Augustine on Learning How to “Agree to Disagree” Well

Over the coming weeks, I hope to tackle two major issues that threaten the unity of God’s people. I will offer one blog post/ book review on the subject of “Can ‘Charismatic’ and ‘Liturgical’ Christians Worship Together?” The second, and more visceral issue, I will dedicate a multi-part blog series on: “Should Women Serve as Elders, Deacons,or Pastors?”

Is it even possible to “agree to disagree” on issues like these? Some think not. Some say that by giving allowance for such diversity of perspectives in a church is an invitation for false teaching to come in and distort the Scriptures.

Sandro Botticelli, Sant’ Agostino nello studio (Saint Augustine in the studio), Fresco, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti, Florence.

The African bishop of centuries ago, Saint Augustine, wrote about this dilemma in his classic, On Christian Doctrine (Chapter 36), arguing that the objective of good Scriptural interpretation is to encourage love of God and love of neighbor:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived….

Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.

In other words, some people, even teachers in a local church, can make erroneous judgments when reading the Bible, from time to time. But Augustine’s advice is not to immediately throw such people under the bus, treat them as “agents of Satan,” and objectify them as enemies. Instead, Augustine contends that a concerted effort be made to gently, respectfully, patiently, and lovingly seek to correct such error in others, and bring such people along the right path. Sometimes, people do fall off of the high road, but it is possible for them to find their way back, through the fields, to the same place where the road leads. It can be difficult work, but caring brothers and sisters in the Lord will often help those folks along, to find the right road again.

As Proverbs 15:1 puts it, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Christians should be a people ready with a gentle answer, as opposed to a harsh word.

It bears noting that Augustine was no wimpy Christian, when it came to the threat of heresy. Have you ever heard of the Donatists? If not, then there is a good reason for that. It was Augustine’s pen that was largely responsible for wiping out the Donatist heresy that threatened to pull the church completely apart, during the 5th century A.D. But Augustine nevertheless sought to facilitate dialogue in order to seek to persuade  those who had a wrong view of Scripture. His words serve as a useful model for how to work through controversy among Christians today.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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