Disagreements Among the Disciples
The Bible stresses unity. Jesus prayed that all who believe might be one (John 17:20-21). Paul exhorted the Corinthians “that you all agree and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Despite these encouragements to harmony, disagreements frequently occur. How shall we react? Perhaps a study of some New Testament cases of disagreements among the disciples will help.
The disciples differed about circumcision. This was likely the first doctrinal dispute in the church. The question of whether Gentiles (the “uncircumcised”) could be included among God’s people was settled by the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10). But on what basis? Some brethren contended that circumcision and keeping at least parts of the Law of Moses were essential to salvation.
How was the issue settled? Acts 15 says the apostles, the entire Jerusalem church and its elders, and the proponents of circumcision all met to discuss the issue. (Jerusalem is where the advocates of circumcision were from). After much debate, Peter related his experience at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10). God made no such requirement then, therefore Peter could only infer that for the disciples to do so now would be wrong. Paul and Barnabas followed, relating signs and wonders that God had done through them while they preached among the Gentiles—and they had not required circumcision. Finally, James spoke, quoting direct statements of Scripture, reminding his audience that the prophets had foretold the days when the Gentiles would be named among God’s people. He concluded, “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19).
How shall we settle doctrinal differences? Certainly not through conventions or councils. Some appeal to Acts 15 as the basis for such. But this meeting was not composed of delegates, nor does the Bible even hint that any kind of voting took place. The decision was made by inspiration, not election. Notice that no new revelation was needed to settle the question of circumcision. The decision was made on information already available.
Whatever doctrinal differences exist among us will only be settled when we go to the inspired word of God and accept what is written. We must have “book, chapter, and verse” for all that we practice and teach.
Not long after the meeting in Acts 15, Paul suggested to Barnabas that they return and visit the brethren in the cities where they had preached on their first tour. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along with them, but Paul refused because John Mark had earlier deserted them.
“And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39). No point of doctrine was involved here; it was a matter of judgment regarding how best to do the Lord’s work.
Many such judgmental matters arise within a congregation: which preacher(s) to support, what means of teaching to employ, how best to divide and schedule Bible classes, what order to follow in the public assemblies, etc. Unfortunately, brethren often disagree on these things. Even the overseers may not always see eye-to-eye. How shall we settle these disagreements? Here are a few suggestions.
Always begin with any Biblical principles involved (e.g., God’s view of the qualifications and work of the preacher, the orderliness He expects in our assemblies, etc.). Then, focus on the overall purpose or goal we are trying to accomplish. Consideration should also be given to what suits our particular situation: what we can afford, what skills we have to utilize, what special needs we may have. The fact that a thing works well at one place does not guarantee its success at another. Listen carefully to the voice of experience. And by all means, “Let the peace of Christ rule [act as arbiter] in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15). Finally, we need to learn not to pout or rebel if we do not get our way.
“And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest” (Luke 9:46). The disciples’ disagreement was not over a doctrinal question, nor did it involve matters of judgment about the Lord’s work. It was simply a personal dispute as to which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom. As is often the case in such disputes, all were in the wrong. Jesus pointed out that unless they were converted and became as little children, they would not even enter the kingdom, much less become great in it.
According to Matthew’s account, Jesus went on to explain how His disciples are to settle personal disputes (Matthew 18:15-17). The first step is for the offended party to privately seek reconciliation. That rules out bitterly holding a grudge and waiting for the other fellow to make the first move, as well as slandering him at every opportunity. Elsewhere, Jesus taught the one who had wronged his brother to seek reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24). If these efforts fail, one or two witnesses should be called in. If that fails, it is to be told to the church. If the one in the wrong still refuses to listen, he is to be withdrawn from.
Paul dealt with the same problem in 1 Corinthians 6. He suggested selecting a wise brother who would be able to decide the case. In any case it would be better to suffer the wrong and be defrauded than to submit the matter to unbelievers for judgment.
May God help us to minimize our differences. When they do occur, let us resolve to go about settling them as God would have us do.