Dealing with Disagreement
Dealing with Disagreements 8.3.20
I don’t remember when I came across this quote—I imagine that it was sometime in college—but ever since I heard it, I’ve remembered it. It’s always been stuck in the back of my mind. It’s a very clever statement. It’s from Benjamin Franklin. He says this:.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
Have you heard this statement before? I imagine you have. It’s a profound statement. And it’s easy to remember.
The death part is obviously true. We are all going to die. There’s no need to belabor that point. I don’t know about the taxes part, though. I think that there could be some way, through welfare, to live life without being taxed. When Benjamin Franklin wrote what he did in 1789, he didn’t envision American with its current welfare system that it now has. So I’m not sure about the taxes part but I am sure about the death part.
There are many other ideas that we could attach to what Franklin says. There are many other concepts in life that are certain. What I want to add to his statement is a reality that comes from our text this morning. And that reality is this: disagreement. Disagreement. Bringing Franklin’s statement back up again, based upon this morning’s sermon, we might say this:
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and disagreement.
In this world, dear friend, in the church, outside the church, in this city, in another city, in your home, outside your home, etc., ect., etc., you are going to encounter situations in which disagreement will arise. This disagreement might be between you and another person. It might be between one person who you love or another person who you love. There are many different situations where disagreement arises. Nevertheless, we will experience disagreement in this world. If you’re a human who has life, you will experience disagreement.
This cultural moment that we’re in really highlights this. This COVID situation has really brought this reality to bear. Take the issue of the face covering, face masks. People have very strong opinions about these face masks. Some people feel very strongly that we should wear them, others feel very strongly that we shouldn’t, and others are somewhere in between. This situation has forced options on us where good, godly Christians disagree with each other.
Considering the reality of disagreement, it’s important to know how to deal with it. Thus, the main question that we will tackle this morning is this: How should we deal with disagreement in light of the gospel? That’s the question that I will attempt to answer this morning based upon what Paul says in Phil 3:15–16. If you have a Bible this morning, would you go ahead and turn with me there to Phil 3:15. Paul writes this,
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Not All Are Mature
To being our sermon this morning, I will first start with an observation about the first part of v. 15. The observation is this: “not all are mature.” This observation is based upon what Paul says at the beginning of v. 15. Paul writes,
Let those of us who are mature think this way
There are two interpretive difficulties of this portion of v. 15 that we must deal with. The first concerns the word “this.” When Paul says that the mature should think “this way,” what exactly does he mean? As I’ve said before and probably will continue to repeat, “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those,” can be ambiguous.
As you might expect, different commentators take different perspectives. Some think it refers to what Paul teaches in the immediate verses (in vv. 3:12–14), others think it refers to all of chapter 3, others think something else. See, I told you disagreement was inevitable in this life. Good commentators disagree.
When we read the Bible in general and Paul in particular, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know what this means.” That’s okay. Even the apostles felt this way. Listen to what the Apostle Peter says about the Apostle Paul. This comes from 2 Peter 3:15–16.
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
If the Apostle Peter felt this way, it’s OK for us to feel this way. In fact, if we always think we know what Paul means, we place ourselves above the Apostle Peter in our understanding. That would not be wise.
Bringing this back to our discussion in Phil 3:15. I am going to leave the “this way” undefined. For my interpretation this morning, the specifics of the “this” don’t matter all that much. The basic observation that Paul is encouraging the mature to think a certain way suffices for an interpretation. Godly Christians are supposed to think a certain way. That’s is enough.
The second interpretive difficulty we must discuss concerns the Greek word that stands behind the English word “mature.” That Greek word is τέλειος. What does the word τέλειος mean? If you are reading from a KJV or a NASB, your translation will say something like,
Let those of us who are perfect think this way
Some interpreters translate τέλειος as “mature,” others translate it as “perfect.” Which one is it, pastor? I take it as the ESV takes it. I take it as “mature.” I take it what Paul is saying here. That is, Paul is saying that the mature in the faith think a certain way. What Paul is also saying is that the immature in the faith think a certain way.
This reality of the mature and the immature in the church is taught elsewhere by Paul. Paul says this in Rom 14:1. He writes,
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
What Paul is saying in this passage is complementary to what he says in Phil 3:15. In this Romans passage, Paul acknowledges that there are those who are weak in the faith and there are those that are mature in the faith. The weak brothers and sisters “eat only vegetables,” while the mature eats anything.
