What to Do When You Don't Agree with the Church

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I really like Salvador Dali.

A few years ago, my wife and I took the train from London to Paris for our anniversary. One stop that I absolutely had to go see was the Dali Museum. Last year, she bought me the Dali Bible for my birthday.

The famous surrealist painter had not only quite the mind, but he also had a mouth to match. On one occasion, he said, “There are some days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”

Such is not the case for those who humbly study the Bible.

Sometimes we end up being “satisfied” with our understanding of the text, but being threatened to death by an overdose of total elation with our study of any particular passage is not the case.

Why is that?

Because of the fact that even when we arrive at a theological conclusion and believe we’ve done the best work possible when it comes to interpreting the Bible, there are still others who differ with us for good reasons, sometimes including our own pastors, churches, denominations, or organizations.

This is the situation we all find ourselves in regardless of whether we drive a dump truck (as I used to) or pastor a church (as I currently do). It is quite common to reach different conclusions about what a certain text means.

What do we do when this happens?

Questions such as these continue to stoke the fires of biblical interpretation around the globe from every race, nation, tribe and tongue. Christians believe that God inspired the Scriptures and that we are to continually study them, apply them and obey them (Deut. 6, Josh, 1.8, Ps. 119). The Bible is without error and is read by men and women who commit errors every day. This is why all of us do not always reach the same conclusion on certain passages.

Besides, men and women reach different understandings based on how they studied the Scripture, their own personal experiences, and their own prior convictions or lack thereof.

Many times, when disagreements lead to divisions, it’s more of an issue of the heart than incorrect Bible study.

So, if you find yourself disagreeing with a certain belief, there are a few things I’d recommend doing. 

1. G.K. Chesterton once advised, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you first know the reason it was put up.” Do the hard work of researching why the church holds a particular belief. Get out your Bible, study, think, and pray.

2. Hans George Gadamer, a dynamic theologian, once said, “Hermeneutics is above all a practice, the art of understanding ... . In what one has to exercise above all is the ear.” He’s right. Listen to Scripture and then humbly listen to others. Meet with an elder from your church. Buy him a cup of coffee and ask him how the church came to its conclusion on the topic you’re currently in disagreement with.

3. Check your attitude. Are you thinking with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16)? Are you striving for peace with all men (Heb. 12.14)? Are you following the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16.13)? Or are you being contentious over a trivial matter (Titus 3.9)?

4. Are your ears itching and are you looking for someone to tell you what you want to hear (2 Tim. 4.3)?

5. Are you willing to be wrong? James said that the wisdom from above is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere” (James 4.17).

6. The first book I ever read on the subject of hermeneutics, that is in its fourth edition of being used today, is titled How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. One big idea that the authors seek to communicate repeatedly regarding interpreting the Bible is this: “A text can never mean what it never meant.” What they are saying is that a text is not some formless blob of play-doh that the reader is allowed to come along and mold at any point in history so as to shape it and give to it a newer, more updated, savvy meaning or add to or take away from it at one’s personal impulse. Rather, men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible, and yet the original human authors' voices are still preserved in real space and time. Our job is thus to hear and understand what they had to say to their original recipients, and then seek to apply that same truth in our context today.

Here are a few points on studying your Bible and seeking understanding:

The first step is to try to get as close as possible to thinking the author’s thoughts after him. This involves getting acquainted with the author, date, location, time of writing, occasion for writing, the audience to whom is was written and so forth.

The second is like the first: Conduct word studies, considering the genre of literature (Law, Wisdom Literature, Gospels, History, Apocalyptic Material, etc.), arrangement of the material ...

Third, go grab some helpful commentaries and see what other pastors and scholars have to say on the subject.

Stay mindful that you don’t come to the text totally unbiased. You come with your history, your presuppositions, your beliefs, all shaped by your denomination, creeds, hymns and traditions. These are not bad things in and of themselves, just something to stay mindful of.

If your church is being unfaithful to the original context and content of Scripture, you’ve got good grounds to show yourself to the door, but as a peacemaker.

If you have studied and are certain that you are correct in your conclusions, how you leave is critical. If you snobbishly prove the pastor or church wrong and then walk out divisively, your character is stained, you’ve offended people, and you’ve just given everyone reason to not take all your hard work seriously because you chose to hurt the body rather than seek to help her.