Dealing with Differing Opinions

February 20th 2024

Dealing with Differing Opinions  

I bet you have an opinion regarding a variety of topics. How about sports? What about the election? Coffee preference? Who shot JFK? Are the Star Wars prequels better than the sequels (the answer is clearly “no” by the way)? There is no end of topics for which people can exert their opinions – strong opinions – sadly, even to the hurt of relationships.

What about more important theological topics within Christianity? What is your opinion on the mode of baptism? The Trinity? The deity of Christ? Views on the end times or communion? These are more important matters. Some more important than others. Rupertus Meldenius, a Lutheran theologian from the early 1600’s, coined the phrase, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”[1] This is a helpful filter in addressing various opinions within the church. (Note: this phrase has also been misused, but that is a topic for another day).

Essentials vs. Non-Essentials

Before we dive into finding help when differences occur within the church, we must first set the foundation of the difference between essentials and non-essentials. Essentials in the Christian faith are the clear non-negotiable beliefs from the Bible. These include: the Triune nature of God, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, etc. This does not mean that there have not been strong debates concerning these issues throughout church history. Nevertheless, these are the hills to die on when it comes to biblical Christianity. It is upon these that unity must exist. We are never called to be unified merely for the sake of unity.

Non-essentials are the areas that may not be so black and white. These are the areas that are based on individual convictions and issues of conscience. These are important areas of belief (sometimes very important) but not the hills to die on. These might include: mode of baptism, which spiritual gifts are active today, how Christ’s second coming unfolds, music style in worship, which Bible translation is best, etc. These are disputable matters of liberty within Christian circles.

Here's the point of this article: As Christians, we are never to let different opinions on disputable matters deter us from our unified goal of honoring the Lord. In Romans 14:1–12, the Apostle Paul gives us some much-needed help in how to deal with differing opinions within the church.

Eating Restrictions and Special Days

In the first verse of Romans, chapter fourteen, Paul says, “do not quarrel over opinions.” The word opinion means “The process of reason; a conclusion reached through the use of reason; a disputable matter.” It is disputable because another person might reasonably come to a different opinion or a different conviction regarding the matter. In this passage, Paul uses two issues that were apparently causing tension and disagreement in the church of Rome. Both issues were mostly holdovers from some in the church, regarding their former Jewish beliefs under the Old Covenant. Paul refers to the one “who is weak in faith.” What he means by weakness is a person whose conscience lacks assurance that their faith permits them to do or not do certain things.[2]

The first example had to do with food (v. 2–4). In this situation, the “weak person” only eats vegetables compared to the stronger person whose conscience allows themselves to eat anything. Food restrictions were only binding under the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, it was now okay (not a sin) to eat any and all foods(Acts 10:11–16; 1 Tim 4:4). The stronger believer, in this situation, was more fully informed regarding what was taught in the New Covenant, which resulted in a freedom to eat anything without the fear of sinning.

The second example had to do with “special days” in verse five. The Jewish calendar is filled with festivals, new moon celebrations, and Saturday Sabbaths. Most of these particular occasions were a shadow of what was to come, when the Messiah appeared. Since Jesus the Messiah had come, these special days had been given their true substance and were no longer mandatory. Tom Schreiner explains, “Such ritual observance [diet/days] did not nullify the authenticity of their faith but it does indicate a certain deficiency.”[3]

Paul explains this New Covenant freedom in Colossians 2:16–17, saying, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The judgment that was being passed was upon the Christians who were not celebrating these Old Covenant festivals. Paul reminded them that they were no longer mandatory celebrations. Of course, they had the freedom to celebrate them, but they were not to look down on those who did not.

Responding to Differing Opinions on Non-Essentials in the Church

In light of these two test cases, Paul has interwoven the rules of engagement when Christians face these non-essential areas of liberty. Paul gives us five right responses regarding engaging others in disputable matters:

  1. Be Welcoming: Differing opinions on non-essentials should not just be met with tolerance but warm fellowship. There is an expectation of those “stronger” in faith to take responsibility to welcome the weak in faith. Just because their conscience is not fully informed, don’t just shove a cheeseburger in their face and say, “Get over it!” Do you welcome those whom God welcomes? Not everybody is at the same stage of faith and understanding.
  2. Do Not Quarrel: Disputable matters should not cause unnecessary quarreling. Yes, there is a stronger and weaker side in many of these issues, but quarreling never solves the tension. This does not mean you cannot discuss them. It means that there is no reason for these matters to cause division, hurt, or inhospitality. Do you let your strong opinions about non-essential matters cause you to be that guy that other Christians avoid? Needless quarreling is not the answer.
  3. Do Not Despise the One for Whom You Disagree: Again, this is more than likely in reference to the strong one showing contempt, mocking, and dismissing the weaker brother. The new believer is very sensitive to sin. At times, this sensitivity can even extend to areas of freedom. Making them feel weak or rejected is not helpful.
  4. Do Not Pass Judgment on the One with a Differing Opinion: This one might be more for the weak regarding the strong. They may be inclined to pass a wrong judgment on the stronger brother without realizing it. “You’re eating a steak? You’re not going to Passover?!” They may be unnecessarily assuming the worst of their fellow Christian. Paul reminds them that each Christian is ultimately accountable to their Master (v. 4), who alone has the right to judge.
  5. Be Convinced of Your Convictions: When it comes to meat, no meat, or which days to celebrate or not, be convinced ultimately that your motive is to honor the Lord. Your motive is not to think that you are better than a Christian who may have a different conviction. Whether it is celebrating Christmas or not, eating barbequed pork or not, going to church on Saturday or Sunday, etc., do not think of yourself as more superior than the one taking the opposite position. Make sure you are convinced, that as far as you are concerned, it is the right decision, and that your goal is to honor God in your conviction. That is really the point, after all, in all that we do.

Honoring the Lord is the Ultimate Motive

Ultimately, honoring God in all we do is Paul’s overarching point. When you stand before Christ to give an account for your actions (v. 10–12) you are not going to be held accountable to the convictions of others, but to the convictions of Christ. In fact, you will find out which personal convictions you had that were wrong, as well as the ones you got right. However, this ultimate motive tempers our whole understanding. When it comes to the liberty you have regarding the non-essentials, is the motive of your conviction to honor the Lord? If so, that diffuses the quarreling, despising, and judgementalism. It helps clarify your convictions and reminds you to be welcoming of those who differ on disputable matters. In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity. How can you honor God today as you follow Him?

[1] Mark Ross, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity,” Ligonier, September 1, 2009. [2] John R.W. Stott, Romans: God's Good News for the World (Netherlands Antilles: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 355. [3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1998), 714.

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Author: Todd Burgett

Todd is married to Lisa and they have 3 adult children. He has been pastoring since 1995 and joined the RBC pastoral team in 2022 giving oversight to several ministries including the Redeemer Training Center. Todd went to The Master's Seminary where he graduated in 2021 with an advanced degree in expository preaching.