Sometimes “agreeing to disagree” with fellow believers can be difficult. I know. I have been there. But first, let me give you some historical background…
In 18th century England and America, two of the most celebrated figures were George Whitefield and John Wesley. Whitefield and Wesley would travel up and down the American Eastern seaboard and across the British Isles preaching in the open air. The first “Great Awakening” can largely be attributed to how God used these two men to lead many thousands into a relationship with Jesus Christ, perhaps one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of the church.
But Whitefield and Wesley had some rough spots in their relationship with one another. In one important matter, they differed in terms of some significant Christian doctrine. George Whitefield, a Calvinist theologically, believed that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He died only for the elect who would come to know Christ. If you were not among the predestined elect, Whitefield concluded that the Bible taught that Jesus had not died for you. John Wesley, an Arminian theologically, vehemently rejected this teaching. For Wesley, Jesus Christ died for all of humanity, whether someone received Christ or not. Though these men clearly differed on the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross and how that related to predestination, they were united in many more things in terms of doctrine than over that which they were divided.
The prolonged controversy between Whitefield and Wesley was at times very tense. Though I do not recall the reference, my understanding is that John Wesley was the more quarrelsome of the two men. But it is to John Wesley’s credit that eventually when he was asked to deliver a memorial sermon when George Whitefield died, he was extremely charitable to his evangelistic counterpart. In that sermon, Wesley uttered a most memorable phrase:
“There are many doctrines of a less essential nature … In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials…”
Since that remarkable sermon, Christians over the years have recalled Wesley’s words that he at times exchanged with his colleague Whitefield about “agreeing to disagree.” Though these men still had their points of conflict, in the end, they were able to consider each other not as enemies but rather as friends, as brothers in Christ, despite their disputes over some points of doctrine.
It is a lesson that the evangelical church today still needs to hear.
Agreeing to Disagree in the Evangelical Church Today
The principle of “agreeing to disagree” over significant yet secondary matters has helped the evangelical movement maintain some sense of cohesion over the centuries. But it has not always been easy.
Consider the controversy regarding different understandings of the doctrine of creation. As we have covered before here on Veracity, there are three main camps among evangelical Christians with diverse views regarding how God went about the work of creation. Young Earth Creationists espouse the traditional view, that the world was created in six literal 24-hour periods. On the other end of the spectrum, Evolutionary Creationists believe that modern science has effectively shown that God created the world, including humans, through an evolutionary mechanism. As a mediating perspective, Old Earth Creationists accept that while the earth was created over six long periods of time; nevertheless, humanity was created through a special supernatural act with no antecedent biological connection to other life forms. Each view claims that their view is supported by and consistent with a high view of biblical authority (You can read about the beliefs held by some of the major evangelical “creationist” organizations here: Answers In Genesis, representing one approach to Young Earth Creationism; Reasons To Believe, representing Old Earth Creationism; and BioLogos, representing Evolutionary Creationism).
I must confess that for years I found it very difficult to “agree to disagree” on this particular issue. Much like what John Wesley sometimes did with George Whitefield, I had a particularly difficult time being able to accept Young Earth Creationists as being genuinely Christian. In my college days, I had a pretty bad experience dealing with Young Earth Creationism (a story I will save for another time). As a result, I tended to think of die-hard Young Earth people as often very pleasant, well-meaning and nice, but nevertheless brain washed and deluded, essentially no different than your typical Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness missionary knocking on your door. In my more frustrated moments, I could easily dismiss Young Earthers as members of some kind of dangerous cult. I would cringe in utter horror whenever one of my Young Earth friends would try to “witness” to one of my non-Christian friends, trying to convince them that contemporary radiometric dating methods were all a “lie of Satan,” arguing that all of the real scientists believed in a Young Earth, all in the name of supposedly “sharing the Gospel.”
