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Dealing With Doctrinal Differences

by | Jun 15, 2023 | Covenant Membership, Edification, Studying Scripture

I have had many interactions recently with different believers both inside and outside our local body at LHBC concerning doctrinal issues, differences, and even division. While there are things that we must divide over doctrinally, I would like to discuss how we approach this as leadership at LHBC and encourage you to do the same whether you are in a position of leadership or a faithful member.

Doctrine is one of the most divisive things in the church, for good reason. What we believe Scripture teaches determines our understanding of God, ourselves, others, struggles of life, and so much more.

Yet sometimes if we are not careful our doctrinal stances can lead us into sinful behavior within the body of Christ. Today I want to look at when we should separate over doctrine and when we should pursue a different approach. In order to do that we need to understand the two general types of doctrine and how they affect the health of the Church.

Essential Doctrines

Essential Doctrines are those that separate us from false religions. These are core doctrines, generally concerning the integrity of the gospel message such as who God is, who Jesus is, our relationship to God, etc.

Everyone has an idea of what their essential doctrines are and not everyone agrees perfectly. Rather than just giving an arbitrary list, I think looking at the issues the Apostles were concerned with refuting will shed some light on this question.

“I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” ~ 2 Corinthians 11:1–4 (ESV)

“I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.” ~ 2 Corinthians 11:16–20 (ESV)

Here Paul is concerned with someone proclaiming another Jesus or a different spirit or a different gospel from what he had originally proclaimed.

Then in the same context verse 19 talks about how they treat those they seek to lead astray: like slaves, devouring, taking advantage, being fake, and abusive. These are signs that a teacher is false if they are doing things that bring hardship to others for their own benefit.

“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

” ~ Galatians 2:4–5 (ESV)

Here we see again Paul’s concern with both the actions and teaching of false teachers. They desire to bring us under their own authority as slaves to their ideas and they pervert the truth of the gospel.

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” ~ 2 Peter 2:1–3 (ESV)

Peter this time is noting the false doctrine being taught specifically denies Christ as our Lord and Master. He is concerned about the ‘way of truth’ being blasphemed. He also notes the focus on sensuality, abuse, and exploitation that comes with false teachers.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” ~ 1 John 4:1–3 (ESV)

John gives us another test for false teachers and once again it is in relation to who Jesus is. Anyone who adds to or takes away from who Christ is does not teach the same gospel and is not of the Spirit.

So, the primary focus of the Apostles in reference to false teaching was the gospel of Jesus Christ along with the protection of the saints from false, abusive leadership.

The things we must hold firmly and confidently are the things that pertain to the gospel. Those are the most important lines to draw and the most important to divide over. Any gospel that differs from the clear teaching of Scripture is wrong and cannot be tolerated in a Biblical church.

Scripture is very clear that false teachers are to be rebuked, corrected, and if necessary, removed from the church in order to protect the flock. This is one of the primary roles of Elders at LHBC as under-shepherds of Christ.

Non-Essential Doctrines

Non-essential doctrines are ones where true believers may differ because Scripture does not provide a clear and complete answer to every aspect of the discussion. There are many doctrines formed from Scripture on many topics where godly men, who study Scripture diligently, differ as to what the clear and complete teaching of Scripture is. Many of these are doctrines that have been debated in the church since very early in its history.

While some doctrinal stances may lead to a difference in aspects of worship (liturgy), the structure of leadership, practical applications, political involvement, and more; non-essential doctrines should not be a cause of animosity nor should they be a distinction that causes division in fellowship and partnership in the Gospel.

All understanding of doctrine is important and ultimately, there is only one doctrinal truth, which is Scripture. However, as we seek to understand it and apply it to our lives there are areas of doctrine that we may disagree with one another depending on our current understanding and God’s work in our lives through the Word.

These non-essential doctrines can cause conflict in the body if we are not careful to discuss them and seek to grow in our knowledge of Christ together in a Biblical manner.

While some of these differences may keep us from participating in specific activities with one another, the lack of participation should be approached with humility, grace, and a desire for unity wherever possible.

Dealing With Differences

While doctrine is extremely more important than issues of Christian liberty, I believe we can and should follow the same principles when dealing with non-essential issues within the local body here at LHBC. While there are several passages in Scripture that discuss Christian liberty, I want to focus on the passage in 1 Corinthians 8.

