R. Penney, Gosport
One problem for Christians is how to put into practice the scriptural injunction "be ye all of one mind", 1 Pet. 3. 8; Phil. 2. 2. The painful fact is that we are often far from this; we quarrel, we fall out, we separate ourselves, and worst of all, assemblies may be split. The testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ is thereby brought into disrepute and the witness of individual believers and of assemblies is vitiated.
The Root of the Problem lies in the fact that we are human and living in bodies of flesh. It is true that we have new natures, born of God, that do not sin, 1 John 3. 9, and if we allowed at all times this new nature to control, being guided by the Spirit of God, we should never disagree one with another. But the flesh, ever striving against the Spirit, intrudes and trouble is the result. Since there will be no such intrusion when we are in heaven, then heavenly people on earth should strive now for agreement amongst themselves.
Our Use of and our Attitude to Scripture provides one solution to the problem. We need carefully to "prove all things"., i Thess. 5.21, and not follow easily-formed traditions. We may do something or hold an opinion convinced that it is scriptural, yet under close examination it turns out to be human tradition, fleshly bias or conformity to the herd instinct. Motives may be governed by a combination of these, and may be cunningly rationalized as obedience to the will of God. Well may Scripture warn, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment", Exod. 23. 2. Scripture is indeed the supreme arbiter in every case, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them", Isa. 8. 20. But the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, John 16. 13. Moreover, if our wills are subject to God and if we desire to do His will, then we "shall know of the teaching", John 7. 17 R.v. Here again the flesh may intrude, and we find different "interpretations". Sometimes these differences are made the excuse either for not studying Scripture at all or for acting in disobedience to Scripture. This problem would cause despair, but God has left us with guidance as to what is to be done when disagreements have to be resolved.
The Lord's Provision. The Lord Jesus taught, "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican", Matt. 18. 15-17. Christians are responsible to settle, amicably and justly, any matter that may arise between them. If this cannot be done between individuals, the aid of others is sought, and then if the disagreement persists it becomes a matter for the whole church to deal with. Today, this procedure is seldom practised. Brethren and sisters harbour grievances against one another, but never bring them into the open. These grievances become a source of bitterness as they are cherished within the heart, leading to a narrowing of outlook and a stunting of spiritual growth. The Christian joy and witness of such a soul are non-existent because of failure to take heed to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. This may also be the state of some local assemblies, leading to a vitiated and worldly testimony. It is frequently the sin of pride that helps to bring about this state, so that sin added to sin makes things worse. Pride may prevent us humbling ourselves before a brother or sister to admit a fault.
The Holy Spirit Restricted. Another reason why the procedure given by the Lord in Matthew 18 is not followed may be because it is not taught. The public ministry of the Word of God in local assemblies may be adversely affected by tradition. There is nothing wrong with the procedure whereby ministry is given by invited gifted and accredited brethren, but this may tend to become a system that shuts out the free operation of the Holy Spirit. Ministry may become a talk by a diplomatic and tactful brother who will keep well away from thorny problems. This may be easy and pleasant but it can also be enervating, since thorny and difficult problems make us seek the Lord and search the Scriptures. Today there are many such problems among the Lord's people, but how seldom are these touched upon in ministry meetings or at conferences.
Teaching is, perhaps, too often thought of as a one-way process, where the invited brother expounds the Word of God to the local assembly. Paul indicates one of the principles governing such ministry, "let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern", 1 Cor. 14. 29 R.v. This suggests that there is room for ministry to be of a more free and open nature, with room for discussion and the interchange of ideas. This is not a one-man ministry and it is certainly not an any-man ministry. It is rather the situation where the Holy Spirit is able to direct the teaching in the local assembly through all those upon whom He has bestowed the gift of teaching.
As we have said, the real solution to the problem of disagreement is a familiarity with the Word of God and submission to it. Hence the restriction in any way of the activity of the Holy Spirit merely papers over the cracks and does not do anything about the real problem. The application of the real remedy is prevented. But "the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit . . . and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart", Heb. 4.12. On occasions when the "two-edged sword" should be applied we may merely get diplomatic homilies. Where disagreement defaces the ministry of the Word, the answer is an earnest searching of Scripture and for the "others (that is, other prophets) to discern".
The Work of the True Pastor. In 2 Timothy 2. 24,25 we read, "the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth". Here is the application of the Word by a true pastor. Such a person has no need of external marks of authority, or of human props to dignity. The man who is "apt to teach" and who can handle the Word of God should be able to deal with situations that may arise. As God showed Jeremiah, His Word possesses its own authority which needs no human patronage and which condemns all that originates from any other source. "What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? . . . and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?", Jer. 23.28,29. Where an assembly has overseers who are "apt to teach" and where the Holy Spirit is allowed to have His way in the teaching, this will minimize the amount of local quarrelling. There may be plenty of discussion and even disagreement, but this will not lead to scenes that deface the testimony. To be able to disagree with one's brother and not fall out with him is a sign of spiritual maturity.
The Gregariousness of Believers. Because human beings are naturally gregarious, Christians often submit to prevailing opinions, or, if they cannot make themselves agree they just keep quiet and try not to disagree. In either case, being denied proper expression because of the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, psychological pressures brought to bear upon them, such people become inactive and passive as far as Christian work is concerned. These pressures to conform may cause terrible mental distress and inner conflict, with the result that spiritual life is vitiated. The Lord alone looks on the human heart, man only looks on the outward appearance, 1 Sam. 16. 7. In the light of this fact, we should all ask ourselves whether or not, in the cause of what we deem to be truth, we are not in fact bringing very cruel and unkind pressures to bear upon a dear brother or sister, thereby retarding and warping spiritual growth.
Likemindedness. The absence of this is reflected in many ways. Some may change their opinions whenever they move house, merely showing the desire to conform. Others may leave a local assembly to meet elsewhere. Others may travel past a local assembly's hall in order to find fellowship with another assembly. There may be nothing wrong in the person concerned, but if an assembly holds ideas and follows practices that prevent a saint enjoying its fellowship then something is wrong somewhere.
But Scripture exhorts us to be likeminded. This does not imply a legality to toe the party line; rather the scriptural way for saints to achieve likemindedness is by growing "in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ", 2 Pet. 3. 18. The more we are conformed to His image, the more we shall find agreement together and the less we shall differ because "we have the mind of Christ", 1 Cor. 2. 16. We may achieve this by holy discussion together in an atmosphere where the Word of God is honoured and ministered by godly and gifted men. Conformity merely for the sake of an outward show of agreement is a sign of serious spiritual defect in an assembly. Where Scripture is grasped, understood and applied, an atmosphere of liberty and confidence will be generated where the Holy Spirit can lead believers into all truth thus to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ, John 16. 13, 14.