Division: “But, good men disagree…”
How often have I heard the defense of “good men disagree” when encountering differing interpretations of some doctrine of the Scripture! (And, yes, even pastors use this lame excuse, perhaps more than any other group! No wonder the American church is in such an intractable, self destructive mess!)
Those who have used – or accepted! – this overworked and irresponsible excuse have exchanged the authority of the Bible for human consensus! “After all”, they reason, “good, Christian men frequently disagree on this or that doctrine. The issue obviously is unresolved and is, possibly, unresolvable(!) so we must leave it at that. Therefore, we must ‘agree to disagree’.”
[In the context of this Quick Note, the phrase above implies that “theological consensus” can’t/won’t be attained regarding the doctrine at the heart of the disagreement. You see, the inference is that the controversy is between “brothers” instead of that which is expected between those who are mutual enemies. The thought is “We shouldn’t dispute with those who are brothers, should we?”]
Is it even possible that this approach resolves the dispute?
No, of course not!
It is spiritual détente, a theological placebo that guarantees that the disagreement will never be resolved!
The purpose of this Quick Thought is to examine the problems of this frequent maxim, then develop a biblical approach when encountering theological disagreements.
Problems with “Good Men Disagree”
There are a few points that we must consider in order to identify the biblical errors of this common, but irresponsible, notion.
Those who unthinkingly accept the hellish dogma of “good men disagree” would be logically forced to also accept its inverse (“good men must agree for consensus”). That is, any Bible doctrine which is to be accepted universally by the church can only be that for which is found theological consensus by “good men”.
So when, exactly, did it become necessary to ensure that the “right interpretation” of the truth of the Scripture is only that concerning which “good men agree”? Is that what the LORD tells us?
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
Where is the ridiculous notion of “consensus” in this text? The LORD acts alone; He clearly does not need either man’s understanding or permission when teaching His Word. His Word is sole Authority and stands on its own without requiring support from men! To place any constraint on that authority is astonishing human arrogance.
- How are the men judged and found to be “good”? “Good” by what definition? How was that definition established?
- How any men? A majority? A minority? Just two?
- Which men? What culture? Which country?
- Which age of the history of the church? Men from Apostolic times? A century ago? Modern times? Future times?
- Men of what maturity level in the true faith of the Scriptures? Can the contested doctrine be understood by new believers or only those advanced in the faith? Or perhaps both?
- Men of what authority in the church? Can the men be mere laymen, or do they have to be church leaders?
- Men of what faithfulness? Those who are “in church” any time it is open or those who attend less frequently? Or, perhaps, only those not associated with a church?
- Men who are “Bible-believing” “Christians” only, or those who have regular association with the various major Protestant religions of the world? What about Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.? For that matter, what about other non-Christian religions? What about “secular” commentators and philosophers?
- Can the "men" (understood here as generic "mankind") perhaps be women as well?
and so on.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
The adherents of the “good-men-must-agree” camp have obviously never considered the texts above (and there are many others!). The LORD holds in contempt those who advance the absurd error of “consensus” to establish and teach His truth! It was established in eternity past long before anything of this planet even existed.
What happens to that “consensus” when those who held it die? Does it have to be reestablished by each succeeding generation? Can it be overruled by, or be binding upon, a later generation? Does each new generation need to rediscover and/or relitigate the controversy?
[This is, of course, nonsense and emphasizes one of its major fallacies. If the WORD of the LORD is established (and it is!), it is not up to any generation (or individuals) to apply their own interpretation to it.]
As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place acknowledges it no longer.
Unlike the timeless, eternal Word of the eternal LORD, man is temporal and passes quickly from this world! Perhaps no book better than Ecclesiastes shows the futility of man’s life and length of days:
Ecc 1.2, 10-11
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Is there anything of which one might say,
“See this, it is new”?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still.
How many of the theological controversies of past years been forgotten, only to be resurrected by a later generation as something “new”! It is very likely that those who hold to the error of "good men disagree" never understood true doctrine in the first place and proceeded out of recklessness, carelessness and ignorance. (1 Tim.1.6-7)
If the inverse corollary of “good men must agree” upon a given doctrine of the Scripture before it is declared to be established truth in the church at large, then please name at least the one doctrine of Scripture concerning which all Christian men of all ages of the church have agreed?
