This article is the last instalment of a three-part series based on Christian charity. We are Sola 5. In one of our core values we affirm the following: “that in essentials there must be unity, in nonessentials liberty and in all things charity.” The latter, namely our commitment to charity in all things, is what I attempted to amplify in the articles I have written.
This current article is an attempt solely devoted to offering practical application of the value of charity. The aim of this post is dual faceted. The first facet is to focus on encouraging you to cultivate charity when there are disagreements on non-essentials between you and a fellow believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. The second facet is to encourage you to consider charity as an act of discipleship. Probably most people that you have to extend charity to are those you disagree with on certain doctrines and practices. To show them charity, you have to be wholly devoted to building them up (1 Corinthians 12:7) in their faith to make them like the Lord Jesus Christ.
My former associate pastor, Richard Raven, discipled me as a young pastor in a way that made me learn how to be charitable and how to disagree. His Christlike life influenced and shaped me greatly. He taught me to always be ready to answer these two crucial questions when I disagree with someone: why do I want them to know that I disagree with them, and what am I going to do to help them to become mature and to attain the full measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12–13)? My prayer and hope is for you to adopt Richard’s approach towards charitably dealing with those you disagree with and why you should do this in the context of commitment to discipling them.
A Romans 14 Mentor: Richard Raven
Let me begin by sharing with you how my mentor charitably dealt with me when I was wrong. When I was clearly wrong, and Richard could tell that I was wrong, he took his time to arrive at understanding what my motives were when saying something that was plainly wrong to him but did not seem to appear to be wrong to me. He did not judge my motives because only God can discern motives (1 Corinthians 2:11). He took time to learn, from me personally, what my motives were. He did not compare me to other people who were saying wrong things that I also said. He exercised tremendous patience towards me, being “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). It would only be after coming close to a full understanding of why I said what I said, that he would discuss his disagreements with me.
He looked for opportune moments to do this. It was not always intense. In fact, I can’t remember us discussing our differences in an intense environment. He created a safe platform, like taking me out for a meal or coffee and then we would talk. During a meal, he once casually said, “By the way, remember that day when you said this or that, this is what I heard and understood. Can we talk about it?” If you had seen him the time he was not talking to me about some of my concerning views, you would conclude he was tolerating something wrong. On the contrary, he was exercising the patience required of him of doing the hard work of loving me and caring for me and ensuring that I do not shipwreck my faith.
In that way, he managed to protect me. God used him in my life. He gave Richard patience and grace which he had in abundance even when he disagreed with me. He and I had many points of differences and disagreements. Despite this, he taught me to do the hard work of sifting through our differences in order to give one another grace and charity in our differences. If you saw us working together, you would conclude that we agreed on everything (although we agreed on almost everything). But that was not always the case. Richard taught me to respect him as he respected me when we differed on minor or major points.
For example, Richard is covenantal and I am dispensational, but he taught me to apply charity while differing with him on these issues. I took this application to my family as well. When Richard preached on something strongly covenantal, like when he did the exposition of Isaiah 40–66, it was not my job to sit my family down to unteach them what Richard taught them at church. My job at home became: Richard is your pastor, you must respect his views because you saw how he arrived at the conclusions he arrived at. He did so biblically, doing his utmost best to serve you as God required of him.
I told my family that it is Richard’s views that they should wrestle with, not mine. I shepherded my family to see how their pastor arrived at his views. If the teachings they heard from the pulpit ended up being their convictions as well, it would not be my job to convince them otherwise because when Richard preached in that pulpit it was to shepherd my family. I was convinced that he loved my family and was dedicated to teaching them the whole counsel of God.
The way Richard dealt with me during one period in my life reminded me of hearing a University of the Free State lecturer recount how he dealt with a student during the peak of the #feesmustfall protests. He said during the protests he saw a student pick up a brick and hurled it at a police vehicle. In his mind, that was a clear act of criminality. He said he approached this student to sit down with him and asked him to explain what it is that he was trying to communicate through vandalism. He offered him the space to speak, to be heard in case he was not heard. In the end he managed to convince the student that resorting to anarchy will not solve his problems. He did this while remaining convinced the police would be justified to charge the student for committing a crime.
