Theology in 3D

Managing Our Differences, Part 9

Layton Talbert | November 29, 2021

Unity is not a goal for which the church strives. It is a reality. But unity doesn’t mean we never disagree; it doesn’t even mean we never divide. Sometimes division is necessary not just to maintain purity but to preserve unity. As counterintuitive as that may sound, the key is how we manage those differences and divisions. When we do differ with one another, even vigorously sometimes, it is necessary to remind ourselves of another biblical principle.

10. Keep the bigger picture in view: He’s not the enemy; he’s a brother.

The obvious text for this point is 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. But we have to hold and practice and think and pray in terms of both 3:14 and 3:15.

Christ’s disciples have differences that will sometimes necessarily divide them (“note that man, and have no company with him”); but the passage compels us to counterpoint that division with a recognition (“yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother”).

Think about that. Disobedience to clear apostolic commands is serious and warrants separation. But even in those circumstances, a believer is to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. If that applies even to those who disobey clear apostolic commands, it certainly applies to those who disagree with us on the interpretations and applications of some of those apostolic commands.

A minister planning to write a public article criticizing a fellow minister first wrote John Newton for his advice. Newton gives some helpful, practical counsel along these lines of managing controversy with brothers in Christ.

Dear  Sir,

As you are likely to be engaged in controversy, and your love of truth is joined with a natural warmth of temper, my friendship makes me solicitous on your behalf. You are of the strongest side; for truth is great, and must prevail . . . . I am not therefore anxious for the event of the battle; but I would have you more than a conqueror, and to triumph not only over your adversary, but over yourself. If you cannot be vanquished, you may be wounded. To preserve you from such wounds as might give you cause of weeping over your conquests, I would present you with some considerations . . . . I may reduce my advice to three heads, respecting your opponent, the public, and yourself.

Consider Your  Opponent

As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing. This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.

If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, [remember] the Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever. . . .

Consider the  Public

By printing, you will appeal to the public, where your readers may be ranged under three divisions: First, such as differ from you in principle . . . . Though you have your eye upon one person chiefly, there are many like-minded with him; and the same reasoning will hold, whether as to one or to a million.

[Second, those who are not doctrinally or theologically informed.] These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper . . . . The scriptural maxim that “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” is verified by daily observation. If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit. . . .

[Third, those who are already inclined to agree with you and the arguments you advance.] You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God. . . .

Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.

Consider Yourself

This leads me, in the last place, to consider your own concern in your present undertaking. It seems a laudable service to defend the faith once delivered to the saints; we are commanded to contend earnestly for it, and to convince gainsayers. . . .

And yet we find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made? . . .

Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who “when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.” This is our pattern, thus we are to speak and write for God, “not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that hereunto we are called.” The wisdom that is from above is not only pure, but peaceable and gentle . . . .

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. . . .

Excerpt from The Works of John Newton, Letter XIX “On Controversy”

Just one more post in this series.

2 responses to “Managing Our Differences, Part 9”

  1. Geon Kang says:

    It reminds me of
    “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
    ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    In the Christian “managing our differences” context,
    If you want to change a person, don’t force them to your expectation.
    Instead, show them the great Savior Jesus Christ.

    Thank you.

  2. Geon Kang says:

    I recently thought about Gospel sparsities with the paradox of consensus. Ancient Jewish law considered the unanimous agreement did not necessarily lead to judicial truth but paradoxically can lead to systemic error. Considering Gospels from an ancient Jewish perspective, the sparsities and discrepancies can increase credibility, contrary to liberal theologian claims. In other words, actually harmonizing Gospels reduced credibility; on the other hand, Gospel sparsities and discrepancies actually increased credibility.

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