What are the implications of Christians disagreeing on Bible teachings?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

(A note to the reader: I also work at Got Questions Ministries... which this question references.)

Question: There are numerous people of genuine strong biblical faith within the body of Christ who are filled with the Holy Spirit and who sincerely try to interpret the Bible accurately... yet who hold different beliefs and disagree on many things. I know this because the Holy Spirit seems to instill different convictions in me upon reading the Bible when compared to some others.

Now, the Spirit plays a role in offering peace and convicting me of sin, but he seems to do little to ensure that Christians hold consistent beliefs... and I can’t understand why God is not more proactive in preventing disagreement. Is this because it would contravene free will to do so? Or is it just that I am deluding myself?

For instance, when I first began reading the Bible, I believed in eternal hell. But upon growing in faith and looking at the original untranslated Bible and wider context, I am less convinced. Nevertheless, I respect Got Questions Ministries’ stand in support of an eternal hell.

Another example is my opposition to civil marriages. I believe that they are not adequately supported by biblical principles and that they incentivize divorce. Yet Got Questions supports the idea that there is scope for latitude outside of our core beliefs. However, I’m afraid that if I don’t believe the right things (or disagree with the wrong things) that I might be a heretic. Is this possible? Does God hold our well-intended but false beliefs against us?

Answer: Greetings, friend. Thank you for touching-down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for asking such an important question. Frankly, this question has been on my mind too, and here’s why.

I’ve been saved for nearly fifty years, and I’ve been faithful in my studies. Furthermore, I’m a lucky guy: I have many like-minded friends who are earnest and accomplished Christian people. But I have this one problem with them: they don’t all agree with me on secondary issues of the faith... and disagreement with people I respect is no small thing.

Fortunately, believing the wrong thing about secondary issues does not make a person a heretic. Believing the wrong things about core issues does, though. But your stands on civil marriage and heaven and hell are decidedly secondary issues... and I am free to disagree with you here.

It’s when a person does not believe in God, the deity of Jesus Christ or believes anything that countermands the Gospel of grace that he or she is a heretic. The very fact that you are worried about this — and the fact that you have the wherewithal to ask such a biblically informed question — tells me you are anything but a heretic. So don’t worry... and don’t be so quick to call yourself names.

Let me run a scenario to help us understand secondary issues better. Imagine that you have taken a sampling of 2000 people who were genuine born-again Christians. Half of these come from the Reformed tradition and half from the evangelical tradition (like Baptists). Ask them about end-times scenarios (eschatology) … especially as it relates to the Rapture of the Church.

Most of the Baptists will reveal pre-tribulational and premillennial tendencies. A majority of these would believe that Christians are to be taken from the earth secretly in an event they call the Rapture seven years before the actual second coming of Christ. This will begin a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth known as the Millennium.

By way of contrast, most of our Reformed brethren hold an amillennial view. They do not believe that the Rapture will occur, and they tend not to believe that the Millennium is a future — and a literal — thousand-year reign of Christ.

This is an example of mutually exclusive beliefs. You cannot be both pre-millennial and amillennial at the same time. So, both views cannot be correct. Now, both can be wrong… or either one can be correct... they just can’t both be right.

With this in view, my question is, is the group that is wrong (and at least one of those groups must be wrong) a group of heretics... and/or is that an indication that they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit? No. That would be an excessive judgment. People may believe what they want about secondary issues and still be born-again... and as you shall see, they can also be Spirit-led Christians.

To understand the difference in beliefs among believers, we must understand that there’s a process involved in forming them… and that processes take time — this, by definition.

For example, I’m a Baptist, and for the first twenty years of my Christian life, I was a premillennialist who subscribed to Rapture theology... but I do not believe that anymore. Does this mean that I disagree with myself? Does this mean that I was not saved or Spirit-led before I adopted my current view? Or have I become of apostate now… and have somehow stepped out of salvation and stopped growing in my spiritual life?

I’ve been living with me for a long time, and it doesn’t feel like either of those is the case. So, here’s the thing: just as there is a process that brings a person to salvation, so is there a process that brings believers into discipleship. The big difference is that the latter does not stop. The implication of this is that we are always be growing... or at least we should be.

God designed us so we will progress in truth. This means that we are all moving from being wrong to being right… but this also means that we are all at different places in this process — and this is a formula for disagreement. So, let’s not be too hard on the people who disagree with us. At fifty years in, I’m so far down the road in my journey towards the truth that a new Christian will not likely believe what I believe on every issue. The thing I cannot do is beat him up because of that. We are fellow sojourners... and we’re all on the same road!

My point in this section is that every spiritual life is a process. This means that we will never “arrive.” So, at any given time and for any given Christian, we will be exactly where God wants us to be because we are growing and learning… but we will frequently be wrong about many things in the process. True, the Holy Spirit indwells us and helps us deal with things that are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14), but he does not interfere with the growth process that God has designed for us... and disagreements are to be expected.

