What Happens When Christians Disagree?
I recently had an opportunity to preach on the topic of disagreement. You may have found yourself in a disagreement recently, or maybe you’ve watched one on social media. And surprisingly you may have found yourself in a political disagreement with another Christian, or have watched a disagreement between two Christians (who you were pretty sure should be in agreement). While our common faith often drives us toward an agreement, unfortunately, we will not always agree with our Christian brothers and sisters. This is most evident in matters of the world like politics. Sometimes our disagreements can be so sharp that we find ourselves unable to remain friends.
Where Disagreements Are Born
There are so many issues that can cause us to disagree, are you pro-life/pro-choice, republican/democrat, gay/straight, and that's just a few. . there are so many more. None of these issues define our individual relationship with Jesus, but each has the potential to divide us and to become a source of conflict. And if our passion gets really big, we can make our political stance or our opinion an idol (something that we make more important than God).
As we deal with a divisive election and as we approach the holiday season there are a number of potential disagreements that could be added as fuel to the fire of relational conflict. There are issues, and candidates, and economic principles all of which carry a passion and all of which have the potential to create conflict and division with friends, family, and neighbors. It may be that we just want to hide under a rock until the whole thing blows over. Or lock ourselves in a room until the discussion has passed. But at some point, we are going to find that this just isn’t possible. It's also probably not very healthy.
Remember, God has designed us to be in community with each other. And so as a result we know that there will be times where we can expect conflict within our community. We can unknowingly or unwittingly be faced with losing a friend over a bitter disagreement.
So What Happens When Christians Disagree?
Who is right? Who is wrong? What if both are wrong! Could two people have heard from God, and still be in disagreement? It may seem odd to think so but they can. In fact, there’s a great example of this in the Bible in Acts 15.
Before we get to the conflict it is important to note that there were some remarkable things going on in the Book of Acts. Early followers of Jesus (who called themselves followers of the Way) gathered together frequently, sold their possessions, and brought their resources together for the use and benefit of the group, to serve others, and spent their time full of the Holy Spirit preaching the gospel of Jesus.
They made assignments for who would control the finances, and who would preach the gospel, and who would distribute provisions to the needy. There’s little record in this early church of conflict between themselves (though plenty of conflict with those who opposed their teachings), and you might think that everything was harmonious between them. You’d be wrong to think that though.
By the time we get to Acts 15 we find a conflict so sharp, that the parties will ultimately have to separate. A bitter disagreement would drive two Christian brothers apart.
36After some time Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” 37Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. 38But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. 39Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated. Barnabas took John Mark with him and sailed for Cyprus. 40Paul chose Silas, and as he left, the believers entrusted him to the Lord’s gracious care. 41Then he traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches there.
Sometimes It Can Be The Person Closest To Us
The disagreement was surprisingly between Paul and Barnabas who had just spent years together visiting community after community, preaching and sharing the message of Jesus’ resurrection, watching individual after individual changing their eternity and making God famous to Jews and Gentiles. They performed and witnessed miracles together. They were the closest of brothers. The events of their lives were truly remarkable. Together they were driven from town upon town, arrested and beaten, impoverished and hungry and faced adversity after adversity. But they also inspired, led, taught and loved everywhere they went.
Paul and Barnabas were in agreement in their calling (using their God-given gifts to glorify God) and had as strong of a relationship as you could imagine. And upon returning home to Jerusalem they were invited to report on the shared success of their partnership and the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit. Everyone in the community of believers celebrated their partnership and their success.
Parting In Disagreement And Still Being in Agreement With God
As the two brothers made plans for their next adventure they quickly came to a disagreement over their friend, John Mark (author of Mark). Paul was upset at John Mark and didn't want him to participate in their next trip, whereas Barnabas wanted to include him on the trip. Paul preferred taking Silas and leaving John Mark behind. Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance. Paul worried about his commitment to the cause.
Their disagreement was so bitter and so sharp that they decided to part ways.
This would sever their relationship permanently. And this had the potential to divide a community of believers who looked to both men as leaders.
And yet both would go on to achieve great things for God’s Kingdom. Paul completed his missions and wrote countless testimonials and God-breathed Scripture. Barnabas returned home with John Mark to Cyprus and shared the amazing works he witnessed, and some believe he may be the author of Hebrews.
Even a bitter disagreement between them wouldn’t prevent them from being in agreement with God.
But what about the people around them. . .How did they react?
Instead of getting involved in a bitter conflict, they entrusted them both to the gracious care of the Lord. Because sometimes we’ll disagree with somebody else and we’ll have to depart their company (or unfriend them or unfollow them). But that doesn’t mean that God is against us both.
Sometimes others around us will be impacted by this disagreement. When that’s us we have a default reaction of wanting to choose sides. But just because we see a disagreement, it doesn’t mean that we have to participate in conflict. We can take this example from Paul and Barnabas’s friends, we can give this to God and trust that His grace will cover the disagreement. And we can pray for them and hope. And who knows maybe from that bitter disagreement, just like in the case of Paul and Barnabas, God’s love will still spread.
As you watch division around you, and as you prepare for this holiday season, don't let conflict spread. Take hope in God's grace. But if an unfortunate and unavoidable conflict finds you? Give it over to the gracious care of the Lord and pray for that person to be within Christ's will and care. And know that you are too.