More on Christian Disagreements

by | May 21, 2020 | Spiritual Life | 0 comments

Following up on Chris’ post from the other day, I wanted to share some thoughts from a few hundred years ago from John Calvin. I’m (slowly) reading through his Institutes, and just happen to hit the section talking about how Christians are to handle disagreements over controversial things, right in the middle of all these discussions about life during and after Coronavirus. Here’s some wisdom from Calvin on Christians and disagreements in general:

[P]art of Christian freedom lies in this: regarding outward things that are of themselves “indifferent,” we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions. Today we seem to many be unreasonable because we stir up discussion over the unrestricted eating of meat, use of holidays and of vestments, and such things, which seem to [others] vain frivolities.

But these matters are more important than is commonly believed. For when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of. If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp; finally, doubt will even arise over tow. For he will turn over his mind whether he can sup without napkins or go without a handkerchief. If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victual, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on even coarser foods, if he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water. To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as saying goes.

Here begins the weighty controversy, for what is in debate is whether God, whose will ought to precede all out plans and actions, wishes us to use these things or those. As a consequence, some in despair, are of necessity cast into a pit of confusion; others, despising God and abandoning fear of Him, must make their own way in destruction, where they have none ready-made. For all those entangled in such doubts, wherever they turn, see offense of conscience everywhere present.

Freedom in the use of God’s gifts for his purposes

“I know,” says Paul, “that nothing is common” (taking “common” in the sense of “profane”), “but it is common for anyone who thinks it common” [Rom. 14:14]. With these words Paul subjects all outward things to our freedom, provided our minds are assured that the basis for such freedom stands before God. But if any superstitious opinion poses a stumbling block for us, things of their own nature pure are for us corrupt. For this reason, he adds: “Happy is he who does not judge himself in what he approves. But he who judges, if he eats, is condemned, because he does not eat of faith. For whatever is not of faith is sin” [Rom. 14:22-23].

Amidst such perplexities, do not those who show themselves rather bold by daring all things confidently, nonetheless to this extent turn away from God? But they who are deeply moved in any fear of God, when they are compelled to commit many things against their conscience, are overwhelmed and fall down with fright. All such persons receive none of God’s gifts with thanksgiving, yet Paul testifies that by this alone all things are sanctified for our use [1 Tim 4:4-5]. Now I mean that thanksgiving which proceeds from a mind that recognizes in his gifts the kindness and goodness of God. For many of them, indeed, understand them as good things of God which they use, and praise God in his works; but inasmuch as they have not been persuaded that these good things have been given to them, how can they thank God as the giver?

To sum up, we see whither this freedom tends: namely, that we should use God’s gifts for the purpose for which he gave them to us, with no scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind. With such confidence our minds will be at peace with him, and will recognize his liberality toward us. For here we are included all ceremonies whose observance is optional, that our consciences may not be constrained by any necessity to observe them but may remember that by God’s beneficence their use is for edification made subject to him.

(Institutes III.19.7-8)

Later, Calvin adds this bit of wisdom: “It is the part of a godly man to realize that free power in outward matters has been given him in order that he may be the more ready for all the duties of love.” Lots of good things to think about here.