Christians disagree over a lot of matters, some of them important. Romans 14 and 15 cover one such issue in which two groups clashed. Paul took sides, but as he did so, he urged both groups to refuse to pass judgment on the other.
Paul doesn’t give into moral equivalency. One side is right, and the other is wrong, he writes. But he also doesn’t give into factionalism. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” he writes (Romans 14:5). Sometimes, when it comes to non-essential issues, we don’t get it right. Make room for others to grow. Refuse to pass judgment on others, and bear with the failings of others, just as God bears with our failings.
The problem within the church is not usually that we disagree. It’s how we disagree. It’s the way we default to rancor and condemning others for whom Jesus died.
Paul made room for disagreement on secondary and tertiary issues, but that didn’t mean he allowed anyone to teach anything. “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless,” he wrote (Titus 3:9). Controversies aren’t necessarily the problem; foolish controversies are. Some people like the fight. Some people fight for truth when necessary; others just like to fight for the sake of the fight.
Paul warns Titus to not allow this dynamic in the church. Don’t subscribe to certain podcasts; unfollow certain people on social media; stop consuming media that stokes the fires of foolish controversies.
What do we do with those who like foolish controversies? “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
According to Paul, unbridled quarrelsomeness mustn’t be tolerated within the church. If someone persists in promoting dissensions and quarrels, this person should not be welcomed as a member in good standing. Such a person may blame you for confronting them and for not seeing things the way they do, but the problem is with them. Their character will reveal itself for what it is.
In all of this, we must be careful not to become what we aim to correct. “When attacked by a dragon, do not become one,” writes Marshall Shelley.
But don’t be passive. Leading God’s church means that we protect God’s church from people who like to sow division.
I’ve rarely seen pastors follow this command well. Few of us have much of a stomach for conflict. Church discipline is hard. Even when we learn to do it well, we rarely discipline habitually divisive people.
As I said, let’s make room for different views on all kinds of issues that may divide us. Let’s pursue understanding and promote respect for those who disagree. Be slow to write others off; think carefully before you announce that you’re right and that you no longer have any time for those who disagree. Extend to others the grace that you yourself need.
At the same time, fight against fights. Don’t give divisive people a pass. Don’t allow them to destroy the unity of the church. Treat their sin as seriously as you would adultery or some other flagrant offense against God. Move as slowly, patiently, and lovingly as you can, and guard against becoming a fighter yourself (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
But make it clear within your church: foolish controversies not welcomed here.