Several years ago I was involved in a crisis in a local church. The church leaders believed that the church had outlived its usefulness. It had become isolated by a light rail project and attendance had been in decline for many years. The leaders recommended that the church dissolve itself, sell the property, and use the proceeds of the sale to continue the support of its missionaries. This recommendation was voted down by the membership. The leaders, having no further agenda, resigned their positions and left the church. The membership elected new leaders and continued the work. Today the church is reaching a multi-ethnic community and has a vital ministry.
In thinking back to that situation, I have sometimes wondered if someone was “wrong.” Were the leaders wrong in making their recommendation? Were the people wrong to continue the church work? I have come to the conclusion that neither party was wrong. No one was sinful or out of touch with God. No one made a mistake. This is just an example where two groups had a legitimate difference of opinion.
Paul and Barnabas had a legitimate difference of opinion over whether or not to include John Mark on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-41). Paul considered Mark unreliable since he had deserted the team on the first journey. Barnabas wanted to give the young man another chance. The result of the disagreement was that Paul and Barnabas concluded that they couldn’t work together. Paul chose Silas and headed for Asia. Barnabas took Mark and they sailed for Cyprus. Who was wrong? No one! They simply had a major difference of opinion.
Sometimes discussion and debate can help resolve issues between believers. An example of this is found in Acts 15 where there was disagreement among believers in the Jerusalem church as to whether circumcision was necessary for new believers. The account tells us that there was “much debate” (15:2, 7). Through this process of challenging each other’s opinions and examining them by the light of Scripture, the issue was resolved. The “whole church” became united in their opinion that circumcision would not be required of new Gentile believers. A letter was then sent from the leaders in Jerusalem to other churches announcing this decision.
Throughout the history of the church, debate has been used as a means of challenging opinions and resolving issues. Most of the great creeds of the Christian faith were hammered out in the context of debate among believers over vital issues. Debate was the process that God used to separate truth from error and to uphold Christian orthodoxy. The Bible provides some guidelines of how Christians can debate in a godly manner.
- Be prepared to defend your viewpoint (1 Pet. 3:15). Every believer should be prepared to give a defense of their faith. And beyond our faith, we should be prepared to defend our strong convictions. Think through the issues. Seek the truth. Be ready to answer your opponent.
- Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Christians must speak the truth, but not without love. In our attempts to refute and correct, we must always demonstrate Christian love and common courtesy toward those with whom we disagree.
- Guard your words (Eph. 4:29). It is easy, for the sake of argument, to overstate your case. Make sure that your words are good, wholesome, and edifying.
- Don’t slander your opponent (Eph. 4:31). Sometimes when we cannot refute the arguments of our opponent we attack his or her character. We belittle the person. We resort to slander. This kind of response will never win our case or honor the Lord.
- Accept one another (Rom. 14:3-5). It is legitimate for Christians to have different opinions. Paul encourages believers who differ to accept each other (Rom. 15:7) just as God has accepted them both.
In his introductory chapter in a book on the much debated Dead Sea Scrolls, William LaSor, Professor of Old Testament, declared, “We have nothing to fear from the truth; only ignorance can hurt us.” Then he added, “New truths always challenge old opinions. But new truths never destroy old truths; they merely separate truth from falsehood” (The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, p. 27).
Christians should always be willing to set aside old opinions and embrace the truth. Debate is the process through which truth can be separated from falsehood. Debate is a good thing which Christians may use in a godly way to refine opinions and discover biblical truth.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).