I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it or not, but some of the most contentious cats on the planet are religious people. I don’t think there’s anything they can’t argue about. Furthermore, it’s hard to find anything about which they all agree.
Perhaps that’s why they say that in polite company, there are three subjects that should never be discussed: sex, politics and religion. In reality, those all seem to be the main topics of conversation these days. Whether in private conversation, on television, on talk radio or in the movies, they are the topics du jour. Within seconds of broaching any one of those topics, you can find yourself engaged in a high-stress argument that can throw you completely off your feed. Remember that wonderful old proverb: “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (Proverbs 15:17)?
With some people, I’d rather talk about sex or politics than about religion. Those proof-texting arguments have a way of escalating into mutual jihads!
Let’s face it: there’s nothing even close to a consensus in the Church about the specific meaning of every passage of Scripture in the Bible. As Christians, we are more confused then ever. Doctrinal assertions are all over the map from one denomination to another, and even within denominations. The same passages of Scripture carry varying degrees of authority, and endless varieties of meaning, for multitudes of Christians. Anything you say about anything can be controversial.
Sometimes it seems better just to shut up about what you believe. As my Dad used to tell me, “Brian, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.” Even if you’re not a fool, some people will think you’re one if what you say doesn’t agree with what they believe.
Quarrels in Paul’s Day
Despite his pleas for unity (I Corinthians 1:10), the apostle Paul acknowledged that there were quarrels within the body (verse 11). There were quarrels over which leader to follow (verse 12). There were quarrels about the content of the true Gospel (Galatians 1:6-11). There were quarrels about the application of Torah to the gentile believers (Acts 15). There were complaints over perceived favoritism (Acts 6:1-7). There was opposition to the preaching of the true Gospel (I Thessalonians 2:1-2). There were fights in families over doctrine, belief and who to follow, just as Jesus had predicted (Matthew 10:36). Quarrels arose in the synagogues over whether or notYeshua was the true Messiah, and whether or not what Paul, the Pharisee, was preaching was valid. Just about everywhere Jesus, Paul and the other apostles went they stirred up hornet’s nests of controversy. Paul came close to paying for his words with his life many times (II Corinthians 11:23-33).
Yet, within the closed community of the body, such controversies should be kept to a minimum. Jesus’ teaching that a house divided against itself cannot stand was well known. Amos 3:3 and II Corinthians 6:14 can also be brought to bear on the issue. Unity is ideal, but for most of us on planet Earth, life is less than ideal. The Church isn’t even close to being unified in doctrine, in structure, in practice, in liturgy, in moral teaching, or in leadership. The Church, not to mention religion in general, is full of arguments, controversies and conflicts. It would not be a stretch to label the whole scene “chaotic.”
If you mix religion with politics and sex, as in the case of issues like abortion; transgenderism; homosexuality; stem cell research; racism; and political activism on the part of religious people; the role of women, lesbians and gays in the Church, you’ve got an incendiary mixture on your hands. Religion, politics and sex don’t mix well. Sooner or later they lead to quarrels, conflicts and outright war.
Why is this? – Because all of these things deeply affect everyone’s personal life and well-being. They are not mere abstract discussions; they have a direct impact on the shape and quality of our lives.
If someone, claiming divine authority, is going to seek to curtail some behavior to which I’ve become attached, naturally I’m going to balk. Unfortunately, authoritarianism in religion has always had a deleterious effect. It is contrary to Jesus’ own teaching (Matthew 20:24-28).
Authoritarianism in politics has had an equally devastating effect, whether on the political Left (Communism) or on the political Right (Nazism & Fascism). Human utopias cannot be produced by autocratic individuals or cliques imposing their vision upon the multitudes by main force.
Differences in the Body
Sometimes, in “polite company,” it may be best to follow my father’s advice and keep one’s mouth shut. When it comes to the understanding of the Bible, we’re all works in progress – or retrogression, as the case may be. When it comes to specifics, we believe, and perhaps practice, different things. The Body of Christ does not march lockstep behind human leaders who have the right to impose their personal dogmas on us. We must all come to truth in our own time, on our own terms. When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we will be accountable for what we decided, not for what others decided for us. Meantime, we’d be well off to learn to accept those whom God has accepted, warts and all.
Paul gives us some clear instructions in Romans 14:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:1-4).
