Nearly two-thousand years ago, the apostle Paul wrote, “The Christ is divided.” [1 Corinthians 1:13] He continued to explain the reason God permits such divisions: “For it is a necessity that heresies exist among you that the approved may become manifest.” [1 Corinthians 11:19 NCMM] As the 3rd Millennium begins Christianity is fractured into over 20,000 sects and organizations, not counting isolated house churches independent of the major denominations.
Because of this severe splintering of Christianity, some groups have developed a cafeteria style organization. Some of these claim no creed or belief system at all. Either verbally or in practice they have one particular creedal statement: “to agree to disagree.” As a result their groups have no doctrinal barriers to fellowship. They insist this is a mark of true Christianity motivated by a love that tolerates any belief.
As a result some in these groups may believe one thing, while others hold to opposite, or even contradictory, views. Many have been attracted to such an open and free liberalized form of Christianity. Some would reduce Jesus Christ to one single principle - “love one another.”
As appealing as this position is to many who are tired of the doctrinal divisions and arguments in Christianity, what does the Bible really teach? Is the principle to “agree to disagree” something one can identify with Christ and his inspired disciples? In other words was the early church a loose fellowship of house churches, each with independent and divergent doctrines and beliefs? Or, was the primitive Nazarene community marked by a doctrinal unity despite wide spread house churches?
Let us examine, first what the Bible says in general and then specifically what Jesus taught. Also, how did Paul, Peter, Jude and John view these matters. Did they all “agree to disagree”?
First, we must observe that the phrase “agree to disagree” does not appear in the Bible. It is not a specific Scriptural teaching. Rather than put for the idea of “agree to disagree” the Bible simply encourages “agreement.”
The Hebrew Bible itself laid the foundation for agreement among worshippers of Yehowah. Proverbs 14:9 states this principle: “Among the upright ones there is agreement.” [NWT] In effect, this would seem to mean that the upright, or righteous, would be marked by “agreement.”
One of the Hebrew prophets suggested the very same thing when Yehowah asked: “Can two walk walk together, except they be agreed?” [Amos 3:3 KJV]
The Christian Bible agrees with these principles. The inspired writings of the Nazarene’s disciples stated the same - true worshippers must be in agreement. When we examine Jesus, Paul, Peter, Jude, and John we will see than rather state the principle “agree to disagree,” they disagreed with others who worshipped the same God. First, what about the Nazarene? Did he accept everyone despite their doctrinal beliefs? Did he simply follow the rule “agree to disagree”?
No where does Jesus utter any words that come even close to “agree to disagree.” Jesus was a Jew and a member of the congregation of Israel. He weekly attended the Jewish synagogue. He was present for annual conventions such as Passover and Pentecost. Just like Christianity today, Judaism was divided into several schisms. Two of these - though having contradictory views - did work together on some matters affecting the whole nation of Israel.
For example, the Sadducees did not believe in angels o the resurrection, while the Pharisees did. The Sadducees only accepted the first five books of Moses and rejected the rest of the Hebrew Bible, while the Pharisees accepted the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. Did Jesus embrace these divergent views urging that they all find unity by “agreeing to disagree”?
In one confrontation when the Pharisees brought accusations against the disciples of Jesus - rather than argue “to agree to disagree” -- the Nazarene quoted Isaiah 29:13 against them: “This people [Israel] honors me with their lips but their heart is distant. Their worship is worthless because they teach human commandments as doctrine.” [Matthew 15:9 NCMM] So, rather than telling his disciples: “Look, let us love one another and try to get along. Let us agree to disagree,” he told them some very much different. Matthew 16:11, 12 records the disposition of Jesus: “’Be alert regarding the ‘leaven’ of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ … That is, the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” [NCMM]
On another occasion - rather than strive to get the Jewish teachers to “agree to disagree” - Jesus spoke most boldly against them: “If you abide in my Word, truly you are my disciples, and you will then know the Truth and the Truth will see you free.” And, then, “You [Jews] refuse to listen to my Word. You originate from your father, the Devil. You prefer to do the wishes of your father. That one was a murderer from the beginning, and he did not remain steadfast in the Truth, because there is no truth in him.” [John 8:31, 32, 43, 44 NCMM] True freedom or liberation could only be achieved by remaining within the doctrinal system the Nazarene taught.
