How to Handle Theological Diversity In a Local Church

We live in a world where many people from our churches pick up their theological input from a wide range of sources. Books, podcasts, YouTubers, TikTok soundbites, previous churches, family upbringing, friendships circles and many more things are shaping the people in our congregations. Although it is not what many preachers or church leaders want to hear, one preach in church or even a whole series is unlikely to bring consensus on most issues, and we will constantly face the challenge of people in our churches making comments and sharing resources that stem from theological positions different from what the church holds.

For many leaders, this can be difficult. We (understandably) want people to line up with what we consider to be correct doctrine, and so we can be hasty and confrontational and miss the fact that our own journeys of theological formation have been slow and gradual. Shepherding people into theological understanding requires patience and grace.

In this post, I pick out a few principles from 1 Timothy that can help us as we encounter different theological views in the congregations we are leading. Timothy had been sent by Paul to Ephesus to deal with some false ideas that had been circulating there, and this letter is a follow up to help him do that.


1 Timothy 1:3-5 – I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith.

It is striking that as Paul gives Timothy these instructions, he has ‘certain people’ in mind. He is not setting Timothy loose as a theological enforcer to confront any minor error, but rather he is tasked with addressing a defined issue with some particular people who have come into the church with an agenda to disrupt and to teach false doctrine. Paul comes back to the specifics of this later in the letter, where he writes that “in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teaching of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.” These are strong words: demonic teaching, hypocrisy and lies.

This is very different from the kinds of error that occur in our congregations most of the time, and it is very different from a good-hearted member of the congregation watching a few questionable YouTube videos and now coming out with off-piste comments once in a while. We can sometimes over-estimate the harm that these views can do. We might fear that one person’s offbeat view might spread through the church, but much of the time people recognise it for what it is and take it with a pinch of salt.

There will be times when people come in with a harmful agenda, and this will usually become clear. When this happens it is important that the elders deal with it firmly, and Paul’s words to Timothy do have a direct relevance. But a lot of the time the situation isn’t that and a much more calm and patient approach can be afforded.

In verse 5, Paul emphasises that the aim of instruction is love. A lot of the time this is where we can err, because it can be easy to substitute this for the goal of orthodoxy, or proving ourselves right, or appearing to others that our church conforms to the theological distinctives of a particular tribe, but when these goals are substituted for love it can cause us to act in a way that does not best serve the person. In the same way that just because somebody is wrong on the internet, it doesn’t mean it needs addressing, something similar can be said in our churches, at least in the short term. Often the most loving thing to do, particularly when the person is well-intentioned and not coming with an agenda, is not to go in all guns blazing but to play the long game, build relationship with them and look out for teachable moments where conversation comes naturally around to the topic and you can get a hearing in a non-confrontational manner, just as Jesus frequently had with his disciples.


1 Timothy 2:1-2, 8, 11 – First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity… I desire then that men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument… Let a woman learn in silence [peace].

Throughout chapter 2 of 1 Timothy, Paul repeatedly returns to the issue of peace. The desire for peaceful lives should lead us to pray for governments, and this is the same word attached to how women should learn in verse 11 (this isn’t the place to get into all of the issues contained in that verse – but we will have an upcoming Theology Club course out soon where we go into much more detail). It also frames the instruction to men to pray, that they do so without anger or argument.

This desire for peace can be contrasted with the war footing that some Christian leaders operate on (and I must confess that I have been guilty of this at times). Whilst there is certainly a place for confronting error, it is not the right posture for the Christian leader to be eager to pick fights, and instead peace ought to be a priority where possible.

Two principles that we have found helpful in doing this at Christ Church Manchester are:

Theological Triage – The idea here is that not every issue matters to the same degree. We tend to separate issues into three categories and go along with Andrew Wilson’s terminology of issues you write in pencil, issues you write in pen and issues you write in blood. Others use terminology of holding in an open hand, holding in a closed hand and holding in your teeth (which seems to make the middle category a bit too rigid) or third order, second order and first order issues (which is clear but a bit dull). Pencil issues tend to be minor things that we wouldn’t generally take a position on as a church, and whilst they can be fun to bat around over coffee not a lot hangs on them at all. Pen issues are things that we would have a defined position on, and with good theological reasons, but we also know that there are many faithful Christians who would disagree with us. This is where the desire for peace becomes crucial. There are a whole load of people in our congregations who would see a variety of second order issues differently to the position the church has, and we can live with this. It is only as people are being brought through into leadership roles (site leaders, elders etc.) that we would be looking for close alignment on the pen stuff. Blood issues are ones that are crucial to the faith and if somebody sees things differently then they are departing from historic Christianity. Where there is difference on these issues then it is important to help guide the person to truth, though even here gentleness often serves better than picking fights.

Theological Bandwidth – This is the idea that it is sometimes helpful to define not just a particular position on an issue (a party line) but a range of views that somebody might have without it really being problematic. For example, on a given issue you might conclude that if somebody has view A or view B then it needs addressing, but views C, D, E, F and G are all positions that faithful Christians might hold. However if someone goes all the way to view H then they are back to problematic territory. Again, bandwidth changes with leadership position and the more central someone’s leadership role is the more narrow the bandwidth becomes. For example, in the case above, it might be that whilst views C, D, E, F and G are held by faithful Christians, you would want people on your core team to land on view D, E or F, and perhaps expect your elders or site leaders to line up behind view D.

