Division and strife dominate the news cycle once again. The ability of people and the media to pivot so quickly from division over candidates to division over pandemic policies of various kinds to division over ethnicity and injustice boggles the mind. It appears impossible for people in today’s world to engage in serious issues without assuming polarized positions and initiating inflammatory rhetoric. The current climate encourages villainizing opponents, ridiculing them, and ignoring what they have to say. Sadly, many Christians have allowed this atmosphere to taint their character and influence their interactions with others, especially within the body of Christ.
Disagreements will happen among people who study individually and think independently. This alone does not mandate strife. Strife occurs—not simply because Christians have disagreements, but because they have failed to learn how to handle disagreements in a Christ-like manner. Instead, leaning into their culture, they allow the approach to political debate to define spiritual debate. And then we act surprised when the results are remarkably similar.
God’s people must do better. However, this includes far more than rising above the pettiness of modern-day politics. It necessarily implies developing the character that values people and peace. Most of all, Christians must learn to apply such with integrity in spiritual and doctrinal battles too. Some Christians act like the cause of truth justifies mudslinging and mockery. They proclaim their positions loudly and proudly, daring any to defy their proclamations. Few do—not due to fear or lack of sound argument, but more because they have no taste for gutter-style debate and the guaranteed verbal beating and ejection from the synagogue that accompanies doctrinal brawlers (Jn. 12:42).
My friends, I love the truth. I love the church. I love my brethren. I love my Lord. And I love unity. Opposing error remains essential and exposing false doctrine continues to be key. The purity of the church matters too much to deny this. However, Christians have the responsibility not only to address these matters but also to do so in such a way that promotes unity rather than one that practically ensures division. Understanding the difference between a matter of fellowship and a matter of opinion, of course, is crucial. And a discussion about disagreements over where those lines fall and how to approach them consistently is vital for the health of the body of Christ. It provides the foundation necessary to avoid turning every disagreement—down to the color of the carpet—into a diehard measure of faithfulness. But before then we must develop an attitude that will allow for this type of mature discussion.
The seventeenth chapter of Proverbs offers several principles applicable to just such a situation. Sadly, the failure to follow them by Rehoboam led to the destruction of unity and the rise of perpetual rivalry between Judah and Israel. So let us consider the wisdom of these words lest the Lord’s church suffer a similar fate.
1. Actually prefer quiet and peace (Prov. 17:1). Some people seem to measure their faithfulness by how much they are fighting. Instead learn to enjoy the beauty of peaceful fellowship and helping people learn and grow (Matt. 5:9).
2. Stop listening to all the negative noise (Prov. 17:4). We have conditioned ourselves to pay attention to negativity (Prov. 18:8). It drives the news cycle. It sparks the algorithms on social media. It gets clicks online. But it also darkens our hearts. You do not have to listen to everything negative people say. More than that, you should hold people accountable for what they say and how they say it to create a culture not only respectful of truth but also respectful of the value of souls (Matt. 16:26).
3. Avoid people who seem to enjoy conflict and intentionally provoke fights (Prov. 17:5). They poke and prod to produce a reaction with the obvious aim of self-justification. They rejoice in iniquity if it befalls the object of their scorn. Brethren, such people as this were hurling insults at our Savior while He died on the cross (Matt. 27:39-44). Jesus chose not to fight. It cost Him His life, yes, but it also gained Him the victory.
4. Be more interested in helping someone out of sin and error than announcing their issues to others (Prov. 17:9). Perhaps we should begin by revisiting Jesus’ account explaining “Who is my neighbor?” We would be horrified to watch a reporter standing idly by while someone died because he felt a greater obligation to report the death than to do something to prevent it. Yet if our first inclination upon hearing of a brother’s sin or error is to report it rather than attempt to help him (Jas. 5:19-20), where does that leave us?
