A lot of believers get quite agitated with other Christians who hold beliefs different from their own. In fact, there are some who get so bent out of shape that they are hardly even willing to share fellowship at all. But the truth is, there are many issues involved in dealing with differences within the Christian community.
There certainly is a line that cannot be crossed and one still be considered a Christian. There are those who call themselves Christians based on a host of different reasons, but whose beliefs are not truly Christian. When we interact with people whose beliefs are outside of true biblical faith, we are actually not dealing with Christians at all and should rather be focused on sharing with them the gospel. But there are also many differences within the Christian community which do not rise to that level.
The question is: How should we think about these non-essential differences? Beyond that, what can we do to enhance fellowship in spite of the differences?
The key to understanding this topic has to do with our understanding of the essentials of the Christian faith. We can draw a very clear line around our faith based on these essentials. Anything within this circle is legitimately Christian, and anything outside is not Christian. Let’s first look at the line itself, then we can take a look at the differences we find inside the circle and consider how we should deal with them.
The essentials of a worldview, and by extension of particular belief systems, are determined by how it answers three questions: 1) Who is God? 2) What is a human being? and 3) What is salvation and how does one achieve it? At this point, we want to see specifically how our Christian faith answers these questions. For the purposes of making this easier to deal with, we will divide the third question into two parts and answer them separately.
1) Who is God?
God, in the Christian faith, is the deity who is described in the Bible. There are entire books written on this topic, so the treatment here is, necessarily, quite limited. However, we can legitimately identify four characteristics of the God of the Bible which distinctively characterize him.
1. God is a person (Genesis 1:26-27),
2. God is holy (Psalm 97:1-2),
3. God is just (Deuteronomy 10:17-18), and
4. God is love (John 3:16).
It is important to recognize that God is a person because only persons are able to have self-conscious relationships. God created us as persons allowing us to fellowship with him as a person.
God’s holiness (moral perfection) is important because an understanding of this explains why sin is such a problem. Our sin prevents us from interacting with God because he will not fellowship with sin.
Knowing God as the just one is critical because this expresses the consequences to our rebellion against him. When we sin, God will pronounce judgment against it. Judgment has eternal consequences when a person dies without having his or her sin forgiven.
Finally, God’s love is critical because it expresses how he cares enough for us to have provided a means of satisfying his justice. His love moved him to provide us a way to enter into a relationship with him. This love is a constant, but he doesn’t force it upon us. We have to love him back and express it by inviting Christ into our lives.
2) What Is a Human Being?
There are two particular points which characterize a Christian understanding of human beings. These two points are:
1. We are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and
2. We are fallen creatures (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12).
The fact that we are made in the image of God does not mean human beings physically look like God. Rather, we are the same quality of being as is he. This element allows us to interact with him in a personal relationship.
Understanding that we are fallen creatures is also critical. This fallenness permeates our human nature and inclines us to rebel against God. It does not mechanically make us rebel, but it does incline us in that direction. We are still creatures possessing a free will who can choose to rebel or not. That being the case, we are responsible for any rebellion we express. This rebellion puts us outside of a relationship with God eternally, and creates the necessity for salvation.
3a) What Is Salvation?
Salvation, in the Christian faith, relates to how fallen humanity is able to have the sin problem taken care of so that it becomes possible to enter into a personal relationship with God. With the Fall, sin entered the world and mankind became separated from God. To solve this problem, he initiated a process of redemption.
It must first be recognized that human beings are incapable of solving the sin problem on their own. That would require the living of a sinless life, which is impossible. To get around this problem, God devised a plan where a sinless person could become a sacrifice and die in place of the guilty party. As no human is capable of becoming this sacrifice, God, himself, determined to become a human in order to fulfill this requirement. He came as the man Jesus Christ, lived a perfect life which qualified him to become the sacrifice, died on the cross as the sacrifice, then rose from the dead to demonstrate that he had the power and authority to overcome the sin problem.
3b) How Can We Achieve Salvation?
The substitutionary sacrifice of Christ makes it possible for individual human beings to receive God’s salvation. But, just because this is possible does not mean it is applied automatically. A requirement must be met – though not a requirement based on human effort. It is based on the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8-9) and received through the application of our faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12). To receive this gift of eternal life, one must make a free-will decision to turn his or her life over to God and become his bond servant (Revelation 3:20). It is this act of receiving Christ and turning our lives over to him which causes the salvation, which God has provided, to be applied individually.
