Updated: Jan 12
The Bible says a lot about quarreling:
Don’t “quarrel over opinions” (Rom. 14:1)
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies” (2 Tim. 2:23)
“Avoid foolish controversies…dissensions, and quarrels” (Titus 3:9)
Those who crave “quarrels about words” shouldn’t be elders (1 Tim. 6:4)
“Godless chatter…will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:16-17)
Paul says some discussions are so destructive they’re like gangrene—the Greek word here refers to severe illnesses that progressively eat away a person’s body until it consumed them whole.
This paints a graphic picture of what quarreling does to the body of Christ: it eats away at it like molten iron melting through plastic. So if it continues, we’re in danger of being “consumed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).
Unity is important.
If we aren’t united:
We can’t love one another
We look like the world
We harm our witness
We wreck our credibility
We fail our mission to be salt and light
Unity is a huge deal, but how we live it out can be confusing.
Does it mean we can’t share our opinions? Or disagree on anything? Or see things differently? Or correct others? Or debate?
Jesus and his apostles corrected people and argued frequently—inside and outside the church.
This leaves many questions.
When Arguing is Deadly
Arguing can mean:
These range from calmly presenting evidence, to hotly contending against an opponent in verbal combat.
We see Jesus do both: he discussed issues, but he also argued when he needed to, even calling his opponents out as wicked, vile, sons of Satan.
Clearly, not all arguing is wrong.
So, what does the Bible mean when it says, don't "quarrel over opinions”?
There’s a principle in Paul’s writings that is arguably his most prominent theme.
Nearly every one of Paul’s letters is about unity.
Most people think of justification by faith when they think of Paul since he wrote about it in many of his books—but he wrote about it for a purpose.
Every time Paul emphasized salvation by grace by faith it was always in the context of bringing Jews and Gentiles together.
Justification by faith for Paul is about unity!
That’s why his discussions about it conclude with unifying statements:
“Both Jews and Greeks are under sin” (Rom. 3:9)
“Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes” (Rom. 3:29)
“Us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also the Gentiles” (Rom. 9:24)
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile” (Rom. 10:12)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga. 3:28)
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised” (Col. 3:11).
That’s the key.
It’s okay to disagree and debate, but only so long as it builds up the unity of the community. If even calm discussions destroy this fragile fabric they must be avoided like a disintigrating disease.
Paul Argues With Peter
This means quarreling and arguing is less about the manner of speaking and more about the content that is spoken of.
Here’s a paraphrase to illustrate this from Galatians 2.
Peter was eating and hanging out with fellow Christians who happened to be Gentiles.
Then some rather narrow-minded Jews approached.
Now, these Jews believed that a person had to follow the Law to be a Christian (the Law is the Torah of the first covenant).
These Jews believed people had to be circumcised and follow the ceremonial laws to be a true Jew, and they thought only true Jews could be true Christians.
When Peter saw them, knowing that they would disapprove of him eating with Gentiles, he withdrew from the Gentiles like they were contagious lepers.
Paul was inflamed at this, so he spoke up to correct Peter in front of everyone:
You’re being a hypocrite acting like only Jews are God’s people. We’re saved by trusting in the Messiah, not by following the old covenant. Jesus is the center of our faith, not Israel. Faith is the sign of God’s people, not circumcision. No person is unclean. Stop treating Gentiles like they're not equally included!
This was bad.
Why would the Law of Moses cause divisions between Jews and Gentiles? There’s something necessary for understanding what he’s saying.
The Law of Moses automatically excluded Gentiles as God’s people unless they converted to Judaism (see Eph. 2:11-22).
Paul was fighting against class divisions. He was fighting against the idea that Gentiles were second class Christians because they weren’t Jews.
This isn't okay!
In fact, it was one of the most lethal problems faced by the first church (see Acts 15), which is why Paul affirmed over and over that only faith in Christ is required for being a Christian.
Not works of the Torah.
Jesus brought unity between Jews and Gentiles because he “has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the Law of commandments" (Eph. 2:14).
By living out the Torah Jesus opened the way to God for all by faith in him "that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Eph. 2:15).
Jesus brings peace and unity between all who come to him—no matter what race, gender, age, background, occupation, denomination, church practice, or theology.
Faith unites us. In what? That Jesus is the supreme king resurrected from the dead:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (Rom. 10:9-12).
Notice how Paul brings this up to emphasize how all people in Jesus are in the same class, with no distinctions, and no divisions.
What saves us? Trusting that Jesus is king (which leads to a life of obedience).
What is essential for Christian membership? Faith in the Messiah.
This alone makes someone a child of God.
This alone makes someone a sister or brother in Christ. Anything else is an add-on, and add-ons corrode unity.
What Are Our Add-Ons?
Arguing isn't the problem; it’s arguing about add-ons that create class divisions.
What’s an add-on? A non-essential that is made essential.
It's anything you think that is required to be a Christian on top of living in faith to Christ.
If someone believes and lives for Jesus as Lord, but they believe or do something we don’t agree with, and we conclude that they aren’t a Christian, or that they're a weak, immature, less-than Christian—that's an add-on.
It’s anything that says, “You must believe in Jesus as Lord to be a Christian I'll fellowship with, but you must also believe this.”
Add-ons make class distinctions in Christianity, where some are better than others.
And we have so many add-ons today.
When Luther and the other Reformers broke free from the Catholic church, it became like a crack in a mirror splintering into thousands and thousands of other cracks.
Since then, Christians have divided over anything and everything. Think of any theology or any verse—there are divisions over it. There are more divisions in the church than there are verses in the Bible.
How does this make us look? Not like Jesus, but more like a bunch of contentious clowns who can't get along.
Unity in the Bible is essential for our mission.
That’s why, in Jesus’ longest recorded prayer, he pleaded for our unity. He pleaded for it over, and over, and over again (read John 17).
In view of this, here are some applications from us:
It’s okay to discuss non-essentials
It’s okay to disagree about non-essentials
It's okay to debate non-essentials (with grace)
Just because something is true, doesn't mean it's essential
Just because something is important, doesn’t mean it’s essential
Just because something is harmful, doesn’t mean it’s essential
It’s not okay to make non-essentials essential
It’s not okay to distance from others because of non-essentials
It’s not okay to use non-essentials to form mini clubs
It’s not okay to exclude people in any way because of non-essentials
The body of Christ exists to reflect Jesus to the world, but if we’re shattered into a thousand pieces, how can people see him?