5. Be wise enough to recognize and admit when you are wrong instead of assuming you are always right (Prov. 17:10). If you wish to help people and correct them, you cannot fill your language with condescension. Nor should any of us be so wedded to an idea that we would rather make fallacious arguments than admit that we need to reevaluate our own views. Problems often arise when the majority of the argument has merit but a crucial portion is unsound. Be humble and honest with yourself. If you start every study with the assumption you are already know the answer, the chances are high that the quality of your study will be poor (2 Tim. 2:15; Jas. 3:17).
6. Work hard to keep disagreements from becoming contentious (Prov. 17:14). People often fail to consider the consequences of the disagreements they provoke. Many have created conflict only to regret it after it has run its course. Rather than creating a dialogue with someone or seeking a friendly arbiter, our habits tend more to calling people out online or writing generic posts about something very specific (a.k.a. subtweeting). The first question we should all consider when we disagree is whether that issue is so important that severing relationships with close friends and destroying unity in the brotherhood throughout the world are absolutely worth it (1 Cor. 11:16). There are times when the answer is yes. However, when we act like the answer is always yes, few people will listen (Eph. 4:1-3).
7. Do your homework before speaking up and potentially creating a problem (Prov. 17:15). Some intentionally defend the indefensible and attack the honorable. But many people do the same through the combination of ignorance and a quick tongue. Everyone feels obligated today to have an opinion despite knowing very little about the subject (Prov. 29:20). That is true in politics. It is true in religion. Do not let it be true for you. Thoughtful reflection can prevent many a wrong conclusion if you will make it your regular practice.
8. Value brotherly relationships (Prov. 17:17). This does not mean that God expects His people to place more value on their relationships with one another than their relationship with Him. However, some people—in the name of standing up for God—trample all over God’s people in the process. We should be more like David in his relationship with Saul. Saul treated David like his enemy, but David treated Saul as his king (1 Sam. 24:10). He had so much respect for God’s will that it affected how he treated a man who tried to kill him multiple times. Let us love one another in like fashion.
9. Maintain a calm spirit (Prov. 17:27). People get upset so easily today. Or perhaps they always have. When I was young, it bothered me greatly to see people attacked unfairly, the truth mischaracterized, and error given a pulpit. Actually, these things still bother me. But I also have come to realize that maintaining calm in response to the devil’s agitation is a key to addressing it. When we allow Satan and his minions to react emotionally rather than respond spiritually, he still wins. Therefore, no matter what problems exist around us, a calm spirit should exist within us (1 Pet. 3:4).
10. Learn the value of keeping quiet (Prov. 17:28). Those who know me well know that I have opinions on a great many subjects. I have very specific ideas about history and politics. I have participated in multiple campaigns. I disagree with many people (even within the church) about the interpretation of various scriptures. I have corrected false teaching at times when necessary, including in a public forum. But I have also learned the wisdom of keeping quiet (Jas. 1:19). I am under no obligation to tell everyone everything I believe. I am under no obligation to participate in every argument I see online. I am under no obligation to satisfy trolls or people on religious fishing expeditions. I am under obligation solely to God—to preach the gospel, to live the gospel, and to defend the gospel.
Practicing these exhortations and developing the character they require would prevent so much unnecessary harm in the Lord’s church. But that means we must all learn to recognize the ungodliness of strife as it presents itself rather than allowing ourselves to get sucked into the vortex of unrighteous division. “He who loves transgression loves strife, And he who exalts his gate seeks destruction” (Prov. 17:19). My heart aches when I see brethren at odds with one another unnecessarily. It hurts to see disagreement lead to division. It saddens me to find so many speaking out of anger or demeaning those who disagree as thoughtless and ignorant. Brethren, we must do better. Let us commit to seeking peace (Psa. 34:14)—not simply as a nebulous goal but in adopting very specific objectives. Let us adopt the language of peace and speak it more regularly with one another. Let us take on the attitude of peace and give each other the benefit of the doubt. Strife has many facets and many layers. It disguises itself in subtle ways. But love and truth, properly applied, will always prevail in the long run. Now is the time for us to prove it.