by Michael Fischer

Who's right? How can two sincere, committed Christians read the same Bible and come up with opposite understandings of what God has told us? It happens all the time. It's happened in our own little church not too long ago - a group of very sincere, very committed born-again believers wanted to alter our doctrine to match what they chose to believe, and when our pastor stood firm on God's word, they left. You've probably seen similar things in your own Christian walk. How do we handle those differences? Specifically, which differences aren't worth an argument, which ones are worth fighting for, and which ones require a Christian to go so far as to separate himself?

I have arbitrarily divided these differences of belief into four categories. That's all the dividing I want to do. You are free to disagree with me on any point, except the Scriptural ones. I don't necessarily want to convert anyone to my own way of thinking - in fact, I'm not even going to mention my own views on divisive issues. What I do want is to help you clarify your own thoughts on this subject, and to provoke some thought on issues that you may be taking for granted.

I want to make it very clear that I'm not talking about doctrinal differences between a Christian and a non-believer. If we tried to catalog all the screwy ideas that non-Christians have about Christian doctrine, there wouldn't be enough room in the world for all the books that could be written. Paul told us in I Corinthians 5 that if you break fellowship with everyone who sins, you'd have to leave this world. He said our concern should be errors among Christians, and that's my concern and the theme of this message. We ought to be in agreement with all our brothers and sisters, so that we could present a united front to the world. But we cannot tolerate falsehood for the sake of unity, because God hates falsehood and because that isn't even unity. So how do we handle those differences?

Before we go through my four categories, there are a few concepts we have to be clear on. First, we all know what it means to separate ourselves from someone else. My point here is that there are two kinds of separation mentioned in the New Testament. The first is a formal separation from a person decreed by a local church. This is what we call church discipline. All persons in that church are to break off fellowship with such a one. Paul describes it in I Corinthians chapter 5, and we all know about it; if you don't, read I Corinthians 5. Except for the pastor and his immediate advisors, that kind of separation isn't for us to decide, so I won't spend much time on it.

But there is also a personal separation that each believer must weigh in certain situations. We see that in Matthew 18, verses 15 to 17. This is the passage that shows us the steps to use in church discipline, but if you read it, you see that it is actually addressed to an individual dealing with another individual. Not every problem that occurs in a believer's life is subject to church discipline. The other person may belong to another church, or to no church at all, which means church discipline is not an option. Or the issue may not be severe enough to warrant church discipline. What I want to address tonight are the times in every believer's life where he has to say, "Fellowship with that person is bad for me, and it needs to stop until that person changes." That person might be a saved co-worker, or a neighbor, or some similar contact. You, as a Spirit-led Christian, must do something about the error you're confronted with. That's the personal separation I'm talking about, which is the main issue in this message.

What is the purpose of separating ourselves, personally or corporately? Why do we do this? There are four Biblical reasons, and they all have to come into play, or else we're doing it wrong.

  1. To bring the sinning brother to repentance.
    II Thessalonians 3:14-15: If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
    This is the highest purpose of church discipline, and of any kind of separation. If it were just a question of keeping the church's doctrine pure, God already had a method for that in the Old Testament. It was called stoning. Stoning removed false doctrine from God's people. The trouble with stoning is that it is such a permanent solution. Someone who has been stoned has a hard time repenting in most cases. But that is the goal of the Gospel - that all men should come to repentance (II Peter 3:9). And that is why we don't stone errant believers anymore. Now, we just gossip about them. No, stop, back up, strike that. Now, we use separation as a means of letting the errant brother know how wrong he is, and how serious the situation is. It hurts when your friends from church won't have anything to do with you. That's God's final shot across your bow, warning you to turn; what comes after that is chastisement from God.

  2. To keep God's church pure.
    I Corinthians 5:6: Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?
    That passage was addressed to a church that saw no problem with a man marrying his stepmother. Paul was saying, "If this error is not dealt with, pretty soon it won't be just one Christian who is compromising on God's standards for morality." If someone is allowed to spread falsehood in the church, eventually they'll find people who will listen and believe it. Also, that kind of person is usually quite loud and persistent in spreading their falsehood. Even if the erring brother doesn't deliberately propagate his error, if the church leadership does nothing about it, it will look like they approve. And so the false belief will spread. And once that happens, the church's reputation is corrupted. Outsiders say, "I heard that that church believes such-and-so - can you believe it?" Jesus died for the church. He does not wish to see His bride corrupted. So if the source of that corruption will not turn, he is to be removed before he can do any more harm. It might sound harsh, but it's really a sign of God's great love for His church.

  3. To keep ourselves pure.
    II Corinthians 11:2-3: I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
    If you hear the same lie over and over again, you may begin to believe it, or at least to question the truth. That's human nature, I'm afraid. So, as a safeguard for our own faith, God requires us to beware of those who would entice us away from the truth. Suppose I came to you with a plate of some tasty dessert, and said, "Here! It's full of botulism. Have a bite!" Any takers? Then why would you knowingly associate with someone whose heart's desire is to make you believe a lie? Botulism of the soul is what they're spreading. And God hates it. So He wants us to avoid the source of the poison.

