Let’s face it. This has been a bad couple of years for the American church. Between politics, COVID, racial differences, justice questions, views on our national history, and whether or not to wear masks, opinions have been flying around at warp-speed, with collisions everywhere. I would argue that, far from our finest hour, this has been an hour of profound sin and shame within the Church. If James were present, he would tell us to feel wretched and mournful over how we have treated each other (James 4:8-12).
Agree? On Everything?
In his first letter to Corinth, Paul offers us a better way than the one we have taken. At first glance, Paul’s appeal in 1 Corinthians 1:10 stretches faith to the limit. And upon further review, it appears to ask the impossible. How is it possible for everyone to agree on everything; to be united in the same mind? This can’t happen unless everyone has absolutely and equally perfect knowledge and wisdom. And it won’t happen this side of heaven.
Besides, Paul writes elsewhere about various matters over which Christians will disagree, and gives them permission to do so (Romans 14:1-15:7; 1 Corinthians 8:1-10). We are even told to hold our differences firmly— “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). So, we not only are permitted to have different opinions; we are exhorted to strengthen them in our own hearts before God. Contrary to calling us unrealistically to agreement on everything, God permits us to have strong personal convictions upon which we base our own personal decisions in life.
The command in Romans 14:1 is that we are not to quarrel over disputable “opinions”—matters not explicitly and emphatically taught in Sacred Scripture. Paul’s aim is not that we have only one opinion (Romans 14:5), but that we not quarrel over the opinions we have (2 Timothy 2:22-24; Titus 3:2). It is permissible to disagree; it is not permissible to quarrel like verbally pugnacious adversaries. When matters of personal faith and conscience vary, God commands us to keep our faith private; between us and God alone (Romans 14:22).
Both divisive disagreement and united disagreement exist. It is a safe bet which one the Lord wants us to practice. It is unity in disagreement in the week-in, week-out life of the Church to which we are called as the holy and loving people of God, and for which we must earnestly contend (Ephesians 4:1-3).
United Disagreement: When Leaders and Followers Disagree
There are, of course, relationships in which divinely ordered roles give leader-authorities the final word in disagreements. Governing officials (including bad presidents and police officers), heads of households, parents, employers, teachers, and pastors are all given leadership roles in varying spheres, which sometimes requires that their opinions/convictions will be the final say in a controversy—though they all will give a strict accounting for all they decide and do.
Rightly handled (would that we all would rightly handle more often!), most disagreements between leaders and followers in the home and Church can be discussed, prayed over, patiently worked through, and eventually brought to a mutually satisfying resolution; but not all. It is when agreement cannot be reached and decisions have to be made, that leaders and followers need Spirit-enabled unity in disagreement.
I have long been helped by James Hurley’s wise counsel in this regard. His words were first written to help disagreeing husbands and wives, but I have taken the liberty here to edit and condense as follows:
Mr. Hurley begins by saying that “There are…situations…in which [leaders] and [followers], even after discussion, prayer and consultation with others, remain irreconcilably committed to different courses of action…The manner in which these situations are handled is crucial. The [leader] may not be high-handed and stubborn, knowing that [the follower] will finally have to give way. That is not the model of Christ’s [leader]ship. Neither may the [follower] be grudging and resentful. That is not the manner of our response to Christ. [W]hen the two…[cannot] come to one mind, an exchange along the following lines is in order.” According to Mr. Hurley, the leader should say something like:
“[N]ot because I am [wiser] or more righteous, nor because I am right (although I do believe I am or I would not stand firm), but because it is finally my responsibility before God, we will take the course which I believe right. If I am being sinfully stubborn, may God forgive me and give me the grace to yield to you.”
Mr. Hurley recommends further that the “follower” respond with words like these: “Not because I believe you are wise[r] in this matter…or more righteous, nor because I accept that you are right (because I don’t or I would not oppose you), but because I am a servant of God who has called me to honor your [leader]ship, I willingly yield to your decision. If I am wrong, may God show me. If you are wrong, may he give you grace to acknowledge it and to change.”
“Such decisions,” Hurley concludes, “must be made. They can be steps of commitment to God which cement a relationship and assure both partners of the other’s loving commitment. They can alternatively be times which show sinful abuse. The sort of commitment outlined above can be used to preserve the dignity and honesty of both partners by setting matters in their proper context” (James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, pg.150-152).
I do not want followers to think that they should always yield in church or home; for there are indisputable matters of essential doctrine, life, and godliness that must be championed at all times. Still, in the normal flow of leadership-followership disagreement, this is the way forward; though it is a path requiring much wisdom and even more grace. Many have been the times when I have failed on both sides of this disagreement tension; times when I’ve not followed well or led well. None of this is easy. But a little bit more Hurley-esque wisdom in all our leader-follower relationships would go a long way toward establishing united disagreement.
The Problem of the Last Word
In Romans 14, Paul has something more in mind than just leader-follower disagreements. He wants all spiritual brothers and sisters to learn how to handle their differences. In such cases he calls us to the humility that does not need to be proven right, or win an argument, or have the last word.
Over two centuries ago, John Newton faced the same problem that Paul confronted many centuries before; this problem of the last word: “I believe scarcely any thing has [contributed] so much to perpetuate disputes and dissensions in the professing church as the ambition of having the last word” (John Newton, cited by Grant Gordon in Wise Counsel, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009, pg. 251; bracket update added).
The fact that there are still times—4.7 decades into my Christian life, 4.3 decades into my marriage, and 3.9 decades into my ministry—when I still need to put a stranglehold on my tongue to keep it from saying “just one more thing”, reveals that, at least for me, the seduction of the last word has hardly weakened with time. And from what I’ve seen in others, I’m guessing that I’m not alone in the struggle.
God Gets the Last Word
We gain traction against this selfish arrogance when we understand that God alone will have the last word. This is Paul’s emphasis in Romans 14. Each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:10-12). I will not give an account of you; or you of me. If you disagree with me—and happen to be wrong in the disagreement—it’s not really any of my business. That’s between you and God on the Day to come. And if I am wrong, well—and I mean no flippancy—God will have a serious little “That Day” last-word chat with me about that, too. You need not fret over it at all.
We are to be willing to let our disagreeing fellow believers stand or fall on their own before the only Judge that counts (Romans 14:4; James 4:11-12); being confident that they will stand in the same grace in which we stand (Romans 14:4). Having this confidence means that we do not have to fix their opinions for them to be okay. They already stand before God in Christ; and correcting their allegedly wrong opinions won’t make a difference. They’re okay without us!
That everyone will answer to God and be subject to His final word should effectively close our mouths when the last-word urge surges within—even when quitting the argument may cost us dearly (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). We don’t need to be right to prove others wrong, to set them straight, or to get what’s ours. Brothers and sisters, when it comes to our disagreements, God will sort it out. And that is all the assurance we need.
United disagreement is no easy pursuit. But knowing that God has the final word helps us to know when to drop a debate, when to say no more, and when to move on in grace. When different opinions surface, we must not take the bait. It is far more important that we keep the peace than that we say our piece. It is vastly more important that we edify others and glorify God, than that we satisfy our urge to argue down precious ones for whom Christ died. And when it comes to opinions, it is always more important that we prove our love than that we prove our point (Romans 14:15-19; 15:1-7; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33).