A Couple of Transatlantic Misunderstandings – Part 1

It has been well noted that England and America are two nations separated by a common language, and as an Englishman who spends much time there I can confirm that this is indeed the case. But although English is my first language I’ve managed to pick up some Americanese and can occasionally bridge the gap!

There are a couple of turns of phrase which I use quite often that seem to cause confusion in both countries, but for completely different reasons and depending which side of the Atlantic I happen to be when I use them. One is a phrase very commonly used in England, which oft-times raises eyebrows amongst American believers, and the other is a phrase I picked up from American believers which causes a bit of confusion in the Motherland. So in an attempt to undo the confusion I continue to cause on both sides of the Atlantic, let me define these terms (hopefully) to the satisfaction of both my American and English brothers and sisters. I will deal with one today, and the other in the morning.

The first phrase, which I have used since childhood, and which I have never known an Englishman to misunderstand, is the simple phrase, ‘Agree to differ.” And this comes up because I often teach that one of the most important things Christians need to learn to do is to master is the art of being able to agree to differ. However, what Americans seem to hear when I say that is that is the suggestion that Christians should just avoid addressing difficult issues and not try to come to one mind, so as to reach agreement in order to maintain the unity of our faith. They perceive me to mean that we ought to accept a kind of lowest-common-denominator-type stance on things, pretty much just ignoring what scripture teaches regarding them thus leaving the tough issues undefined, ambiguous and un-dealt with so as to keep the peace. Such would, they say – and quite rightly too – be to not take what the New Testament teaches about striving to be of one mind very seriously. So let me clarify what I mean by saying that believers need to learn how to agree to differ.

I think it is is probably the case that there aren’t two followers of Jesus alive on the planet at any one time who would agree with each other about everything. Indeed, how many even godly husbands and wives tick the same boxes about absolutely everything? It is therefore vital that we understand that what holds us together in fellowship is obedience and faithfulness to the Lord, and not the need for comprehensive or complete agreement on what that necessarily looks like in every circumstance. Further, because everyone is at a different place in their discipleship, it is simply ridiculous to assume that every Christian will share the same outlook and understanding regarding everything, even though we are all reading the same Bible.

This is not, of course, to say that there are no red-lines. But it is to say that a lot of Christians seem to have so many red-lines it’s just crazy. I have known believers to fall out and break fellowship with each other over such secondary matters as differing understandings of the relationship between election/predestination and free-will, whether it’s alright to read Harry Potter books or not (and even the writings of C S Lewis), the timing of the Rapture and even over which political party o one votes for. And such fallings out and divisions between Christians, which scripture condemns as being actually carnal and sinful, occur precisely when we don’t properly understand what it means to be able to simply agree to differ.

I am not implying that such differences shouldn’t ever be pursued to see if things might be resolved and agreement reached, but it is simply the case that often, no matter how much discussion and debate ensues, neither party has a change of mind (why should they?), and to try to then pursue matters beyond that point is at best simply a waste of time (having the same old debate again and again and again and again and again), but at worst to actually risk introducing the temptation to end up with wrong feelings towards one another and actual relationship breakdown.

Definition: agreement to differ is simply the mature biblical response to intractable disagreement over issues that are not foundational, thus guarding the wider unity of the relationships being put potentially at risk because of the ongoing discord. I don’t mean that we dumb everything down and continue to just fellowship willy-nilly with believers in serious unrepentant black-and-white chapter-and-verse sin, or who push serious doctrinal error such as denies the very foundations of the Christian faith, but what I do mean is that there are somewhat wider parameters and scope for acceptable differing understandings of things, both doctrinal and practical, than we often think. Whatever our understanding might be regarding, for instance, the timing of the Rapture relative to the Second Coming, or whether the Church has replaced Israel permanently or temporarily Or anything else of a similar vein), it doesn’t make any qualitative difference to the godliness, or lack of it, of our everyday lives. Likewise, if a truly godly family likes Harry Potter as entertainment whereas you disapprove, then what does it ultimately matter? If they aren’t demanding that everyone else approves, or that others ought to do likewise, then what possible harm is done?

