Contentious Disputes in the Church

Contentious disputes in the church

…have been going on ever since the 1st century.

Today’s contentious disputes are nothing new. However, today we have  a fresh opportunity to forge a deeper unity in the church. Or the downside, it will widen the breach if we focus on diversity rather than beginning with caring attitudes that launch dialogs on contentious disputes from equality to make every effort to keep the unity the Spirit forges as we celebrate diversity.

A bit of the historical context is crucial to this passage on contentious disputes in the church.

Emperor Claudius of Rome expelled the Jews around 49AD (Acts 18:2). At that time, the “Messianic Christians” led the Roman church. They were authentic Christians, many of whom still chose to practice the OT Law, even though Jesus fulfilled and replaced it. The Gentile Christians stepped up into leadership, next man up. Shortly before Paul wrote Romans, the Messianic Christians returned to Rome. And they found their church had changed with the new leadership. This clash of cultures within the Roman church sparked contentious disputes within the Roman church and threatened to disrupt church unity.

Read just Romans 14:1 and 15:7 now, the bookends for the context.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters (14:1).

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (15:7).

First, “disputable matters” are contentious reasonings with each other that lead to friction. I think of these as antagonistic “disputes.” The NASB captures the idea with “quarrel over opinions.” These are not necessarily grey areas where the Bible does not speak clearly.

In this passage, Paul cares less about the subject itself or which side we take than how we treat each other in the church. Please hold this in creative tension with how crucial Paul believes a clear grasp of Biblical truth is. Paul has already laid out thirteen chapters of ground-breaking truth. Paul focused on how we hold truth that either strengthen or diminish unity. Paul aligned with Jesus regarding the central role unity plays in the Christian community (John 17:20-23).

This passage teaches on how to maintain our essential unity in this faith.

Second, “accept” conveys the idea of engaging the person without judgment, welcoming with an embracing hug. Paul calls us to “accept” those who dispute with us.


Because Jesus welcomes us in order to influence towards our highest and best, when we are open (15:7). Jesus accepted each where they were yet did not agree with all their beliefs and practices. He is our Model. Acceptance does not necessarily imply agreement.

Third, the two examples of their disputes are “food and days” (14:2+5). Messianic Christians who still practiced the OT Law ate only Kosher and held to the Sabbath. The others ate anything and celebrated Sunday as resurrection day, or all days equally.

Who was “right”?

Certainly, the “free to eat anything and celebrate any day group.” Jesus fulfilled the OT Law completely and provided a new way to relate with God (Hebrews 1:1-3; Matthew 5:17).

Which group do you think felt that they were “right”?

The law-keepers would fight to the death for their practices and point to the divinely inspired OT. They they were certain they were right.”

The Gentile Christians understood what the first century church taught on the danger of law-keeping to please God. They knew they were “right,” theologically aligned with Jesus (Acts 10:9-16), Paul in Galatians and the 1st century church council.

Two groups focusing on their “rightness” in the church arouses contentious disputes.

And this focus on “I see it right…end of discussion” is the crux of the passage.

It’s not about “right” and “wrong,” culturally, morally or theologically. That’s the world’s realm. Jesus calls us to be led by the Spirit to love others the way Jesus loves us (John 13:34-35, Galatians 5:14+16a+18+25). When we set our heart on what is clear and crucial (Colossians 3:1-2), we live like Jesus (Colossians 3:3-4).

Paul confronts both groups (14:3). Both groups feel that their “right” position is more crucial than respecting the boundaries of the other group and forging unity. Both need changed attitudes and responses. Certainly, advocate for our position, yet first inquire into theirs with a true listening and accepting heart (James 1:19-20).

Read Romans 14:1-15:7, focusing on healthy community responses. The distinction between the strong and the weak has nothing to do with what position we hold or even if it is theologically accurate (although I’m into good Bible interpretation). The difference is how we hold truth and express it to others.

When with love and consideration for the other, a willingness to listen without prejudice, and a desire to change our views as needed, we join Paul as the strong. When we approach them with thoughts in our mind or expressed attitudes that “we are right and know best,” and they have little or nothing to add, then we are the weak.

Yes, we are the weak, if our responses are contentious, even if the theology we express is spot-on or we lead a large and growing church. Of course, ideally work hard to know and correctly handle God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15). Also contend for the faith God has given us, yet without being contentious (Jude 3). Healthy doctrine is crucial yet how we hold that doctrine is equally crucial. Otherwise, we misrepresent who the Trinity is as perfect unity.

Here are a few marks from the passage  why Paul included himself with the strong (15:1, “we”).

  1. We live wholeheartedly for the Lord alone (14:8).
  2. We don’t put a stumbling block in the way of others (14:13+15+19b+20)
  3. We sow what leads to peace and mutual up-building (14:19).
  4. We don’t condemn ourselves when we are fully convinced in our mind (14:5b+22b).
  5. We bear with the weaknesses of others to build them up (15:1-2)
  6. We develop the same mind toward others that Christ Jesus has to strengthen unity to bring glory to God (15:5-6).
  7. We welcome those who “dispute” like Jesus embraces us (15:7), even the contentious ones. Jesus meets each of us where we are and seeks to stretch us towards our best in Him…if we are open. “As Jesus…so His followers always seek to bring praise to God alone (15:7; John 13:34).
  8. We keep our controversial views on contentious “disputes” primarily for us (14:22a). We don’t need to get the last word in. It’s not a debate but learning to love others the way Jesus does.