  4. To protect other believers.
    Romans 16:17-18: I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. 18 For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.
    Those "naive people" are probably new believers. Young Christians. Saints of God who don't yet have an understanding of Scripture so they'd know an error when they see it. In particular, it might be the children. Jesus had something to say about those who lead children astray: It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:2) Does that give you a sense of how God longs to protect His little ones? This is another reason why Christians are not to hang around with those who believe and teach falsehood.
In addition to the issue of separation, there's also the issue of confrontation. We're supposed to confront error with the Word of God. But how does that work? Do we whack the erring believer upside the head with a Schofield? Do we tie him to a chair and recite Scriptures at him until he repents? What's the Biblical way to refute an error? Scripture makes this one crystal clear -
II Timothy 2:24-26: And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
Three key points in this passage that will tell you everything you need to know about confrontation:
  1. You must not quarrel; you must not strive. A Biblical confrontation is not an argument, or a shouting match, or an occasion for playing "dueling Scriptures." If the other person wants a quarrel, don't give it to him. If he wants to get heated up, step back so he doesn't ignite you as well. If you're raising your voice, it's time to take a break.
  2. You must do it gently. That means lovingly, not in anger. You're not to jam the Word down his throat. You're not to lay a guilt trip on him. And you're not to take a position of superiority over the other person. You're to make it very clear that your main motive, as I said before, is the other person's repentance.
  3. (This one is the most important.) It is God who will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, not you. You will not change the other person's mind. As my first pastor was fond of saying, "Anything I can talk you into, somebody else can talk you out of." All you're doing is presenting the truth to the one who's in error. You show it clearly and plainly, and then, aside from praying for the person, your work is done. This isn't the place for your own persuasiveness and clever arguments. You're to be a conduit for God's Word, so the Spirit can use that Word on the heart of the one in error. A conduit is something that carries or delivers something else, adding nothing and taking nothing away. God does all the work. If He doesn't work fast enough for you, don't take matters into your own hands, unless those hands are folded in prayer.
Okay, having gone through the reasons why we might have to separate ourselves from another believer, I hope you're wondering, "When are we supposed to do this, and when aren't we? Do we cut ourselves off from anyone who believes anything untrue? Where do I draw the line?"

The answer is, "It depends." Specifically, it depends on the severity of the error. As I said earlier, I've divided those errors into four arbitrary categories, and it's time to look at each of them.

I. Denial of the gospel of salvation

Galatians 1:8-9: But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
This first category of difference is the most serious because:
  1. Salvation is the single most important issue anyone will ever face.
  2. The Bible is so explicit about how we must be saved that there is no excuse for error.
  3. If we are wrong about salvation, nothing else we say or do will matter at all.
The most common forms of this difference are: I know from Scripture that we must refute this kind of error whenever we are aware of it. What you have to see here is that, if the person will not believe what the Bible says about salvation, then the issue of handling Christian differences doesn't apply. We can't have Christian fellowship with that person, because that person is not a Christian. That person is an unbeliever who has been led astray by Satan and who needs to hear the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel, and believe it.

But there are people you will meet who have put their trust in Jesus alone, and have later embraced one of those heresies, either because someone got to them while they were young Christians and messed them up, or because they carried some of their old religion into their new faith because they were never discipled properly. With these people, you do all you can to show them, from the Bible, where they are wrong. And if they refuse to heed God's Word, then we may have to put some distance between that person and ourselves. They have got to realize how serious their error is.

That verse in Galatians is not a milquetoast passage. As Harold Crowell has pointed out, that "let him be eternally condemned" is a very strong Greek term that literally means, "let him go to hell." Those are not light words, because this is not a light error. Nothing else in all Christian doctrine is as important as right doctrine about salvation.

And, as an aside, if someone puts some other doctrine on the same level as salvation, that means they do not understand how important salvation is. I once visited a church (I never went back) that spoke of "salvation, healing, and deliverance" as being of equal importance. That's just plain wrong. When you put anything, anything at all, on the same plane as the price Jesus paid on the cross for us, then you're cheapening the cross. This is something else that we must point out any time we encounter it.

II. Other Clear Biblical doctrines

Titus 3:10: Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.
The Bible contains many clear doctrines about matters that God wants us to know about. Things like what baptism means, or the role of the church in society, or whether a woman can be a pastor. These are matters that can be resolved by a basic study of the Bible; there's no room for interpretation, because the passages are so explicit. But not everyone has done even that basic study, and so you get disagreements on matters like these. How heated should these disputes become?

