Author’s note: In most of the matters mentioned below, my view would be among the most conservative or traditional of anyone in the church today. The plea here is not for a given point of view on the examples used, but for an attitude of charity and good-will toward those with whom we may not agree.
My home congregation was not very diverse ethnically or socio-economically. We were nearly all lower middle-class. We were nearly all white. But we did have our differences. Many of these were minor, some were not.
For example, one brother believed that it was wrong to serve in the military. Several others had served and were proud of the service they had rendered. The preacher had served in the Navy. Another had helped build airfields in England and France. Another brother had been an ambulance driver in Korea. While none of them had ever been involved in combat, they could have been. The ambulance driver stated that he carried a weapon and, if his ambulance had come under attack, he would have felt obligated to defend the wounded in his care.
That is a rather serious disagreement. One considered military service little short of murder. Others considered failure to serve as the neglect of a duty to protect the innocent. Yet these brothers could work and worhip together. Each recognised the sincerity of the other; and they worked together to God’s glory.
What has happened? Why are some Christians so quick to break fellowship and even to attack anyone who disagrees with them? Some brothers will even attack those who agree with them – if they do not agree absolutely, completely, 100% (including agreeing to attack those who disagree). Some feel justified in laying traps for those with whom they think they might disagree. More than once I have heard trick questions used to try to put someone in the wrong. Why do Christians treat their brothers and sisters this way?
A habit of suspicion
A part of the reason may be that we have developed a habit of thinking the worst of others. In most parts of the world, the idea that people are to be treated as innocent until proven guilty has been abandoned. Such a rule may still be on the statute books, but it is ignored by the media, and by people in general. It is even ignored by government officials when dealing with their enemies (being trotted out only when dealing with their friends). One fears that this ‘guilty until proven innocent’ attitude has also invaded the church.
Whereas we used to accept that a person might be sincerely mistaken regarding military service, or other complex matters, the assumption today seems to be that everyone who disagrees about anything is dishonest.
The interpretation of Genesis one, a passage which Christians have puzzled over since the 2nd century, is now regarded as crystal clear and a matter over which to break fellowship.1 Why are sincere brothers accused of being Darwinists? Questions regarding the interpretation of this passage were discussed 1000 years before Darwin was born. Is the current dogmatism not, partly at least, because we chose to think the worst of others instead of accepting that they may be sincere in their understanding or in their uncertainty?
Lack of proportion
Another part of the problem may be a lack of proportion. Like those who tithed their spices (Mt 23:23-24) we sometimes make a fuss over matters of little importance while neglecting more serious matters.
Some years ago, I was asked to sit in a meeting where a brother was being interviewed for a job. I was not involved in the final decision, but I was going to be asked to give an opinion that might (or might not) help the elders of the congregation decide who to hire. One of the candidates for the job seemed to have (or think he had) everything figured out. His over-certainty on several debateable points raised concern.
Toward the end of the meeting a list of names was read. He was asked to say only one thing about each name on the list. “Is your overall view of this person favourable or unfavourable?” Several people on the list were people with whom he had expressed disagreement. Each of them he said he viewed unfavourably – although he knew nothing negative about their character.
One name on the list was of a man guilty of multiple counts of a class B felony for which the penalty was 10 to 20 years in prison. This candidate was aware of the felonies. Yet he viewed this person favourably because they agreed on a few traditional issues of interpretation. Does this not indicate some confused priorities? Does the expression “straining on gnats and swallowing camels” come to mind?
Must we always separate?
Most of us do not believe that Jesus is going to set up a throne in Jerusalem and reign on earth for 1000 years. We do not understand the scriptures to teach that he will do any such thing. But, if he does, we are not going to tell the Lord that he is making a mistake. Our premillennial brothers, if they wake up in heaven and there has been no earthly reign, are not going to ask for a transfer.
Many of us understand the six days of creation to be 24-hours days, even though the sun and moon are not said to exist until the fourth “day.” Others are not so sure of this.
Many of us assume that these six days began immediately after the creation of the heavens and the earth. Others wonder if the Lord might have created the raw material of the universe at one point (1:1) and come back to shape it later (1:3).
Some of us think that the genealogies in scripture are full, complete, and designed to allow us to estimate the age of the earth with considerable certainty. Others see a different purpose at work in those genealogies and wonder if they should be used to estimate the date of creation.
Many of us think there is nothing wrong having kitchens and eating in the church building. Others think this an insult to God and a waste of the Lord’s money. Many of us see nothing wrong with swimming. Others consider it immoral. Many of us watch television. A few of us consider it a massive waste of time and see it as tending toward all kinds of evil (and do not even own one). Many of us think nothing of going out to eat on Sunday. A few of us try to avoid any commercial transaction on Sunday.
I wonder, do we need to break fellowship over these matters? I wonder, do we need to think the worst of those with whom we disagree? I wonder, are we following the one who would not break a bruised reed or quench a faintly burning wick? Or are we rejoicing in putting others in the wrong?
1 In The City of God, Augustine (AD 354-430) asks regarding the days of Genesis one, “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (11:6) Origen (AD 185-253) said that he “found fault” with those who took the days of Genesis one “in their apparent signification.” He pointed to Genesis 2:4 as indicating that 24 hours could not be the intended meaning of the term “day” in Genesis one (Against Celsus, 6:60). Clement of Alexandria (AD 150 – 215) concluded (on the basis of Genesis 2:4) that the creation was an “indefinite and dateless production” (Miscellanies, 6:16). Certainly, most of the early Christians assumed a recent creation. Even these three men seem to do so at times. But they puzzled over the matter on occasion.