3 Rules for Treating Christian Cobelligerents Amid Theological Difference

Matt Borrusch

About a century ago, our culture had already moved away from the traditional lifestyles and habits of the Victorian/Edwardian eras to more modern, secular sensibilities based on rationalism and libertinism. The Christian church was hot on the cultural heels. It had, by and large, rejected the supernatural, denied the historicity of the Bible, and replaced the true Gospel with a social gospel that set as its goal tending to perceived societal injustices and earthly needs rather than the restoration of souls to a right relationship with God.

Responding to this threat to orthodox Christianity in both the church and the culture at large, a group of determined, godly men banded together to craft a message and a movement to battle the modernist downgrade.  These men were from all different denominations – and had significant theological disagreements.  However, they worked together to preach, write, and model The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith, with the hope of stemming the tide.

Today, we are reliving history. There is a group of godly men devoted to stemming the tide of cultural rot and heresy in the church through preaching and living out of the Word in the public square. The names are different, and now we have the internet and social media, expanding the battlefield. Like their forefathers, they come from different theological stripes, and some disagreements are significant. But we all have the same goal: to preach Christ and, with the help of the Spirit of God, shine the light of the Word in the cultural darkness and build His kingdom.

A Potential Pitfall

We are advancing the ball forward, like our forefathers, who also started off well. But about 10 years into the process, the wheels started to come off the wagon. The theological disagreements began to eclipse the main cause, and internecine warfare ensued. Eschatology and acceptance of dispensational theology were some dividing lines. You can read about the 1930s Presbyterian conflict here.   

The fundamentalist movement that united everyone together against the threat of modernism soon became victim to secondary separation, based mostly on second-tier theological fights. By the 1970s, the movement had so fractured that it had lost most of its cultural influence. Personality conflicts took over and the issues being fought over became petty and trivial considering the threats that were being faced.  But we should not make the same mistake. To avoid doing so, we should identify, publicly acknowledge, and champion the best each others’ ministries have to offer and encourage our fellow brothers in that vein.

The Example of Barnabas

In the book of Acts, we know Barnabas not only as the companion of the Apostle Paul but also because of his nickname, the “son of encouragement.” It was he who assuaged the Christians’ fears of the newly converted Paul so he could be welcomed and begin his ministry. In Acts 11:22-26 it was Barnabas that was sent to Antioch to report that the Greeks had come to faith in Christ. They knew his character, kindness, and acceptance of fellow believers.   

However, that is not to say that he did not stand for his principles. When Paul and Barnabas had a dispute over John Mark accompanying Paul, they separated, which means Barnabas did not capitulate. However, it is implied they did eventually resolve their conflict as Paul later deems John Mark useful in his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). Barnabas was also one of the men in Galatians, along with Peter, who was led astray by Jewish favoritism. Paul had to rebuke Peter in “the presence of all.” (Galatians 2:13-14)

Both Paul and Barnabas, despite their differences, worked as a team and encouraged each other in the ministry. Barnabas thought the best of Paul and risked his own reputation to bring Paul into the fold. However, they also were willing to disagree strongly with each other when necessary. This should be the model we follow as we battle together to advance the Kingdom of Christ.

Rules of Fellow Engagement and Encouragement

Like the early fundamentalists of the 20th Century, we both have an incredible opportunity as we’re at a significant crossroads. We have the added blessing that our contemporary brethren seem more doctrinally developed and sound than many of the 20th-century fundamentalists, especially on the doctrines of grace and the sovereignty of God.

Here are 3 suggestions as to how to interact with each other, especially on public platforms:

1) Look for Things to Encourage

Actively seek out the best aspects of a fellow brother’s ministry and encourage him in it both publicly and privately, even if you have some disagreements.

      There will be Christian leaders and influencers that we love as brothers, respect their faithfulness, and value their insights, even though we may have a few serious disagreements on some matters of practical Christian living and finer doctrinal points. However, it’s still a joy to hear them preach, hear their discussions, and watch their broadcasts. Upon meeting them in person, we would/should likely be overjoyed, remembering the issues and doctrines that unite us are far more important and numerous than what might divide us.

      2) Represent Fairly

      When we have disagreements, we need to make sure issues and terms are represented fairly and accurately, especially if they are being publicly broadcast.   

      We need to treat our brothers fairly and truthfully. No strawmen allowed. We should use categories. To do otherwise is to violate the 9th commandment.

      3) Eyes on the Prize

      We should always keep our eyes on the main goal – that Christ’s will be done in Heaven and on Earth.  

      The early fundamentalists veered away from this by making secondary issues primary, losing sight of the main threat. By the time it had degenerated to a low point in the 1970s, a new wave of “social justice warriors” (like Jim Wallis) gained significant ground


      Whether we experience a third “Great Awakening” or our future looks more like Strauss’ “fourth turning theory” (in which those currently in childhood will become an idealist generation that launches a new cultural/spiritual paradigm for good or ill), we have the opportunity to guide this generation by modeling Christlikeness and brotherly love, even in disagreement. Our goal should be to truly reflect the words of our Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John where he says, By this everyone will know that you are My disciples if you love one another. (John 13:35).

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