If the Bible is clear on a subject, then that subject is worth fighting for. If a Christian tells you something, and the Bible says he's wrong, then you are required to show him, from Scripture, what the truth is. If he won't hear it, then what? That depends on the person's attitude. If the person is trying to spread their falsehood after being warned, then that person is being divisive. Titus 3 tells us that it is right to sever fellowship with someone under those conditions.

Another condition for breaking off contact with a believer, as I said earlier, is if that contact is harming your own walk with the Lord. If that person is messing up your doctrine and making you question the clear teaching of the Bible, then that person is a good person to not hang around with.

But remember that if you cut off fellowship with someone, you've lost your chance to talk to him about the issue any more. You've taken away what may be that person's only chance to be confronted with the truth and make it right. So before you take that drastic step, you'd better put a lot of agonizing prayer into it, and get some wise counsel. Because Jesus will certainly call you to account for it at His judgment seat if you're wrong. Dividing His body is sometimes necessary to stop the spread of falsehood, but it is something He does not take lightly.

III. Disputable matters

2 Peter 3:15-18: Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
This kind of difference includes the cases where one Bible passage seems to teach one thing, and another Bible passage seems to teach the opposite. There will be sincere Christians taking very strong positions on both sides of issues like: Notice that these are not salvation issues. No one is going to Heaven or Hell based on whether they have a glass of wine with supper or not. Most churches, including ours, spell out their positions on these issues in their doctrinal statements - they aren't less important than the previous kind of issues, they just aren't as clearly defined in Scripture. We know that the Bible can't contradict itself, and so any disagreement of this kind has to be a misunderstanding of Scripture on somebody's part. This kind of disagreement can be settled by a careful, in-depth study of the Bible. Sometimes this is just a matter of comparing one verse with another, and sometimes it requires an understanding of the original Greek and Hebrew. Most people don't have such an understanding, some don't seek counsel from those who do, and thus the problems arise.

Personally, I am reluctant to divide the church over issues like these, because it's so easy to be wrong on a lot of them. Ideally, they should be settled in a new believers' discipleship class, or by going over your church's doctrinal statement with the pastor. As with the previous doctrinal errors, we need to confront these errors, lovingly and Scripturally, keeping in mind that they are not part of the Gospel of salvation. We may debate issues like these with Christians of differing beliefs, and we may get a little heated up in the discussion. But these are not the most important issues we face. The person on the other side of the issue may feel differently. Let him. If he's determined to push the issue, you may have to back away, but do it in love. An error in the clear-cut doctrines is usually a matter of willful ignorance - they don't know because they don't want to know. But an error in these "debatable" doctrines is quite often an honest mistake, and someone who holds a bad position here can often be turned around just by proper use of the Scriptures. Going to war in a case like that is a very bad move.

IV. Extra-Biblical issues

Romans 14:1-3,5: Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 5 Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
This fourth category of difference includes the problem areas that the Bible does not address. These are the areas that are sometimes called convictions, and we all need to form them and live by them. But some believe in their convictions so strongly that they turn them into doctrines and try to apply them to all believers. They may quote Scripture to support their position, but such quotations are usually misapplied, taken out of context, or taken beyond what God meant. And these issues, which are the hardest to defend Scripturally, often lead to the most heated arguments in our churches. Common examples include: One way to determine if a difference of belief falls into this category is to find out if the issue has been debated through the ages. Any issue that's new is probably extra-Biblical, because the Bible hasn't changed. And if our Christian forefathers didn't think something was worth a fight, that should give you a big clue as to how unimportant it is.

Personally, I view this kind of difference as Satan's attack on the church. If he can get us to fight each other over things that aren't even in the Bible, then he has taken our attention away from the things God commanded us to do. We are commanded "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:2) We are commanded to not do what the Israelites were doing in Isaiah 29:13, and what the Pharisees were doing when Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 at them: "Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men."

We are not commanded to go out looking for ways to disagree with other Christians. We have enough commands as it is. God has given us a few things to do in this life, such as:

With all these things and more that God has commanded us to do, you'd think we had enough to keep us busy, without us men inspecting each other to see if our hair is too long!

I am deeply grieved whenever two believers part ways over one of these issues. I believe that Jesus is also grieved every time we invent a new way to divide His church. I have my own views on most of these subjects, but my views on them are of no relevance to anyone else, and I will not get into a heated debate over them. I don't have the time. God has too many important things for me to do.

Okay, now for the obvious question: how do you handle the specific situation you're facing, whatever that may be? That, my friends, I cannot tell you. That is for each of you to settle with God. But I can give you some practical guidelines. I have three do's and a don't:

So there it is. Mike's guidelines for handling doctrinal disagreements. I believe they are also God's guidelines. If you can show me where I'm wrong, please do, and I'll preach a revised message next time. But in the meantime, please consider these things. Settle them in your minds before the next heated discussion gets started. It's sad that we have deal with this stuff, but since we must deal with it, let us do it right. Let's do it God's way.

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