Near the end of his ministry -- when the Jewish clergy began to attack Jesus more publicly - the subject of the resurrection came up. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Jesus did. Did Jesus make every effort to find harmony with this divergent view, encouraging the principle to “agree to disagree.” Absolutely not! Rather, the bluntly contradicted them and charge them: “Not knowing the Scriptures or the dynamism of The God, you are mistaken.” [Matthew 22:29 NCMM]
Shortly after Jesus challenged the Jewish leadership by a question regarding Psalm 110:1, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” When they answered, “David,” he then asked after quoting Psalm 110:1, “So, if David calls Messiah ‘Lord’ how can Messiah be his son?” [Matthew 22:41-46 NCMM] Rather than create harmony, he deliberately caused division and silenced these religious teachers who worshipped Yehowah. He could have just as easily appealed to love and a common faith, encouraging the rule “to agree to disagree.”
However, what about the disciples of Jesus? Had they learned that “truth was relative” and that “each person must find their own truth”? Had they been taught that love is the only single element that matters and that this should move the whole Church “to agree to disagree”?
Paul’s ministry is strongly portrayed in Doctor Luke’s history The Acts of the Apostles. Twice in Paul’s travels the subject of the resurrection becomes a burning issue. Both the Greeks and some Jews believe in the immortality of the human soul and thus rejected the idea of a resurrection. Did Paul compromise and find a way to unity between the two doctrines? Or, did he appeal to a rule such as “to agree to disagree”? The answer is, No. [Acts 17:32; 24:15]
Indeed, in virtually every one of Paul’s epistles he either encourages Church agreement or warns of those who would teach contrary to the traditional doctrine received by the Church. To the Romans he encourages: “However, I exhort you, brothers, to watch those who cause divisions and scandals against the teaching which you learned and turn away from them." [Romans 16:17 NCMM]
To the Corinthian church he wrote: “I beseech you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, that there be no schisms among you. But, rather, that you be fitly jointed together in the same mind and in the same opinion.” [1 Corinthians 1:10 NCMM] No where in his writings to Corinth does he once say, “Brothers, though we disagree, out of love, can we not ‘agree to disagree’” Almost a year later Paul’s beliefs have not changed, for as he concludes his second inspired epistle, he writes: “Continue to be readjusted. Be of one mind.” [2 Corinthians 13:11 NCMM]
Not only does Paul not tolerate divergent views, but warns against those men within the Church who were actually agents of the Devil. Note his strong language:
“However, I fear that just as the Serpent completely seduced Eve by its craftiness, your minds may also be perverted from the single-mindedness and purity that are due the Christ. For, indeed, if another comes and preaches a different Jesus than the one we preached - or, another spirit than what you accepted - or, another gospel than what you received - you tolerate such [a teacher]. … Such men are false representatives [of the Church], deceitful workers, transforming themselves into ‘apostles’ of Christ. And, no wonder! For Satan himself continues to transform himself into an angel of light. It is nothing great, then, if [Satan’s] ministers also continue to transform themselves into ministers of righteousness. However, their end will be in harmony with their works.” [2 Corinthians 11:3, 4, 13-15 NCMM]
Paul was most determined to enter open warfare with such thinking in the Church. For just before the above he wrote: “We do not wage a fleshly type of warfare. For our weapons are not fleshly, but powerful by The God for the demolishing of strongholds - taking down [human] reasonings, and every lofty thing raising itself up against the knowledge of The God, capturing every thought to make it obedient to the Christ.” [2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NCMM] Just as there was such warfare in the early Church it does not surprise us two thousand years later to see the same battles going on.
