Issues: Shall the church ever be free of controversy?

By Don Ruhl

Issues. Will we ever be free from them? It does not seem likely since even in the days of the apostles issues plagued the church. There has hardly been a time since that people were not discussing an issue, wondering if it was really a matter of fellowship or simply a matter of opinion; and what should be done about it.

Sometimes issues have been healthy for the body of Christ; causing people to think more deeply about their Christianity; and what it means to their souls. Other times issues have harmed the body, because men crystalized in their positions when another attacked them and so they returned the attack and became harder in their positions. Whereas, in many cases, if the issue had been handled—not ignored—in a proper Christian spirit, neither one of the parties would have decided to make the issue a matter of fellowship.

Issues and Division

First, there are those who contend that the plea for the unity of all believers based on the Bible is a plea that promotes division. They charge further that whenever there is a division among the ranks of those pleading for biblical unity such is evidence that the plea is a failure.

Does the plea for unity of believers based on the Bible mean division shall never result among those seeking this ideal? All a person has to do is read the New Testament and it will become readily apparent that they had problems back then; even the great evangelistic team of Paul and Barnabas parted after they had a sharp contention over a particular issue (Acts 15.36–41). Did this invalidate their plea that all people could be united in Christ and His truth, since it did not seem to work in their case? Of course not! If it did, the Books of Romans through Philemon ought to be discarded, as well as a good portion of the Book of Acts. Similarly churches are crying to the world to be reconciled not only to God but to each other, even while splits and divisions have occurred. This does not make our message void of power, even as it did not discredit the message of Paul and Barnabas.

The best way for Satan to hinder the influence of our unity-on-the-Bible plea is to initiate divisions and contentions among us. When this does happen, we should not give in to whatever whims the divisive element may press upon us to maintain a semblance of unity, nor should we be quick to divide over every issue that arises. To do either would only make us weaker.

Preaching unity based on the Bible is the message to be preached. We ought not to be found urging unity built upon a philosophy of man, but unity on the Bible is the only message to seek and to proclaim:

Thus says the LORD: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.” But they said, “We will not walk in it” (Jer 6.16).

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa 8.20).

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to have a walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph 4.1–6).

After looking at these Scriptures, which is just a sampling of the unity-built-on truth passages, what else can the Bible-reader conclude but that God is pleased only with unity that grows out of the truth?

When issues do arise and the body of Christ is split, our tendency is to blame both parties, after all, we reason, it takes two to tango. So, if people are dwelling together peacefully, minding their own business, giving themselves diligently to the Lord’s work and then a factious family moves in and divides the congregation, it is assumed that not only is the factious family at fault, but so is the congregation that had been living harmoniously. The accusers think to themselves that although the congregation appeared to be peaceful they were not perfect; therefore they must have contributed something to the division. This is not an honest and fair evaluation, since all of us are imperfect.

How Should We Handle Issues? 

Should issues be handled by focusing upon the issue or the people involved? According to the Scriptures both the issue and the people should get the attention.

In Romans 14 Paul makes it obvious that both the issue and the people demand careful handling, lest division occur. The apostle does not separate the issue from the man who holds a particular position on a given subject, but explains how each one is to be treated. Verses 1 through 12 give primary attention to the people involved, and verses 13 through 23 focus upon the issue. In both sections the issue and the people are so linked that a proper disposition toward the people must consider the issue involved, for if we do not consider what another person believes, unnecessary offenses may occur.

The Issue. To learn how to deal with an issue when it arises, let us observe how the first century church dealt with the issue of circumcision.

There were times when Christians could be circumcised and other times when it was best not to be done. For example, Paul circumcised Timothy, “Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek” (Acts 16.3). In this circumstance, Paul and Timothy were simply making themselves presentable to their Jewish audience, submitting to Jewish culture without making circumcision an ingredient of salvation. Paul did not ignore this issue, but in wisdom knew how to use it to save souls and to edify the brethren. He had to teach regarding circumcision, and the right and wrong positions on it; he had to be instructed enough in the various positions to know what wisdom would dictate under different situations. Therefore, in normal circumstances the issue of circumcision was not pressed to the point of driving brethren away.

