“We should disobey because the COVID-19 restrictions are nothing more than an election year plot to unseat Donald Trump and attack the church.” “No! We should obey because the COVID-19 restrictions are science-based actions to prevent the spread of a disease that kills.” Both positions are held by genuine believers in Jesus Christ, the beloved of God which he obtained by his own blood (Acts 20:28).
What’s a person to do when we have strongly opposing opinions on matters like the government response to the pandemic, or racial injustice, or climate change or fill-in-the-blank? Just agree to disagree? Or is there a point where our disagreement is NOT okay?
There is a saying that has been handed down to us from church history that summarizes biblical wisdom on this question. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” In other words there are some things we must agree on and other things we need not agree on, but always the tone of our discussion should be Christian love for one another.
This historic wisdom is seen in Paul’s letters to the churches.
“In essentials unity”
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God… Ephesians 4:11-13
Where the Lord wants there to be unity and harmonious agreement is in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God. It is agreement on the truth of God’s word which is the authoritative foundation of our faith, and agreement on the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is something we are to attain, to succeed in reaching through effort. The Lord gave us the apostles and others to bring about unity around these essentials. In this life we will never agree on every point, which is why we have denominations, but each local church is to strive to attain as much doctrinal unity as we can in order to walk together deeply and not merely superficially. In essentials unity.
“In non-essentials liberty”
What is “non-essential” applies to matters of doctrine that are less clear or do not impinge upon the core tenets of the faith, such as whether a church can have women deacons. While it will be important for a church to take a position on some of these matters, they are not essential for our salvation and sanctification. We don’t have to agree.
But what is also non-essential to agree on is how we apply the principles of Scripture according to our individual consciences. And this gets more to our immediate question concerning our opinions on social issues. Consider the principle in Romans 14:5-6.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
What we have here is two people who want to honor the Lord, but they don’t agree on what that looks like. One is from a Jewish background and thinks observing Jewish feast days is important. The other is from a Gentile background and sees no reason to do so. Paul counsels liberty in this area. As long as both are trying to please the Lord, they don’t need to agree. This is a non-essential. Now, if their choices are inherently sinful, or if they are carried out with wrong attitudes and motivations, then there is reason to challenge that in the pursuit of holiness. But if someone is trying to please the Lord, and their application is different from how you would do it, leave room for that, for God has welcomed them. In non-essentials liberty.
We can apply this to differing positions on a range of issues.
Let’s say you have two believers who want to honor the Lord and the issue of police shootings of black men comes up. What is the right Christian response? One defends the victims of unjust death at the hands of police. The other defends the police force from unjust broad-brush condemnation. How do we walk together as believers while taking different sides on the issue?
One important thing we can do is this: let’s both agree on the essential truth that justice for all people matters because God is a God of justice. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:18). We may not agree on the particulars of the appropriate response (the non-essentials) but let us both agree to imitate the character of God who loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5).
“In all things charity”
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1-3
This is the imperative of humility and love in our interactions with one another. In the midst of our disagreements, the only way to attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God is to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We’ll never get to the unity Christ wants for us if our relationships fall apart through division over non-essentials and sinful attitudes.
So we cultivate humility by remembering that we do not see everything as clearly as we might think, that we may lack wisdom in staking our position on a subject, and that as sinful humans we are prone to reaching conclusions that we want to believe while disregarding information that would challenge us. This gives us a healthy self-suspicion about our own opinions.
And we cultivate love by remembering that we share the same Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of God, as members of the body of Christ. We are eager to maintain this God-created unity, not ready to separate at the first conflict. We are to be for one another as we journey toward conformity to his image and the eternal glories that await. Like the brothers forgiven by Joseph, who was a type of the Savior to come, the Lord would say to us “do not quarrel on the way” (Genesis 45:24). Let’s discuss the issues and let “iron sharpen iron” but not attack each other. In all things charity.
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. If we keep these things in mind, we can fruitfully walk together in the bond of peace.