How do we know if the choices or decisions we are making are ‘disputable’ or not? When should we work hard to get everyone on the same page, and when should we keep a more open hand and allow people to make decisions according to their conscience?
Note: This question was passed on from one of our provincial leaders and did not come directly by means of our firstname.lastname@example.org email.
Thanks so much for this group of questions you have asked. They are certainly being asked by those in our churches. Once again, I want to highlight that in whatever way we decide to answer these questions, we prioritize faithfulness to Jesus, and seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness as we understand it based on Scripture.
A “disputable matter” is a biblical expression that we define as a theological and/or ethical question that is deemed to have enough biblical support in both directions (or has no particular biblical support either way) that disciples of Jesus can rightfully disagree about without one perspective in the disagreement being considered outside of the theological and/or ethical convictions of the whole group. The term itself comes from Romans 14:1 where Paul says that the church community needs to “[a]ccept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” Paul was concerned here that there would be division in the early church over questions of observing Jewish sacred days or whether to eat meat. Paul declared these two questions to be disputable matters that should not divide the church community. According to what we see in Romans 14-15, questions of personal scruples around food laws and sacred days are the kinds of questions that could be included in that category.
Here are a few key points about “disputable matters” that hopefully can guide us today:
First, a disputable matter is not any question that sincere Christians disagree about. Sincere Christians have disagreed through history on all sorts of questions, ranging from what might seem minor to us (e.g., the appropriate dress people should wear when they attend church gatherings) to what is critically important theologically (e.g., whether the Bible teaches a Trinitarian understanding of God). If Christians disagree about something, it is a disputed matter, but a disputed matter is not automatically a disputable matter unless it is discerned as such by the larger church community. As you note, some Christians are embracing new perspectives on sexuality and gender in part because a number of well-known pastors and scholars are “changing their minds” about what the Bible teaches. But the existence of alternative perspectives does not make these questions disputable matters no matter how well-respected and sincere the individuals are who are holding alternative views. Disputed matters have always existed in the Church. Some of them became recognized as disputable matters but many others were deemed to threaten orthodoxy and therefore not given the status of disputable.
Second, a disputed matter becomes a disputable matter at the prayerful and biblical discretion of the larger group. In denominational groupings, it is not the individual or even the local church that provides this assessment but only the collective. Church history shows that disputed matters relating to the nature of Jesus, the means of salvation, and so on, were confronted in creeds and theological pronouncements. These disputed matters led to clear definitions of what constitutes faithful Christian orthodoxy. This is presumably why the Mormon Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses are generally considered to be outside of “orthodox Christianity.” In our MB church family, the determination of what is and is not a disputable matter is done by the Canadian MB family, in consultation also with our USMB family and our international ICOMB family. Our MB Confession of Faith states convictions on many disputed matters—and this posture demonstrates that we do not consider them to be disputable matters. If we did, our MB Confession would not state clear convictions about them.
Third, we do not divide up our Confession of Faith into salvation questions (not disputable) and everything else (disputable matters). Some would argue that we only have a very few things that really matter (viz., Jesus rose from the grave; salvation is by faith and not by works, etc.) and everything else is a disputable matter that we should not argue about. The assumption here is that if there are respected Christians outside of our denominational family who hold alternative views on things that we (and our MB Confession of Faith) disagree with (e.g., infant baptism, same-sex-marriage, redemptive violence, etc.), then our MB family should consider all of these non-salvific questions to be disputable matters. But churches in the Believers Church tradition have always seen salvation as not simply a one-time past-tense event—but an ongoing discipleship journey of walking behind Jesus in all of life. The New Testament writers wrote their letters with the assumption that there were many non-negotiables in the discipleship journey post-conversion. They did not seem to believe that all of these discipleship questions were disputable matters. For us as an MB denomination in Canada, we express many clear convictions in our MB Confession of Faith and in that process are saying that these convictions are not disputable matters for us. Some of these convictions define what it means to begin the faith journey with Jesus and others define what we believe it looks like to walk faithfully with Jesus in the years and decades after that. We believe that both are vitally important.
Fourth, a disputable matter does not mean that the varying perspectives on the question are all equally “correct” or equally biblical or that the answer doesn’t really matter. From Paul’s comments in Romans 14 about disputes over what Christians ought to eat, it seems clear that Paul is convinced that “nothing is unclean in itself” (v.11). However, out of love and a desire for “peace and mutual edification” (v.19), Paul argues that the community should accept others who disagree on these sorts of questions and not exclude them (cf. Rom 15:7). If something is considered by the group to be a disputable matter, strong convictions on both sides can still exist, but the group’s unity should not be torn apart by these different convictions.
Fifth, disputable matters are generally identified in our family by their lack of presence in the MB Confession of Faith. When the MB Confession provides no guidance on a theological/ethical question (and this seems to be done intentionally as opposed to it not being a question that even existed when the Confession was created), we can consider this a disputable matter. Our MB Confession does not address the scientific nature of how God created the physical world or the exact nature of Jesus’ millennial kingdom. Our family has signaled that these matters are disputable. While we might prefer that every local church would also make these matters disputable, there are some local MB churches that take convictional stances on matters that the MB Confession has made a disputable matter. In such cases, we hope for mutual grace within the varying perspectives that exist in our family so that we can pray and participate together in Jesus’ mission that he has given us.
Finally, we must acknowledge that MBs have moved some questions from non-disputable matters to disputable ones in our history. For example, I grew up in a local MB church that required complete abstinence from alcohol as part of my membership commitment. But this non-disputable matter at my local church level was not mentioned anywhere in the 1975 MB Confession of Faith in effect at the time. One could argue that our USMB family in their revision of Article 13 have demonstrated movement of a non-disputable matter to a disputable matter. So we must acknowledge that some non-disputable questions have become disputable matters in our family. However, this does not mean that we now have license or precedent to do this on any question that we feel should be a disputable matter.
So to get back to your question, our larger MB church in Canada did struggle over the question whether all the varying and often conflicting responses that Christians proposed to government Covid regulations and vaccinations should be seen under the category of disputable matter—or whether we should be challenging some responses as being less worthy of the witness of Christ in the world. Our MB Confession of Faith did not have a specific article about “responding to pandemics,” although there are articles that address closely related topics (e.g., stewardship of one’s body; Christian love for neighbour; the Church and Government; etc.). But without absolutely clear guidance on this question (and a willingness by individuals to actually submit themselves to group guidance—something becoming increasingly rare today), it does seem that most churches in our MB family tried to consider this a disputable matter. While we hope that the pandemic is a once in a lifetime event, we may want to reflect more on what we have learned by taking this approach—and how our actions during the pandemic have or have not lifted up the name of Jesus in our communities.
When it comes to questions of sexuality and gender, our MB Confession of Faith guides us much more in terms of shared convictions, so I would say that there is much less space for the language of disputable matter. However, as you rightly note, just agreeing on a theological/ethical vision doesn’t lead immediately to agreement about how to live all of this out. Our tradition highly values drawing in prayerful, Holy Spirit guided people to discern together how our theological/ethical vision in a certain area can be lived out in the complexities of our local situation. But in a world weighted toward the individual, this group discernment will continue to hit walls unless individuals are willing to believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding the larger group, and willing to submit themselves to that larger discernment.
Thanks again for passing on this group of questions. We certainly need biblical guidance, Holy Spirit wisdom, and much prayer to lean into disputed matters inside and outside of our family.
Thanks for your question. I hope that this response is helpful.
Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)