Strife is a mark of worldliness, a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). While strife remains in the world it brings nations to war and tears apart families. Still worse is when strife enters the Lord’s body, tearing apart churches, discouraging the faithful, and providing an object of ridicule for the heathen. While strife is generally to be avoided, there are certain types of strife in which Christians must engage. Acts 15 presents an occasion in which dissension and disputation was warranted:
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question (verses 1-2, emphasis LM).
The term “therefore” indicates a conclusion that follows what precedes—as it has been put, “When you see a ‘therefore,’ see what it’s ‘there for.’” When the men from Judea were teaching the brethren falsely, it naturally followed that Paul and Barnabas would have a sizable dissension and disputation with them. Likewise, for the faithful child of God today, there comes a time when it naturally follows that he will dissent and dispute.
When the Peril of Sin is Allowed
Satan pretty well has his way with the world. He is called “the god of this world” because of the preeminent place he holds in its heart (2 Cor. 4:4). From Eve’s first taste of the fruit up to the present moment, sin has reigned. John contrasted the church with the world: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19, New King James Version). Unfortunately, although “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof” (2:17), the world is content to continue in the destructive ways of sin. Even more unfortunate is that many brethren are apparently content to allow it, perhaps even to join it.
By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul castigated the Corinthian church for sitting idly by while fornication was being committed:
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you (1 Cor. 5:2).
The Corinthians should have spoken up when this sin was taking place. Because they failed to speak up, Paul was compelled to take them to task. When sin is being condoned, Christians are compelled to speak up.
Today, sodomy is called an “alternate lifestyle,” as though it were a viable choice (compare with Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). Young heterosexual couples likewise live together in fornication, with no apparent thought that it might be wrong (compare with 1 Cor. 6:13-7:2). The current “sexy” fashion trend encourages young women to dress in such a way as to entice men into lust, and thereby into sin and death (Matt. 5:27-29; Jas. 1:14-15; compare with Matt. 18:6). False doctrines on marriage, divorce, and remarriage encourage unscripturally joined couples to remain together in adultery (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:10-11). Loose fellowship practices spread the leaven of sin throughout the church (1 Cor. 5:6-13).
When such is taking place, it naturally follows that the faithful Christian will speak up, and dissent and dispute if a defense is attempted. Satan might be getting his way, but Christians charge boldly into the fray (Eph. 6:10-18). It may require firm rebuke. It may require, as it did for the Corinthians, the touchy process of “put[ting] away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Cor. 5:3-5, 13). Some will not like it. But if one’s soul is threatened, it is not an enemy but a friend who will try to talk the imperiled one out of his predicament.
When the Pattern of God is Altered
God has given a pattern for those living in the Christian age regarding what they need to do to be saved: Hear the Gospel of Christ (Acts 11:14; Rom. 10:17), Believe (John 8:24; Heb. 11:6), Repent of sin (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30), Confess Christ (Rom. 10:10; 1 John 4:15), and be immersed in water for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). To remain saved then requires faithful Christian living (Matt. 10:22; 1 Cor. 15:58). When some were trying to bind circumcision upon Christians to the extent of saying, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1); they were guilty of altering God’s pattern for salvation. Should we not dissent and dispute when teachers today assert that one can be saved by faith only? (against Jas. 2:24). Or when they replace God’s plan of salvation with a “sinner’s prayer”? (against 1 Pet. 3:12). Or when they require a priest’s mediation to pronounce someone saved? (against 1 Tim. 2:5). Salvation can only be found in Christ’s pattern, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
God’s pattern is not limited to His plan of salvation—indeed, adherence to His pattern in all things is essential to maintaining salvation (Heb. 2:1-3; 2 John 9). God has a pattern for the organization of the church—elders overseeing the flock and its work, with deacons serving various needs of the church under the elders’ oversight (Acts 20:28; Phlp. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). The church is instructed, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Heb. 13:17). When some want to make the evangelist the pastor/overseer, or to subject a serving eldership to popular vote of the congregation, it naturally follows that faithful Christians will dissent and dispute. Such is also true when the Lord’s pattern for the worship and name of the church is altered.
The church is to stand at the ready to defend the purity of God’s pattern: “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Elders, the overseers within a local church, must be able to refute error, and to refute it forcefully. An elder may be appointed only, if among other qualifications, he is one “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). All members should likewise stand at the ready to give a defense of the Gospel pattern (Phlp. 1:7, 17; 1 Peter 3:15).
When the Precision of God’s Word is Attacked
Beginning particularly in the nineteenth century, certain forces sought to alter God’s authoritative pattern by devious means—by eliminating the possibility of there even being an authoritative pattern. Some of them began to question the authorship of various books of the Bible, and to assign them such late dates as to render their future prophecies a farce. Others have tried to find clashing doctrines between the different writers of the New Testament. There is little doubt that their motivation has largely been to undermine the accuracy of the Bible. One particularly noted destructive critic, Julius Wellhausen, admitted “almost before I heard his reasons” he was ready to accept a hypothesis that placed the writings of Moses as a late addition to the prophets. Others question whether an ancient book can be applied to a modern world.
Is God’s word precise? Is it authored by God, accurate in its statements, and applicable to modern man? It certainly claims to be (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12; 2 Pet. 1:3). And it will certainly stand up to testing (Matt. 24:35; John 10:35; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). The Bible contains historical statements that could have been made only by those contemporary with the events they described. Those of later generations questioned the historical accuracy of references to “Hittites” (Exod. 3:8; Num. 13:29; et al.) and a Roman proconsul governing in Cyprus (Acts 13:7, American Standard Version). Further archaeological discovery and historical research has shown several such statements accurate. One could look to Biblical prophecies clearly fulfilled centuries after they were made (Isa. 44:28; Dan. 2:36-45). One could look to the perfect unity of the Bible, despite the fact that approximately 40 different men wrote its 66 books.
The precise word of God has profoundly affected countless lives through the centuries, and will no doubt continue to do so.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
With the attacks the word of God is facing, and with the clear evidence on its side, should not those who have been begotten by it be standing at the ready to defend it?
As with Paul and Barnabas, there come times for the faithful child of God when it naturally follows that he will dissent and dispute. The current culture may be one of “live and let live” and “just agree to disagree,” but the voice of reason—the voice of Truth—must be heard. Whether it be confronting these issues in public debate, speaking with others one on one, or whatever format it might take, the Lord expects Christians to engage in reasonable dissension and disputation.