1 Corinthians 8:1–3
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (ESV)

 Love > Knowledge

Paul notes here that we all have ‘knowledge.’ I love that the ESV puts that in quotes as it helps communicate what Paul is saying. We all come to Scripture with some preconceived ideas and doctrines either based on what we have been taught by others or just by our own assumptions. We need to recognize this, not only when we study Scripture, but also when we interact with others. Our ‘knowledge’ may not be as perfect or accurate as we think it is.

But more than that, Paul calls out the fact that knowledge, if not handled correctly, leads to pride. Proverbs 13:10 says, “By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.” (ESV) This has the idea of presumptuousness, feeling like we have it all in hand and are therefore smarter or better than someone else who doesn’t have the same ‘knowledge’. That attitude causes strife and contention in the body of Christ.

Paul is less concerned with our knowledge in this passage than he is with our love for one another. After all, Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV) Just a few chapters later in chapter 13, Paul will give a whole discussion on the necessity and superiority of love, even over knowledge.

If our knowledge causes us to think or act in an unloving way, it doesn’t matter how right we are. We have failed to live with one another in the body of Christ as He designed.

So, in our pursuit of knowledge and correct doctrine, we need to ensure that we are pursuing it in a way that is loving and kind, especially with those who disagree with our conclusions.

Edification > Knowledge

Love is greater than knowledge because love seeks to build other people up, rather than tear them down. The goal of love is to help others become more like Christ, not make them clones of ourselves.

Paul says a few verses later in verse seven, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (ESV)

Again, this is referring to Christian liberty but I think the principle is applicable to these non-essential doctrines, not because they are unimportant, but because the unity of Christ’s church IS important.

Paul is noting that there are some who have a wrong understanding. He said earlier that we know this should not be an issue, but “not all possess this knowledge.” This is very true when it comes to these non-essential doctrines. Some of them can be obscure or difficult to understand or even at times, difficult to accept.

Paul is more concerned that we lovingly and patiently work with those who may not be where they need to be in doctrinal matters. Paul is not advocating a ‘live and let live’ style of brotherhood. Rather, there is a need for some to grow in their knowledge and understanding and we should not be stumbling blocks in the way. In love, we should seek to help build one another up in the knowledge of Christ.

After all, that’s one of the main purposes of the body of Christ found in Ephesians 4:11–16:

Ephesians 4:11–16

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (ESV)

If our knowledge causes us to be more isolated and feel superior to others, we have missed the point. If our knowledge causes us to push others away because we’re not willing to edify them in love, we have missed the point. God calls us to live with one another in love and patience growing together in our knowledge of and obedience to Christ.

Humility > Knowledge

Paul notes in our passage, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” What exactly is Paul saying here? Is he saying that we don’t really know what we’re talking about? Is he saying that we can’t understand doctrine?

I think there are two things Paul is communicating.

First, when we are prideful of what we know there is a good chance we don’t know as much as we think we do. In fact, we may overlook good instruction because we are unwilling to listen due to pride.

Pride creates self-deception as Galatians 6:3 tells us.

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (ESV)

There is another reality that I believe is in Paul’s mind when he wrote this phrase and that is the reality of the magnitude of the God we are seeking to know and understand.

Isaiah 55:8–9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (ESV)

In Romans 11:33, Paul says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (ESV)

We serve a God whose essence, thoughts, and actions are outside the realm of our ability to fully grasp. The only way we know Him is through the Word He has given us to reveal Himself to us. Even if we knew everything in Scripture our knowledge would be incomplete because God is too big and He has chosen to not reveal everything about Himself.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

~ 1 Corinthians 13:2 (ESV)

No matter where we currently land on certain non-essential doctrines, we must understand them, hold to them and teach them not with the desire to conform others to our understanding but with the desire to pursue unity, build one another up in the faith through love and understand that in light of the grandeur of God, we have much to learn ourselves and may not know as much as we think we do.

I hope that this is the desire of your heart as you interact with one another in the body of Christ and as you discuss these doctrinal differences. I pray that we as Elders are examples of this both in our teaching and in our one-on-one interactions. I look forward to many of those discussions in the days ahead.

May Christ be glorified not only in what we believe but in how we love one another and how we live and proclaim the gospel!