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Some Christians are eager to defend sound doctrine. Well and good.

But is the unity of the body of Christ one of those doctrines we jealously guard? The unity of the church is one the objects of Christ’s death (Eph. 2:14). This, as much as anything else, is what the New Testament calls us to cherish and uphold. Therefore, our zeal for theology must never exceed our zeal for our actual brothers and sisters in Christ. We must be marked by love. We must, as my dad always puts it, pursue both gospel doctrine and gospel culture.

In the New Testament, humility is the pathway to unity. For instance, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians about “being of the same mind” (Phil. 2:2) is followed by his appeal to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3), in imitation of Christ’s action toward them in the gospel (Phil. 2:5–11).

Or consider Paul’s appeal to unity in Romans 14. The presenting issue in this chapter is a conflict over Jewish food laws, but the principles Paul invokes could apply to many other issues as well. His overriding concern in this chapter is that the different convictions held by Roman Christians not be a source of division among them. Thus, the “strong” and the “weak” are called to mutual acceptance.

Specifically, amid their differences of conscience, Paul calls them to be welcoming (Rom. 14:1), not to quarrel (Rom. 14:1), not to despise each other (Rom. 14:3), and not to pass judgment on one another (Rom. 14:3, 13). Paul even calls the Romans to let go of their rights and adjust their practice in order not to violate the conscience of a brother:

If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (Rom. 14:15)

Today, as well, there are plenty of issues over which Christians will be tempted to quarrel, despise each other, and pass judgment on each other. Instead, we must resolve “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13). Like Paul, we must even be willing to make sacrificial adjustments for the sake of our unity with others in the body of Christ. If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything—if it doesn’t hurt—then you probably are not adjusting enough.

Paul grounds his appeal in Romans 14:10 in the fact that each person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

This is healthy to remember: we’ll give an account of our theological speech and conduct, no less than any other area of our life. When we’re standing before the throne on judgment day, what battles will we look back on and be proud we fought? I suspect most of our Twitter debates will not be among them.

The unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that he died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.

The unity of the church was so valuable to Jesus that he died for it. If we care about sound theology, let us care about unity as well.

How to Handle Differences

As you read this, you may be working through the practical ramifications of theological triage, whether in your job, your church, your denomination, or some other set of relationships. All of us will face these kinds of challenges at some point or another. The reality is that if you think for yourself, you will likely, at some point or another, hold to a different view than is socially convenient.

When that happens, what should you do?

1. Be Honest

We must be transparent about our convictions, even if it causes disruption in our vocation, church life, or relationships. Painful as that is, it’s not worth searing your conscience by misrepresenting yourself or your views. Some people seem to “adjust” their convictions with every new context.

Whatever other nuances may be involved in how you think about representing your views in the context of ordination or employment, the fact remains that lying is sin. Therefore, when a doctrinal statement requires your affirmation “without mental reservation,” it means without mental reservation.

2. Be Tactful

Honesty is not the same as volunteering your views at the earliest possible moment, regardless of context. There are times to be quiet; there are times to answer only the question you are asked. For instance, when you are sharing the gospel with someone, or when you are seeking to build a Christian friendship, there may be topics you don’t intentionally bring up in the initial stages of the conversation or relationship. That is not necessarily compromise; it often reflects wisdom.

3. Be Gracious

Kindness and civility are becoming scarce these days. More and more, outrage is the norm. Therefore, we can testify to the gospel by speaking with kindness and moderation as we navigate our theological disagreements.

Go out of your way to show love and respect to the other person, even when that person infuriates you. Doing theological triage is an opportunity to live out Jesus’s words in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

4. Be Trusting

God is sovereign over even your doctrinal changes. He’s looking out for you. The hairs on your head are all numbered. You can trust him to guide you and take care of you. When my wife and I were in Chicago for a year of sabbatical and study, we made Psalm 121:3 our theme verse:

He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

Every night before we went to sleep we prayed for God’s guidance for where he would deploy us after the year was over. He answered that prayer. Looking back at my life, I can see how God has been faithful to guide us throughout our doctrinal and denominational changes, and to bring us to a place where we can happily serve.

It’s an encouraging and calming thought to remember God is attentively watching over the path we walk—including our theological migrations.

Editors’ note: 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Gavin Ortlund’s new book Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway/TGC, 2020).

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