A few weeks ago, a prominent Christian pastor named John MacArthur commented that “any real, true believer” would vote for Trump over Biden this November. He reasoned that since the Democratic party’s platform promotes things that God hates, like unlimited abortion and a breakdown of God’s view of gender and sex, Christians must choose the alternative. On the other hand, other Christians leaders say, “No true Christian could possibly vote for Donald Trump!” They reason that since Trumpism includes things that God hates, like disregard for truth and policies that favor the rich and hurt the poor, Christians must choose the alternative.
Look outside the Christian community and you see the same, or worse, dynamics at play: people denouncing one another over issues from mask-wearing, to BLM, to the president’s latest behavior, often questioning the sanity, integrity, even humanity of their opponents.
I believe that the Bible teaches us how to find unity amid strong differences of opinion.
The Christian community in 1st century Rome was an unlikely bunch, with men and women, slaves and masters, former pagans and former Jews, dark-skinned Africans and light skinned Europeans, Greek-speakers and Aramaic speakers, and every conceivable sociological difference of the day. Sociologically, this group should not have existed. The Apostle Paul wrote to this group to explain the source of their unity—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—and to teach them how to live it out practically.
One particular issue he addressed in his letter was a conflict between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians. On the conservative side were believers whose conscience forbade them from eating meat, since most meat in the market had been first sacrificed to a pagan god. On the liberal side were believers who had a more robust view of their freedom in Christ and had no qualms with eating meat that may or may not have been “contaminated” by a pagan ritual. This may sound like a trivial issue to us, but for them, group meals became a flash-point of theology and culture. The disagreements were serious enough for each side to judge the other, even to the point of questioning the legitimacy of each other’s faith.
Although Paul himself had a strong opinion on the matter in question, he affirmed the liberty of each person to be led by their conscience. He tells each side to stop judging one another on “disputable matters” and to “accept one another” (Romans 14:1, 15:7). That’s common sense. But then Paul says something that sounds more radical to American ears: Christians should limit their own liberty out of love for their opponents. He writes, “If your brother or sister is distressed by what you eat, you are no longer acting in love…Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace a mutual edification” (14:17, 19). In other words, love overrides liberty. The Bible defines liberty not as being free from others, but free for others, free from slavery to self and free for service to God and others. Loving those with whom we disagree means freely softening our convictions in their presence for the sake of building them up.
Paul was no pushover; he believed heresies to be worthy of condemnation. But at the same time, he taught that Christians should be able to disagree with each other about just about everything except the gospel of Jesus without it threatening their relationship. A saying attributed to various theologians distills the thought well: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In everything, charity.”
How might this translate into our divided situation today? One Christian’s conscience will lead her to vote for Biden, another for Trump, and another for neither one—and they should all be able to be friends. The Christian BLM activist should suspend judgment and give the Christian Trump supporter a sympathetic ear, and vice versa. Christians should use Facebook to encourage one another rather than tearing down one another’s positions. In a world plagued by cancel-culture, Christians should continue to accept and befriend those whose opinions they find distasteful.
For the Christian, more is at stake than group harmony. Jesus said that the way we love one another is the primary way that we will point people to him (John 13:35). The world is dying for the kind of love and unity that only Jesus can provide. In the words of one pastor, Scott Sauls, “If Christians don’t take the first step to humble ourselves and become less testy, less defensive, less easily offended, and less vindictive…who will?”
Tyler Smith is the pastor of Georgia Plain Baptist Church