The following is an excerpt from a book that we at Converge think has some important things to say to the church and/or broader culture. This excerpt gives a compelling look at how we Christians can disagree well. We hope you enjoy it. – Erik
How should you relate to other people with differing consciences, especially family members and church members? What do you do when your conscience allows you to do certain practices but another person’s conscience does not? What do you do when your conscience does not allow you to do certain practices but another person’s conscience does?
You’ve probably experienced triage if you’ve ever visited an emergency room. Let’s say that on a Friday night you break your leg. When you arrive at the emergency room, about twenty other people are already sitting around. You check in, have a seat, and wait . . . and wait. Thirty minutes pass. You must be getting close. Then all of a sudden, another person arrives on a stretcher—an hour after you did—and he gets immediate medical attention because he was just in a horrific car accident. Why does he get to cut in line? You were there first! This is an example of medical triage: assigning degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide in what order to treat a large number of patients. Triage is the action of sorting according to priority and urgency.
We understand that sometimes we have to prioritize. Some things are more pressing and more important than other things. My wife, Jenni, and I (Andy) have three little girls, and sometimes all of them are crying at the same time. We have to prioritize their needs according to urgency. We might call that parental triage.
Did you know that this is also the case with truths that the Bible teaches? We could call it theological triage. Some Bible teachings are more important than other Bible teachings. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” The words “first importance” imply that although everything in the Bible is important, not everything is equally important. Some doctrines are more important. To simplify things, we could think of three levels of theological triage:
First-level issues are most central and essential to Christianity. You can’t deny these teachings and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense. For example, there is one God in three persons; Jesus is fully God and fully human; Jesus sacrificially died for sinners; Jesus bodily rose from the dead; we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; Jesus is coming back.
Second-level issues create reasonable boundaries between Christians, such as different denominations and local churches. These issues will have a bearing on what sort of church you are part of. For example, what’s your view on baptism or church government or God’s sovereignty in salvation or the role of men and women in the church and home? You don’t have to hold one particular view to be a Christian, but it’s challenging for a church to have a healthy unity when its leaders and members disagree on these matters.
Third-level issues are disputable matters (also called matters of indifference or matters of conscience). They might involve how you interpret particular passages of the Bible. For example, who are “the sons of God” in Genesis 6? There is more than one viable view. Third-level issues also include many practical questions. For example, how should Christians view the “Sabbath”? Is it okay on Sundays to go to a public restaurant? Or shop at a grocery store? Or watch a football game? Or play a football game? Or mow your lawn? Or work for pay? Disputable matters aren’t unimportant, but members of the same church should be able to disagree on these issues and still have close fellowship with each other. Disagreement on third-level issues shouldn’t cause disunity in the church family.
It’s easy for third-level matters to become deeply ingrained in someone’s conscience. And wherever two or more people interact in some sort of relationship—whether they are siblings, fellow students, coworkers, neighbors, or church members—they will dispute some issues. No two (finite and fallen) humans will ever agree on absolutely everything—not even a godly husband and godly wife who are happily married. We all have different perspectives, backgrounds, personalities, preferences, thought processes, and levels of understanding truth about God and his Word and his world.
So can you guess what happens when a group of self-professed Christians joins together as a church—even a doctrinally robust, gospel-centered church? They will disagree about many matters. We should expect disagreements with fellow Christians about third-level matters, and we should learn to live with those differences. Christians don’t always need to eliminate differences, but they should always seek to glorify God by loving each other in their differences.
Andrew David Naselli (PhDs, Bob Jones University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
J. D. Crowley (MA, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary) has been doing missionary and linguistic work among the indigenous minorities of northeast Cambodia since 1994. He is the author of numerous books, including Commentary on Romans for Cambodia and Asia and the Tampuan/Khmer/English Dictionary.
Content taken from Conscience by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.