Living with disagreement — in faith

It’s been a few weeks since my last post (Disagreement happens – get used to it!) I promised to devote some space this time to the issue of how Christians with deeply differing convictions can get along.

For guidance on this issue, I’d like to look at what was going on in the early Christian church, and particularly the congregations which the apostle Paul worked with.

Contrary to the popular myth that the early Church was a golden age, where everyone agreed with everyone else, the first Christians were at least as divided as Quakers are today. One of the biggest areas of ongoing disagreement was whether, in order to be a Christian, you also had to be a Jew – and whether you had to follow all of the rules laid down in the Jewish scriptures.

The churches Paul worked with included both.  Jewish Christians and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. There appears to have been major conflict extending over at least a couple of generations, about whether Christians had to observe all of the complicated rules for keeping the sabbath; whether non-Jewish male converts to Christianity had to be circumcised; whether a Christian believer could remain married to a non-Christian spouse; and especially, whether Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could even eat and worship together.

These questions were not trivial. For Jewish Christians, these issues called into question their faith in God, who they believed had given them these rules to last for eternity. Obedience was an act of faith. For Gentile Christians, these issues raised the question of whether they would ever be fully accepted into the fellowship. The church was headed for deadlock and division.

The problem was even more difficult in large towns where Gentiles were in the majority and where pagan religion was the norm. Idols – carved or painted images of pagan gods – were on every street corner, at every fountain and in almost every home. Many pagan rituals and public festivals involved promiscuous sex. Most of the meat for sale in the public markets, for example, had previously been sacrificed in a pagan temple. Part of it was eaten there by the person making the sacrifice, and part was given to the priests who sold it in the market.

At big church conference recorded in Acts chapter 15, they tried to work these problems out. The decision was announced by James, the brother of the Lord:

“We should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.” (Acts 15:19-21)

In other words, Gentile Christians were not required to observe the Jewish law in every detail. As a compromise to keep the fellowship together, though, Gentile Christians were asked to avoid actions which would scandalize their Jewish fellow Christians.

The compromise seems to have worked pretty well, and it became one of the central features of Paul’s teaching and ministry. Gentiles could become Christians, without being observant Jews. Jews could be Christians and continue to live joyfully according to the laws which they believed God had given them to follow. As Paul writes,

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while othrs judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” (Romans 14:1-6)

Paul goes on to say,

“Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Acts 15:19-23)

Many Friends today are in a similar deadlock over the issue of whether to accept gay and lesbian people into fellowship and membership. Some Friends believe, passionately and as a matter of deep faith and conviction, that gays and lesbians are sinners and should not be accepted. Other Friends believe, with equal passion and faith, that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and should be welcomed.

We marshal arguments and quote Bible passages at each other. We call each other names. We
call each others’ behavior sinful – violating Paul’s commandment, “Do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Romans 15:16). We are on the verge again of casting each other out – in spite of Quakers’ long experience that division is disaster.

Like the early Christian church, we need to find a way to get along, acknowledging our differences and maintaining our faith and freedom without condemning each other. Rather than fighting a battle to convince each other that homosexuality is sinful (or not) – a battle which neither side can win – we need to live as faithfully as we can, and let our divisive spirit be confronted by the Spirit of Christ, who calls us to a unity which is deeper than this disagreement.

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1 Response to “Living with disagreement — in faith”


  1. 1 Maureen September 9, 2012 at 7:31 am

    Unfamiliar as I am with disagreements in the early Church, this posting offers a very helpful perspective. My heart is sore over the harsh words exchanged among Friends. James and Paul’s guidance ring true today. I have experienced the struggle through several Sessions of New England Yearly Meeting. How can Friends hope to spread a message of peace and reconciliation in the wider world if we cannot do the hard work within our own community?


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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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