I hope that it is obvious at this point that not only does such a doctrine not exist, given the widely accepted operating principle of “good men disagree”, it can never exist! If you are honest, you will be unable to name a single truth of Scripture which has been commonly accepted in even conservative Christianity (much less in those denominations known for their carelessness): nothing from Christology, Theology, Pneumatology, Anthropology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology – nothing!
It should also be obvious that since there is no, single doctrine of the Scripture upon which there is universal agreement by the “church”, it must also be true that any “pure” doctrine can’t exist! If you accept Apollyon’s logic that because “good men disagree”, and that the disagreement of Bible doctrine is therefore “business as usual” in the church, in one simple, broad, unthinking stroke you’ve reduced the Scripture to little more than a book of interesting but utterly useless stories and proverbs.
Why would you even bother to claim to “believe the Bible”? It’s obviously doing you no good now since you’ve ignored all authority from the Scriptures and placed it in fallen, temporal men, regardless of how well-meaning those men are (a questionable tenent, indeed!).
I’m convinced that careless “Christians” who maintain the “good men disagree” error have never truly thought about the depth of the abyss into which they’ve fallen. If they did, they would hold themselves in contempt for the fact that while they elevate human opinion over the intrinsic authority of the Word they must simultaneously degrade the LORD and His word!
As our adversary told Eve centuries ago: “And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, …’”? (Gen 3.1) In the context of this Quick Note, we’re a little more subtle now than was the devil at that time: many of these “good men” would not openly contradict the Word of God. Rather, they hide behind the lack of consensus to obscure their unbelief and ignorance
The Biblical Approach to Theological Division
There is a single, simple principle upon which the proper understanding of the Word is built: take the Word of God just as it is written, nothing more or less, with an attitude of humility and faithful obedience!
There are several reasons in support of this statement.
The LORD promised to teach His people His Word.
This is the essence of what the Lord Christ taught; He gave His personal guarantee that truth so received would be understood:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.
The Lord’s truth is disclosed to His faithful, obedient disciples. For those of my readers who think that “obedience” is not found in the texts above, I direct your attention to this:
Heb 4.1-3a, 12
Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest …
Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
Did you notice the juxtaposition of faith/obedience and unbelief/disobedience? In the Scriptures, the life of true faith is the life of obedience to the revealed Word:
1 Joh 1.8-10
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
1 Cor 2.15
But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.
Understanding of spiritual truth is guaranteed to the spiritual, humble, maturing Christian.
A corollary of point 1 above is this: if the LORD promised to teach His people His Word (and He has!), then it follows that His Word must be understandable.
Stated another way, if you hold to the “good men disagree” error, then you must also hold that (at least) the Word of God is not intrinsically understandable. So, even though the LORD shows His spectacular understanding in the creation of all things:
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth,
By understanding He established the heavens.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
yet He was somehow unable to inspire a document (the Bible) in a way that could be understood – that is, if it is true that “good men disagree” is a valid operating principle.
Only the limitless arrogance of man would declare and hold a maxim as disgusting as “good men disagree”. Even the “wordless silence” of the stars tells His glory – how much more the revealed Word of the Scriptures!
The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
This is the point of the statement of the perspicuity of the Scriptures in the great confessions of the true church: the LORD gave His Word to His people in order to be understood and obeyed.
[Of course, the “good men disagree” crowd doesn’t really hold to the perspicuity of the Scriptures, if you take the time to think about it.]
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the sons of Israel.
In the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came from the Lord, saying, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah who have come to worship in the Lord’s house all the words that I have commanded you to speak to them. Do not omit a word!
If you read carefully the book of Jeremiah (or any of the prophets), you’ll see that the LORD expected the Word that He gave to Jeremiah be that which he was to preach accurately and faithfully to the Jews. He was neither to add to it or remove from it any anything! Moreover, it is everywhere implied that that Word was understandable to those OT Jews (based on the fact that the LORD held them culpable).
Jeremiah had no authority in himself; the great authority he possessed was given to him by the LORD alone. When Jeremiah preached the Word of the LORD to the Jews of his day, he had all authority because the Word of the LORD is authority and therefore the Jews were responsible to accept and be bound by that authority!
Holding to “good men disagree” is the opposite of holding to the sole, absolute authority of the Word of God and the to the complete reverence for that Word! How transformed the so-called "church" would be if it embraced this simple fact!