I won’t take the time here to go into the issue of why meat vs. vegetables had become an issue in the Roman congregation. Suffice it to say, people within the same fellowship had differing views on what they should, or should not, eat. Paul instructed those who were inclined to pontificate to hold their peace, stop arguing, and receive those whom God had received. The term “weak” here may be used sarcastically. It may indicate the superior attitude of those who thought of themselves as “strong.”
Others in the congregation believed that certain days were more sanctified than other days (Romans 14:5). The Jewish believers knew which days they were required to keep. The non-Jewish believers were not given any requirements for the observance of days. They met on the Sabbath, with their Jewish brethren.
Paul’s point was, no matter what we believe about food, or the observation of days, we are all part of the body of people whom the Lord has received. Instead of endlessly arguing about who’s right, who’s inspired, and who’s a heretic, we ought to leave such things between the individual and the Lord. Paul wrote:
“If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
“For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God,” (Romans 14:8-12, excerpts).
You will not have to account to God for what I believe, nor I for what you believe. I am 100 percent accountable to God for the choices I made; choices of belief, choices of behavior. I know that on the basis of more than 45 years of Bible study, I believe some things that others don’t believe, and vice versa. I am sure that within my own belief system, there are many errors. May the lord expose them to me so that I may correct those mistakes.
Nor is my Christian behavior perfect. Many times in the last 45 years I have slipped, missed the mark, or simply screwed up big time. For a few years, I even forsook God altogether and became an atheist. That’s nothing to be proud of. I lost valuable time in my spiritual development. Fortunately God is merciful. He receives graciously back all of his prodigal sons and daughters upon repentance. He continues to work with us as long as we will be worked with (Philippians 1:6).
In this time, the Church will never arrive at a consensus about doctrine and practice. In fact, it looks like the situation will continue to deteriorate as denominational leaders cut the lines to the Bible and drift out into the uncertain seas of politically correct thinking. Each individual Christian will find himself or herself in the position of having to make decisions with seemingly inadequate information. Some of those decisions may cost some of us our lives.
Christians – those whom God has received – ought to be actively networking with, and supporting, each other wherever possible. Times for Christians are not going to get easier, but harder. The writer of Hebrews imparts some wisdom for times like these:
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
In these dark days of religious terrorism and spiritual chaos, true Christians need encouragement and edification. Like the family that we are, we are each other’s support system. Whether we observe the Sabbath, Sunday, or no day at all, we are all brethren in Christ, following our best understanding and our consciences. Whether we are vegans, vegetarians, omnivores or carnivores, we eat what we feel free to eat, and we give thanks to God for it.
Some of us believe that God is a singularity. Others say he is a “Binity.” Still others view him as a Trinity. To some he’s a family, but to all he is God. God is a Spirit. It makes no sense to argue about his form because we’ve never seen it, experienced it, and, frankly, we don’t even know what “spirit” is, or the full range of its possible manifestations.
God is invisible, and his self-revelation is limited. We’ll just have to settle for the fact that, as Abraham Heschel wrote, “God is ineffable.” God’s revelation of himself is sufficiently ambiguous that it allows all kinds of room for us to argue ourselves into apoplexy about how many “persons” he is. People on all sides of that issue march out their arguments and proof texts like soldiers and artillery in a rhetorical battle. Casualties are always heavy. Then it’s back to the drawing board to plan the next skirmish.
In the end, nothing is solved, and few change their minds.
This is true of just about any subject about which Christians argue with each other. As my mentor, Richard Pinelli oft reminded me: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Why waste time arguing doctrine? Why risk alienating a deeply cherished brother or sister in Christ to win a point?
Am I saying that doctrine and truth don’t matter? Not at all! I’m saying that none of us has a corner on the market of truth. We need to be more tolerant of our differences and learn to love each other in spite of them. In Hebrews we find these words:
Keep on loving each other as brothers…Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as though you yourselves were suffering,” (Hebrews 13:1 & 3).
We return to Paul for a final exhortation:
“…the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification…So whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God,” (Romans 14:17-22, excerpts).
In other words, rather than argue about doctrine and practice, mum’s the word. Leave it to the Lord to straighten out our doctrinal “packages.” In his time, he’ll bring us all into perfect understanding. Until that happens, our duty is to love, support and cherish each other as brethren. God willing, we’ll be spending eternity together.