The Provocations of Disagreement
Here we must understand that disagreements in the body of Christ are not all due to sin. Some, of course, are the fruit of the remaining power of sin within (James 4:1–4). Such disagreements can finally and only be overcome by godly exhortation, confession, and forgiveness. This, however, does not exhaust the possibilities. Some disagreements arise because there are matters in Scripture that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Disagreements here require patience, careful debate (Acts 15:7), and humble teachability if we are to preserve unity. Some of these differences may prove to be beyond resolution, but in that case, in matters not essential, believers may remain united in the heart of the gospel while charitably living apart with respect to the matters that conscientiously cause them to differ. Likewise, some disagreements arise from different perspectives, rooted in the finite limits of our points of view.
The Practice of Disagreement
As we have said, our union to Christ and to one another is His gift, not our achievement. But the manifestation of our union is both a calling and an achievement. As Calvin taught us, what is true of us in Christ must be “ratified amongst us by reciprocal harmony and brotherly love.”
The calling: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The achievement: unity requires real effort, effort that begins in a heart filled with a holy delight in unity. Pursuit of that delight must be guided by the truth. Calvin reminds us, “God’s truth . . . is the only bond of holy union.” To that end, we must regularly recall the presuppositions stated above, nurturing mind and heart in these realities. So too, in dealing with differences, we must offer others the judgment of charity, a willing assumption of the best and most honorable motives on the part of those with whom we differ. In dealing with differences, we must be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). This wisdom is enshrined in Gerstner’s Law: “Do not debate a point of contention until you can state your opponent’s position to his satisfaction.” And, of course, in addressing differences, we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). That is to say, we must as we speak seek the good, the upbuilding, of the one with whom we disagree (v. 29).
Disagreements among believers come as a summons from God to respond in faithfulness to His providential appointments. Though there may be those who mean disagreements for evil, God means them for good (Gen. 50:20) and we can entrust ourselves to Him (1 Peter 4:19). And so, beloved, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).