This is what Richard did with me. He helped me not to hurl hurts at people who loved me, people I should have loved, and people whom God loves and has entrusted to us to care for them. My views and the way I communicated them were not always seasoned with grace but Richard helped me. He helped me by loving me and by ensuring that we were united as pastors. Because of Richard’s charity, he and I were known more for what we agreed on than what we disagreed on. This is what I would love to see between believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. We have disagreements, but we should be known more for “the salvation we share; the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).
Doctrine is important and it unites us. It should help us to cultivate the relationships we have with one another. What Christ has done for us on the cross should help us to live in a way that outshines our differences. It is, of course, difficult to have strong relations with people of different theological persuasion, but we should not give up on the hard work required to love one another. Christ’s death has already united us. He has given us the Holy Spirit and his word to help us be united.
How Richard’s Charity Shaped my Preaching and Shepherding
What I had with Richard was true unity, indeed. It was sweet fellowship. It was not fabricated. It did not even feel fabricated. There was true liberty between us because the foundation upon which we built our relationship was charity. It did not even feel like we needed to be careful around each other or suppress our views and feelings to maintain unity. The Holy Spirit liberated and united us and allowed us to be ourselves as he wanted us to serve Christ.
In terms of preaching, teaching, and shepherding, God used Richard to shepherd me to package and deliver sermons well. My mind has stored a lot of information. I did not know what to do with this information. Richard saw me as having the tools which could be used to exegete the text and to package sermons that would keep me from making mistakes of youth, creating unnecessary conflict, and losing sight of the far more supreme reason of doing ministry, namely for the love of the people of God.
Richard taught me how to be concise and not bring all my theology to the pulpit in one sermon. He taught me how to patiently take God’s people along as I shepherd them. He told me to take my time to teach people my exegesis so that they may learn to see how I arrive at the conclusions of the texts I preach. He said even though it might take time, I must be patient with God’s people (2 Timothy 4:2), treat them the way God has designed them, not the way I want them to be as their pastor. He taught me to pastor the people that God has given me to pastor, not the kinds of people I would have liked to have as my “sheep.”
While I learned this from Richard, never once did I feel like Richard was trying to change me to make me who I was not. Nor did I feel like he was trying to make me like himself. Richard showed me how to be like Jesus and have a meaningful relationship with Jesus. All he did was to show me how to have the heart of Christ for sinners that Jesus saved. He too was striving to be more and more like Christ and desired the same for me.
Final Application Points
Let me close by asking you a series of application points as you consider being used by God in the lives of others. Use these towards a charitable application of Romans 14:1–13.
First, is it your responsibility? Are you God’s man or woman for the occasion? For example, if it is your husband, wife, child, or member of the same church you have a God given responsibility to be their keeper. If the person you want to help is a complete stranger or they are separated from you by distance, you may not be God’s chosen man or woman to disciple them. Being far removed from them means that you cannot live out in demonstration the Christlikeness you want them to attain. We should not be people who just correct. We must correct and be available to model what we want people to be in life. Do not assume the responsibility that is not yours. Direct them to who God has given them to disciple them and pray that that person will be used of God to make that individual like Christ.
Second, do you know the person? Many times we help people we don’t really know intimately. Get to know your disciple very well.
Third, what is your heart’s desire? Check your heart’s desire in relation to the person you engage with. Do you really want to help them? Do you carry them in earnest, incessant prayer? If you are not able to invest in them at this level, perhaps you are not the person God wants you to help them. If you are not in it for the long haul, then reconsider. Be sure you are willing to be patient with them so that God may change them. Do not do it for yourself. Do it for this person that you love. If you see them honour Christ or when they change and perhaps do not hold the same views as you precisely, rejoice. If you fail to rejoice, then your desire is not to help this person.
Fourth, are you committed to what is written? Be careful to not go beyond what is written in the Bible.
Fifth, do you apply a one-size-fits-all approach? What helped you might not help the next person. What helped someone else might not help the other person. Don’t approach situations with predetermined texts of Scripture. We are all not the same.
Sixth, are you equipped? There are many PhDs who cannot supervise Masters students because they are not equipped to be supervisors. The fact that you have some knowledge, does not mean you are equipped. However, as a Christian you “are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). Spend time in the word of God and in prayer to equip yourself. Equipping yourself means to know the Scriptures really well, not only studying the passages of Scripture to use in counselling. Hear people out, then after hearing them out do the hard work of studying the Bible to know what God has to say to help them change.
