Unfortunately, no one agrees what’s “essential” and what’s “non-essential.” The result has been a history of division among the Restoration Movement’s offspring (e.g., independent Christian Churches, the Churches of Christ) in the form of heated arguments, “defellowshipping” (i.e., excommunication), church splits, and the creation of sub-movements. In short, one man’s universal “matter of faith” is another man’s personal “matter of opinion.”
Nearly every day, I hear or read something related to this issue, and while ago I realized that something important is strangely absent from the discussion. Who says that Christians aren’t to express their opinions or seek to convert others to them? Revisiting 1 Corinthians 7 (ESV), we can see that Paul had no problem giving instruction to Christians that, by his own admission, wasn’t from the Holy Spirit:
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.” (v. 6)
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (v. 7)
“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” (v. 8)
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband…” (v. 10)
“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” (v. 12)
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” (v. 17)
“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.” (v. 25)
“I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” (v. 26)
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” (v. 32)
“I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” (v. 35)
“Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (v. 40)
In other words, Paul gave orders on “non-essentials”! From a Stone-Campbellite perspective, this is enough to throw suspicion on the soundness of the entire passage (not to mention the entire book). If we obey what he says, then we are clearly following “man’s personal opinion.”
Now, let’s assume that Paul wasn’t sinning by giving these instructions to the Corinthians, and that his Corinthian readers weren’t sinning if they obeyed him. Why, then, should there be one rule for Paul and another for members of the contemporary Church when it comes to spreading personal views? This passage suggests that the New Testament Church might have thought it perfectly acceptable for one Christian to present to others well-thought out, well-reasoned arguments about issues of personal concern.
If Paul was allowed to express his own opinions, maybe we should rethink forcing others to be silent. Of course, their conclusions would be non-binding. But their godly reputations may warrant at least a fair hearing and thoughtful consideration.