By Victor Knowles
Opinions. We all have them. What is the best translation of the Bible? Ancient hymns or contemporary praise choruses? Should congregational prayer be led by one person or by all people praying at the same time? Narrative or expository sermons? Offering plates passed or a collection box? Who may serve communion? Who may baptize?
An opinion is “a belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge but on what seems true, valid, or probable to one’s own mind” (Webster’s New Word Dictionary). Opinions have often cropped up between workers in the kingdom of God. Before their second missionary journey “Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because . . . he had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:37-39). This happened right after the Jerusalem Council, where everyone came to a harmonious and joyous conclusion in a far more important matter. Barnabas believed John Mark deserved a second chance, but Paul thought otherwise. Many centuries later, in a far more serious situation, John Calvin condemned Michael Servetus as a heretic and had him burned at the stake because he disagreed with him over views on the trinity.
Easy to Say, Not as Easy to Apply
There is a statement, not found in the Bible but still somewhat helpful, that people concerned about unity have been quoting since the seventeenth century: “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, charity.” It has been variously attributed to a Catholic reformer, Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624); a Lutheran theologian, Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651) who wrote under the pen name Rupertus Meldenius; and a Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter (1615-1691).
It’s easy to say. It kinds of rolls off the tongue. It’s not as easy to apply. But we all must try.
Even the essentials take time and effort to understand. Paul reminded the church in Corinth, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). Here Paul stated that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are the very essence of the gospel. They are matters of fact and matters of faith. John Newton said, “Paul was a reed in nonessentials, an iron pillar in essentials.” Another example of the essentials would be the seven Paul cited in Ephesians 4:4-6—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
But then there are those matters of opinion. On January 1, 1906, the great Russian reformer Ivan S. Prokhanov published the first evangelical Christian paper in Russia, Christianin (The Christian). On its masthead appeared the slogan, “In essential things, unity; in secondary things, freedom; in all things, charity.” Incidentally, 1906 was the year that the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches in America divided over instrumental music. In contrast with the gospel-centered matters of “first importance” there are those “secondary things” (matters of opinion or doubtful things). Paul deals with those “disputable matters” in his magnificent letter to the church in Rome.
DON’Ts in Disputable Matters
Paul opens Romans 14 with these magnanimous words: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” Quarreling over “doubtful things” has hampered and hindered the work of God ever since the church was born.
1. Don’t quarrel over disputable matters.
A matter of faith is beyond dispute. There is one true God. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God. The Holy Spirit is real. Disputable things are just that—they may arise, but we are not to quarrel over them.
2. Don’t be patronizing.
“The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Romans 14:3). It is common for those who think they are strong in faith to look down on others in matters of opinion.
3. Don’t be judgmental.
“And the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (v. 3). It is easy for those who abstain to be judgmental of those who seem to take their liberties to excess. A good reminder is given to both groups: God has accepted both of you! And God is the judge. Everyone should stop passing judgment on each other (vv. 10-13).
4. Don’t destroy a brother or sister for whom Christ died.
“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died” (v. 15). The eternal souls of believers are at stake. Every member, minister, elder, and teacher must know this.
5. Don’t destroy the work of God.
This is a very serious charge! “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall” (vv. 20, 21). To understand this passage better, just substitute some disputable matter in your church for the word “food.” The church is God’s best work. Don’t destroy it over some opinion or cherished tradition.
DOs in Disputable Matters
But Paul also suggest five positive things we can do to keep peace in God’s church.
1. Do accept one another.
Paul begins, elaborates, and ends this helpful section of Scripture (14:1–15:7) with the vital word accept. He reminds us that God has accepted the one with whom we disagree (14:3). He closes with this timeless admonition: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (15:7). W. Carl Ketcherside said, “If a man is good enough for God to receive, he is not too bad for me to accept.” Seth Wilson agreed with him: “If you belong to Christ, then I belong to you.”
2. Do be a peacemaker in the church.
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (14:19). Before decisions are made by decision-makers in the church, this admonition must be seriously considered. We know what leads to peace. And we know what does not. The Voice Bible says, “. . . pursue a life that creates peace and builds up our brothers and sisters.”
3. Do keep some things to yourself.
This may be the hardest of all to obey. “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (v. 22). It’s all right to have an opinion. What we must never do is force our opinions on others.
4. Do practice forbearance and seek to please others.
Forbearance is putting up with people you’d like to put down. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:1-3). Jesus is our great example in seeking to bless and build up others. And isn’t that what the church is all about?
5. Do strive to have one mind so that you can praise God with one voice.
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 5, 6). Christ loved us and laid down his life for us. We must love one another and be willing to lay down a few differences of opinion. If we can’t do that, how can we ever lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Victor Knowles is president of POEM (Peace on Ministries) in Joplin, Missouri, and editor of One Body magazine (www.poeministries.org).
Tidbits you might not know:
• The Restoration Movement has roots in the British Isles.
• President James A. Garfield was part of the Restoration Movement.
• Thomas Campbell once had a ministry in Ireland called Old Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder Presbyterian Church.
• Walter Scott created the “five-finger exercise” to explain the gospel.
You can read more about the roots of the Christian churches/churches of Christ and why people remain passionate about them in a special issue called Simply Christians. For $9.99 you can download a digital copy and duplicate unlimited copies for yourself and your church. Go to store.standardpub.com and search Simply Christians.