Dealing With Doctrinal Difference:
Toleration, Separation or Forced Conversion?

This is a question that has been asked by Bible-believers for centuries. Many different answers have been offered—producing a great variety of results. The table at the bottom of this page summarizes those results. But what does the Bible say about it? How can we know when to tolerate other's beliefs, when to separate from them, and when (if ever) we should try to force others to believe like we do?

Currently, this issue seems to be on the minds of many "Christians"—from the Pope in Rome, to the leaders of Protestant denominations, to the small "living room" congregations. The question is: If our Savior came preaching "one God" and "love your neighbor as yourself", why can't we all get along? (Mark 12:31-33.)

For those seeking the Eternal with their whole heart, the answers do not always come easily. The Bible is a big book that contains much more than "love your neighbor." We now have 2000 years of sometimes doubtful copying, interpretation, translation, and history that we must use to understand the originally inspired writing. The Hebrew and Greek of the original writings is not the same language as the Hebrew and Greek of today. Linguistic scientists and archeologists continue to bring us new, relevant information about what these ancient texts meant. But the information is so vast that no one can know it all. From all of this, doctrinal disagreements arise.

We have the promise of the holy spirit leading us into truth (John 14:26, 16:13; 1Cor 2:10; 1Jn 2:27). We also have the warning of many false spirits that are "not of God" (1Tim 4:1; 2Tim 3:13; 1Jn 4:1; 2Jn 7). For every teacher claiming to teach a certain truth revealed by the holy spirit, it seems that there are several others teaching it differently—also claiming revelation by the holy spirit. We can be personally convicted of truth taught to us by the holy spirit, but if we are to expound this knowledge to others, we must be able to show that it agrees with scripture. When we listen to the teaching of others, we must check it against the scriptures (Deut 13:1-3; Isa 8:20; 2Tim 3:15-17).

Again, we are back to the technical problems of understanding exactly what the Bible says. For example, no matter how "filled with the spirit" a person is, he or she cannot justify keeping Easter based on Acts 12:4 (KJV) since the Greek word there clearly means "Passover." Yet many sincere people unknowingly make that mistake. But most doctrinal controversies are much more complex than this one. With this background, it is not amazing to see such great doctrinal diversity among so many people who all claim to be diligently searching for the truth.

We simply do not have access to the original 12 apostles or other witnesses who learned directly from our Savior. We cannot ask them what they meant when they wrote this or that scripture. While many human organizations claim to be a continuation of the apostolic church and therefore "have the truth," the history of every one of these organizations will show that they have made some changes in their beliefs. If they will admit to errors in the past, how can they assure us that they have no errors now?

We are each individually responsible for verifying each "truth" that we learn in the pages of the Bible. Whether we learn truth directly from the holy spirit, from a converted friend, or from a ministry of some nature, we are still responsible for verifying it in the Bible. There is so much to learn, that all brethren are not going to learn and study the same things at the same time. We must realize that growing in grace and knowledge takes time and that some are going to be stronger than others in that process (Rom 15:1).

So, how should we deal with doctrinal diversity? Should we fellowship with just any people who believe in the Bible or call themselves Christian? Should we join a big ecumenical movement? Should we diligently seek the truth while shunning everyone who does not believe exactly like we do? Or, should we try to force others to see the truth as we see it?

Can People Be Forced Into Faith?

While we might laugh at the idea of forcing people to believe, it is amazing how many people are unaware that this has been the major method of dealing with doctrinal difference throughout history.

Even since Constantine made "Christianity" the Roman state religion in the 300's AD, a variety of temporal governments have made their military and economic resources available to enforce Roman Catholic doctrine. From the late 1100's until well into the 1800's, the Roman Catholic "Inquisition" continued with varying degrees of viciousness. People were killed, tortured, banished, or stripped of material possessions in an effort to stamp out "heresy." The death toll runs into the millions, yet the Roman Church has never issued an apology. The offices of the inquisition (located in the Palace of Inquisition adjacent to the Vatican) have continuously existed to this day, though renamed in 1967 to "Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith."

A great many people escaped the Inquisition and gained a certain amount of religious freedom by joining one of the groups spawned by the protestant reformation of the 1500's. But only a few years later those groups often persecuted Sabbatarians, fundamentalists, Jews and other "independents." One such group, the Puritans, fled to North America to escape persecution by the Church of England. They went on to persecute everyone who was not a Puritan.

