“In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
This is one of the most powerful statements in Christian history. It has been an influential statement for those of us who have a heritage in the American Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.
But in my experience, we have often argued and divided over matters of opinion. One problem is that what some consider opinion, others consider a matter of faith.
It must have been the same in Paul’s time. In writing to the Romans, he talks about these disputable matters in Romans 13:8—15:7. The particular matters he writes about—eating meat or only vegetables, and whether one celebrates religious holidays—do not trouble us much. But as we will see below, there are other disputable matters that trouble us greatly.
Paul is clear on how to handle these disputes. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (Romans 14:1). “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9, 10).
It’s not about who is right or wrong. It’s about love.
Love Is Desired
Everyone is for love.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” No one objects to loving the neighbor.
But what if your neighbor is wrong? What if this “neighbor” is a fellow Christian who disagrees strongly with you? How can we love our brothers and sisters who misunderstand the Bible? After studying with them, do we write them off as false Christians who will not accept the obvious truth? Or do we love them as full brothers and sisters in spite of their “error”?
Paul clearly says we should love and accept them. He says, “Do not judge your brother or sister.” He commands, “Do not look down on your brother or sister.” The specific issues of disagreement he mentions—eating meat, keeping holy days, and drinking wine—may not seem that important to us. But they were important to some Roman Christians. Those Christians lined up strongly on opposite sides of these issues, each side firmly convinced the other was wrong. Each thought the Bible was on their side. Paul doesn’t resolve the issues, but he implores them to love in spite of their differences.
We can think of other issues dividing Christians, some we think are important, even central to the faith. But it is not agreement that unites us; it is the love of God in Christ. Even if our brothers and sisters are wrong, we leave their judgment to Christ. Even if we are wrong (and we have been before), we leave our judgment in the hands of a gracious Savior.
Love Is Urgent
Love is not real until the fire of disagreement tests it. Love for our neighbor is difficult. It also is urgent. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The one who is love himself will return and take us to be with him forever.
As we wait, we must put aside dark deeds, whether the selfishness of sexual immorality or self-centered dissension and jealousy. We must become like the one for whom we wait. Jesus comes as one who did not please himself. We dare not try to wait for him by insisting that others please us. Love for our brothers and sisters, especially when they are wrong, is the love of God that gives us a spirit of unity so we can glorify God with one heart and one voice.
This leads to a model of Christian unity based not on agreement on disputable issues but grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, are we willing to embrace in prayer, worship, and service all those who exhibit the fruit of the Spirit? Are we willing to see the Spirit at work in an ordained woman and in one who opposes the ordination of women? Among those in favor of and those opposed to abortion rights? In those who believe the Bible is inerrant and those who do not? In those who support war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya and those who do not?
In all these issues it is clear to me which side God is on. However, God through his Spirit can work even through those who are wrong. I hope so, for I believe he works in me even when I am wrong.
Sacrificing Our Identity
Are we willing to let our denominations die? For those in “undenominational fellowships,” the answer seems obvious. Yet when we talk about unity beyond the boundaries of those with our name and our distinctives, we begin to worry about losing our identity. In the words of Barton Stone’s generation (expressed in The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery), “We will that our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined and prepare for death before it is too late.” Must our distinctives and identity die in order for the Spirit to bring unity?
So what does it look like to work toward Christian union based on this model? This model of union begins and ends with prayer, worship, and service together. It will not be structural union, although structures will be found that promote such union and discarded when they no longer promote it. It will not be doctrinal or Bible-based union, not in the narrow sense of total agreement on Scripture and doctrine.
Embracing the Ancient Order
This is in no way an abandonment of our emphasis on the Bible or a straying from the ancient order. Instead, it is the only way to be faithful to Scripture. In the words of Stone:
We have been too long engaged with defending ourselves, rather than the truth as it is in Jesus. Let us trust our little selves with the Lord; and rest not, till by faith in the promised Spirit and by incessant prayer we receive and be filled with it, like they were of old in the ancient order of things.
Thus, union will be produced by the work of God among us and inside us through his Holy Spirit. As such, it is hard to predict, promote, or control that work of the Spirit. The question we face then is not “How can we work toward unity?” but rather “How will we be faithful to the call to maintain the unity of the Spirit?” At least part of that faithfulness is to be willing to give liberty in matters of opinion.
Gary Holloway serves as executive director of the World Convention (worldconvention.org) and teaches at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. He has written 28 books, including Praying Dangerously from Leafwood Press.