What Paul acknowledges in Rom 14 and in our main passage this morning, the beginning part of Phil 3:15, is that in the Christian church there are different types of Christians. This should be of no surprise. There are mature Christians and then there are immature Christians.
This observation should have tremendous impact in how you interact with other Christians in the body of Christ. We must remember that disagreements in the church do not happen independently of people’s spiritual maturity. We all approach disagreements as those who are mature or as those who are weak in their faith or as those somewhere in between. If you are mature in your faith, the Lord calls you to bear with the weaknesses of the weak of faith in your disagreements. Be patient, kind, loving, and forbearing. If you are immature in your faith, the Lord calls you to maturity in approaching disagreements.
Entrust Those Who Disagree with You to God
Now that we’ve laid that groundwork that in the church there are the mature and there are the immature, we can now move to application. And with the second and third points, they will each be application. This is the second point: “Entrust those who disagree with you to God.” That’s a mouthful but every word in that statement matters. I’ll say it again, “Entrust those who disagree with you to God.”
Looking again at the passage, verse 15. We’ll read the whole passage. Paul says,
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
The portion of this passage that concerns this second point is, “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
Paul here makes a concession to those Philippians who disagree with him. Even in the early church, even with having the apostle Paul as the church’s spiritual authority, there were still those who disagreed. Specifically, there were people who might disagree with the apostle Paul.
Wow. And to those people, Paul makes a concession. Paul is very flexible with these people who disagree.
To observe this flexibility, I want you to notice what the passage does not say. I want you to notice what Paul does not say in this passage to those who might disagree with him. Paul does not say this,
If in anything you think otherwise, you’re just plain wrong. OR, you’re stupid; OR, you’re immature; OR, you’re going to hell; OR, it’s my way or the highway.
Paul doesn’t say anything like that. Notice his tone here. Paul is gentle here. Paul simply says, “if you disagree with me, the Lord will be with you.” So gentle, kind.
It’s helpful here to compare Paul’s tone elsewhere. As we’ve studied before, Paul does get heated. Paul is not milk toast. He is not pushed around by others. He’s not a pushover. Look with me at 3:18–19. Paul says there,
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Notice the difference of tone that Paul has with these people (those who are outside the church) and the tone that Paul has with those in 3:15. With those who now are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” Paul’s tone is sharp and to the point. With those in 3:15, Paul’s tone is gentle, non-confrontational. Paul is flexible here.
My Own Experience
Tone matters, dear friend. It matters so much. And this is something that the Lord is teaching me. If there is one lesson, I think, the Lord has been teaching me over and over again since I’ve gotten here it’s that tone matters. My wife has been telling me this for years. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to listen to her.
That’s always a funny thing about marriage. You can be told by your spouse something for years, but you never listen. However, later down the road, you finally realize that what that person was saying was true. And you tell your spouse, “God’s teaching me this.” And they say, “Haven’t I been telling you this for years.” And then it’s like, “O yea, you have.”
I used to think you just must tell people the truth and they just need to repent. It’s just that black and white. That’s not how ministry works. Yes, the truth matters, but how you present that truth also matters. The goal is to speak the truth in love. That’s what we should aim for. Always. That’s our communication pattern towards one another. Speak the truth in love.
God is in Control
Notice how Paul ends v. 15. He says, “God will reveal that also to you.” What Paul does here is he entrusts that God is in control, that God is sovereign above the disagreement. Paul gives the situation to God. Paul entrusts these people who disagree and the disagreement itself to God. He says, “May God bless you. God will show you the truth.”
Sometimes in life you have to realize that you cannot change the way people think. You’ve tried your best but to no avail. They still disagree with you. That’s going to happen. This side of eternity, there is nothing that we can do to mend a disagreement. What you might have to do with disagreements like that is to just say to God, “Lord, I give this situation and this person to you. I entrust it to you.” You just have to give it to God.