Even to this day, there are some religious groups in the Western world who believe God wants them to enforce their beliefs on others. A lot of this thinking comes from the false idea that we are to implement a physical Kingdom of God now. Some try to do it via legislation and economic pressure, others secretly attempt to catch, try, convict, and stone-to death witches, adulterers, homosexuals and others. While these groups are few and far between, brethren need to be very careful to avoid them—some actually keep the Sabbath and the holy days and, to the outside world, might look very similar to us.

These persecutors often justify their actions based on the punishments administered under Moses or on beatings and hair-pulling by Nehemiah for breaking the Sabbath and marrying foreign women (Neh 13). They also used scriptures showing where righteous ways will be enforced in the Millennium (Isa 2:4, 11:9, 45:23; Zech 14:18). However, they fail to note that our Savior never gave any command to his disciples to force his teaching on others. Rather, He said that the Father had to draw people and they would willingly come (John 6:37,44). He said that his servants would not fight, but angels would deliver them when necessary (John 18:36; Matt 26:51-54; Acts 5:19; 12:11; ). If a brother has a grievance against others that cannot be settled within the congregation, the only recourse is separation from the congregation—not to physically punish him or her (Mat 18:15-17).

Can People Be Tricked Into Truth?

The very idea of "tricking people into truth" sounds contradictory, but we can find examples of religions attempting to deceive people in order to gain or retain members. This idea is in some ways better and in some ways worse than forcing people. It is better than forcing people in that people can recognize the deception and leave it without being executed. It is more sinister than forcing, in that people might accept a lie thinking that they are accepting truth. Certainly the Eternal does not want anyone tricked into following him, but wants us to seek him with our whole heart (Deut 4:29).

Members of the Worldwide Church of God over the last 10 years may remember how changes were introduced slowly so people would not notice. For years they taught that God was a family, consisting of a Father and Son, and worked through the power of the holy spirit. Little by little, things began to change: the "oneness of the Godhead" was emphasized more; Jesus was declared to be 100% man and 100% God; they said they would no longer denounce the Trinity doctrine as "pagan"; then they said God "has a family" not "is a family"; then they began to say that the Father and Son were separate but still "one"; then they decided to call the Father and Son hypostasies; then it was discovered that the holy spirit talked sometimes and therefore might not be an impersonal force (my telephone answering machine talks, I wonder if its a hypostasis); and then, after several more announcements and a couple of rewrites of their God IS ... booklet, they were teaching the Trinity doctrine in much the same way that other Protestant churches do.

When WCG members asked their leaders for reassurance that they were not becoming Protestants, they were sometimes told that these statements were not really "changes," but "clarifications" of what the church had always believed. Michael Feazel and the other men who introduced these incremental changes had degrees from Protestant theological institutions and were well acquainted with the Trinity doctrine when they started their changes. We have a hard time believing that they did not know where they were going when they set out. Thousands of people gradually accepted the Trinity doctrine from that teaching.

A much larger scale act of trickery seems to be going on right now. On May 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II published his Encyclical entitled Ut Unum Sint or "That They May Be One." It is a 103-section document that addresses the issue of the Ecumenical movement—unity with other Christian groups. While most of the document is a lot of nice-sounding words, the ultimate goal is unity for all Christians. Quoting from the Papal Encyclical:

...In recent times, he [the Lord of Ages] has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity. Everywhere, large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace, and among our separated brethren also there increases from day to day a movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians. Taking part in this movement, which is called ecumenical, are those who invoke the Triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior... (sec 7)

...In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion.... To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the [Catholic] Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan for all eternity... (sec 9).

It is very clear that this unity is not going to be some new religious organization made up of all the others, but it will be a process where other Christians rejoin the Catholic Church:

...The [Second Vatican] Council states that the Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him," and at the same time acknowledges that "many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside her visible structure. these elements, however, as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, possess an inner dynamism towards Catholic Unity... (Sec 10).

Do the Catholics plan to alter their doctrines to make them more acceptable to the other Christian groups? Will they require the other groups to accept the authority of the Pope? We again quote the Papal Encyclical:

...Here is not a question of altering the deposit of faith [accumulated Catholic doctrine], changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety... (sec 18).

The Catholic Church, both in her praxis and in her solemn documents, holds that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is—in God's plan—an essential requisite of full and visible communion. Indeed full communion, of which the Eucharist is the highest sacramental manifestation, needs to be visibly expressed in a ministry in which all the Bishops recognize that they are united in Christ and all the faithful find confirmation for their faith. The first part of the Acts of the Apostles presents Peter as the one who speaks in the name of the apostolic group and who serves the unity of the community all the while respecting the authority of James, the head of the Church in Jerusalem. This function of Peter must continue in the Church so that under her sole Head, who is Jesus Christ, she may be visibly present in the world as the communion of all his disciples.