In general we have found that we can have a lot of grace for people who see things differently to us but are within the range of views that Bible-believing Christians hold, especially if they are willing to act in a gracious way themselves.


1 Timothy 3:2-4 – A bishop [elder] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well…

These words about the qualifications for elders are followed by a similar description for deacons. In the context of a letter equipping Timothy to deal with false teaching in Ephesus, Paul wants to impress the importance of good leaders within the church community. These leaders must be able to teach but the major focus is given to their character. Godly leaders are crucial in helping the church grow in all areas, including its theological understanding.

We have found that it is usually not the case that people are won over primarily by ideas and arguments but by people and relationships, and it is within these relationships that a space has been created for those ideas to register. Perhaps this is why Ephesians 4 speaks of pastors and teachers together as one office. The purpose of teaching is to care for and shepherd the people, and the way people can be cared for and shepherded is through the word of God. There have been times that I have observed people I have spent time with saying the kinds of things I would say about a topic, even if it is something we have never directly discussed. Often an approach to theology can be caught as much as it is taught, and having well-functioning exemplary leaders in close proximity to the congregations sharing life with them is a significant part of this.


1 Timothy 4:6-7 – If you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales…

Here the call is clear that Timothy is to be focussed on truth and to have nothing to do with the false ideas that were circulating. This is an important corrective, because it can be easy when we are aware of error within our congregations to become obsessed with combatting the incorrect view. Timothy is not to call a seminar to discuss every dodgy idea circulating, nor to make the bulk of his teaching ministry reactive to whatever is going around. There may be a place for addressing such things occasionally, but the primary focus must be the gospel. The best antidote to false teaching is the truth of the gospel, and it is as people see the glory of this that other concerns fade in comparison. This is why Paul urges Timothy in 4:13 to give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting and to teaching. Faithful and regular proclamation of God’s word is crucial in raising up congregations that have a good theological grasp of the truth.


1 Timothy 5:1-2 – Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters- with absolute purity.

One of my mentors when I was a young leader in my twenties was a retired senior civil servant. He was living a mature Christian life, had a healthy marriage, led within the church and had been highly respected in his career. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from him. I remember one occasion where out conversation turned to theology and I mentioned that I considered myself a calvinist. My mentor explained that he didn’t agree on that point and gave some of his reasons for seeing things differently. At this point I am ashamed to say that I went in two footed on him, I was harsh in tone and didn’t really engage with what he was saying. I wanted him to line up his beliefs with what I understood the Bible to say, but I approached the issue with no grace and no respect.

Looking back on this conversation, I am ashamed of how I acted. There may have been flaws in his theology (and there were certainly flaws in mine) but that does not excuse me having spoken to him the way I did. I had made the issue more important than the person, and was willing to jeopardise our relationship over a second-order issue.

In the verses above, Paul is keen to encourage gentleness and respect in the way we speak to one another, particularly in handling theological correction. The simple rule of thumb is to speak to others in the way we would want somebody to speak to a member of our family. If I heard that a young guy had gone in on my dad with the same tone I used in the conversation with my mentor, I would not have been happy and this shows that it was not an appropriate way to speak to him. We are to approach conversations with older believers like we would our parents, and with younger men and women we should think in terms of our own siblings – not demeaning or patronising but encouraging and patient.

This is different to the issue with ‘certain people’ that Paul highlighted at the start of the letter. In those circumstances where somebody is coming in with an agenda to stir up trouble then there may well be a place for a firmer conversation, but most of the time we are dealing with good-hearted people who are just muddled up on a few things, and we are to approach these situation with lots of gentleness and lots of respect, just as we would our own family members.


1 Timothy 5:13-15 – Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not say. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, and manage their households, so as to give the adversary no occasion to revile us. For some have already turned away to follow Satan.

Whilst the specifics of this verse might seem removed from the theological challenges we face within our own congregations, the principle is helpful. Paul has identified the specific contexts that seem to be aggravating the issue and he gives Timothy some instructions on how to address those contexts. Where false ideas are circulating within our churches, there may be some spaces that are particularly unhelpful and it is important to identify what these are, and where possible to address them. For example, it may be that you have a community group where people ping off one another in a way that proves disruptive and unhelpful, and you want to think about reconfiguring some of your groups so the people in question are in different groups to each other. At one of our sites the issue was a WhatsApp group where some people were regularly posting unhelpful links and articles that caused others to argue. Things became fraught for a while until we retired that group and switched to other ways of doing internal comms! It is possible to oversteer on this and spend too much time policing different spaces, but where you do see a particularly problematic setting then it can be an easy opportunity to nip things in the bud.


1 Timothy 6:20-21 – Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith. 

Paul signs off his letter to Timothy with this charge. Timothy had been entrusted with both the gospel message and the people under his care and he was to guard both. As leaders in the church we are to be gospel people who centre on the message of God’s grace and care for the flock. Our call is not to jump at every slight error, and it is certainly not to act as the theology police, but we do want to draw people into truth and godliness. This is not a harsh process, nor is it a hurried one but it is slow, patient and relational, it can cope with bandwidth and difference on lower-order issues and is full of grace.

It is also humble, and comes with the recognition that we may not be right on everything ourselves! Our own current beliefs cannot be held up as the unchanging standard by which everyone else is to be measured, particularly on the lower order issues. As we are constantly growing and learning humbly before the word ourselves, then we position ourselves well to help those we serve on their own journeys of growth.