But my complete aversion to that position eventually softened. About ten years ago I swallowed my pride, repented of my hard-heartedness, and made an effort to re-examine Young Earth beliefs and have conversations with people who were persuaded by such arguments, seeking to understand some of the better arguments for their case. Here on Veracity, along with John we have done our best to present these arguments in a respectful and accurate manner, urging the reader to evaluate the evidence in light of the teaching of Scripture for themselves, and make their own decision. Here on Veracity we do not endeavor to tell you what to think, but nevertheless, we do encourage you to think.
So while I have never been able to be fully persuaded by the Young Earth perspective, I now have a greater appreciation for the reasons why such views are held. But more importantly, I am seeking to follow the example of John Wesley, learning how to love my Christian brother and sister while “agreeing to disagree.”
This has been a bitter pill for me to swallow. Like many people, I have a felt need to be right! In my zeal for the upholding the truth, I had forgotten that I need to uphold that truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) Young Earth people now are no longer idiots in my mind, but rather they can still be partners in the Gospel, despite our differences. Some of my closest and dearest friends and family do not share my views on creation, but I am nevertheless glad to call them as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am privileged to labor in the Lord alongside other believers, learning from them as we worship together, despite our various views on interpreting Genesis.
Furthermore, I am also willing now to accept the idea that I could be wrong about the age of the earth. If it turns out that the earth is less than 6000 years old, and that is how God purposed things, then so be it. May God be praised! I will still have some questions as to why God gave us overwhelming scientific evidence in creation pointing to a 4.54 billion year old earth. It seems inconsistent with God’s character that He would reveal one thing in creation and then reveal something entirely different in the Bible. Nevertheless, I do not see things entirely from God’s perspective. I do not have the full picture (and probably neither do you!). This is God’s creation, and He does not need my input as to what He can and can not do. In the end, I can still give Him all the honor and glory, whether we are talking about 6000 years or 4.54 billion years.
Sorting Out Our Differences
It really grieves me when Christian ministry leaders will publicly characterize other believers who disagree with them on their views of creation as being like Sanballat and Geshem, the enemies of Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 6), as was done recently (UPDATE: July, 2015: Originally, I gave links to other sites documenting this controversy, but I have since decided not to publish these links anymore as I no longer think this would be very edifying).
Folks, we can do better. Let me be crystal clear on this: It does not matter if you are a Young Earth Creationist, an Old Earth Creationist, or an Evolutionary Creationist. We are all called as believers to be ambassadors for Christ. When we unfairly attack our fellow Christians as being “compromisers” are we not compromising that calling to be ambassadors for that Gospel? When we treat the other Christian as “the enemy,” we do great harm to the cause of the Gospel.
Let me offer an encouraging contrast. About this time last year, our church held a symposium on creation. At one point I asked some 200 participants to raise their hands to get a rough idea as to how our community views creation as taught in the Bible. About one-third of the room declared themselves to be Young Earth Creationists. Another one-half declared themselves to be Old Earth Creationists. Some 10% of the room raised their hands as being Evolutionary Creationists, while the others were undecided. What I find remarkable in our community of faith is that even though there is not unanimity regarding the particulars of how to interpret the Bible on this issue, nevertheless, our community has decided that we will not allow differences on this issue to divide us and keep us from having fellowship with one another. I am so thankful to be a part of a community that seeks to major on the majors and minor on the minors.
The Challenge That Is Ahead of Us in the Evangelical Church
Does “agreeing to disagree” have its limitations? It all depends on whether the issue at hand is regarded in some sense as a “salvation issue,” something that would require a break in fellowship.
Granted, these type of disputes can make people feel very weary. Some would prefer to simply sweep these kind of discussions under the rug. But while there should be times where we can set our differences aside and focus on what we share in common, we do not really learn how to love the other if we simply pretend that these differences do not exist. Instead let us make the effort to better understand other points of view, thereby upholding the truth in love, seeking to be ambassadors for Christ, while agreeing to disagree when necessary.