Most pastors have received an email like the one I recently found in my inbox. Someone was looking for a new church. They had explored our website and even attended a few times. They were impressed, but….
“Can you explain why you have female elders when the Bible explicitly states that leaders should be men?” The implication was clear: if women lead, I’ll leave.
We do that in church. I’ve done it. So have you. We attack and condemn each other over doctrines like hell, evolution or sexual orientation. We break community or split churches over charismatic gifts, worship styles and MB distinctives.
The issues vary, but the issue is always the same: if you don’t believe and behave like me, I won’t be part of you.
The tragic result is that our passion to protect the “true church” is what ultimately destroys it. When Paul says, “If all you have is an eye, then you don’t actually have a body” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:21–27), he seems to suggest that if everyone in the community is exactly the same in how they believe, behave, look, act, talk, worship, practise and live, then the community isn’t actually a church.
In the New Testament, “church” is a Jesus-loving community of racially, culturally, socio-economically, religiously and theologically diverse people living with each other in unshakeable unity. That’s church. And that’s hard.
Two kinds of truth
So, how do we do it? How do we live in unity with each other despite the radical diversity the Bible assumes, even demands?
One key is Romans 14:1: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters” (emphasis mine). This would suggest that, according to Paul, some truth is indisputable. We have to agree on that stuff.
But other truth is “disputable” – a matter of perspective, opinion and taste. Two kinds of truth, but only one worth fighting about.
So, which is which? And how do we decide?
My modest proposal would be to fixate only on the gospel. Here’s the test: does the doorway of faith for my seeking friends hinge on this specific issue? For example, is it essential to the gospel that there’s a loving God who created a good world? Of course.
Does the gospel hinge on the age of the earth? In my opinion, that’s debatable. So I won’t quarrel over disputable matters.
Now, don’t misread Paul. He’s not saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about issues like evolution, hell, sexual orientation or anything else that lights up the blogosphere. Romans 14 is clear that we “should be fully convinced” of what we believe (14:5) and that we should live consistently with those beliefs (14:23). We have to know what we believe and to live like it.
An end to debates and eye rolls
However, Paul does forbid two behaviours tragically common in the church. First: no arguing to convince others to agree with us. No debating to prove we’re right and they’re wrong. No browbeating others into agreement. To the contrary, on these matters, God commands us to keep our opinions to ourselves (Romans 14:22). No arguing over disputable matters.
Second: no judging those who disagree with us (14:2–4). No belittling, no rolling our eyes or shaking our heads at the immaturity of someone who believes or behaves differently than we do. No questioning the authenticity, legitimacy or sincerity of their faith. They don’t answer to you, but to Christ. They’re not accountable to you, but to him.
And, if they’ve accepted him, he’s accepted them, just as he has accepted you: warts, mistakes, misinterpretations, ignorance and all.
The bottom line is always love. The first and last word in this text is “accept.” We must embrace each other and love each other with the love of Christ, the love of the cross.
It’s the kind of love that humbly decides to consider everyone else more important than ourselves. The kind of love that sacrifices ourselves, our agenda, our status, our ego, our need to be right, so the love of God might flow through us into them. That’s church. And that’s hard.
The Thirty Years War was among the longest and bloodiest periods of European history. At its root was an ostensibly religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, fighting over land. It was in the throes of this conflict that theologian Rupertus Meldenius wrote: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.
May we learn to love in Christ those who are radically different from us. May we learn to be the church.
—Michael Krause is the teaching pastor at Southridge Community Church in St. Cathrines, Ont.