Do not many of those involved in ecumenism today feel a need for such a ministry?... (sec 97.)

The last quotation has slightly obscure language, but the "ministry" that ecumenicalists supposedly "feel a need for" is the need for a leader over them all—the Pope.

Obviously, the Protestant groups want nothing to do with this, right? Wrong! Many groups seem to be latching on to the 90+ nice-sounding sections and ignoring the sections we quoted. On March 29, 1994 a joint document was published, entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together, The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. The document was endorsed immediately by Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and a number of other American evangelicals. Jack Van Impe, other televangelists and leaders of other evangelical groups have endorsed it since. While the document contains many good paragraphs about opposing abortion, pornography, new-age movements, and general Godlessness in society, it also makes it clear that supporters shall no longer proselyte (try to win converts from) each other's congregations. (During the last 50 years, Catholics have lost a lot of members to evangelical organizations, whereas the reverse is not true.) While the document stated that it did not begin to resolve their doctrinal disputes, it did list some of them in rather mild language. But if resolution is to come, how it will come is clear:

...Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God's saving grace in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to the fullness ofGod's revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality (sec III, second to last paragraph).

While this document on the surface seems to give the evangelicals help in their crusade against the Godless, secular influences in the world, it is also a big step closer to a single, state-supported "Christian" religion. If over 90% of the Sunday-keeping, Trinitarian churches form a politically active alliance, what persecution might be brought upon Sabbath-keepers and non-Trinitarians?

While many members of the Catholic and the Evangelical churches will have a certain amount of increased peace and harmony because of the Ecumenical movement, there is no doubt that the end of this matter will be in favor of the Catholic leadership. In our mind, there is no question that the above documents were written to help stop the "conversion" of Catholics to other branches of Christianity and to prepare for an eventual "Christian merger"—back to the Catholic fold. Some people will probably be tricked into believing that there is no significant difference between Catholicism and Evangelicalism (or between Catholicism and plain Bible teaching).

Should Everyone Tolerate Everything Everywhere?

We have seen the errors of trying to force or "trick" people into believing a certain way. Should we take the opposite approach and simply assemble with everyone who calls themselves "Christian?"

When the Apostle Paul traveled to preach the Gospel, he seemed to be willing to speak almost anywhere: at synagogues, at schools, to angry mobs, to pagan assemblies, etc. His policy was to "become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (1Cor 9:22). While he obviously kept the Sabbath, there is no doubt that he spoke on other days as well. However, he was doing this in his role as an apostle—reaching out to teach others. We are not all apostles (1Cor 12:29). The scriptures do recommend certain standards for fellowship:

So there remains a Sabbath-keeping for God's people (Heb 4:9, JNT)

For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.... Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed (2Jn 7,9-10, KJV).

It is essential that brethren meet on the Sabbath and that they believe that our Savior lived his life as a human. Obviously, it would be difficult to meet with people who cannot agree on which day to meet! Furthermore, if people do not understand the basic nature of the sacrifice of our Savior, little can be accomplished.

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself (1Tim 6:3-5).

We cannot meet with people who continually argue about things. If there is too much emphasis on arguments and not enough on good things, then our fellowship suffers. Also, we should not meet with someone who is trying to get rich from his religion. Obviously, this would apply to someone who is coming to a congregation for the purpose of recruiting customers or employees. Might it also apply to religious leaders that insist on living like kings? It is important to note that we may not be able to remove these people from our group, instead we may have to "withdraw ourselves."

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you;nor did we eat anyone's bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you (2Thes 3:6-8).

These verses carry a very similar message to those in Timothy. You cannot meet with people in a contentious spirit, or that seem to be interested primarily in money.

For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2Tim 3:2-7).

This verse says that we should not meet with people who are obviously unrighteous and do not really believe in the power of their religion. The examples in 1Cor 5:1-13, Matt 18:15-17, Eph 5:11, and other places show that people continuing to live in open sin must be asked to leave our congregations.

Finally, we find a lot of information for how to conduct our services and use spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14. It will be difficult for people to meet together on a regular basis if they do not agree to conduct services according to this manner. Unfortunately, too many congregations still copy the "top down" Catholic-Protestant form of service, rather than the participative synagogue form used in the first century.

