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When Christians Disagree

"Is it . . . infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken" (Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658).

These words from Oliver Cromwell represent perhaps the greatest and most impassioned plea for religious understanding that has ever been penned. The stately eloquence of his appeal has ensured its preservation over the passage of time. Sadly, the need for such a plea is as necessary now as it was in the days of Cromwell. Even after all these centuries, religious intolerance in all its ugliness is still present in our lives.

From the very beginning there has been a recurring theme in much of the correspondence I have received as editor of this newsletter. Because we are nudists, many of us live in fear of judgment and recrimination from our brothers and sisters in Christ, and from our church leadership as well. We often have a sense of foreboding over what seems like inevitable but completely undeserved persecution because of our lifestyle. This fear may limit our ability to maintain warm Christian fellowship within our church families. Words can barely express the sadness I feel that such a situation should exist in the church today. I've written about this subject before, but two recent letters have brought it to the forefront again.

I was saddened almost to tears as I read of the fears that a Christian nudist expressed regarding what he felt would happen to him if other Christians from his church and surrounding community should ever discover that he and his family were nudists. From what he tells me he has much to lose if this should happen, and yet he continues to believe in the morality and goodness of nudism.

I was also saddened by a letter from a Christian critic of nudism with whom I have had an ongoing correspondence. Unfortunately, the closed-minded judgmentalism of this person is so great that it has led her to end our exchange of letters because I continue to support nudism. She has decided, for all intents and purposes, to disfellowship me.

Christians often disagree. Disagreeing with each other is not necessarily a bad thing. We can grow intellectually and spiritually as a result of honest and loving debate. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," says Proverbs 27.17 (NIV throughout unless otherwise noted). Unfortunately, we can also hurt one another during the course of our disagreements if we aren't careful. Sometimes being "right" becomes more important than being loving, and that's a very bad thing, indeed.

When Christians disagree with one another, I believe it's important that they are well versed in what could be called Biblical rules of engagement. Paul lays down some of these rules in Romans 14:

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14.1-5).
Romans 14 shows us that disagreements between Christians are hardly a recent problem within the church. Here's what The Layman's Bible Commentary has to say about this chapter of Scripture:
Paul now comes to something which is a problem always and everywhere: moral questions about which sincere Christians differ. Just because Christian life cannot be managed with a brass rule, just because a slogan like "Love is the answer" or "Christ is the answer" does not untangle all problems, the Christian often has to think his problems through only to find that other equally sincere Christians have thought the same problems through and have come up with quite different answers. Then what?
Then what, indeed! Actually, this analysis may be a bit too charitable to some of the parties involved in these disputes. Many of them have not thought the problem through at all, but instead have based their position on uninformed presumption or long-standing tradition. In addition, many people who become involved in these disputes tend to be very closed-minded to any opinion other than their own or that of their group. This complicates matters immensely when trying to discuss our differences, since rational debate demands informed, thoughtful debaters who are at least marginally open to new ideas. I would venture to say that poor Biblical scholarship and obstinate closed-mindedness are probably the two most difficult problems that we face when trying to discuss nudism with other Christians.

Scripture refers to the kinds of problems that Paul addresses in Romans 14 as "disputable matters" (NIV), "doubtful disputations" (KJV), "disputes over opinion" (RSV), "doubtful points" (NEB), "beliefs that are different from yours" (CEV), "personal opinions" (GNB), "different ideas from yours" (LB) or "scruples" (AMP). Just about everything not explicitly commanded or explicitly forbidden by the Bible is encompassed here.

On the basis of what I've learned from the Bible, I believe nudism to be an acceptable practice for Christians, so long as their motives are pure and their activities are honorable, respectful of others, and legal. I recently examined a book by R. J. Rushdoony called The Institutes of Biblical Law. This 860-page tome offers an extensive (some would say exhaustive) survey of Biblical legislation such as I have never seen before. If it's an Old or New Testament command, prohibition, rule or regulation, it's probably discussed in this book. Much to the credit of the author, a section dealing with nakedness is included. This section is very small, however (just over four pages). The reason for such brevity becomes obvious from its very first sentence: "There is no legislation in Scripture concerning nakedness . . ." That's Rushdoony's conclusion. That's my conclusion. That's been the conclusion of every Fig Leaf Forum reader who has given this matter serious study. There simply are no general rules forbidding nakedness in the Bible, yet many in the church behave as if "You shall not be naked" is one of the Ten Commandments. Why? Once again, I believe poor Biblical scholarship combined with unquestioning adherence to cultural and religious traditions are the major contributors to this unfortunate problem. As a result, "what [we] consider good" is often "spoken of as evil" (Romans 14.16).

Christianity as a whole is very tradition bound. So is the society in which we live. Traditions are not necessarily bad in themselves unless we find them taking precedence over Biblical truth. It's difficult for some people to set aside religious or cultural traditions when shown that they don't conform to God's will for them. That's one of the problems the Roman Christians were having in Paul's time. That's one of the problems we're having today.

Christianity Today magazine recently published an interview with John Stott, the highly regarded evangelical Christian writer and preacher. Listen to what he had to say about evaluating long-standing traditions:

The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.
Legalism is another problem that often gets in the way of honest Christian debate. The Life Application Bible talks about legalism in a note about Romans 14:
While the church must be uncompromising in its stand against activities expressly forbidden by Scripture (adultery, homosexuality, murder, theft), it should not create additional rules and regulations and give them equal standing with God's law. Many times Christians base their moral judgments on opinion, personal dislikes, or cultural bias rather than on the Word of God. When they do this, they show that their own faith is weak. They do not think God is powerful enough to guide his children.
Most denominations falling within the scope of the evangelical and fundamentalist movements proudly proclaim something such as this within their denominational tenets: "We believe that the Holy Bible was given by inspiration of God, and that it only constitutes the divine rule of Christian faith and practice." If this claim is to be believed, then surely these among all Christians ought to be the most familiar with the concept of Christian liberty, and yet they seem to be among the groups most prone to succumbing to a legalistic religious life full of rules and traditions never dreamed of by the writers of the Bible.

