This article is by guest author Rick Kenyon
“What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?” (Jas. 4:1 NASB). “Do not speak against one another brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (Jas. 4:11-12). “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:11). “Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Rom. 14:13). “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to the Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).
An unfortunate threat facing God’s church is internal division. On one hand, this should not come as a surprise since internal divisions have existed since the early church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-17). On the other hand, this should be quite alarming since the church still suffers from the exact same issues nearly two-thousand years later! Even though humanity has advanced in technology and communication, we have not advanced in our ability to resolve conflicts and remain united—and that goes for Christians as well. Let us consider a few observations about the threat/reality of internal division in the Lord’s church and how we can protect ourselves from it.
To start, let us establish a mutual definition for internal division. Internal division is not simply a physical departure of an individual or family/families—that departure is the fruit of internal division. Internal division begins—believe it or not—internally, within individuals. The threat in today’s churches occurs when a brother or sister ceases to view his or her spiritual sibling as a decent, respectable soul for whom Christ died. Too often, the seeds of internal division go unnoticed or ignored because of ignorance, apathy, and/or fear of the Scripture’s guidance to communicate their issues and resolve conflict (cf. Mt. 5:21-26; 18:7-20).
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Conflict occurs whenever a person’s own ideas/interests are judged incompatible with the interests/ideas of another. Handled poorly, these disagreements breed anger, bitterness, pain, and division. Handled properly, these conflicts deepen relationships and strengthen unity through cathartic reconciliation.
While there are cases of “necessary” conflict/division (cf. 1 Cor. 11:19), most divisions in the church today have nothing to do with God’s Word, but with men’s opinions. Typically, these common quibbles are termed “personality conflicts,” but it is nothing more than arrogant and stubborn pride from one or both parties. What can Christians do to protect themselves from this threat?
A Solution to the Problem
The ideal solution to internal division should be to stop it before it happens. Conflict resolution is good, but conflict prevention is better. Our plan for conflict prevention is found in Romans 14. The contextual thought process of Romans 14 begins in chapter 12 with Paul’s admonition to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice.” It is demonstrated by our loving attitudes (Rom. 12); our submission to authority (Rom. 13); and our submission to the weaker brother (Rom. 14-15). To fully grasp Romans 14, there are four keys to unlocking conflict prevention regarding differences of opinion.
1. Romans 14 addresses the expediencies of living by faith
Because there is great freedom in Christ, Christians are allotted the flexibility to serve God by their own personal expressions of faith. However, this does not allow for someone to operate outside the authority and confines of the Scriptures. Freedom in Christ only exists in Christ, not outside of His authority. When we express our personal faith to God, we should always have a Scriptural backing. In other words, every expedient act of faith can be Biblically supported, which means that no Christian can claim their personal expression as superior to someone else’s. As long as a brother operates within the confines of plain Bible teachings, he is free to personally express his faith however he chooses.
2. “Strong” and “weak” refer to one’s conscience, not one’s commitment
Today the church often uses the term “weak” and “strong” to describe someone’s commitment to God (i.e. a “weak Christian” is someone lacking in commitment to God and a “strong Christian” is someone fully committed to God). Paul is not dealing with the amount of their commitment, he is dealing with the personal expression of their commitment. Hence, there is nothing degrading or insulting about being “weak.” The “strong” and “weak” refer to their conscience and what it will allow each Christian to do. “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). The Christian is never called to convince others to live out their faith just like his or her own personal expressions of faith. Rather, the Christian is to ensure that his or her own personal expression of faith is fully convincing to him or her.
3. Passing judgment on one’s personal expression of faith is reserved only for God
“So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). On Judgment day, God is not going to be interested in our opinion of our brother’s actions. If our opinions of our brother’s actions aren’t going to matter on Judgement day, then they probably don’t matter much today. God is the one who will make the final calls concerning personal expressions of faith, not the church nor the individual. Anyone who “regards with contempt” or “judges” another’s lawful expression of faith takes the place of God.
4. Just because it’s not wrong, doesn’t make it right
The bulk of Romans 14 focuses on changing and doing whatever it takes to ensure your personal expression of faith does not cause someone else to stumble or fall. Just because our actions can be justified, it doesn’t mean that others will be edified. “So then pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19). Our freedom in Christ is not an entitlement to live however we want, rather it is a privilege to be used for God’s glory and our brother’s benefit.
This final key is perhaps the most vital since this mindset will dissipate any potential divisions. Those who are “strong” have the conscientious ability to be more flexible in Christ, and they must flex that strength to accommodate those who do not have such knowledge (Rom. 15:1). Those who are “weak” tend to believe that their rigid devotion is a superior expression of faith, and they must not show contempt towards those who have a more flexible expression of faith. If our lawful expression of faith causes our brother to violate his conscience or doubt his lawful obedience to God, then we must change our personal expression for our brother’s sake.
Wherever pride and arrogance exist, internal division will soon follow. The way to protect ourselves from it is through humble submission to God and to one another. “Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself…” (Rom. 15:2-3).