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!

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Rapture Ruptures

We had a really good discussion at our church gathering yesterday on the subject of the timing of the Rapture relative to Jesus’ future bodily return to earth. Two views were represented: the Pre-Tribulation Rapture position and the understanding that the Rapture coincides with the Lord’s bodily return; that is, the Post-Tribulation view! (We were careful to ensure that the Mid-Tribulation and A-Millenial views got a mention as well, even though none of us hold to them.) Perhaps not surprisingly no-one was persuaded by an opposing view to their own, but it was, as usual, a joy to be able to talk about it together with mutual respect and honour, plus the freedom to be able to agree to differ, relationships being thereby strengthened, instead of, as is so often the case with Christians, being put at risk.

It is of great sadness to me that so many such secondary matters become the cause of Christians falling out with each other and even saying unpleasant things about each other, and both as a brother in the Lord and because of my function as a Bible teacher, I have always crawled over broken glass in order to try to help folk understand how wrong it is for such things to happen. I have further become aware over the last two or three years that a veritable war of words has broken out over end times issues specifically between believers who hold to either the Pre-Tribulation or Mid-Tribulation positions, some of whom I have known personally and who were previously at one in both fellowship and ministry. But I now hear the language of ‘heretic’ and ‘leaven’ being used of people simply because they have a different understanding of the timing of the Rapture relative to the Lord’s bodily return. There are some things which I think really do need to said about this.

Firstly, it is simply a fact that no-one knows when the Great Tribulation is going to start. There are Christians who think they know, of course, but they are as deceived as were those who similarly predicted that it would happen within a particular time-frame now actually gone and in the past. And should any such prediction of a particular time-frame end up being proved correct, then it will simply be in the same way that broken clocks tell the right time twice a day. Let us be clear, these events might begin tomorrow, or they might not happen for another hundred years…or even longer! The only thing we can now with certainty is that these events are closer now than when scripture was written! So here, I would argue, is the deal!

If the Great Tribulation and Rapture don’t happen in our lifetime, and they might well not (they hasn’t happened for the last two thousand years, so what are the odds of it being us who are alive when it does?), then the issue as to whether or not the Church goes through the Great Tribulation is a bit irrelevant as far as we are concerned. So in the light of that simple fact the idea that Christians should end up falling out over it becomes just ludicrously ridiculous! But say it does happen in ur lifetime, what then? Well, if I am right and it turns out that the Rapture does come first, then those Christians who currently believe that the Church goes through the Great Tribulation will be absolutely delighted, to say nothing of extremely relieved, to be Raptured instead. (No losers there then!) But if it’s me who’s wrong and I wake up one morning to find that the Great Tribulation has started and that I was therefore, by definition, completely wrong about the order in which it’s all going to happen, then I will look to the Lord for grace and mercy to endure tribulation and difficulty just as I do every day anyway and have always done! (So no losers there either!) And even if that means I have to then face the worst tribulation I have ever known, then how would that be any different to the many Christians suffering imprisonment, torture and martyrdom in various parts of the world even as I write?

Don’t get me wrong here though: I make no claim to being anything other than a fully rehearsed coward, and I may well fail the Lord in being willing to die for Him. (One of my favourite verses in the whole Bible is when Jesus says that if we’re persecuted then we should flee, and I shall have little trouble being a good example and leading the way on that one! If you’re unsure what to do just follow that trail of dust; it’ll be me taking the lead like a good elder should and running away faster than anybody else!) But whether the Church goes through the Great Tribulation or not is absolutely irrelevant to the simple fact that any believer could be persecuted at any time, and that we have no guarantee of immunity from such ever happening to us. All we can do is to trust that the Lord will give us the grace we need to go through whatever we have to at any one time, persecution included. Just remember that whatever happens to us we are going to end up with the Lord in glory! So absolutely no losers there either!

May we be mature enough not to let such secondary matters divide us, and to learn respect for honourably held differing understandings regarding issues that just aren’t as clear cut in scripture as some like to imagine they are. I heard it put well by someone recently who said that belief in the future bodily return of the Lord is a camel, but the order of events leading up to it, the Rapture included, are gnats in comparison. And of course the conclusion is obvious: when believers who are united in their belief that the Lord is going to return one day end up separating from each other over the secondary issue of the timing of the Rapture, then they are indeed straining at gnat’s and swallowing camels. The unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is biblically just so much more important than having to have agreement concerning things such as the timing of the Rapture, and there is no legitimate reason for believers breaking fellowship and separating over such. There needs to be separation over unrepentant sin, of course! And for serious heresy too, by which I mean denial of the basic tenets of the Christian faith! But separating over the order of end time events and rupturing over the Rapture? Man, it’s time to get serious!