Sometimes Paul would press hard upon the issue, taking a bold stand as to which position was right and which one was wrong, even to the point of separating brethren. In the case of Titus, Paul refused to allow circumcision to be performed, “Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal 2.3–5).

What was the difference in the cases of Timothy and Titus? In the former the apostle was seeking to influence unbelieving Jews to hear the preaching of the gospel, but those Jews were not insisting upon circumcision as a matter of salvation. In the latter case, Jews, who were already believers in Christ, were urging upon the brotherhood the necessity of being circumcised to be saved and thus bringing the Gentile Christians under bondage to the Law of Moses. This is obvious from Acts 15.1, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” Consequently Paul “had no small dissension and dispute with them” (Acts 15.2).

Therefore an opinion is not brought to the point of division, when it is kept an opinion, but the battle is on when men make their opinions a matter of salvation. Let us be careful to keep opinions private and that we keep actual matters of salvation from becoming opinions. An issue is human opinion when God has not addressed the matter in the New Testament and an issue is an essential of salvation when God has spoken on the doctrine in the New Testament. Circumcision is not a requirement of salvation under the Testament of Jesus Christ.

The People. People hold certain positions on issues and we cannot separate an issue from the person who is maintaining a particular position on an issue. This is not a justification for those who attack people ruthlessly, but it is a plea for understanding that there are people involved and it is imperative that we be considerate of them.

In First Corinthians 9.19–23, Paul deals with this very subject of how to handle people and he teaches that as much as possible we are to, “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1Co 9.22b, 23). Troy Cummings, one of my teachers in preaching school, used to say to us, “Agree often, for there will be plenty of times when you will have to disagree.” He did not mean for us to compromise on any point of biblical teaching, but in other areas of insignificance do not be a disagreeable man, but strive to get along with people.

Paul continued his thought, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful; all things are lawful for me, but all things do not edify” (10.23). Therefore when an issue arises, discernment should be exercised to differentiate what is a matter of faith and what is a matter of opinion, realizing that though a certain opinion may be lawful to hold and to practice, it may not be expedient to practice it around people who have a problem with that particular opinion.

In the 19th century there was a man, Aylett Raines, who held the opinion that when a man is punished in hell, after a specified time he is restored to fellowship with God. Note carefully how some preachers handled both the issue and the man.

This disposition was soon to be tested in relation to a very important feature of the proposed reform—the scriptural basis of Christian union. The occasion for this was the case of Aylett Raines, who, though publicly identified with the movement, still retained, as was generally understood, his Restorationist opinions. The opponents of the cause had not failed to reproach its adherents with tolerating these errors, since they had not required a public renunciation of them and there were many in the Association who were quite sensitive upon the subject, and doubted whether under such circumstances Mr. Raines could be received. Mr. Campbell was aware of this state of feeling, so he took as the subject of his introductory discourse the fourteenth chapter of Romans, dwelling particularly upon the injunction in the first verse: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations” or, as in the rendering adopted in the new version from Thompson, “without regard to differences of opinions.”