Because some Christians are strong in the faith and others are weak, disagreements between Christians about how we are to live our earthly lives are bound to happen, just as they did in Rome during the time of Paul. Who is to be the arbiter when we disagree? The "stronger" Christian? The "weaker" Christian? Christian friends? The pastor of our church? A denominational leader, perhaps? According to Paul, the answer is, None of the above! In his commentary entitled The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, William Barclay writes,

Paul lays down a great principle. No man has any right to criticize another man's servant. The servant is answerable to his master alone. Now all men are the servants of God. It is not open to us to criticize them, still less to condemn them. That right belongs to God alone. It is not in our judgment that a man stands or falls but in his. And, Paul goes on, if a man is honestly living out his principles as he sees them, God can make him able to stand.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that we have revealed our interest in nudism to others in our church family. Let's further assume that this news is not well received, and that it causes our peers to view us (mistakenly, we think) as weak in the faith. What should they do with us? Forcefully remind us of "the rules"? Give us the corporate "cold shoulder"? Argue with us until we submit to their way of thinking? Initiate some sort of punishment for us? Disfellowship us, perhaps?

Wrong, says Paul in Romans 14.1: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (NIV); "Give a warm welcome to any brother who wants to join you, even though his faith is weak. Don't criticize him for having different ideas from yours about what is right and wrong" (LB); "As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions" (RSV); "If a man is weak in his faith you must accept him without attempting to settle doubtful points" (NEB); "Welcome the person who is weak in his faith, but do not argue with him about his personal opinions" (GNB); "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" (AMP). Does this sound like what your church would do?

Even if they decide that we are more than just "weak in the faith," that we are in fact sinning because we are nudists the Bible would still not allow legalistic condemnations from our peers. In Galatians 6.1, Paul writes, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently" (my emphasis). This concept of gentle restoration leaves no room for the harsh, judgmental sanctions so often applied by our fellow Christians.

I like how Charles Swindoll paraphrases the main points of Romans 14 in his book The Grace Awakening:

Nothing that is not specifically designated as evil in Scripture is evil but rather a matter of one's personal preference or taste. So let it be. Even if you personally would not do what another is doing, let it be. And you who feel the freedom to do so, don't flaunt it or mock those who disagree. We are in the construction business, not destruction. And let's all remember that God's big-picture kingdom plan is not being shaped by small things like what one person prefers over another, but by large things, like righteousness and peace and joy.
Jesus talked about the problem of Christians judging other Christians, too. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (Matthew 7.3-5). In our situation, the speck can represent the "small things" (the disputable matters) that cause disagreements between Christians. The plank represents the unloving and judgmental attitudes that so often accompany these disagreements. One shouldn't have too much difficulty deciding where the larger, more serious problem lies.

To be honest, I can live with other Christians thinking I am a brother who is weak in the faith because I'm a nudist. I don't think it's true, and I'm not happy that they feel that way about me, but I can live with it. I can also live with the fact that other Christians think that the Bible condemns human nakedness and labels it inherently sinful and shameful. I believe this, too, is a falsehood (as I hope has been shown repeatedly in this newsletter) but I'm willing to accept that between many other Christians and myself this will be a disputable matter. What I simply cannot abide is the judgment and condemnation that so often accompanies disagreements over this particular disputable matter. Such conduct is totally uncalled for and is completely unbiblical. "Who are you to judge someone else's servant?" Paul demands in Romans 14.4. "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?" repeats Paul in Romans 14.10. The absolute unacceptability of this kind of judgmental, censorious behavior between Christian brothers and sisters is most assuredly not a disputable matter.

It should go without saying that it's just as inappropriate for us to condemn others for not accepting nudism as it is for them to condemn us for accepting it. Between us it may be a disputable matter, but no one except God has the right to judge either side in the debate. In modern vernacular, Paul advises us to "agree to disagree" if necessary, but never, never are we to let the matter interfere with our fellowship with each other.

Poor Biblical scholarship, closed-mindedness and judgmentalism are difficult problems to overcome. At the very least, we should all be praying that God will open minds and hearts toward us and toward Christian nudism. We can, of course, try to avoid potential problems by not discussing nudism with others. Keeping things from other Christians is often viewed in a negative light, but it's not always right to look at it this way. Christian liberty can be very offensive to those who are weak in the faith. Swindoll writes in The Grace Awakening, "One of the marks of maturity is the ability to handle liberty without flaunting it. Mature folks don't flaunt their privileges. They enjoy them fully, yet quietly . . . privately . . . with those of like mind, who aren't offended by the liberty."

If quiet discretion is not an option or ceases to be an option then we may eventually be faced with resistance from our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to "beseech" them to consider at least two questions: (1) Does Scripture ever allow you to judge and condemn a brother or sister in the faith, especially over things that are not explicitly forbidden by the Bible? (2) Does any dispute, no matter how large it may be, ever excuse you from obeying our Lord's commandment: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13.34)?

In the final analysis, this whole thing is not about getting others to accept nudism (although that would be nice). It's about getting others to accept nudists. Romans 14 is not about settling our differences. It's about living with each other despite our differences. I've read that Richard Baxter, the influential 17th century Puritan minister, had this as his personal motto: "In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity." What a wonderful world it would be if all Christians would live in the spirit of these words.

This article is from Issue 14 of Fig Leaf Forum and was written by the editor.

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