Seventh, do you communicate well? Sometimes when you are discipling someone, thoughts come when you are not with them. Write down the thoughts. If you want to communicate with them, give them a call and ask if you could send an email or a text message. Let them know. Make them aware, so that when they read your message they may detect with what emotion you wrote to them. Sometimes when we communicate in writing it is difficult to get the mood and tone across, so talking first might help to bridge that gap to help them detect how you are feeling and what your mood was when you wrote.
Eighth, are you courteous? Sometimes you will have the urge to share details of your relationship with the person you are discipling with someone else. If you really need to, and the matter is sensitive, ask for permission from the person concerned or make them aware that you are taking counsel from others as well.
Ninth, is your help working? Throughout your journey with the person you disagree with, as you disciple them you can you tell if you are helping effectively or not! Keitu and I had disagreements before we got married. Despite my best efforts, arguments, and exegetical prowess she was not persuaded. She only became persuaded after spending time with older women in the faith who applied Titus 2:3. See, I was trying to do what was not divinely mandated and God did not bless it. Search for God’s wisdom. Parents will be successful at shepherding their children’s hearts because they are parents. Someone else who is not their parent may struggle. Remember kids get more than just teaching and discipline from their parents. The shepherding comes from the parent who surprises them with sweets and other good things.
Older men may shepherd younger men more successfully than older women can. The same applies the other way around. This is just how God has designed things. If it is not working, it might be that you are assuming a role that is not yours. Search the Scriptures to see if God has not left us with a pattern to walk.
Tenth, are you humble? During discipling someone or during discussing differing views, you might hear something for the first time. When that happens, do you have the humility to acknowledge that you are hearing it for the first time? Sometimes someone you are trying to correct may ask something you don’t know. If you do not know, acknowledge that you do not know. Do not attempt to form a view on the spot.
Eleventh, are you a quarrelsome person? There is a good reason why God says those who aspire to become elders must not be quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:3). It is hard to communicate with a quarrelsome person. I once was quarrelsome. It is not easy to see even when you are wrong. If the person you are discipling is quarrelsome, avoid making them more quarrelsome. If you are a quarrelsome person yourself, try to avoid being quarrelsome.
Twelfth, do you recognise prior learning? Often people have thought long and hard about their positions. When you engage with them, don’t assume you are going to share with them ground-breaking information. They probably have heard your arguments or similar arguments from others. Treat people with respect. Take time to establish what they know and what they don’t know. This applies to more than just being charitable according to Romans 14. Treat people as if they are learned. People know things. Respect that. The same way you also need to learn many things while you know many things, everybody is like that. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Don’t be a teacher in every situation.
Thirteenth, are you invited? Sometimes someone may share something with you that you do not see exactly the same way. Try to establish whether they are inviting your comments or just sharing with you. Sometimes just listen. If someone tells you they like biltong and you don’t like biltong, they may not be inviting you to tell them you don’t like biltong and they are not saying you should like their biltong.
Fourteenth, are you mindful of the stages or the developments of discussions? I struggle quite a lot with having a lot of appetite for discussing heated things endlessly. Doug Van Meter taught me really well to recognise when discussions have reached an impasse. Sometimes two individuals who really love the Lord will never come to the same conclusion on something. The wisest thing to do is to recognise that perhaps you need to resolve to agree to disagree. When discussions have reached an impasse, preserve the relationship and recognised that you have arrived at the stage where you walk away while you love the man you will never talk to about things you disagree on again.
The aim of the three-article series I’ve written is to urge us to be charitable towards one another. In the first post I attempted to persuade you to understand the nature of what is biblical or unbiblical so that you do not label people you disagree with on legitimate doctrinal differences and practices as “unbiblical.” In the second post I attempted to show you from Romans 14 how to accept those you differ with on doctrinal or practical preferences. This final post is a summary application of the two, which aims to encourage you to have healthy relations with those you disagree with. Even though I previously mentioned that we should respect the views of others, that does not exclude the responsibility you have to correct others or to persuade them to be more “biblical.” There is a way to do that, the foundation of which is charity. My hope and prayer is that you will prioritise being charitable as you deal with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and to perhaps adopt and adapt some of the principles I shared from my experience with my former mentor.