As the count of Christian denominations reaches nearly 40,000, the Church has need of guidance in dealing with deep differences. The Bible offers many case studies to help Christians manage disputes within the Church. The editors of this volume—New Testament scholars Michael Bird and Brian Rosner of Ridley College, Melbourne—set out to provide a manual for approaching Christian conflict with a spirit of unity and integrity, drawing out wisdom from Scripture. Mending a Fractured Church will be a helpful resource to all Christians charged to make disciples and minimize Christian conflict, for the sake of the gospel.
Contributing essayists in this volume include Ridley College faculty members Andrew Malone (Th.D.), Lindsay Wilson (Ph.D.), Rhys Bezzant, and Peter Leithart (Ph.D.) of St. Andrews College. Each essay contributes unique perspectives from Scripture to help readers understand how to analyze and categorize doctrinal differences, decide what differences are of importance, and pave a way out of dispute to reconciliation.
The essays lament widespread Christian incompetence to differentiate between “disputable matters” and matters of real importance. Each author affirms the existence of matters non-negotiable to the core of Christendom. Matters concerning salvation and the identity of God are held among the contributors to be most serious and require the deepest level of commitment. In their respective essays, Bird and Rosner emphasize the Church’s need for mature leaders, who are able to diagnose and sort schismatic matters from arbitrary matters. The continued fracturing of the Church is certainly linked to a lack of discernment and good judgment that would lead many to reconciliation, instead of alienation.
What is particularly helpful about this volume is that it provides principles, grounded in practical examples, for handling disputable matters that so often arise in ministry. Inciting issues like carpet color, bathroom soap, and choice of bulletin paper, can drain a pastor’s energy and build needless strife in a congregation. When such issues build tension, disputes over the age of the earth, the Shroud of Turin, and body tattoos can seem more important than they truly are. Each contributor aims to help the reader realize a Christian way forward toward reconciliation that prevents needless church splits and denominational turmoil over tertiary concerns.
The editors provide six principles for dealing with disputable matters within the Church, drawn from the collection of essays in the book, including: “1. Learn to differentiate between areas of conviction and areas of command. 2. Don’t major on minor doctrines or minor on majors. 3. Withhold judgment where the gospel is not threatened and holiness is not compromised. 4. Exercise your convictions to build others up, not to tear them down. 5. Do not exchange freedom in Christ for slavery to human tradition. 6. At all times act in love and carry each other’s burdens” (p. 3). This list is very helpful to those facing conflict in the pews or in the boardroom.
Andrew Malone’s chapter, titled “Disputable Matter: Constraining the Topic,” provides groundwork for the principle of “unity” that should command the main objectives of any Christian quarrel. Malone writes, “As we probe the boundaries of whether we may differ, the Bible calls for a substantial focus on avoiding divisions, resetting broken bonds, and striving for wholeness and maturity in the body of Christ” (p. 36). The unity and restoration that is central to the Christian message should cause Christian leaders to approach unavoidable conflict with a primary concern for reconciliation.
Exploring the narrative in Joshua 22, Lindsay Wilson’s chapter, “Unity Matters: A Study of Joshua 22:1–34,” approaches the topic of unity from a different perspective than Malone. In Joshua 22, the eastern tribes of Israel build an imposing altar that is not discernably consecrated to Yahweh. The western tribes take issue, unaware of what the intentions are of the eastern tribes. Were they turning against Yahweh? Did they come under the influence of surrounding cultures? The altar presented a problem of “internal” conflict. Wilson skillfully demonstrates the merits of how this internal conflict was handled, giving special attention to one principle. He comments, “The key assumption of the passage is that we must have a passion to be faithful to Yahweh. There is no real unity, or settling of differences, without that” (p. 51). The east-bankers were separated from the other tribes and built the altar to help identify them with Israel and YHWH, as their surrounding culture looked on. After discovering the intent to remain faithful to Israel, the western tribes offered land and other resources, Wilson notes, to demonstrate their desire for unity and inclusion with east-bankers. A lesson that is relevant for today’s disputes.
Rosner supplies the reader with Paul’s approach to resolving disputable matters in his chapter “What to Do When Christian Differ,” which focuses on Romans 14–15. The chapter addresses matters of personal conviction, as opposed to universal moral principles. Rosner claims that poor conflict resolution—more simply, bad behavior—often results in the decay of the Church, the progress of the gospel, and the decreased glory of God. According to Rosner, “With respect to disputable matters, in Romans 14–15 Paul stresses the need for personal convictions, flexibility, not judging or despising those who disagree, and the goal of peace and edification” (p. 77).
Bird’s chapter, titled “When Do We Divide?: The Johannine Letters on Love and Separation,” tackles the reality of division within the Church. Bird draws out the themes of love and unity in line with the other contributors, but adds the Johannine imperative to keep the christological foundations of the Church secure. On grounds of violating the christology delivered to the apostles, schism and separation become inevitable, for the sake of gospel purity. It is interesting that Paul and John both outline reasons to rebuke false doctrine, and yet they command believers to pursue reconciliation for the glory of God.
Rhys Bezzant’s “Disputable Matters in Protestant History” and Peter Leithart’s “Remapping the Church” consult both the past and the future trajectory of the Church for lessons in civil discourse amid dispute. Bezzant’s chapter aims to “. . . offer some wider historical and systematic reflections on matters indifferent, from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries,” (p. 94) in order to provide illustrations of dispute resolution for the reader. He surveys freedom of conscience in the sixteenth century, engaging Luther and Calvin. He also addresses freedom of conscience in the Anglican tradition, followed by Puritans and modern Evangelicals. Leithart surveys the ways in which the Church interacts in our modern global communications age, where brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world work toward global orthodoxy. Leithart beckons his reader to consider how “Westerners should get used to being challenged to revisit our faith when we hear it sung in a new tongue” (p. 143). His chapter is provocative and timely in a technological era that is beginning to put forward more than words to the lip service of valued diversity.
Overall, this volume would serve as an excellent undergraduate or graduate primer to doctrinal dispute. I can also see benefit for denominational leaders and pastors who arbitrate disputes between churches—or parishioners. A chapter on how to handle Internet disputes over doctrine would have been helpful, in an age where many battles start behind a screen, before reaching the foyer of a church. Nonetheless, this book is helpful, accessible to read, and relevant to a wide Christian audience.
Chad Graham is the anchor host of the Thinker Sensitive Podcast and he also serves as Lead Pastor of University Assembly. Chad is a Senior Fellow of the Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture at Denver Seminary, where he graduated with an M.A. in Apologetics and Ethics. He also serves as adjunct faculty in the Bible & Theology department at Southwestern Assemblies of God University.