In recent months, articles, discussions, blogs, tweets and sermons – and more – have left me somewhat troubled. Why is that Christians often come to such polar opposite views on issues?
For example, with the issue of homosexuality, one person who goes away, studies the Bible and ‘prayerfully’ considers their approach to the issue, and concludes that the act of homosexuality is not a sin; while another person does exactly the same thing and comes to the opposite conclusion. The same could be said for a whole number of issues, from women in leadership to the infallibility of scripture to whether or not a church should plant a new church in the locality.
If it is true that people are diligently and ‘prayerfully’ seeking God, yet reach different convictions, what exactly is happening? If praying is talking to God and listening to Him, then why are there two – or more – different conclusions? Did God tell the truth to one and a fib to another?
Call me naive, but if we are seeking the same God and sincerely seeking what is right, surely we should be reaching the same conclusions? Yet we often don’t and it causes untold problems: churches split, relationships break down and people leave one congregation to go to another church where their beliefs align, all while the world looks on perplexed, if not disinterested.
Maybe terms like ‘prayerfully’ are the problem, for me at least. It may legitimately describe the approach, but it must not suck us into thinking it always authenticates a decision, like a rubber-stamp approval from heaven. Sometimes there is more going on. In grappling with these questions, I have made five observations that are not exhaustive nor applicable to every matter of deliberation. I hope they help. Do feel free to add to them – anything further would certainly help me.
First, dialogue is good. On our own, we cannot know everything, nor be expected to come to the right conclusion on every issue we consider, even when we seek to do so ‘prayerfully’. We are each a conglomerate of different experiences, perspectives, passions and learnings, not to mention imperfect and always still growing. Whether we realise it or not, these impact our thought-processes and the subsequent conclusions we reach. We need to listen to others well, not with bias or judgement, but with respect and openness. I like how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 2:16: “But we have the mind of Christ.”
Second, it is comforting to know that we are in good company. In Acts 15, Paul suggested to Barnabas returning to the towns they had preached at, to see how they were doing. Barnabas wanted Mark to join them, but Paul refused because Mark had previously deserted them in Pamphylia. Following this “sharp disagreement”, they went their separate ways. We don’t know who was right, but maybe that is the point: perhaps there was no ‘right’ answer, maybe there was, but either way what is clear is that God in His grace and wisdom used the issue for good to cover ground not possible had the two remained together.
Third, Paul acknowledges in Romans 14 that our consciences will differ on certain issues where there is no clear guidance from scripture. Referring to the eating of certain foods and the observance of sacred days, Paul urges the Church in Rome to show respect to one another and not let such matters detract from the important work of serving God. Since many converts were still coming to terms with how their new faith corresponded with what they grew up believing, they did not feel comfortable in sharing in some of the freedoms of their more mature companions. We need to caution against majoring in minors, that we fail to remain steadfast in love and following the work God has given us to do.
Fourth, scripture makes it clear that we can easily fall into deception. By its very nature, deception gives the appearance of being good and right, when it is in fact not. Rallying against false prophets and deceitful workmen, Paul says: “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-14). None of us is free from being perpetrator or victim. We need to walk the journey of faith well-equipped: part of a good church that is faithful to scripture; surrounded by good friends; steadfast in prayer and Bible study. At all times, we should remain mindful of our own susceptibility to fall and be wary of simply accepting everything we read and hear.
And fifth, as Paul cautions in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For we know in part…Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” We know enough to know the inestimable treasure and goodness of Christ and our need for the grace only He can give, but there is much besides that has been left unsaid. There are some issues in which we need to allow greater room for mystery and the humility to say: “I don’t know.” It is not a sign of weakness or blind trust, but testament to the confidence we have in Jesus and our determination to remain true to the calling he has given us.