On the following day the case of Mr. Raines was formally brought before the Association by Jacob Osborne, who wished to have the matter definitely settled. Thomas Campbell immediately rose and remarked that such a question was only calculated to create discord among the brethren. “Brother Raines,” said he, “has been with me during the last several months, and we have freely unbosomed ourselves to each other. He is philosophically a Restorationist and I am a Calvinist, but notwithstanding this difference of opinion between us, I would put my right hand into the fire and have it burnt off before I would hold up my hands against him. And from all I know of Brother Raines, if I were Paul, I would have him, in preference to any young man of my acquaintance, to be my Timothy.” To this warm commendation, Mr. Raines at a subsequent opportunity responded that “if he were Timothy, Thomas Campbell should be his Paul.” Alexander Campbell then made some remarks, again defining the difference between faith and opinion, stating that Mr. Raines’ view on the subject of the restoration of the wicked after a certain amount of punishment could be regarded as nothing but an opinion, since there was not a passage anywhere in the writings of prophets or apostles affirming it. It could never be considered a matter of belief, since there was not testimony to render it such. He therefore proposed that Mr. Raines should express his willingness to preach the gospel as the apostles preached it, and to retain his opinions as private property in harmony with the principles of the Reformation. If he would do this, he assured all present that in a short time all such opinions would fade away out of his mind, and he would see such a freeness and fullness in the gospel that he would not want men saved if they would not obey it. Walter Scott then expressed his entire concurrence in the views given, after which Mr. Raines made the declaration proposed by Mr. Campbell, and the question being put “Whether there was any law of Christ by which a brother could be condemned who deported himself as Mr. Raines proposed to do?” the Association decided by a very large majority that there was not.1

In 1830 Aylett Raines wrote to Alexander Campbell,

“I wish to inform you that my ‘restorationist’ sentiments have been slowly and imperceptibly erased from my mind by the ministry of Paul and Peter and some other illustrious preachers, with whose discourses and writings, I need not tell you, you seem to be intimately acquainted. After my immersion I brought my mind, as much as I possibly could, like a blank surface to the ministry of the new institution, and by this means I think many characters of truth have been imprinted in my mind which did not formerly exist there. … I hope during the remainder of my days to devote my energies, not to the building up of sectarian systems, but to the teaching of the Word.” This purpose Mr. Raines has fully accomplished in a faithful and most efficient ministry of more than forty years, and recently thus referred to the cherished remembrance of “the great kindness and magnanimity with which,” says he, “the Campbells and Walter Scott treated me after my baptism, and before I was convinced of the erroneousness of my restorationist philosophy. They used to say to me: ‘It is a mere philosophy, like Calvinism and Arminianism, and no part of the gospel.’ They made these isms of but little value, and therefore not worth contending for, and they did not put themselves in conflict with my philosophy, but rather urged me to preach the gospel in matter and form as did the apostles. This all appeared to me to be reasonable, and I did it; and one of the consequences was, that the philosophy within me became extinct, having no longer the coals of contention by which to warm or the crumbs of sectarian righteousness upon which to feed.”2

David Lipscomb’s comments also are worthy of consideration on this topic of how to treat both the issue and the people involved. Though the reader may not agree with Lipscomb’s position on the issue he is addressing (as I do not); yet his thoughts on how to handle differences of opinion ought to be imitated by everyone.

 We are not much of a believer in capital punishment either in church or state. We are never willing to give a man up finally, until we believe he has committed the sin unto death. So long as a man really desires to do right, to serve the Lord, to obey His commands we cannot withdraw from him. We are willing to accept him as a brother, no matter how ignorant he may be, or how far short the perfect standard his life may fall from this ignorance. We do not mean either to intimate that we are willing to compromise or to hold in abeyance one single truth of God’s holy writ, from any motive of policy or expediency. We will maintain the truth, press the truth upon him, compromise not one word or iota of that truth, yet forbear with the ignorance, the weakness of our brother who is anxious but not yet able to see the truth. I feel sure, if I am faithful, and he willing to learn the truth, he will come to the full measure of my knowledge. Why should I not, when I fall so far short of the perfect knowledge myself? How do I know that the line beyond which ignorance damns, is behind me, not before me? If I have no forbearance with his ignorance, how can I expect God to forbear with mine? What is needed is patient instruction and discipline in the church, instead of withdrawal from the weak. Final withdrawal is the end of discipline. I have no doubt it is much too often hastily resorted to, without previous instruction and discipline…To withdraw from and turn over to Satan, is just the opposite of discipline. It should be resorted to only when all discipline has wholly failed. So long then as a man exhibits a teachable disposition, is willing to hear, to learn and obey the truth of God, I care not how far he may be, how ignorant he is, I am willing to recognize him as a brother. No matter how wise or how near the truth or how moral a man may be, if he sets up a standard of his own or another and is not willing to learn of God, take his law and obey him, then I can withdraw from him. Not until he is beyond the reach of all instruction, expostulation or exhortation would I then surrender him.3

Therefore “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1Pe 4.11), meaning, say it the way the Bible says it; and if the Bible does not say it, it is a doctrine that ought not to be preached. This is the only sensible way to treat various issues that arise. It will correct, or otherwise silence, speculations that always seem to be brought up by men when they are maintaining their opinions. Moreover, it will help us to see how matters of faith and matters of opinion are treated scripturally.