To Paul the subject of different views in the Gospel is unthinkable. When he writes to the congregations in the region of Galatia he makes it quite clear how he feels about “another Gospel.” He writes: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel -- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:6-9 RSV] It is clear Paul is not about to compromise the Gospel. He does argue that other Christians have different views and so we must “agree to disagree.” [See the Nazarene Commentary 2000© article “What is the Gospel?”]
When Paul writes to Titus he also warns about those who would introduce another form of teaching or doctrine: “You must stop the mouths of such men, for they overthrow the faith of whole families, teaching what they ought not, just for the sake of making money. … Shun a heretical person after two warnings. Realize that such a person has been perverted, and, in sinning, is self-condemned.” [Titus 1:11; 3:10, 11 WEY, RSV] There is no comment by Paul to “agree to disagree” with such members of the church, but rather to “shun” them.
Subject of the resurrection continues to be a source of division and disagreement in the early Church. Some likely tried to bring Greek ideas into the Christian community. For example some may have said “there is no resurrection” because the soul is immortal. How does Paul deal with those who had another view on the subject of the soul and resurrection? Note one example in 1 Corinthians 15:12, 35, 36 where he calls such person - “a simpleton.” [BER] Here Paul does not suggest we accept those members of the church who hold other views on this subject. Nor does he suggest we “agree to disagree.” In the modern 3rd Millennium Church there are also those who teach the immortality of the soul. How would Paul respond to such today?
Some Christians today believe the resurrection has already started, or begun. While others hold that the resurrection will only occur upon the visible Return of Christ Jesus. Can both views be accommodated? What attitude did Paul maintain with a similar situation in his day? Note 2 Timothy 2:16-18: “Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will eat its way like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already. [Or, has even now taken place. (BAS)]. They are upsetting the faith of some.” [RSV] Rather than seek unity at any price, Paul calls such a teaching as “gangrene” and those who follow such as having “swerved from the truth.” He does not compromise and encourage the brothers “to agree to disagree.” Rather, he roundly condemns those who teach differently on the subject of the doctrine.
There are those today who assert the resurrection has already begun or taken place. Some say the resurrection has been ongoing since the 1st Century. Others point to such dates as 1878 or 1918 as the time the resurrection occurred.
Like Paul, Peter also did not compromise Christian beliefs in order to maintain a shallow unity of agreeing to disagree. Note Peter’s warning:
“Now just as there were false prophets among the people of Israel, just so there will also appear among you false teachers confidentially introducing destructive heresies. They will dispute the very teachings of the Master who purchased them. Thus, they will bring a quick and unexpected annihilation on themselves. Now many will join them and leave your number to follow their impure and destructive teachings. Because of this the real way of Truth will be spoken against with abuse. These false teachers will take advantage of you with words molded by greed. However, that ancient judgment is not without purpose and their destruction is not slumbering.” [NCMM Paraphrase]
Peter does not suggest these teachers be welcomed to remain in the Nazarene fellowship. He does not argue for a form of unity that would leave everyone free to believe as they wished, whether this agreed with the original fundamental doctrines. Rather than encourage such an atmosphere of freedom within the Church, he warns about those who offer such freedom. 2 Peter 2:19 records Peter’s caution: “These false teachers promise a certain liberty and freedom while they are really slaves to their own moral depravity.” [NCMM Paraphrase]
Nor did Jude argue for a unity based on an agreement to disagree. Like Peter, Jude writes to warn about those teachers among the Christian community who were wandering from the Truth. Compare his words:
“For certain persons have sneaked in among you -- persons condemned by what had been previously written long ago. They are irreverent, perverting the unmerited favor of our God into loose conduct. They deny our only sovereign and Lord Jesus Christ. …There persons are slanderers and complainers conducting themselves according to their own lusts, their mouths speaking inflated things, admiring personalities to benefit from (their) charity. But, beloved, remember the teachings previously spoken to you by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They told you that in the last time there will be mockers driven by their own lusts proceeding from their irreverence. These are those persons who create disunity.” [Jude 4, 16-19 NCMM]
Jude does not here suggest unity at any cost. Nor does he encourage, in an effort to achieve harmony, put forth any idea of “agreeing to disagree.”
