How to deal with disagreement in the church: don’t push away, press in

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a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on September 17, 2017

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: Romans 14:1-12

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions…each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:1–12, ESV)

I read a story this week about Ruth Graham, the wife of the famous preacher and evangelist Billy Graham:

[She] attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany…They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.[1]

There is always a danger within the Body of the Christ that even as we do our best to follow to Jesus, our differences of opinion can threaten the unity we should be enjoying as brothers and sisters in Christ. We see this happen all the time, don’t we?

Disagreement is uncomfortable for us, and I know I am sometimes quick to think that if someone disagrees with me when it comes to following Jesus, it must mean they don’t love Jesus as much as I do. It must mean they don’t love me as much I love them, of course! And I begin to push them away.

Paul is addressing this tendency head on in our Epistle reading this week from Romans 14. The church at Rome was an ethnically diverse church likely made up of both Gentiles and Jewish converts. Although we might think of things like our diet or which day we choose to throw a party as pretty trivial, these were not at all trivial for these different cultural groups within the church at Rome. For the more conservative Jewish Christians, their traditional diet and rhythm of celebration was an essential part of showing honor and devotion to God and to the Scriptures. After all, it probably seemed very clear to them from the Bible that this was an essential way they were to distinguish themselves from not just from pagan society, but possibly even from other Gentile believers. The more lenient Gentile Christians saw this these things as unnecessary obligations that were obsolete now that the people of God had been expanded to include all nations and had its own markers of identity like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday worship, and so on.

All that to say, Paul is addressing serious issues of personal and communal devotion with real potential to divide the church!

I want you to notice three things about how Paul addresses this issue:

First, he’s is affirming that some opinions are right and some are wrong. By calling some people “strong in faith” and others “weak in faith” he very pointedly saying some people are right and some people are wrong—and makes his own stance pretty clear! I don’t think Paul is post-modernist; he’s not advocating the idea that truth is relative, that what is true for me may or may not be true for you, even on matters of personal devotion, which is what is in view here.

There are—absolutely—non-negotiables of the Christian faith that must be taught and there is false teaching that shouldn’t be tolerated. Paul himself argued powerfully for these essentials…things like who Jesus is, what he did, and how we are saved. As Anglicans we recognize these essentials as summed up in the Creeds and the catholic—or universal—consensus of the church’s teaching down through the ages.

What is in view in this passage are what theologians call adiaphora, or disputed matters that have to do with personal devotion. These aren’t issues of ethics that directly impact the entire community, and they aren’t doctrines that run contrary to the Scripture. In our world they would be things like convictions about watching R-rated movies, or the appropriate use of alcohol. Other examples could be which liturgy we use, what decorations we have in the church, and even some doctrinal things like how much water should be used in baptism or the precise nature of hell. This isn’t at all to say the issues Paul is addressing are trivial or unimportant, but that they are secondary to the Gospel.

So, second, Paul doesn’t see disagreement in certain matters as cause for division, but rather a catalyst for relationship. Instead of pushing people away that we think are wrong in their personal convictions as we are apt to do as fallen human beings, we are to press in to the relationship. Paul says

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” (Romans 14:1–3, ESV)

To welcome is to receive them in to the community as a brother or sister. And not just so you can set them straight (“not to quarrel over opinions”), not so you can feel superior in some way (not to “despise the one who abstains”) but to love them, to include them, to welcome them, because God has welcomed them.

Finally, we are to release judgement to God. This a familiar theme for Paul.

The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:6, ESV)

Like I already said, it’s not that we can’t discern between what is right or wrong or that we have to give up our own personal convictions, but it’s that we are to recognize that we can’t see the inner-workings of anyone else’s heart. We aren’t to judge their salvation or state of their soul. If someone tells us they are genuinely and sincerely trying to honor the Lord, we need give them as much grace and room as we possibly can to work that out with Jesus—and this is key—in the context of the community. And we can be confident as we do this that even if we have a legitimate concern that our brother or sister’s conviction just isn’t best, and maybe even harmful to themselves on some level, that God’s got it under control.

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? [Paul asks] It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4, ESV)

We can release judgement of others and ourselves because our ultimate salvation isn’t about us having all our theological boxes checked or our behavior in line.

It is about what God has done for us in his Son, Jesus. It’s because we are confident that Jesus has dealt with our sin at the cross and has been raised from the dead and now offers his life to us as a free gift of grace that we can say to ourselves and others,

“Neither you nor I have to understand everything or have it all right in order to be saved. And thank God for that.

This means each of us can take a deep breath and let go of the burden of wanting everyone to agree with us even some important things. It means that our community can be a safe place to disagree with one another and even—and I truly mean this—disagree with the pastor as we work through important, yet secondary matters together, welcoming one another and accepting one another in the unity of Christ, which will show Christ to the world.

When Amber and I first came to DMAC, our son Jensen was only about 9 months old, and coming from a Baptist background we were very hesitant about the teaching of the Anglican church on infant baptism. Now this is an important topic that Fr. John Dyson (DMAC’s founding pastor) encouraged me to wrestle with, but at no time did we ever get the idea that we had to agree on that in order to be welcomed and accepted as part of the Christian family, or even as part of the DMAC family. For quite some time I disagreed with my pastor about that very important teaching. Of course, all our children ended up being baptized as infants, but that wouldn’t have happened if Fr. John and others had pushed us away instead of pressed into the relationship. And even if Amber and I had never come around, I guarantee you we still would have been welcomed and accepted.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s keep our DMAC family the kind of place where we can both openly discuss and openly disagree even on important things, because we know our unity isn’t about 100% agreement in this moment. It’s about our common commitment to follow Jesus wherever he will lead, and live a life of worship and praise and mission for him. Amen.