This eighth point seems so often overlooked today in the church…

…that I want to amplify a bit. It’s OK to have opinions and observations. Be very careful which ones we pass along. My observation is that most people only allow us to challenge them a few times. Save these encounters for what’s essential to God, not urgent to us at the time. See ourselves and the world like Paul does, and James and Peter and John…and as Jesus. We are not of this world, but His ambassadors sent by our Master into a foreign land to further His work. Our citizenship is in heaven. Is this contentious dispute God’s word? If so, where did Jesus speak on this? What about the NT letters? How clear is it in the NT? Focus on the clear and crucial to further our purpose on our journey to “be in the world but not of the world” (John 17:16-19).

If you are in the group of the strong (15:1), your life will look like these eight. If not, you are the weak, even if you are “right.”

Paul wrote Romans as a missionary, theologian and pastor calling the church to return to unity. The first thing to go when we lift our individual “rights” above Jesus’ love is peace and joy in the Spirit (14:7). Jesus asserts that such a flawed interpretive lens actually nullifies Scripture practically for us (Mark 7:13).

What do you think some of the 21st century contentious “disputes” are among church members today? Jot them down for yourself.

As for the man who is a weak believer, welcome him [into your fellowship], but not to criticize his opinions or pass judgment on his scruples or perplex him with discussions (Romans 14:1, Amplified).

Jesus accepts and welcomes us where we currently are in order to influence towards our highest and best, when we are open (15:7).

However, what if the other person is not open to dialog without disputing?

Respect their “stop sign” (Proverbs 9:7-10; Matthew 7:6). It’s above our pay grade to decide for others what to believe (14:4+5b). If they are not open, nothing we say impacts. It’s not the truth I believe that frees the other, but only the truth that the other both receives and practices (John 8:31-32).

If either or both camps see the dispute as an area of Christian freedom or as unimportant to us, most of us would not dispute. So, how do we approach others when we believe they are caught in something harmful and appear to be blind to it? Paul gives us wise counsel in another book. The context is a believer trapped by the devil, like those who practice law-keeping to please God.

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).

In the church, we truly need “disputes” so we can learn to listen to and love those who think differently from us. Anyone can love those who love them (Luke 6:31-36). The world needs to visibly see the supernatural love in the community of faith. It’s not uniformity keeping us together, but a unity forged by the Spirit that freely “disagrees without being disagreeable.”

If we drink in the world’s cool-aid that focuses on diversity and differences, contentious disputes break out. Instead, begin with our equality as image-bearers that respects the other. Then dialog openly about our differences so we deepen unity and oneness.

What if their view in this dispute is clearly sin?

Well, that actually describes the Messianic Christians in this passage to a tee! They are still stuck in OT law-keeping, which both Jesus and Paul spoke strongly against.

  • Jesus spoke on this often.
  • The Sermon on the Mount,
  • chapter 5, Mark 2 with old/new cloth and wineskins.
  • Mark 7:5-13 confronting His disciples that law-keeping “nullifies Scripture.”
  • To Peter after the resurrection in Acts 10 with the threefold vision.
  • Paul wrote an entire book to free Christians from law-keeping (Galatians).
  • The first church council in Acts 15 focused on freeing the church from law-keeping to please God, whether for salvation or for sanctification.

Paul still says not to run their “stop sign” to correct them beyond the level of their current faith, even though they are wrong. God is their Master (14:3-4), not you. You come alongside, accept them and serve their highest and best, like Jesus does with you.

Reread the eight positive responses above again now.

I also see two behaviors and attitudes that Paul commands them to stop. Stop judging (14:3,4,10, 13; looking down on the other) and stop showing contempt (14:3, 10; despising, dishonoring). “I’m right which makes you wrong unless you agree with me.” My observation is that those who approach a conversation with a similar attitude seem to demonstrate both negatives. Although it may be subtle, and even couched in pious words. Overwhelming others with rhetoric, passion or an avalanche of Bible verses, according to how they are wired. Or the contempt of the “smiling” chuckle conveying, “You don’t still believe that, do you?” Both attitudes break unity in community, especially when it comes from leaders with the powerful influence their position brings.

Jesus teaches His followers that unity is the most powerful proof of the Father’s love to a lost world (John 17:20-23). In Paul’s description of the glory of the church on earth, Ephesians, Paul gave a seven-fold repetition of unity involving all Three Members of the Godhead, calling His people  to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3-6). An underlying theme in one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, Romans, is unity in the local church.

Please don’t do the least thing to undermine the very unity that Jesus created His church to display (Matthew 16:18). I want to love all that Jesus loves, and He loves the whole church, even those whose doctrine may be off (as if any church has perfect, spot-on doctrine in every arena!) You will not want to be responsible for dividing churches because you stubbornly propagate theories focused on this world, whether economics or politics or race or how poorly governments function…even if you have great points.

Read Romans 14:1-15:7 again,

only to spotlight the certain and unchanging Source of Paul’s teaching. Set your heart on what follows and strengthen unity. If you are in the group of the strong, your life will avoid judging and contempt and look like the eight above because

  1. …God has already accepted those on each side (14:3).
  2. …God is on His throne to make all stand (14:4).
  3. …Christ died and was raised to be our Lord (14:9).
  4. …we will give an account of all our actions (14:10-12).
  5. …the Kingdom is not about disputes on external matters, but the essentials of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit as we serve others for their good (14:17-18).
  6. …if we overstep with our passion or logic (even if it’s correct), we may be the impetus for our brother or sister acting beyond their faith. If they do, they violate their conscience and sin (14:23). That’s heavy stuff!

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2, emphasis).

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