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:5, NIV, emphasis mine)

As Psalm 25:5 attests, God’s process is to guide in truth. He doesn’t just dump truth down into our hearts and brains… although he does this a little (Romans 2:14-15). Instead, he relies on our will to follow his ways, and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit to help keep us out of trouble (1 Corinthians 2:12).

Therefore, your insight about free will is spot on. Just as we must exercise our free will to connect with God’s salvific provision (John 1:12), so we must use our free will to walk in the Spirit rather than in the flesh (Galatians 5:16)… and to do things like study God’s word so we may be known — not only as ones approved — but as ones who are workers (2 Timothy 2:15).

If God were to be any more involved in the process of having individual people believe certain things, then free will would indeed be violated… and I cannot abide by that notion. He made us as volitional beings who can respond both to information (Romans 1:18-20) and to conscience (Romans 2:14-15). But if he were manipulating us on-the-fly to guarantee certain outcomes, then we would not be truly volitional.

The test of volition is that negative outcomes are expected — and they come! The price of this, of course — and as you noted — is that legitimate Christians believe different things… and I suspect you think that this is to our detriment. But as I’ve argued previously, this is the process God chose… so, it can only be for our benefit!

But note this well: we need to agree on the foundational, central and necessary doctrines of the Christian faith, and our foundation is pretty easily stated.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
(1 Corinthians 15:3–8, NIV)

Now, Paul went on to codify Christian doctrines that went beyond this statement, but this statement is the platform for everything else he did — and it should be ours too! Jesus died for us. He was buried and raised according to the scriptures — and people saw him. Paul believed this, and we need to believe this.

Those facts give us a warrant for our faith in Jesus Christ. So, if an organization is smart, it won’t be too expansive in its statements of belief... because expansive means restrictive... and restrictive means that many people will be excluded from signing that statement in good conscience.

What follows is the statement-of-faith from Reasonable Faith Ministries. I offer this as a good example of an organization including all the important doctrines... but while leaving room for people to believe differently on secondary issues.

  1. We believe that the one and only God is tri-personal, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being distinct, divine persons.
  2. We believe that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, the unique, sure, and sufficient revelation of the very being, character, and purposes of God, beside whom there is no other god, and beside whom there is no other name by which we must be saved.
  3. We believe that the only ground for our acceptance by God is what Jesus Christ did on the cross and what he is now doing through his risen life, whereby he exposed and reversed the course of human sin and violence, died for our sins, rose physically from the grave, redeemed us from the power of evil, reconciled us to God, and empowers us with his life "from above." We therefore bring nothing to our salvation. We receive his redemption solely by grace through faith.
  4. We believe that new life, given supernaturally through spiritual regeneration, is a necessity as well as a gift and that the lifelong conversion that results is the only pathway to a radically changed character and way of life. Thus the only sufficient power for a life of Christian faithfulness and moral integrity in this world is that of Christ's resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit.
  5. We believe that Jesus' own teaching and his attitude toward the total truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible, God's inspired Word, make the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.
  6. We believe that being disciples of Jesus means serving him as Lord in every sphere of our lives, secular as well as spiritual, public as well as private, in deeds as well as words, and in every moment of our days on earth, always reaching out as he did to those who are lost, as well as to the poor, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the socially despised, and being faithful stewards of creation and our fellow-creatures.
  7. We believe that the blessed hope of the personal return of Jesus provides both strength and substance to what the Church is doing, just as what we are doing becomes a sign of the hope of where we are going; both together leading to a consummation of history and the fulfillment of an undying kingdom that comes only by the power of God.
  8. We believe that all followers of Christ are called to know and love Christ through worship, love Christ's family through fellowship, grow like Christ through discipleship, serve Christ by ministering to the needs of others in his name, and share Christ with those who do not yet know him, inviting people to the ends of the earth and to the end of time to join us as his disciples and followers of his way.

https://www.reasonablefaith.org/statement-of-faith/

Do you notice what’s not in the above statement? Things like, what we should believe about the age of the earth... or whether God made the universe in six literal 24-hour days... or what we should believe about future beyond the fact that Christ is coming back. Note also that there is no statement about heaven, hell or divorce... nor will I weigh-in on them here.

Here’s the thing: I believe that William Lane Craig who is the president of Reasonable Faith Ministries is a true born-again believer in Jesus Christ. But I know he believes differently about secondary issues than do many of America’s evangelical luminaries. So, what should we think about this... and how should we proceed in the face of disagreement? I’ll give the final word to Peter and Paul.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18, NIV, emphasis mine)

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV, emphasis mine)

It was good to hear from you, my brother. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this Christian disagreement — consider doing so at the following link: 20191111 What are the implications of Christians disagreeing on Bible teachings?).

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