This article is part of the Open Letters series.
We live in polarized times. Outrage and rancor seem to be simmering all around us, and it’s making it harder to talk across ideological lines.
As the church, we have an opportunity to provide an alternative voice of gentleness and sanity in this cultural moment. But sadly, if we’re honest, we often seem to be part of the problem, not the solution. In our worst moments, we attack and vilify our very brothers and sisters in Christ, for whom Christ shed his blood, and with whom we will share eternity. Just think how many bitter Twitter feuds between Christians play out before the watching world!
Now certainly, there are times for rebuke and open disagreement in the church. But Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35); and this love should be reflected even in our disagreements. So here are three ways to navigate our disagreements—particularly doctrinal disagreements—in a spirit of love.
Value the Unity of the Church
A first step may be to cherish the precious reality of our unity in Christ. Those of us who value sound doctrine are often quick to identify our differences with others in the body of Christ. It is good to care about doctrine, but we must consider a question my dad often asks: Is the unity of the church one of those doctrines we cherish?
The unity of the church is not an optional add-on once we’ve straightened out our theology. It is integral to our life as the people of God. Jesus died to establish it (Eph 2:14). The gospel calls for it (1 Cor. 1:10-17; Phil. 2:1-11). And it is essential for our mission to the world—as Jesus prayed that his people “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
Of course, pursuing unity is complicated. We certainly cannot simply bypass all the doctrinal divisions in the church today, and our efforts will often fall short of formal church membership together. But we should be doing something to preserve our unity, as much as we are able. Do we want it? Do we pray for it?
The apostle Paul spoke of laying down not only preference, but rights, for the sake of the unity of the body (1 Cor. 8:13; Rom. 14:13). Thus, if we are not sacrificing for the sake of the unity of the church—if it’s not costing us anything—we probably aren’t doing enough.
Test Your Theological Zeal
A second step should involve examining our doctrinal mentality. The New Testament calls us to be discerning, distinguishing between true and false doctrine (e.g., 1 John 4:1). At the same time, there are ways of being doctrinally exacting that violate the Spirit of Christ. We must be wary of an overly critical, fault-finding spirit that betrays love.
In his book Cure for Church Divisions, Richard Baxter warns us that such a spirit plays into the hands of Satan himself:
Satan will pretend to any sort of strictness, by which he can mortify love. If you can devise any such strictness of opinions, or exactness in church orders, or strictness in worship, as will but help to kill men’s love, and set the churches in divisions, Satan will be your helper, and will be the strictest and exactest of you all….
Thus, Baxter reminds us, not all theological zeal is from God. We must test our hearts during disagreement, making sure that we are motivated by love:
You think when a wrathful envious heat is kindled in you against men for their fault, that it is certainly a zeal of God’s exciting: But mark whether it have not more wrath than love in it: and whether it tend not more to disgrace your brother than to cure him, or to make parties and divisions, than to heal them: if it be so, if St. James be not deceived, you are deceived as to the author of your zeal (James 3:15–16) and it has a worse original than you suspect.
Baxter’s sobering words caution us that being right is not enough. We must be marked by love. Even our criticisms must be intended to heal, not to disgrace—to unite, not to factionalize.
See Other Christians as Beloved of Christ
A final step is to see our fellow Christians as Jesus sees them. No matter how serious your differences may be with a brother or sister in Christ, if Jesus has set his love on them, we cannot emotionally stiff-arm them. This does not mean we should ignore our disagreements, and in some circumstances there is appropriate space for accountability and confrontation. But even our disagreements and confrontations must be handled with love.
We cannot pick and choose among the sheep of Christ. If they are precious to him, they should be precious to us.
Charles Spurgeon reflected this value in discussing his disagreements with George Herbert’s doctrine of the church:
Where the Spirit of God is there must be love, and if I have once known and recognized any man to be my brother in Christ Jesus, the love of Christ constraineth me no more to think of him as a stranger or foreigner, but a fellow citizen with the saints. Now I hate High Churchism as my soul hates Satan; but I love George Herbert, although George Herbert is a desperately High Churchman. I hate his High Churchism, but I love George Herbert from my very soul, and I have a warm corner in my heart for every man who is like him. Let me find a man who loves my Lord Jesus Christ as George Herbert did and I do not ask myself whether I shall love him or not; there is no room for question, for I cannot help myself; unless I can leave off loving Jesus Christ, I cannot cease loving those who love him . . . . I will defy you, if you have any love to Jesus Christ, to pick or choose among His people.
Do we have a “warm corner in your heart” for every true Christian, no matter much we might disagree on various secondary or tertiary doctrines? We cannot pick and choose among the sheep of Christ. If they are precious to him, they should be precious to us.
We Must Find Our Identity in the Gospel
Quarrels about theology often results from failing to find our identity in the gospel. It is easy for a spirit of self-justification to sneak in with our doctrinal distinctives. As John Newton warned, “Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as works!”
When we recognize that our theological mentality is out of alignment with the gospel, we must return in our hearts to Jesus himself. He alone is worthy of our ultimate emotional allegiance, and all doctrines find their proper place in relation to his gospel. As we put Jesus alone on the throne of our hearts, he will help us toward that happy balance of both loving all his people and upholding all his teaching.
Yours in the cause of Christ,
Gavin Ortlund is the author of Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage.
Popular Articles in This Series
Are you living in sexual sin and darkness? Find motivation and hope for lasting change.
In the midst of a tough season, learn ways to carefully navigate the holidays while also contributing to your long-term healing.
If you feel debilitated by a past of sexual sin or by the ongoing presence of temptation, hear these words of comfort and encouragement.
Jesus is a most sympathetic friend, fellow sufferer, and Savior. He has walked a hard road and he understands.