Every time I read the Gospels, I am struck by how Jesus seems to have found Himself in the middle of controversy wherever He went. I am also struck by how Jesus handled each controversy differently. He did not follow the example of Leo “The Lip” DeRosier, the former manager of the New York Giants and treat every person He encountered in the same manner. Although He expected everyone to play by the same rules, He shepherded people according to their specific needs.
The Old Testament depicts the Good Shepherd as One who carries both a staff and a rod, for His responsibility is both to guide His sheep and to protect them from ravenous wolves (Ps. 23:4). In the Gospels, we see Jesus exercise His protective rod most often against the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus dealt with these men, He asked no quarter and gave none. When He pronounced the judgment of God on them publicly, He used the oracle of woe that was used by the Old Testament prophets: “Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte [convert], and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).
Jesus dealt with many of the religious leaders of His day so forcefully because of their hard-hearted hypocrisy. Other people who were cognizant of their sin and ashamed of it—these He addressed with love and encouragement. Consider the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus sat and talked with a Samaritan woman, which was unheard of for a Jewish rabbi in those days because of common biases against women and Samaritans. He patiently drew a confession of sin out of her and revealed His Messianic office to her. Jesus treated her as a bruised reed and smoldering wick, tenderly confronting but not crushing her (Matt. 12:15–21).
Among many other things, I think Christ’s example teaches us how we are to deal with those with whom we disagree. Sometimes we must be forceful and sometimes we must be gentle—forceful with the wolves and gentle with Jesus’ lambs.
There are disagreements we have with our brothers, but also disagreements we have with those who claim to be our brothers but who may, in fact, be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Such wolves always represent a clear danger to the safety, health, and well-being of Christ’s sheep. No quarter can be given to wolves, but we are called to exercise gentleness toward those whose disagreements with us do not touch the heart of Christian orthodoxy.
To know the difference between when to be gentle and when to be forceful is one of the most difficult matters for mature Christians to discern. I don’t have a formula that is easily applied, but I do know that we are always called to deal with the disputes and disagreements we have on the basis of charity, that is, love.
Charity and Its Fruits by Jonathan Edwards is the deepest exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 that I know of. I’ve read it at least half-a-dozen times, probably more. In this work, Edwards writes:
A truly humble man, is inflexible in nothing but in the cause of his Lord and master, which is the cause of truth and virtue. In this he is inflexible because God and conscience require it; but in things of lesser moment, and which do not involve his principles as a follower of Christ, and in things that only concern his own private interests, he is apt to yield to others.
The humility of which Edwards is speaking here is a humility that must be brought to every disagreement that erupts among believers. It is a humility that brings to the fore what in church history many have called the judgment of charity. The judgment of charity works something like this: When we disagree with one another, I believe that we are called as Christians to assume the motives of the person with whom we disagree are pure motives. This is the approach we are to have with those with whom we have an honest difference in biblical interpretation but who love the Bible and aren’t trying to change what it teaches. Such people are unwilling to compromise the essential truths of the Christian faith.
Now, the judgment of charity assumes in a Christian dispute that the brother or sister with whom we are disagreeing is disagreeing honestly and with personal integrity. Here I think of my friend John MacArthur. If I disagree about something with John—I don’t care what it is—and we go to the mat and talk about it, John will change his position—no matter the cost—if I can persuade him that the Bible teaches my view and not his. That’s because what he wants more than anything else is to be faithful to the Word of God.
That’s what I mean by the judgment of charity. We don’t impugn people’s motives and don’t assume the worst of them when we disagree with them. We make a distinction between best-case and worst-case analysis. The problem we all have as sinners on this side of glory is that we tend to reserve best-case analysis to our own motives and give worst-case analysis to our brother’s and sister’s motives. That’s just the opposite of the spirit we’re called to have in terms of biblical humility.