In summary, if some people are causing the work of a congregation to be ineffective and the problem cannot be resolved by talking about it, then it is probably necessary to break up a congregation. Sometimes, people create unresolvable problems so they can separate and "get a piece of the congregation for themselves." Even if they fool the people into believing their disagreement is genuine, they will not fool the Great Righteous Judge. Their deeds will not go unpunished.

What Differences Can We Tolerate?

The scriptures contain no long list of doctrines that we must accept in order to be considered brethren. Hebrews 6:1-2 contains 6 doctrines which nearly all Bible-believers accept, though their application may vary. Many of the doctrines that currently divide Sabbath-keepers do not have to. The nature of the Father and his Son, the Biblical calendar, the time of Passover and Pentecost, and a host of other issues do not need to divide brethren. They may need to keep holy days at different times, but they can still meet together on the Sabbath. We must realize that we are a long way removed from the first century when there were apostles and many others who were directly trained by our Messiah.

Today, many groups think they must hold all doctrines in common in order to fellowship. (Often, anyone who believes differently than they do is concisdered to be "in error" and is therefore "Laodicean" or "unconverted"). But we have clear examples of a few doctrinal differences in the New Testament, and we never find congregations dividing over the issue.

In Acts 15, some brethren believed it was necessary to circumcise Gentiles after the manner of Moses in order for them to have salvation. We could compare this to some teaching today where people say it is necessary to keep Passover according to their standard in order to have salvation. These are not unimportant issues. Yet the people were meeting together in spite of their difference on circucision. Even years later there were people who did not accept this Jerusalem decision but were still meeting with the others (Tit 1:10).

The issue of whether or not to eat meat that had been offered to idols was also a "hot one" of the day. The people were very concerned about violating the second commandment. In Acts 15:29 they asked the Gentiles not to eat such meat, but in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul says idols are really nothing and it is all right as long as it does not offend others. There is no mention of separate meetings or not considering each other brethren. How many groups are separate today because they consider another group's symbols, practices or name for the Father or Son to be idolatrous? It may be that the Eternal would prefer that they change, but their error is in ignorance. We can still do what we know to be right and can still fellowship with them—we will be judged for our own actions, not for theirs.

Romans 14 covers a dispute over whether people should eat meat at all. This, again, is a big issue that would come up every time the congregation had a meal together. Some people obviously believed it was wrong to eat meat. Paul could have told them the truth of the matter and insisted that they have "unity" on this point, but he told them to respect each other's differences.

We do not even need to agree on use of money in order to meet together. Paul worked with the Corinthians even though he did not accept any money from them (1Cor 9:18, 2Cor 11:8).

We should not tolerate different doctrinal beliefs because truth is relative or because one idea is as good as another. We tolerate diverse doctrines because we know that we are not all at the same point in understanding and because it is important that "each be fully convinced in his own mind." For example: if we believe the scriptures indicate it is wrong for us to eat at a restaurant on the Sabbath when other arrangements are possible, knowing other Sabbath-keepers do it does not make it "right" for us to do.

The advantage of tolerating a diversity of doctrines is that it increases the number of people with which to fellowship and congregations can be more local. If there are 200 Sabbath-keepers in a small state, but they are divided up into 20 groups, there will be only about 10 members in each group and brethren will have to drive all over the state for services each Sabbath. If there were only two groups, each group could have four different meeting places in the state and there would still be about 25 people in each group. Sabbath driving time would be greatly reduced and a much better nucleus of spiritual gifts would be available in each group.

If you feel you must separate, it should not be because "we believe this and they believe that.," You should be able to state some tangible, practical benefit of separation. As an example, supposing there are a group of believers in an area, but half of them speak English and half of them speak Spanish and their translator has moved away and the Eternal has not granted them the gift of tongues. Splitting the group will allow everyone to understand all of each service, rather than requiring people to sit through talking that they do not understand. It will be a much better environment in which to invite new people. They will be able to understand all of the service, too.


We should be joyful to live in a time when others do not try to force their religion on us—it may not always be this way. We need to be on guard, however, for those who might try to trick us into accepting beliefs not based on the Scripture. Obviously, we should not use forceful or deceitful methods ourselves. We need to "work while it is day" (John 9:4). There are so many people who need to be reached with the basic message of the Bible that we must not let ourselves be consumed with divisions over complex doctrines. We should tolerate other's doctrines so we can work together and learn from each other, not so we can be personally lax or unfaithful to our understanding of the Scripture. If we must separate from other brethren, it should be for the benefit of all involved, not to grab power for a few. These decisions require wisdom.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.... But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy (Jms 1:5, 3:17).

—Norman S. Edwards

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