Be of the Same Mind? Brother, I don't even want to speak with you again!
Resolving Doctrinal Conflicts Biblically
|Copyright © 2004 - All rights retained by author
|Written by: C. W. Booth
Increasingly, the preferred approach to differences of doctrine and interpretation are not resolved among believers, but ignored. Rather than diving into the Word together to find the truth (and there generally is only one true interpretation for any specific passage of Scripture) the two brothers or sisters in Christ decide that finding the answer is a matter of too great a conflict and they abandon their search altogether.
Pity. These errant believers incorrectly feel they are preserving the peace between them. In fact, they are creating a long term conflict of disunity that likely will follow them and their families for a lifetime.
In fact, from personal observation I would be more inclined to say that when this happens the two brethren rarely talk again, if ever. They have not resolved anything and it stands as a perpetual barrier between them. They have not actually found any basis for agreement or fellowship because they abandoned the only thing that can truly accomplish that: mutual study of the Word to a truthful conclusion.
Ephesians 4 - the Mind of the Matter
We have heard and learned our entire Christian lives that we are responsible to preserve the unity and the peace.
being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)
Whose peace do we maintain? We are inextricably tied together through the Holy Spirit. It is not our peace we maintain, in fact, it is this very unity we are incapable of escaping, it is the unity of the Holy Spirit.
In what way are we unified in the Holy Spirit? He indwells each of us. He has renewed our minds. He prays for us. He guides us into all truth through His Word. And there is the answer. The unity of the Holy Spirit is preserved and maintained through a common understanding of His Word. Not just in a general sense, but in the sense that two believers come to believe the same thing about the Word, or even a passage of the Word. At that moment they become more deeply unified.
This is precisely what happened to the church when those who relentlessly clung to the Law demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised. Yes, at first they argued, but in the end they convened a massive Bible study, debated the issue publicly, in the view of all the combined congregations, and decided on the one true interpretation: the Law was no longer binding and the Gentiles did not need to follow it. When everyone, including the very men who wanted to uphold the Law of Moses, relented to the proper interpretation by means of intense study and debate in the Scriptures, the Word says they "became of one mind".
"Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul" (Acts 15:24,25)
It is only possible to become of one mind and preserve the unity of the Spirit when we share a common interpretation of the Word, albeit the process of deliberate Bible study to resolve a difference of opinion can be arduous and emotionally charged. When we do not undertake this effort, or we let our emotions scare us away, the conflict will never cease and the unity will never be maintained.
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. (1 Corinthians 1:10,11)
Paul commanded the church at Corinth to stop warring among themselves. But he did not tell them to just stop disputing, kiss, make up, and pretend this never happened, and never speak of it again.
No. He commanded them to "all agree" and be "complete in the same mind and in the same judgment." There is only one way for that to happen, someone must become convinced that their original position was wrong and to give up that position willingly.
Willingly Acknowledging Past Errors and Adopting Mature Doctrine
How is that even possible? Only through the convicting and proper study and interpretation of the Word.
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:4-6)
When coming to a joint understanding of the Word is deemed "impossible" or "undesirable", the end result is disaster for the church. God speaks of those who lack understanding of Him and His Word as darkened in understanding and as being ignorant. Christians should never be guilty of deliberately choosing ignorance, as the unsaved willingly do.
being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; (Ephesians 4:18)
How then do we achieve the bond of peace and the unity of the Spirit via the Word?
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
The body builds itself up in love through the equipping of the saints by those who teach the Word, bringing unity to the body by way of the knowledge of the Word (Who is the Son of God). This teaching and studying causes us to be mature. Maturity causes us to be able to speak truths of doctrine in love so that we cause others in the body to be built up. They in turn teach others.
When we find ourselves involved in a conflict over a doctrine or a passage of Scripture, we must, for the sake of unity and our own maturity, work together as a team to painstakingly divide the Word properly until we have achieved the correct answer. When we have the correct answer, we must be willing to agree, relinquishing our previously false understandings (if that is the case) and embrace our new, deeper, and mature understanding of a part of the God’s Word.
One may well ask, "But I have come to the right answer, but my brother here, has come to the wrong answer. Shouldn’t we call it quits and go our separate ways?" Why? Have you attained to the unity of being of the same mind? No? Then keep studying together. Even if you never fully come to the same conclusion you will both become experts in the area and will be able to teach and lead others more precisely in the way of righteousness.
A Very Personal Illustration
One evening a friend of mine from Bible college drove through our state and dropped in. We caught up on each other’s lives. In no time we were discussing doctrine and our latest learnings. My studies had been in divorce and remarriage at the time. Having studied out the same subject himself in the past, we exchanged position statements.
"What?", he fairly shouted when I told him what I had concluded. "You’ve gotta prove that." The discussion and the study (Bibles and concordances strewn on the dinner table) continued past midnight into the morning. At one point my friend became so energized (too much caffeine perhaps) he raised up his bodybuilder’s-sized frame and put down his foot, a bit too hard, on the rung of a dining room chair accompanied by a distinct sound of dry wood splintering. Without taking so much as a second breath he unfolded the steel folding chair I was holding out to him, and kept deconstructing the Greek phrase he was working on from 1 Corinthians 7.
