It is hard to think of a time when Christians have been more divided. Navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the church to wrestle with God’s sovereignty, suffering, and one another. Regrettably, hostile divisions have opened up between faithful believers. Open-handed fellowship despite disagreements over secondary matters has given way to inhospitable intolerance. What could be the cause of so much friction? Because COVID-19 is so new and sudden, the rapid and unexpected changes to our lives have certainly unsettled everyone. But I think it is something else. Most of us have already figured out our theological positions and have chosen churches based on these beliefs. This means that the average Christian, before COVID-19, was not used to spirited division in their churches. In order to navigate these trying times, we must imitate Christ.
Hostile divisions have opened up between faithful believers.
Be Alert to Satan’s Devices, Aspire to Imitate Christ
From a spiritual perspective, it is clear that Satan is cleverly using our legitimate differences on COVID-19 to cause division. The issues we are presently facing are so complicated that people have reasonably come to different conclusions. For example, many churches moved to online platforms when gatherings were restricted. Now that most churches have resumed some form of physical gatherings, there are ongoing debates about when to stop live-streamed services. If the streaming is stopped, what about people who have legitimate medical concerns that prevents them from coming back? If the streaming continues, what about people who have become spiritually isolated from Christian fellowship and are lacking accountability?
Paul warns Christians about the danger of Satan dividing the church: “I have done this so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). His point is that the devil is always trying to use differences to inflame passions and create opposing tribes in the churches (1 Corinthians 3:3-4). Knowing that his time is short—and eternity is long—Satan attacks the church with both great wrath and guile (Revelation 12:12).
Satan attacks the church with both great wrath and guile.
We need to take biblical steps to guard against the schemes of the evil one bringing unnecessary friction into our churches. The most extended discussion in the Bible on handling secondary divisions is found in Romans 14-15. From these chapters I will draw five lessons on how we might better handle our disagreements. Throughout these lessons, it will become evident that God exhorts Christians to exercise the same grace to others that he’s shown towards us. Furthermore, these lessons find their perfect expression and sum in the fifth: imitate Christ.
1. Welcome Fellow Believers
Sadly, factions and cliques are commonplace in many churches. This isn’t a new problem. In fact, it was also an issue in the early church. But Paul tells us to extend grace to others, for God has been gracious to us. He writes, “Welcome him… for God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:1, 3; also James 2:1-13). Thus our first instinct must be to welcome other believers, despite our differences.
We must set aside differences when we come to worship.
This means we must deliberately attempt to set aside any differences when we come to worship. For example, if you are a strong advocate for masking in public spaces and someone without a mask comes to sit beside you, is your first instinct to question why she was allowed into the service? We need to check our hearts and be as welcoming as our consciences allow us to be.
2. Do Not Create Stumbling Blocks
One of the dangers of living in our “me first” culture is that we do not understand that sometimes the most Christlike action is the exact opposite of what we would prefer. Sometimes, to imitate Christ means to surrender what we desire. If you don’t believe in the efficacy of masks, are you willing to wear one during church services for the sake of another believer who has serious concerns? Or if you wear masks everywhere, but there is no government mandate to wear one in church services, would you be willing to let go of your position and freedom?
Sometimes the most Christlike action is the exact opposite of what we would prefer.
Do you want to press your stance so hard that others will leave the church because of your position? Remember this warning from Paul: “Let us… decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13).
3. Avoid Quarrelling over Opinions
This admonition assumes that some issues are central to the Christian faith and others are personal opinions. I hope we can all agree that most of the views expressed by Christians on protocols for dealing with COVID-19 fall under the latter. They are personal opinions. This is not saying all opinions are equally valid. Nor am I suggesting we should disobey the government when they are not explicitly persecuting the church. My point is simply this: another Christian could be completely wrong about everything they believe regarding COVID-19 and still be your sibling in Christ. Thus Paul warns us: “Why do you pass judgement on your brother?…Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10, 12).
Another Christian could be completely wrong about COVID-19 and still be your sibling in Christ.
We need to keep a godly perspective on our differences. As John Newton once replied to a Christian who wrote to him to ask his advice on dealing with a controversy he was facing: “If you account him a believer… In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.”
Newton warns against an attitude in disagreements that focuses more on winning an argument than on winning over our brothers and sisters. We need to remember what is more important here is the eternal perspective rather than this transient pandemic.
4. Be Fully Convinced of Your Position
I hope your brows are not already furrowed, thinking that I am suggesting all sides of the debate are right. Of course, that cannot be true. In most cases, one side is right and the other wrong. However, we would do well to maintain enough humility to know that we might be wrong. Ask yourself: have I personally researched my position, or have I simply adopted the position of prominent thinkers I respect? Have you considered the strengths of the opposing side?
Paul was godly enough not to insist that everyone must immediately come to the same conclusions that he did.
What is fascinating in Romans 14-15 is that Paul says: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). He clearly outlines which side of the debate he thought right. He was persuaded of his position. Yet he was godly enough not to insist that everyone must immediately come to the same conclusions as himself. So, even after reaching our own conclusions, we would do well to remember to practice the three points raised above, which are perhaps summarised in the next and final point.
5. Imitate Christ
Paul’s fundamental argument is found in Romans 15:1, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Christians are commanded to put other believers ahead of themselves. For this is what Christ did. It’s how he lived and the reason he died. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7).
You Will Need God’s Help
Paul is experienced enough with our struggles as Christians that he knows this is a hard ask and that we will need God’s help to obey. So he prays: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5). The endurance to live with people who hold different beliefs from you and the encouragement to keep trying to live in harmony is available to us if only we pray to God for help.
Christ was willing to welcome us, weak as we are, into his family.
In closing, we should note the two different examples put before us. The first is Satan. He wants us to stand on our rights, insist that everyone complies with our “right approach,” and aggressively fight for our views regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, we have the example of Christ who we must imitate. He was willing to welcome us, weak as we are, into his family. He didn’t wait for us to become perfectly aligned in every way. Rather, he knew that as we walk with him, we will be increasingly conformed to his character. May God help us and our churches to choose the way of Christ.