Can Christians disagree and still maintain unity and fellowship? Yes, but it depends on what we are disagreeing about. How important is the issue? Can we disagree about whether homeschooling, private Christian school, or public school is the best option and still be unified as Christians? Certainly. Can we be in Christian fellowship if I believe Christ came in the flesh and you disagree? Sorry, friend – in that case you are an antichrist (1 Jn. 2:22), and we can’t be in fellowship. The second illustration is obvious, but is the first? Christians know that we are called to unity (Jn. 13:35) and also purity with one another (2 Cor. 11:2; 2 Tim. 2:22). This can be a tightrope to walk. Sometimes unity is required even in the face of disagreement, other times we have to make the hard decision to disunify because the issue is too important. So how do we know where to draw the line?
Many Christian leaders have talked about the importance of organizing our doctrines into categories: essentials and non-essentials; open-handed and closed-handed. The idea is that we shouldn’t divide on minor issues, but must remain pure on major issues. Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; charity in everything. Southern Seminary President Al Mohler wrote an article which may be helpful in further exploring this idea. All doctrine is important, but some issues more than others. The Trinity is essential. Be willing to die for it rather than deny it. A New Testament warrant for tithing? Probably just need to discuss it over tea.
The Apostle Paul indicates that some areas of doctrine are primary, such as the death and bodily resurrection of Christ. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This implies that there are other doctrinal matters that are meaningful to church order and the Christian life, but not ‘of first importance.’ Below I’m going to summarize a three order/tier system of organizing doctrine that will help us think through this.
1. Core Beliefs – What all Christians must believe
First order doctrines, or core beliefs, are those things you must believe as a Christian. At the very least, a true Christian will not deny these truths ultimately once they are understood. If someone claims, for example to believe in the gospel, but at a later time rejects that the Bible is the Word of God, such a person has rejected a core tenet of what it means to be a Christian. Some examples of first order doctrines are: the triune nature of God, the Deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the authority and inspiration of Scripture, justification by faith, and the return of Christ and final judgment. The Nicene Creed is historically an example of a summary of the core tenets of Christianity, a denial of any part of it is a tacit denial of Christianity. If a person denies the Trinity, such as a Jehovah’s Witnesses, then no matter what else we may agree on, we cannot have true Christian fellowship.
2. Congregational Distinctives – What our church believes for congregational unity and order
Second order doctrines are issues that believing Christians disagree on. However, they are significant enough to affect fellowship because these beliefs are lived out in church life. Some examples are: mode of Baptism, elder vs congregational church polity, women in ministry, use of charismatic gifts. Some churches practice infant baptism, some don’t. If a family wanted to baptize their newborn at Living Hope Church, we would be unable to due to our Baptistic beliefs. So second order doctrines are those that are significant to guide church life, therefore churches usually group together and fellowship around these doctrines. Christians may be a part of such churches and internally disagree, but it can potentially cause strife. Unfortunately, some of the greatest and most devastating points of division in churches throughout history have been on second order doctrines. Churches should be comfortable building a fence that distinguishes us from other churches, but we don’t want to build a wall. We want to shake hands over that fence as good neighbors and live in Christian unity in the essentials, even though we may not be able to find unity in every doctrinal area.
3. Christian Conscience – Individual Christians have liberty to live by godly wisdom
Third order doctrines are issues that believing Christians can disagree on still fellowship within the same congregation. Examples include: view on the Millenium, predestination, method for educating children, dancing, legally smoking or drinking alcohol, yoga as exercise, what tv shows you watch or books you read, how you vote in a given election, method of birth control. These are all disputable matters that should not affect Christians ability to fellowship within a congregation. Scripture may provide principles in a broad sense that can inform our views, but give specific applications. Christians therefore must use wisdom and not act against conscience, but also must not treat their personal conviction with the certainty and authority of biblical command. It would be wrong, therefore, for a pastor or fellow Christian or bind someone’s conscience on any of these issues.
I want to make two observations on how this paradigm affects how we think about Christian fellowship.
First, we must know where the line is that separates a first or second order doctrine from a third order doctrine. For instance, Christians must believe that Christ will return (Acts 1:11; Rev. 22:20), but Christians can disagree on the exact nature of the millennium. Likewise, Christians can disagree on birth control, but must be unified that abortion, which is murder, is not permissible. Alcohol is another issue, where drunkenness is clearly prohibited (Gal. 5:21), but drinking is not. Jesus and his disciples drank alcohol. Where is the line? Drunkenness. So you need not rebuke a brother or sister who drinks (or abstains), but a church for sake of unity would need to lovingly confront a brother or sister engaged in drunkenness (Gal. 6:1).
Second, the fact of Christian liberty doesn’t mean these issues are unimportant or that you can’t be wrong. At the end of the day (no pun intended) someone is going to have their eschatology all wrong. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. This is an important issue, make no mistake. It matters, but not so much that we should divide or disfellowship over it. On third level issues, you give someone the grace to be wrong or even unwise (as you understand it) and not treat them as though they are acting sinfully or abandoning the faith. They may change their mind as they continue to seek God’s wisdom, or you may change yours. Convictions may shift over time.
As a point of application to this, in our election season, Christians, let us not be unnecessarily divided. I believe that much of politics falls into the third tier of issues: important, but not essential matters of faith. These are matters of conscience before the Lord. How you vote doesn’t reserve or remove your seat in glory. Christians may agree on the most important issues but disagree on strategy and vote accordingly. Some Christians may be acting unwisely out of ignorance or a miscalculation. Who knows, maybe it turns out to be me. Or you. We are all sojourners, exiles from our true home trying to figure out how to live and believe and vote. Someday we won’t have to vote or build fences or draw lines. But now, as we do, let us do so with humility and grace. The world is watching. So is our Lord.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.1 Corinthians 15:5-7