We move forward as a broader community when we learn to listen, speak, and disagree well.
Christian believers belonging to the Church of the Nazarene do many things well. We respond quickly to people in need through such ministries as local compassion centers and Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. We educate more than 50,000 college and university students annually through our 52 higher education institutions.
We share the gospel effectively through local evangelism efforts and via our missionaries serving in 159 world areas.
One thing we do not always do well, however, is disagree agreeably. I receive communications regularly about members of our fellowship who damage or destroy relationships and sometimes entire faith communities through unresolved conflict.
Let’s focus attention specifically on disagreements about our Christian beliefs. This topic deserves our careful analysis and thorough discussion because differences occur frequently.
Why do holiness people disagree about doctrinal statements and faith convictions? A variety of possible answers emerge:
- Individual believers bring their personal backgrounds, experiences, temperaments, opinions, education, and convictions to every conversation.
- Cultural, gender, and socio-economic influences affect the way we approach divine truth.
- Human language, whether spoken, written, online, or face-to-face, often fail to adequately communicate. The same word often carries multiple meanings; definitions change with time. So, we often talk past one another in our faith conversations (John 11:1-14).
- God’s expansive truth is bigger, broader, deeper, and wider than our limited minds can fully grasp or adequately put into words (Ephesians 3:18-21).
- Divine truth also has many dimensions which require a lifetime of study, contemplation, and discussion with other believers to understand more completely (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Some argue that Spirit-filled believers will never disagree about biblical perspectives or doctrinal statements. They contend that God’s Spirit will give every believer the same understanding about divine truth. We know that simply does not accurately represent reality. Deeply committed Christians take varying positions and hold different perspectives on many subjects.
How shall we move forward in an environment that lacks unanimity of belief?
John Wesley offered these words as a starting point for our question, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand" (Catholic Spirit sermon). Wesley demonstrated this conviction through his lifelong friendship with George Whitefield. The two men prayed, discussed Scripture in Oxford University’s Holy Club, ministered together throughout their lives, yet they disagreed sharply on several doctrinal beliefs. But they never let their unique convictions come between their Christian love for one another.
We must love our brothers and sisters in the faith even when we do not see eye to eye. Remember that the leaders of theological discussion down through church history have historically divided Christian beliefs into two lists. John Wesley labeled his lists essential and non-essential doctrines.
Essential doctrines emerge from direct statements of Scripture and the ancient creeds of tradition, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The Articles of Faith for the Church of the Nazarene (Manual paragraphs 1-16) and the Agreed Statement of Belief (Manual paragraph 20) exemplify this list for Nazarenes.
Non-essential Christian beliefs tend to be more speculative and relate to matters not essential to salvation. Modes of baptism, theories on the second coming of Christ, and opinions about church government organization exemplify the non-essential list of beliefs. The second list draws the most disagreement from well-meaning Christians. Always remember these beliefs are not essential to our eternal salvation.
No single believer can claim a divine revelation on every position of non-essential beliefs.
It is wise to enter conversations about our differences with humility, grace, and a desire to broaden our perspectives. Truth be told, no single believer can claim a divine revelation on every position of non-essential beliefs. Our knowledge of God grows and expands not only with individuals across a lifetime, but also with the entire community of faith across generations. Who would dare to proclaim that they understand all mysteries of the sacraments? Who fully grasps the incredible richness of Christ’s atonement through the many theories related to His death on the cross for our sins?
I contend if Spirit-filled followers of Jesus live close to the heart of God, read their Bibles faithfully, pray continually, and search for a deeper understanding of their faith, disagreement will surface. God is at work in our varied perspectives. We must gather to talk and learn from one another. Only then can we progress in our desire to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
God seems to teach us best within the setting of the faith community. As Proverbs 27:17 reminds, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Let’s learn from one another, agree to disagree agreeably, and find a common ground of Christian fellowship in seeking divine truth as the Body of Christ.
I trust that the articles in this issue of Holiness Today will stretch your thinking, get you in conversation about these topics, and draw you closer to one another and the heart of God in the process.
Frank M. Moore, Editor-in-Chief