While most agree that in matters of faith we should have unity and in matters of opinion we should have liberty and in all things we should have charity, it is another matter to differentiate between faith and opinion. Men in general, and denominationalists in particular, want to make matters of faith nothing more than opinion and they want to elevate a matter of opinion (or worse yet a false doctrine) to a matter of faith. However, if the Bible addresses an issue directly, how can it be an opinion of men? This is done with baptism. The Bible addresses it explicitly (Mark 16.16; Acts 2.38). How then can someone contend it is only one man’s opinion?


It has been taught correctly, I believe, that we should allow one another to follow personal convictions without requiring each other to do what each cannot approve in his conscience. You must be able to follow your personal convictions—provided it does not violate scripture (Rom 14.22)—without trying to make others do the same things, if it violates their conscience. Instead, the church can only allow that for which there is clear scriptural authority while all other matters are dealt with in a spirit of forbearance or at least until the church is further enlightened on the issue by a continual study of the Scriptures.

This is not a question of whether the revelation of God is complete, but no man has understood the Bible completely yet, especially on all of these issues of contention that come up from time to time. Let us recognize that we can all learn more and that we can learn from others and from previous generations.

Interestingly, Jesus did not initiate many of the confrontations He had with the Pharisees, though He certainly answered their attacks (See Matt 9.1–13, 34; 12.1–14; 15.1–20; 16.1–4; 19.3–9; 22.15–22, 34–40; 21.33–46). In Matthew 23, Jesus exposed the Pharisees severely, but this was during the last week of His life, after having responded, “to their challenges, answering their questions, living a steadfast example, and asking them to examine the Scriptures and to rethink their conclusions.”4

It was the Pharisees who pressed their opinions to the point of testing fellowship and so Jesus dealt with their issues accordingly.

Contending for personal opinions does not edify the body or save others because such a person loves his opinion more than his brethren, causing him to destroy brethren and congregations. Therefore, an examination of the Scriptures must be made to determine whether a doctrine has scriptural backing or is a personal preference. Furthermore, Romans 14 explains that a Christian may hold an opinion on a particular issue, but he is to be careful to keep from binding his opinion upon others and thus remain in unity and fellowship. Doing what is necessary to maintain the Spirit’s unity, keeping love and patience in the forefront is the heartbeat of fellowship in Christ (Eph 4.1–6). Paul wrote in Romans 14.17, “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

N. B. Hardeman taught that we could have fellowship when disagreeing about certain issues, that is, when conviction on an issue does not lead to sin or disobedience to the will of the Lord. For example, whether the Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian representatively or literally should not affect our fellowship, because neither position keeps a person from obeying God. If a person denies that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Christian at all, then Romans 8.9 has been violated, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Consequently fellowship will be disrupted. Therefore, let us handle issues with wisdom, looking carefully not only to the issues, but realizing there are people involved.

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1Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Religious Book Service: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1897, vol. II, pp. 244-246.

2Ibid., pp. 247,248.

3David Lipscomb, “Queries on Civil Government,” Gospel Advocate, Vol. XVII, No. 17, April 22, 1875, p. 399,400. Quoted in: Earl West, The Search for the Ancient Order, Religious Book Service: Indianapolis, Indiana, 1950, Vol. II, pp. 460,461.

4David Chadwell, “Principles Jesus Used to Promote Peace,” The Biblical Doctrine of Fellowship, Magnolia Bible College 1985 Lectures, p. 25.


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