Learning to Handle Theological Differences

I used to have a “checklist Christianity” mentality. If I do these things and I affirm these doctrinal statements, I’m a good Christian and that means, of course, that I’m a mature believer as well. Right along with that went the belief that all other faithful Christians believed exactly as I did and checked the same things off of their lists (otherwise, heresy!). Since then I have learned that a checklist isn’t a sign of a mature faith or spiritual growth and that many believers I respect have different viewpoints.

There are so many interpretations on every single topic or idea in the Bible, each held by people who think they are being faithful to Jesus and the Bible. If I am going to be involved in the church, and I’m supposed to be, I am going to be interacting with people who believe differently than I do. My reaction is to run away and gather with people who think just like me. I think that’s the reaction of most people because that is most comfortable. We get social validation from people agreeing with us; it makes us feel confident that we are right.

That’s not the answer. We are all members of one body. If I’m a believer and you are a believer, we belong to the same body of Christ even if we don’t agree on every single nuance of the faith. That person I disagree with is my sister or brother in Christ and how I behave toward other believers matters. Here’s just a tiny handful of passages that discuss this: Romans 12:10, Romans 13:8-10, Romans 14:19, Romans 15:7. (Is there a time to divide from people teaching heresy? Absolutely. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

I have to work on graciously disagreeing. These differences can mean I get defensive when people don’t agree with me. It can mean that I feel threatened or hurt. It can mean that I fall to name-calling or eye-rolling or feeling spiritually superior. It can mean that I lose all desire to act like Jesus and instead want to just be right. I’d like to have conversations instead.

Often the problem is that we have the same vocabulary but a different dictionary. (Thanks to Dr. Flowers for the “different dictionary” imagery.) I have to stop making assumptions and have conversations. I have to accept that people who want to have these discussions probably have a nuanced viewpoint that might not line up with a specific theological camp. Humans, and theology, don’t fit inside neat boxes.

I want to learn to listen without being defensive. I want to ask questions. I want to know what other people believe and why they believe it and how they reconcile the problems I see with their position. I want to be able to articulate their worldview in a way that represents what they truly believe. If I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it, and can’t speak to it.

One thing that has really helped me with this is knowing that I don’t have to convince anyone. I’m not the Holy Spirit. I don’t have to change anyone’s mind or persuade anyone. That is simply not my job and I can calmly disagree so much better when I remember that. I continuously have to release myself of that responsibility.

This also means I don’t have to agree with anyone. I don’t have to conform to another viewpoint any more than I have to convince them of mine. I don’t even have to agree by silence. I can say, in a conversation with someone I love and respect, “have you considered this angle?” I can stand firm on what I believe the Bible says and we can still like each other. We can serve beside each other. We can love each other.

My job is to present the truth as well as I can, as comprehensively as I can, as faithfully as I can. I want to be able to go from the nitty-gritty of specific verses to overall Bible themes to consistent Biblical application to the practical outworking of that specific theology. What’s the fruit? Not just the fruit in one person’s life or in one demographic or geographical location. What’s the fruit for believers everywhere?

I want to represent Jesus well, to unbelievers, to believers who differ from me on theological viewpoints, to people who hold my same positions. That’s my goal.

How graciously I can do that is a really good measuring stick of where my heart is.

2 Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    This is such a convicting, comforting and encouraging article! Thank you so much for writing it.

    I’m a young adult who is really only just starting to branch out on my own walk of faith and i’ve been having some pretty frequent disagreements with my mom now that I’m really starting to own what I believe instead of just passively adopting hers (she is also a Christian). It was pretty rough going at first – it’s a hard shift for both of us to start disagreeing when we used to agree on almost everything. I started to notice I was pulling away, because it was uncomfortable and like you said, I didn’t particularly like feeling like my views were invalid (even if I had support for them). I also felt like ‘we must not love each other as much because we don’t agree on everything anymore’. Slowly though, I started to notice that 1.) if we could disagree respectfully and really try to understand each other’s view points things went much better and 2.) the Holy Spirit was doing the real work. There are things I expressed months ago that she completely rejected, that she now sees the credence of and is even teaching me more about. That was NOT me, but us disagreeing led her closer to the truth. It was uncomfortable at the time, but worth it. 3.) I can listen to her opinion, but if I really believe something is true and have biblical evidence to support it, then I don’t NEED her validation. It’s hard to acknowledge when you have a great, godly parent who is so much stronger of a Christian than you, but she CAN be wrong about things. I had to accept that.

    Yesterday we had another disagreement, and I forgot all I had learned, but this reminded me and encouraged me further! So thank you again. I truly believe this was a gift from the Holy Spirit. Keep writing!

    • Yes! I understand so much of that! So glad we can keep working at these same things. I processed something like this (again) myself just today. Thank you!

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