Why do believers, including Bible characters, have disagreements, when they all are supposedly indwelt by the same Holy Spirit? One would think that all of us would be in total accord.
A.Three factors enter into this fact of life. First are the disagreements themselves. These can be divided into two areas: over preferences and over absolute truth. Preferences can be defined as the things we may choose—except for the truths of Scripture, which we must embrace. We have differences in our likes and dislikes: favorite colors, favorite seasons, favorite foods, and so forth. In certain situations, these items can be a sore spot among believers. But far more crucial are the disagreements that believers sometimes have over absolute truth.
Second, we have the factor of mankind’s depravity. At conversion the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but the believer retains the sin nature (Romans 6:11–13; 1 John 1:8, 9), also referred to in Scripture as the “old man.” When we allow sin, it affects our thoughts, emotions, words, and deeds in a bad way (James 1:13–16). Disagreements can come when the old natures in people collide. This carnality is a main cause of disagreements (1 Corinthians 1:10–12; James 4). Added to the old nature is our finiteness: We often can’t or don’t see the whole picture (1 Corinthians 13:12); therefore disagreements come.
Third is God Himself and His attributes. Concerning individual preferences, He has made each of us unique. We can be glad for that, or this world would be boring and unproductive. Concerning absolute truth, God is Truth and there is only one correct interpretation of His Word, though various applications. Yet His people differ even in the way they arrive upon absolute truth.
Meanwhile, God is long-suffering and patient. Regardless of the issue, He does not force people to believe a certain way. He doesn’t even force us to believe. He doesn’t zap us just for disagreeing with fellow believers. He knows that all of us believers will have fullness of knowledge and be “straightened out” when we are with Him in Heaven. That, however, does not excuse us from studying and “rightly dividing the Word,” being as true to Scripture as possible. But it remains true that among God’s people there are many differences theologically—major and minor. God holds believers responsible to be as true to His Word as they can be. When we do this, other believers may differ with us because they might not possess the same convictions, due to varying backgrounds, varying exposure to Bible teachings, and so on.
A prime example of differences in Scripture between believers is Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36–41. These two companions in ministry experienced a disagreement so strong that they found it necessary to go their separate ways. Who was right and who was wrong? I like A. T. Robertson’s answer to that question: “One’s judgment may go with Paul, but one’s heart goes with Barnabas.” Actually, Paul seems to have had a change of heart on the issue of their disagreement—John Mark, Barnabas’s relative, whom Barnabas wanted along on the missionary journey. Paul vigorously opposed the idea, but later he had good words for John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11).
Disagreement can be beneficial. Note that the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas actually worked out for the spread of the gospel. We can cite other instances of resultant good from differences down through time and into the present day. For example, as the Holy Spirit enlightened believers about certain doctrines, especially around the Reformation period and later, those believers found it necessary to separate from others; but as they stood for the truth, they gained even more insight into it.
A major weakness of today’s ecumenism is the move toward man-made union, and sound doctrine gets lost in the process. Doctrine at times must divide, and rightly so for the purity of the gospel. If we are faithful to the Word and then believers disagree with us, so be it. We will all account to the Lord someday for ourselves, for our actions, and for our beliefs.
Disagreements can also benefit us when we examine them. We can often learn a lot about ourselves and our level of maturity in the Word through disagreements.
We also need to heed such admonitions as Ephesians 4:3 and Romans 12:10, 16, and 18, which tell us that as true believers we are on the road to unity in the faith (we haven’t arrived), and that we should agree as much as possible and live peaceably with one another.