Question: How can two Christians disagree when each supposedly has “biblical grounds” for his interpretation? If they both have the mind of Christ, shouldn’t they agree on everything?
To answer this question, we will take two steps. First, we will define the mind of Christ and determine who has it; and second, we will look at four kinds of disagreement in the New Testament and how the early church responded to it.
The mind of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul declared that “…we have the mind of Christ.” However, it is important to realize that not all Christians have the mind of Christ. In the context, Paul’s “we” refers neither to the unbeliever nor to the carnal believer, but only to the spiritual man. Only the spiritual man is living under the control of the Holy Spirit who has made the mind of Christ available through the inspiration of God’s Word.
The mind of Christ is the word of God as taught to those who are controlled by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). The carnal believer (1 Cor. 3:1ff) has only the mind of the flesh, and there is much room for disagreement in the mind of the flesh. To have the mind of Christ is to obey God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit as called for in Philippians 2:5-11.
It is evident, therefore, that there will be much disagreement among believers since many are not living according to the Holy Spirit’s control.
On the other hand, we must allow for honest disagreements among equally committed believers who have differing perspectives concerning God’s Word. It is evident that even when both parties are godly the Holy Spirit allows a diversity of perspective to exist for His own purposes, which we may or may not understand – but which we must accept with grace and love.
To understand disagreements among Christians better, let’s look at four kinds of differences that occurred in the early church and how they were handled in the first century.
One of the most significant doctrinal differences in the New Testament occurred between Paul and Peter over the issue of eating with Gentiles after it had been determined that Jew and Gentile could eat at the same table without affecting their spiritual status (Gal. 2:1-21; Acts 15:1-29). Paul opposed Peter to his face (Gal. 2:11) because he acted out of fear of the Judaizers and not out of conformity to the mind of Christ which had been determined at the Jerusalem council.
Here two apostles disagreed because one of them failed to maintain the mind of Christ in an area of doctrine which threatened the purity of the gospel. If two apostles can disagree, how much can we expect not to have such differences today? It is imperative that we approach divisions the same way Paul did, through open confrontation and a call to the truth of God because, done properly, this will result in a clarification of the mind of Christ.
How do we know when to confront and when to accept differences? Certainly, there is a minimum of three areas: (1) the inspiration of Scripture, since error here leads to a distortion of all of God’s revelation; (2) truth concerning all three members of the Trinity, since error here leads to a distortion of God Himself; and (3) the way of salvation, since the introduction of anything other than grace can lead to the lostness of many who may think they are saved.
In other areas, individuals, churches, and Christian agencies have a responsibility to define their own standards, but always with the awareness that equally committed Christians might disagree with them.
The graphic personal difference between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41 was caused by John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, who had turned back from the ministry during the first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). Barnabas was determined to take this man (Acts 15:37), but Paul “…kept on insisting that they should not take him along” (Acts 15:38) because he had shown himself to be unworthy of the task.
All of this resulted in such a “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39) that Paul and Barnabas separated. However, some years later Paul speaks of Barnabas in a positive way (1 Cor. 9:6) and also refers positively to Mark (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11). And both references to Mark occur when Paul is facing the pressure of prison.
It would appear from the New Testament record that both Paul and Barnabas had the mind of Christ, since both had effective ministries. Therefore, there may be times when disagreements come because two or more believers who differ are both right. A period of separation will verify each of them, resulting in greater growth for the body of Christ.
Moral differences will inevitably occur when Spirit-controlled Christians and carnal Christians are found together, which is the case in most churches. These moral differences show up in behavior, as demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Unfortunately, the response to such behavioral conflicts today is too often the same as it was in Corinth – an effort to avoid facing the issue, or even a condoning pride in such shameful activity.
The Bible, however, makes it clear (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; and Gal. 6:1) that there can be no condoning of sin. The only response to moral behavior can be individual confrontation (Matt. 18:15), followed by small group confrontation (Matt. 18:16), followed by church confrontation (Matt. 18:17-20) as necessary.
Obviously, all who participate in this responsibility must be aware of their own liability to sin in the same fashion (Gal. 6:1). But they cannot let this stand in the way of seeking to restore those who sin and purifying the church.
It is imperative that we maintain the twofold purpose for discipline, individual restoration, and church purification, or the power of God will not be able to move through us freely.
The Bible assumes that one area of disagreement among Christians will never be settled, and that is the area of cultural differences. We read of such differences in the New Testament under a discussion of meat offered to idols (Rom. 14 – 15; 1 Cor. 8 – 10). In this discussion, it is apparent that some felt that association with idols tainted the meat so they could not eat it (these are called “weak” by Paul in 1 Cor. 8:7), while others felt free to eat such meat (called “strong” by Paul in Rom. 15:1).
The issue of questionable things will never be settled because the Word of God has not given absolute direction in this area. A questionable practice by definition is a cultural activity about which God has not given absolute revelation, and it is an issue on which committed Christian consciences differ.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1 Paul asserted that knowledge puffs up while love builds up. This passage refers to the misapplication of absolute answers to the issues raised by questionable things. In essence, Paul warned us to be wary of those who have all the answers in an area in which God has given us absolute guidelines rather than absolute commands. Anyone who thinks he has all the answers should realize that he has not even understood the fundamental reality that governs questionable things: you can never know absolutely what God has not revealed absolutely.
A study of the relevant passages (Rom. 14 – 15; 1 Cor. 8 – 10) shows two factors are involved in arriving at a godly solution to the problems raised by these ethical issues: a biblically informed conscience and a loving heart for God (1 Cor. 8:1-3), for believers (1 Cor. 8:4-13), and for unbelievers (1 Cor. 9:1-27). It is assumed in the New Testament that believers will live in a loving tension when it comes to questionable areas of behavior.
William D. Lawrence, Th.D.
Kindred Spirit, Spring 1989, pp. 3, 11