Disagreements in the church discourage me these days. Not the existence of disagreements—those are to be expected. We’ve been living with disagreement since the days of the early church. I’m talking about the way we handle debate.

Debates arise whenever we encounter Bible-believing Christians who agree on the essentials of the faith yet disagree on how to rank the biggest dangers facing the church today, or how to be the best stewards of our resources, or how to “do church,” or how to interact with secular sources of knowledge, or how to determine political priorities, or how to respond to pastoral failings. These debates often degenerate into quarrels when we assume these areas of disagreement represent compromise at the fundamental level of Christian conviction.

What if there’s a better way to explore these disagreements? We can learn something by looking to cross-cultural mission work when biblical convictions and core values come to the forefront of cultural clashes.

Tattoos and Adultery

In their timely book Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church, Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer offer an example of culture clash. They recount the story of Amy Medina, an American missionary in Tanzania, whose husband was teaching a class on developing a biblical worldview. Somehow, the subject of tattoos arose, and the class reacted so negatively to the idea of a Christian getting a tattoo that the missionary asked: “Which would bother you more: if your pastor got a tattoo, or if he committed adultery?” The class was unanimous. The tattoo would be more disturbing!

What’s going on? At first glance, if you’re an American Christian (particularly one with tats to show off), you may find it hard to comprehend the reasons these students would conclude that the tattoo is worse than adultery. You may write off the debate as an expression of syncretism, or a strange new form of legalism. Even worse, you might reinforce a subtle ethnocentrism, in which you assume the response of the Tanzanian believers to be “backward” in comparison with the more “enlightened” views you hold as a Westerner.

Similarly, when you come across believers with different convictions on a wide range of topics, you may at first feel shocked at the disagreement. (I know many Christians who were appalled at the thought that any genuine believer could cast a vote for Donald Trump, and I know many Christians who were equally flabbergasted at the thought that any genuine believer wouldn’t vote for him.) You can jump to the conclusion that your disagreement is due to the other person’s compromise, or syncretism, or legalism, or self-righteousness. Or you can—as this missionary in Tanzania did—probe deeper to see the underlying roots, where the students’ passion about tattoos comes from.

Going Deeper 

In this case, as the conversation progressed, the missionary acknowledged that the Scriptures explicitly forbid both tattoos and adultery (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 5:18). The majority of American Bible-readers believe the tattoo prohibition to be irrelevant today, but the Tanzanians believe both commands are binding, and surprisingly, the tattoo represents something even worse than adultery. Muehlhoff and Langer explain the students’ mindset:

“Tattoos are associated with witchcraft and evil spirits. A tattoo, regardless of personal intentions, is a mark of ownership placed on your body that either confirms the influence of a witch doctor or an evil spirit over your life, or at the very least implies or invites such influence. Adultery is wrong, but surely even Americans think it is worse for a pastor to publicly identify with an evil spirit.” (69)

To be clear, the students were not pro-adultery. They did believe, however, that because adultery happens out of the public eye and would be handled in private, the sin of adultery wouldn’t bring the same level of shame to the family or church.

“Tattoos, on the other hand, are visible signs of allegiance to evil spirits or tribal witch doctors. Culturally, the tattoo proclaims that Jesus is not really my Lord—some other person or spirit is.” (69)

The Common Ground 

It would be wrong for the Tanzanian students who recoil from the American fondness for tattoos to write off as “apostate” their Western brothers and sisters who see this issue differently. It would also be wrong for the American missionary who finds it hard to understand the way these students rank the seriousness of sins to dismiss their concerns. A better way, Muehlhoff and Langer point out, is to explore the spectrum of conviction to better clarify the nature of the disagreement.

How should we think about this conflict? The students and the missionary agree that the inspired Word of God is their final authority. It may look to the students like the Americans don’t take God’s Word seriously because they seem to be okay with tattoos, but a wiser approach would be to assume the best of their Christian siblings and find common ground to work from.

Clarifying the Real Disagreements 

Beginning with common ground helps us find greater clarity on where the real disagreement lies. One area presents itself quickly: the principles we use in applying biblical commands across historical and cultural contexts, as well as the difference between the covenants. As the discussion unfolds, it becomes clear that the debate isn’t over the authority of Scripture, but how we interpret this Old Testament command.

A second takeaway is the emphasis the students give to spiritual warfare. Faithfulness to one’s spouse is a moral mandate, for sure, and to break one’s covenantal vows is to fail morally. The tattoo, however (at least in this culture), is a public sign of allegiance to a witch doctor, evil spirit, or something supernatural. The Americans may object that we shouldn’t read African cultural concerns into every tattoo, while the Tanzanians may object that Americans too often underestimate or neglect the dynamics of spiritual warfare. (This cross-cultural discussion of how much or how little we should emphasize the powers and principalities is a subject I devoted several columns to last year.)

A third area of disagreement arises from the difference between living in a guilt/innocence culture versus an honor/shame culture. That’s the primary reason the students believed the tattoo was a greater scandal than the adultery. “Guilt before the law as opposed to shame before the community is valued differently in the two cultures,” Muehlhoff and Langer write (71).

Debating Better

How should Americans and Tanzanians proceed with this debate? Well, a substantive discussion would require both sides to identify where the conflict is actually located. You start with common ground, and then move from there to clarify the nature of the differences. In this case, the disagreement stems from the principle of how we interpret and apply Old and New Testament commands, and from certain core values: how we lift up the importance of spiritual warfare and sexual fidelity and honor and shame within a community.

Muehlhoff and Langer conclude:

“The conviction spectrum does not eliminate disagreements but rather locates and clarifies our disagreements. The goal is that appreciating the common ground lays a foundation for respecting differing convictions. This opens the door to further conversation and hopefully to respectful compromises along the lines which Paul suggests when he exhorts those who are stronger in faith not to flaunt their freedom and those who are weaker in faith not to judge their brothers.” (72)

Why shouldn’t Christians here in the United States follow the same approach when we disagree? Instead of lobbing grenades, making accusations, and assuming the worst about brothers and sisters who see things differently, step back. Build upon the common ground you share regarding the essentials of the Christian faith. Take the time to explore the underlying root issues, so you’re able to better clarify where the real disagreement is: in the area of principles and core values. It’s there you can have a fruitful discussion and debate because you will actually debate the issue and not rush to dismiss those with whom you differ.

Will this approach resolve all our differences and disagreements? Of course not. But maybe we’d be better equipped to disagree without dividing the church.

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