (Part 1)
- God can use our differences, and even our divisions, to advance His kingdom. (Part 2)
- God uses our differences to glorify Himself. (Part 3)
- We need to understand why we disagree. (Part 4)
- Sometimes it is appropriate to disagree, even vigorously. (Part 5)
The necessity of sometimes vigorous disagreement with a brother suggests the need for a qualifying principle.
6. Don’t confuse righteous Indignation with the wrath of man.
I’m using “confuse” here in two senses: (a) don’t mistake human wrath for righteous indignation (James 1:20), and (b) don’t mix sinful human wrath into the expression of legitimate righteous indignation (Eph. 4:26).
Let me return to Acts 15:36-39 again for a moment. I. Howard Marshall notes that “the reason for the contention between Paul and Barnabas has seemed so trivial that some deeper cause has been suspected.” And sure enough, some commentators have invented all sorts of ulterior motives for Paul, or Barnabas, or John Mark in order to “explain” the real reasons for the dispute.
For example, Mark supposedly resented Paul’s apostolic priority over his Uncle Barnabas; that’s why he left and that’s why Paul didn’t want him along. Or, Paul still distrusted Barnabas after the Antioch debacle (Gal. 2:11-13) and was actually looking for a pretext to go without him; John Mark’s former failure provided that pretext. Or again, Mark actually left the first mission in protest over Paul’s Gentile focus, so he returned to Jerusalem to stir up the Judaistic faction of the church against Paul.
But it’s all rubbish.
Even fog looks like a smoking gun to someone who is convinced that there must be a smoking gun. Sometimes we can be so inebriated with our own prejudices that we see only what we expect to see. And we can be so conditioned by our culture (contra Rom. 12:2) rather than by Scripture that we will post any ungenerous thought that occurs to us—ignoring in the process even the most basic biblical principles that govern our speech, our relationships, and even our disagreements with fellow believers.
If you feel compelled to disagree—especially publicly—you have at least three scriptural obligations to meet first:
- Be informed. Paul condemns those who “understand neither what they say nor the things which they affirm”—i.e., they don’t know what they’re talking about. Informing and influencing others entails an obligation to inform ourselves first. Communicate, confirm, and understand accurately.
- Be honest. Speak truth (Eph. 4:25). It is dishonest to misrepresent a view with which you disagree; go out of your way to present it in its best light.
- Be charitable. Speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15; 1 Cor. 13:4-6). Don’t insinuate evil motives or mock brothers in Christ who hold a view with which you disagree.
We ought to be willing to hold our friends and fellow believers to that standard; and we ought to be willing to be evaluated by that standard.
Back in Part 1, I quoted a portion of Matthew Henry’s comment on the Paul-Barnabas dispute in Acts 15. I want to return to that remark because he adds something very insightful along the lines of our present discussion. Henry wrote that “we shall never be all of a mind till we come to heaven.” Then he adds that
even those whom we justly condemn we should condemn moderately, and with a great deal of temper[ance], because we know not but afterwards we may see cause to think better of them . . . and we should so regulate our resentments that if it should prove so, we should not afterwards be ashamed of [our previous words]. . . .
There is sound and scriptural wisdom in that. The textual basis for this point is located in James 1, which I’ve condensed here for the purposes of the topic at hand:
19 . . . But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. . . . 26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. 27 This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, . . . to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Our reaction to a fellow believer’s error can be just as unscriptural, our attitude toward their perceived worldliness just as worldly.
Principles 5 and 6 lead logically and scripturally to another that also must inform how we go about managing our differences. I mention it only in passing, though it is far weightier than the space I can give to it here.
7. Every believer is individually accountable to the Master.
Every man must be fully persuaded in his own mind (Rom. 14:5) because each of us will be judged not by one another but by our Master (Rom. 14:4). Packaged in this passage like nonidentical twins are both liberty and sobriety.
The basis of our evaluation before Christ will not be what other people thought of us and our choices (1 Cor. 4:2-3).
The basis of our evaluation before Christ will not even be our own conscience (1 Cor. 4:3-4).
The basis of our evaluation before Christ will be his assessment of our faithfulness to the Word of God. And that includes his assessment of our faithfulness to his words regulating how we express and manage our differences with each other.