Later in the day, we looked at each other across the table. Me in my brown wooden chair, he in his steel folding chair. My wife asleep on the couch. He said, "Wow, I never really read it in the Greek before. I need to study this more." I said, "I never knew the alternate interpretation you presented even existed." To this day I still contemplate his alternative interpretations and continue to hold to the conclusions we jointly drew that morning. I also still own the chair, and though the rung has been repaired with Elmer’s glue, the split is still visible. I would not have it any other way because that night’s study meant so much to me; I learned much, together we shared much, but we dug into a complex question until we came to an agreeable solution.
Unity of the Spirit, maturity of the body, becoming one mind, and thinking in one accord is only possible when we study the Word with sufficient effort and tenacity that we can draw the correct conclusions together. The truth is a powerful argument, and until we are willing and capable of opening the Word together for the purpose of being convinced by the truth, we will continue to run from each other in fear, separated in disunity by a lack of understanding and a wall of irritation and even anger. That wall can be breached, but hefting the battering ram to breach the wall requires hard work, and sometimes those defending the fortress of ignorance will fire arrows called "quarrels" at you. But persist together and the edification can last a lifetime, and well beyond our lifetime when the truths are passed onto the next generation as the body builds itself up.
Sometimes the secular world has a better grasp of practical truth than we do. In the area of unity, conflict resolution, and coming to agreements, this is often the case. Far too many churches recommend avoiding a protracted study of a point of doctrine because they fear that someone may become insulted, or worse, become angry. Even more devastating is the assumption that it is not possible to study a doctrinal matter in sufficient detail so as to be able to become "of one mind" or "one accord". Not only is this sad, it is rooted in unbelief and a lack of faith in the Word and in the Holy Spirit.
When a church or a pastor counsels someone to "avoid all discussion on this biblical matter with this Christian brother because it is obvious he will never see things your way, just avoid him altogether", he has denied the power of the Word and condemned those two brothers to a lifetime of disunity. My heart genuinely aches when I see this happen.
I was reading a book earlier this year that teaches the fundamentals of managing teams of people who are cooperating to accomplish a project (the book’s title is PMP Project Management Professional Study Guide by Kim Heldman). The author of that book has some common sense observations and some exceedingly wise insights to offer.
"Here’s another fact: If you have more than one person working on your project, you’ll have conflict." (Heldman, page 311)
The point is not so much that conflict can always be avoided--conflict will happen. The point is that conflict needs to be resolved. Heldman identifies five distinct approaches to manage conflict between project team members and achieve lasting resolution. Four approaches simply do not work, one does.
Approach One: Forcing - imposing a solution on everyone else by virtue of your rank, status, or position. Heldman states, "This is an example of a win-lose conflict resolution technique. The forcing party wins, and the losers are those who are forced to go along with the decision." (Heldman, page 312). They lose because they are made to capitulate without being convinced whether their own biblical values will allow them to accept the solution or whether this is even the one proper solution which has been mandated. The amount of unity, enthusiasm, and lasting devotion to the outcome or to the authority who has forced the solution is likely to quickly erode and become a barrier to future relationships.
Approach Two: Smoothing - "a temporary way to resolve conflict where someone attempts to make the conflict appear less important that it is. Everyone looks at each other and scratches their head and wonders why they thought the conflict was such a big deal anyway. … When they realize that the conflict was smoothed over and really is more important than what they were led to believe, they’ll be back at it and the conflict will resurface. This is an example of a lose-lose conflict resolution technique as neither side wins." (Heldman, page 312) Such a diversionary tactic is a terrible approach to take when truth is at stake. People will feel betrayed and lose trust when they realize someone has simply belittled their concerns and tried to sidestep and dismiss their beliefs, or, as sometimes happens, the authority will mislead them by telling them there really is no conflict.
Approach Three: Compromise - "Compromise is achieved when each of the parties involved in the conflict gives up something to reach a solution. … Neither side wins or loses in this situation." (Heldman, page 312,313) As a result, no one is very supportive of the outcome and when it comes to doctrine, no one is actually convinced. This conflict will resurface.
Approach Four: Withdrawal - "Withdrawal never results in resolution. This occurs when one of the parties gets up and leaves and refuses to discuss the conflict. It is probably the worst of all the techniques as nothing gets resolved. This is an example of a lose-lose conflict resolution technique." (Heldman, page 313)
Approach Five: Confrontation - "This technique is also called problem solving and is the best way to resolve conflict. A fact-finding mission results … The thinking here is that one right solution to a problem exists and the facts will bear out the solution. Once the facts are uncovered, they’re presented to the parties and the decision will be clear. … win-win." (Heldman, page 313)
Confrontation is the only win-win approach to conflict resolution. This is true for the secular world and for the church. Conflicts do have correct solutions and wrong solutions. Doctrinal conflicts are no different. Running away just results in perpetual conflict. Pretending the conflict, or the doctrine, is too minor to discuss is deceptive and insulting. And certainly, compromise is no solution at all when it comes to biblical truth.
There is nothing wrong with confronting one another in love for the purpose of finding the truth, so long as both parties are committed to digging the truth out of the Word until they are both satisfied they have found the answer, the one correct interpretation of Scripture.
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20,21)