In both Romans and Corinthians Paul teaches that there are things regarding which the Lord has not provided any black-and-white-chapter-and-verse definitive instructions. The way to handle such things, he says, is for each believer to simply be true to their own conscience and to leave everybody else to theirs. Whether it’s meat-eating versus vegetarianism, or observing or ignoring special days such as sabbaths, Christians are to just leave each other alone and make no judgement. I must do what my conscience dictates regarding such matters, and you must do likewise. And although Paul obviously gives examples that pertained then, there are a gazillion ones that would fit the bill today. and which are therefore our equivalents. Drinking alcohol or not, watching TV or not, celebrating Christmas or not, reading Harry Potter books or not – the list is endless!

Regarding such matters scripture teaches that there is no necessity whatever for Christians to be in agreement, or to even try to come to agreement. Each is free – indeed, commanded – to be true to their own conscience and we must never interfere with other believers freedom to do the same. So this is what I mean when I say that, when biblically appropriate so do do, Christians need to learn how to just agree to differ.

I will deal with the second of these phrases in the morning. So see you then!

Merry Christmas

Any honest look beyond the Christmas card image of the Yuletide season reveals something that not only the world hates to acknowledge, but many Christians too. Whenever the righteousness of God is revealed in the context of His plan to redeem a fallen and sinful humanity, the bearing of shame by the innocent is the only possible outcome. At the heart of the Christmas story, therefore, is a faithful and virtuous young woman who becomes pregnant outside of marriage, and a young man who marries her knowing he will be regarded by his family and peers as not just the man who was obviously her sad and pathetic second best, but also a fool for not preserving his dignity by just cancelling the wedding and wiping his hands of her. How few would have believed this young maiden’s story that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and not a worthless fornicator, and that Joseph was actually as honourable and righteous a young man as any could care to meet. Their obedience to the God they so loved meant that shame, indignity and reproach would follow them for the rest of their lives.

And so it is for any who truly love and follow the One those two wonderful young people brought into the world and raised so faithfully, for more than any other man in history, the Lord Jesus was born to be the bearer of shame par excellence! Not shame for His own sins, of course, for never did He do any wrong; but rather the shame of everyone for whom He died. It is as if He was saying, “If they won’t take the blame for their sin, then I will take the blame for them!”

Whenever the righteousness of God hits up against the sinfulness of man, it is forever that same goodness which gets condemned in the eyes of unrepentant sinners as being itself evil. Thus, then, did the Lord end His days on earth, nailed to a cross of shame, being considered as, at best, a deluded deceiver, or at worst, a loathed and hated blasphemer. Never has any man been as innocent as was He, yet neither has any man borne such shame and reproach.

It bothers me then that Christians, and in particular Christian leaders, place so much importance on being honoured and respected, and on being highly esteemed by society. It seems somewhat of a far cry from Paul’s declaration that he and the other apostles were treated as the ‘off-scouring of the earth’, and from the way in which he gloried in his weakness and tribulation, plus the ultimate personal rejection of being actually physically persecuted. To seek to be honoured in the eyes of men, it seems to me, is therefore completely at variance with living in such a way so as to be honoured by God. Yet so much that Christians do, and so much of the way in which the Christian Church goes about things, seems positively designed to ‘look good’ in the eyes of the world, and to secure the honour and respect the Lord Himself never received.

Jesus taught that it is a very bad thing when all men think well of us, yet it is often what Christians go all out to secure for themselves. I can only say that it is fortunate indeed that neither Mary nor Joseph thought that way. Our choice is simple: to live fully by God’s Word, thereby incurring the wrath and disrespect of those who don’t – carnal Christians included – or tone down the Lord’s truth and demands so as to make ourselves as acceptable and inoffensive as necessary in order that all men to think well of us.

The writer to the Hebrews exhorted, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14)

I love Christmas and everything it stands for and represents; but let us never forget that at the heart of the Lord’s birth, life and death – and therefore of our discipleship – is the bearing of shame and reproach for Him. If the world, and I include here worldly Christians, love us, then the chances are that it is because we are loving the world: and that, according to the epistle of James, is enmity with God.

I wish you all a merry Christmas, and a very happy and blessed New Year!