By Jim Tune
For as long as I can remember, our movement has gravitated toward a familiar slogan: “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; and in all things, love.” Still, we often find it difficult to offer liberty when our opinions clash, and the list of essentials varies from person to person and from church to church.
One might expect that familiarity with such a gracious slogan would tilt us strongly toward accepting one another’s differences and respecting the cherished convictions of brothers and sisters who see things differently. However, our movement has been as vulnerable to division, splits, and discord as any other religious group I am familiar with.
Paul dealt with the threat of discord and division frequently in his letters to the churches. In Romans 14, 15 we find Paul responding to the fragile Christian community in Rome that was in danger of fracturing along a Jew-Gentile fault line. The dispute in Rome followed a pattern that has played out again and again throughout the church’s history:
• One group believes a matter to be an important issue, something vital, something essential.
• The group defines its view as the biblical position and backs it up with some verses from Scripture.
• The group then hardens around the issue, believing “God is on our side.”
• The group is suspicious of any person or group that sees the matter differently.
• When disagreement occurs, there is arguing, fighting, and very often a split. The two camps avoid each other. The opposing group is no longer made welcome in “our circle of certainty.”
Paul proposes a better way. He doesn’t choose one side and say, “This group is right and the other is wrong. Either agree with the group that’s right or leave!” Neither does he call both groups to compromise their convictions.
Instead, Paul admonishes both sides. To the Jewish conservatives and legalists among them, he says: “Do not condemn the other, for God has accepted them and you are not their judge.” To the Gentile progressives—those liberals in the church—he says: “Do not despise the other, for we all share one Lord and act out of devotion to him.” He urges all of them—with special emphasis on the majority group—to respect the convictions of others, not compelling the other to act against their convictions.
Paul continually cycles back to Jesus and his way of love as the center that will hold them together. I have come to realize both the legalistic and the liberal approaches grow from the same root: a system of reassuring rules that is miles away from the freedom we are given in Christ.
Scripture reminds us our ways of doing things are always changing, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). While our oh-so-certain knowledge will one day disappear, love will remain (1 Corinthians 13:13). Perhaps it’s time to give greater attention to the third part of our cherished slogan: In ALL things, love.