As stated before, a person cannot reject any one of the essentials and legitimately be considered a member of the faith. However, within every belief system, in addition to the essentials, there are non-essentials. These are beliefs and practices which do not affect whether or not a person is legitimately a member of the faith. This is not to say that the non-essentials are unimportant. In fact, many of the non-essentials are very important and disagreements based on them create great dispute and division. That being said, these issues are such that they do not rise to the level of excluding a person from the faith. In fact, a person can be dead wrong concerning a non-essential belief and still be a legitimate member of the faith group. This principle is true as it relates to every belief system in existence, including our own Christian faith.
Within our Christian faith, there are two categories of non-essentials which we need to examine. The first is personal preferences and the second relates to non-essential doctrines.
Personal preferences are matters which churches and individual Christians must grapple with, but which are not dealt with specifically in Scripture. While people may have a preference in how to deal with these, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
One of these issues relates to the place a church may choose to worship. Some meet in giant, ornate auditoriums or cathedrals, while others meet in a storefront or in people’s homes. The Bible doesn’t say anything about where a church ought to meet and it is up to the members to decide for themselves.
Another issue relates to worship style. There are many possibilities and, again, the Bible doesn’t give direction concerning this. It is entirely up to the church membership.
A third preference issue relates to the type of governmental structure a denomination or church uses. Once again, the Bible doesn’t give direction here. A local church or denomination can decide for itself what approach to use without any fear of stepping outside of the Christian faith.
In many cases, the personal preferences of believers can be very strong – so strong, in fact, that they do not want to associate with those who choose a different preference. Who hasn’t heard the stories of churches splitting because they couldn’t agree on the color of the carpet or on the style of music used in the worship service. This kind of situation is certainly unfortunate, but it still has nothing to do with whether or not people who follow different preferences are Christians or not.
There is another category of non-essentials which is actually a bit more important than preferences. This category consists of actual biblical teachings which are not part of the essentials. Generally, the disagreements in this area have to do with different ways believers interpret what the Bible teaches about various topics.
As stated above, these teachings are very important but simply do not rise to the level of an essential of the faith. In the case of non-essential biblical teachings, it can be said that there is a right and wrong way to interpret these teachings. Something is objectively right. Sometimes, however, the correct interpretation is not exactly obvious. The result is that different individuals and groups end up interpreting the meanings of these teachings differently.
The important point to recognize, though, is that one can be completely wrong in interpreting a non-essential belief and still be a Christian. This does not mean that a wrong interpretation is irrelevant. In fact, in some cases, a wrong interpretation can lead to very unfortunate consequences both in the life of a church or of individuals. As such, it is very important to try to interpret rightly. That being said, the ones interpreting wrongly are still brothers and sisters in Christ. There are a number of different areas where these non-essential doctrinal teachings can be seen. Some of the more common ones include:
∙ Which ordinances should be recognized and how they should be practiced?
∙ What is the meaning of the ordinances?
∙ Which is the correct approach to understanding the end times?
∙ How should speaking in tongues be properly understood?
∙ What is the proper understanding of the use of beverage alcohol?
∙ What day of the week is the proper one on which to worship?
∙ What is the proper understanding of predestination?
People get their take on non-essential beliefs and practices from different places. In some cases it is purely personal preference, as we saw above. But even when it comes to biblical teachings, the interpretation of these teachings often emerge from various sources. For some, it is a matter of sincere Bible study which leads to particular conclusions. For others it is a matter of simply believing what is taught by one’s pastor or other significant teacher. For still others, it is a matter that relates to one’s spiritual maturity or level of training about how to properly interpret the Bible.
In spite of all the differences, the most important thing for us to remember as we deal with this topic is that all true believers are members of the body of Christ, regardless of what they believe about any of the non-essential matters. It is certainly possible to hold onto our preferences and beliefs and still show great love and respect to our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold different positions. Christ died so that we could all be a part of his family. All Christians should demonstrate genuine love and respect to those who are legitimately members of his family.
The solution to the problem of division within the church is simple, though not necessarily easy. First, we need to get a strong grasp of what we believe about the non-essentials, as well as why we take that position. The second step is to gain an understanding of other positions and the reasons people follow those ways. Finally, we need to learn how to recognize non-essentials for what they are and not allow them to become barriers to fellowship with those who believe differently.
The fact of differing beliefs necessitates a situation where different denominations and churches exist. As mentioned before, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows individual Christians to focus on worship and spiritual growth in an environment where dissent is kept to a minimum. But this should not keep us from promoting fellowship with believers who are outside of our group. If we are able to keep these principles in mind, it becomes possible to agree to disagree on matters which do not affect our membership in God’s family while retaining the ability to follow what we believe to be the correct way.
© 2012 Freddy Davis