Bible scholar Tom Wright gives his answer
Q. Sincere Christians disagree with one another on all sorts of important theological issues. Why aren’t we more united?
Disagreement is inevitable. All of us view the world through our own eyes and form opinions based on our own experiences and perspectives. I have very close friends, who I love as Christian brothers and sisters, who will say things to me like: “But Tom, I think you’re being a little over the top there”, “I think you’re wrong about that” or “I do wish you hadn’t made that point because it seems to me that…” In some cases, those differences of opinion can be very sharp.
Part of being in the body of Christ is that we need to hear and learn from other people who see things from a different angle.
In the New Testament, we read about the early Church and see that there were many different opinions within it. In Romans 14, Paul states that we should welcome people, but not get entangled in disputes about doubtful things that are not central to our faith. He says there are many things we can and will disagree over, but we must learn to live together.
It is therefore incumbent on all of us to be part of ongoing discussions within the Church when differences of opinion arise. The key question is how to discern between differences that matter and differences that don’t. Or, as I’ve said before, the differences that make a difference and the differences that don’t.
The New Testament clearly records some differences of behaviour and opinion that really do matter. If somebody says: “Jesus is not the Son of God”, and somebody else (like me) says: “Actually, he is”, it may become very difficult for us to remain part of the same worshipping community. But if one person says: “When I hear the phrase, ‘Son of God’, I think of Psalm 2,” and another says: “When I hear that phrase, I think of Exodus,” they can talk about it and discuss how the Jewish world of that day was using such phrases. We ought to be constantly in dialogue with each other, listening well and not just shooting anathemas into the air from a great distance.
The decline of discourse in the postmodern world is truly worrying. People are far too ready to pass judgement on one another, especially their fellow brother or sister in Christ. Rather than a knee-jerk reaction that ends a relationship over a difference of opinion, it would be far better to ask: “Hang on, I want to be sure that I’ve really heard what you’re saying. What are you pushing back against?” Often, we’ll find that actually, although we may be coming from quite different angles, we’re progressing towards a rather similar middle ground.
If we do have a genuine disagreement over something theologically significant, we may have to consider: Is this a fellowship-breaking disagreement, or something we can live with? In Romans 14, where one Christian prefers to eat only vegetables and another is happy to eat meat, they can clearly still worship together.
We should not anathematise one another. This is a vital area of Christian discipline that we have to learn.
Tom answers listeners’ questions every week on the ‘Ask NT Wright Anything’ podcast.