The last of the Nazarene’s apostles also copes with these splintering groups within the Church. The beloved John in his old age writes:
Young spiritual children, it is the final hour. As you have heard already, the antichrist is coming. Already many antichrists have materialized. It is from this we know it is the final hour. These antichrists abandoned us because they were never really part of us. If they really had been part of us they would have stayed with us. In order to manifest these antichrists and make it clear they were never part of us. All of you who have an anointing from the Holy One have an intimate relationship with Him. I am not writing you because you do not know the Truth but because you do know it and also that no lie springs from the Truth. … My dearly beloved friends, do not put your trust in every ‘inspiration’. Rather, test out these ‘inspirations’ to know whether they originate with God. The need for this is because many false prophets have proceeded from the world. [1 John 2:18-21; 4:1, 2 NCMM Paraphrase]
Even this late in Christianity, John no where argues for an agreement with these men. They are simply “antichrists” though we know from history that these included Christian sects that had taken on certain Greek ideas in Gnosticism.
The key to any true agreement in the spirit of Christian liberty today is the very principle Paul applied to himself: “Do not go beyond the things that are written?” [1 Corinthians 4:6] The Bible - not human reasoning or doctrines - must be the basis for achieving agreement. However, this does not appear so simple. Why not?
Think of this seriously: There are two billions Christians in the world today. How many of these do you suppose have read the Bible once? And, how many of these have read the teachings of Jesus several times? And, how many of these have made a serious study over a considerable time? It is obvious that the vast majority of Christians are not even in a position to know for sure what were the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ and his inspired disciples. [Compare the book Nazarene Principles.]
To illustrate this: one new Christian, having only begun to read and study the Bible, suddenly thought he had a good grasp of the Book of Revelation. He went on to write books over a period of many years. Today, even his own religious organization rejects most of what he wrote. Humility would seem to impose upon a new Christian a patience while learning “the Truth.”
One of the problems with Christians reaching agreement is that when they move on into a group more devoted to Biblical study, they carry with them convictions once held in their former sect. They may have never really studied such matters seriously, but rather just accepted these teachings. What should be the approach of new Christians?
It seems only reasonable that a Christian neophyte refrain from debating an assertion that he has not had enough time and opportunity to examine. It is clear that there will be those moments in our lives when we must trust to other Christians who are more experienced and mature. Whom shall we trust?
The following may be suggested as a wise list of characteristics before considering a Christian teacher [James 3:1, 2]:
Agreement can be reached in the Nazarene community when humility and love exist. Agreement can be reached when new Christians and younger persons have the attitude of Elihu: “I am young and you men are older. I was intimidated and so refrained from speaking that I should speak my knowledge to you. I told myself, ‘Many days of experience should speak and a multitude of years should make known wisdom.” [Job 32:6, 7 NCMM] Indeed, in an age of bad manners and youthful disrespect for authority, Christian youth devoted to the Nazarene would not hesitate to observe the principle of the Mosaic Law: “You must stand before gray hair, and your must honor the presence of an elder. You must stand in awe of your God.” Leviticus 19:32 NCMM; Proverbs 16:31]
Agreement can be reached by following this principle: There are few people without an opinion. There are few of these who think that opinion wrong. But, it is not always necessary to express such an opinion when it may cause divisiveness. As James exhorts, “Be slow to speak.” [James 1:19 NCMM] No doubt he echoes Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor be hasty of heart to utter a word before God. For God is in the Heavens, and you are on earth. For this reason your words ought to be few." [NCMM]
If each Christian teacher -- and each Christian disciple - strive by the help of God, sincere believers in these times will be able to sing the Psalm: “Behold! How good - how delightful - for brothers to dwell together as one.” [Psalm 133:1 NCMM; Acts 4:32]
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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