How to Disagree on Theology

You can look through the Yellow Pages at the amount of denominations in your city and realize something fairly quickly – Christians disagree on some issues.

Some of these differences are primary issues and some are secondary issues. To summarize, some variations between denominations would categorize some churches into heretical factions, while other variations just distinguish between minor issues.

Have you ever gotten into a debate about a theological issue with someone else? Some of the top topics to argue are:

  1. How do you reconcile election and free will?
  2. What do you believe about the millennium in Revelation?
  3. What is your belief concerning speaking in tongues?
  4. And so many more…

So, how are Christians supposed to agree to disagree?

Whitefield vs. Wesley

There is great wisdom to be learned in a sharp disagreement between two church leaders in the 1700s. George Whitefield and John Wesley were close friends as students at Oxford. They were fantastic preachers and were seeing incredible harvests during their time of ministry.

Eventually, their friendship and partnership were strained over the issue of predestination or election. John Wesley called it a “monstrous doctrine” and wrote a pamphlet to discredit Whitefield’s belief and teaching on the issue. They attempted to work things out but things only got more heated.

Wesley become more firm in his convictions concerning Arminianism and Whitefield become more firm in his convictions concerning Calvinism.

As it appeared that the relationship was so strained there could be no remedy, one of Whitefield’s followers asked him,

“Do you think that when we get to heaven we shall see John Wesley there?”

Whitefield responded, “No, I don’t think we shall.”

The man asking the question must have felt satisfied with his question and the response he received, but Whitefield wasn’t done yet.  He added,

“I believe that Mr. John Wesley will have a place so near the throne of God that such poor creatures as you and I will be so far off as to be hardly able to see him.”

Regardless of their differences, they loved each other and believed that they were brothers in Christ despite their differences.

When Wesley appeared to be approaching his death, Whitefield wrote him a letter and stated that “a radiant throne awaits you, and ere long you will enter into your master’s joy. Yonder he stands with a massive crown, ready to put it on your head amidst an admiring throng of saints and angels.”

Wesley recovered from his illness, and Whitefield actually died first. Would Wesley come to the funeral? Whitefield asked Wesley to preach at it!

It required three memorial services in London to pay respect to his life at which Wesley stated, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature with regard to which even the most sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’”

Agree to Disagree

That story is a beautiful picture of the Body of Christ. I know it doesn’t answer all the questions like when does a disagreement turn into a heresy, but it does give us an example concerning how to deal with a number of issues we address. Learn how to distinguish between essential truth and non-essential variances, and explain your stances with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15).

I once heard that,

Concerning theology, the Church must display:

regarding essentials, unity;

regarding non-essentials, liberty;

and in all things, charity.

It’s not a bad way for us to behave towards one another today.