And what you cannot do is brow beat someone. We have to avoid that behavior. If you’ve said your piece once, twice, three times, and there is still disagreement, you can’t keep bringing the issue up. That will be perceived as browbeating and badgering someone. You have to give the situation to God. You can and should maintain your beliefs, but just give the situation to God. And in the meantime, love that brother or sister in Christ. Pray for them. Love them. But don’t browbeat. Don’t badger. Entrust the person and the situation to God. Give them over to God.
Remember What Matters Most
Now we come to the last verse of our passage this morning. It is v. 16. Paul says,
Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Here we are segueing to our third point. It’s this: “Emphasize What Matters.”
Paul’s statement in v. 16 is simple to understand. To understand it, let’s summarize with where we have been. Beginning in v. 15, Paul recognizes the reality that there are mature and immature Christians within the body of Christ, in the church of Philippi. That is a reality of church life. Towards those who disagree with him, Paul entrusts the disagrees and the disagreement to God. He’s not harsh, he’s not divisive. He doesn’t browbeat. He says, “God is in control. He’ll take care of the situation.”
In v. 16, Paul sums up this section with an exhortation towards agreement. Disagreement can and will exist in the body of Christ. When it does, we must emphasize what matters most. Paul describes what matters most in v. 16.
What We Have Attained
Paul mentions, “what we have attained.” He does not specify exactly what he means here but the general point is clear. The Philippians and Paul have followed Christ. They have mutually come to see Christ as the risen Messiah, that he is the God-man, that he is worthy of worship, and that they must follow him. They have followed him and confess him as Lord. They’ve reached this level of spiritual maturity. This is a very basic point.
Paul commands the Philippians to hold true to this confession. What it is that they agree upon, they are to hold on together. Yes, they might have their disagreements, yes they might not see things eye-to-eye. That is true. In light of this disagreement, they must hold on to what they share
together. They must emphasize what it is that binds them together. While disagreements do exist, they must emphasize what it is that they agree on.
One way to understand Paul’s point in v. 16 is with this idea: what unites us is far greater than what divides us. What unites as Christians as a body is far greater than what divides us. What binds us together is the gospel—the story of the person and work of Christ in his first and second coming. This is a tremendous confession. If we believe that together, the Bible says that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. What unity we have. What hope we have together.
We must remember our common confession as we disagree with one another. Disagreements will happen and are sometimes necessary, but we must also emphasize what matters most. We cannot nitpick or focus on this one little error or problem. Our perspective must be much larger than that. In your disagreements with other Christians, remember the unity that you share. You have to view the disagreement in light of the agreement that we have together.
One way to end this morning is by looking at the image of a half glass full vs a glass half empty. This is a common image that people raise when discussing the nature of an optimist vs. a pessimist. A pessimist is going to see the glass half empty. A pessimist is going to emphasize differences and disagreement. An optimist is going to see the glass half full. They’re going to emphasize the unity and the agreement.
The problem with this image is that in this situation that the liquid in the glass is both half full and half empty. Both the pessimist and the optimist are right. The illustration doesn’t reflect the truthfulness of that idea. This is a situation where it should not be an either/or (either the glass is half full or half empty), but rather a both/and (both perspectives are right and valid). The situation changes when we pour more liquid into the glass or remove more liquid so that the liquid is not 50/50.
Let’s imagine that the church, Christianity, our church CBC is like a glass. And the water that is in the glass represents what it is that binds us together. How full would that glass be? It would certainly be more than half. What binds us together far outweighs what separates us. We might say that what binds us together should be represented with the glass being 90% full with water. Now there is 10% missing. This is true. But what should we focus on? It is sinful to focus on the 10%. Yes we acknowledge and recognize it. But more than that, look at all that we have to share together. Look at it all.
In a situation like this, when the glass is 90% full, we must not focus on the 10%. Yes we have differences, but these differences pail in comparison to the unity that we have.
In these trying times, we’re not going to see eye to eye on everything. No we won’t. Ultimately, though, our difference do no matter all that much because of the unity and agreement that we share.
Jesus is God. He lived and died and rose from the grave. He will one day come again to judge the living in the dead. All people—everywhere—must live for him. He is the only hope in the world.
His purposes, his word, his message bind us together beyond any difference we have. Let us celebrate him. Amen?
Taking the Lord’s Supper this morning. Before we do that, we will have a time of reflection and mediation.
1 Cor 11:27–32
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.