The Right Way to Disagree
By ben simpson
June 23, 2011
As you've probably noticed, churches do not always agree.
New Christian sects or denominations are born every day, often out of disagreement. My Baptist heritage provided me with a saying: “Wherever two are gathered, there will be three opinions.” The same has been said of Methodists and Presbyterians and Jews. You do not have to look far within denominations or other traditions to find disagreements. You often have to look no further than the walls of a Sunday School, small group, committee meeting or upon the faces of those present for a worship gathering.
Among my friends and colleagues, numerous differences exist. We disagree concerning the ethical questions of our day such as abortion, homosexuality and war. We disagree on important theological questions like inspiration, atonement and eschatology. On some questions, I’m confident I am right and my opponent is wrong. On others, I am not so sure.
When I disagree with others, however, I am convinced of one thing: I am called to love. And love is demanding, costly, long-suffering, hopeful—and oh-so worth it. We are not naturally inclined to do the things we are commanded to do, but love is a divine command. In love, as in all things, we need the grace of God.
So how does one maintain a spirit of love in the midst of disagreement? How does one remain part of a church with whom they disagree on teaching, practice or doctrine?
The Paradox of Doctrine
There is an old saying that doctrine divides. It does—but it also unites. There are many churches that remain united while disagreeing about many important questions. While some points of doctrine reveal clear differences between individuals and groups, other points of doctrine tether conversations to a common center, making possible the space needed for conversation.
Disagreements may be long in the running. Recently, I learned of an ongoing theological conflict the Catholic Church experienced with a neo-Manichean group known as the Albigenses. This disagreement served as a point of inspiration for Saint Thomas Aquinas’ theological writings. At the time of Aquinas’ addressing these theological issues, this conflict had been taking place for over 200 years.
Two hundred years is a long time to remain together, to love one another and to try and hammer out differences through careful dialogue, a commitment to reason with one another and, no doubt, occasional polemics. We complain when we don’t resolve our problems in less than an hour, but the church is called to work with one another far longer than that.
The Kingdom is Bigger Than Your Corner
In John 10, Jesus offends some of his followers by announcing, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” The text tells us in verse 19 that the Jews were divided because of these words and Jesus’ surrounding discourse. Some went so far as to accuse Jesus of having a demon. This is but one reminder that our vision for what is possible within the realm of God’s reign is much too narrow.
This does not mean that our disagreements are petty trifles. We are actively seeking to know truth, and the Truth who stands behind all that is good and right. But if we remind ourselves that our opponents may know something we do not, and that our vision may be inhibited by something we cannot identify, we may be slower to demonize our opponents, and more eager to remain alongside one another. Proximity and further conversation keep open the possibility of resolution, of reaching “one mind” and perhaps even reaching an eventual embrace.
John 13:35 reminds us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This includes loving one another enough to speak the truth. It means loving one another enough to ask hard questions, to be picky about the details and to take care that our words and actions are truly Christian. As Stanley Hauerwas has reminded us, living as a Christian requires learning a language that encompasses what we say and what we do.
We may not be of one mind, but we can be of one heart. If we hold our love for Christ in common, God has given us all the time we need to work out our differences and disagreements. In those difficult moments, we must trust that, though we can’t see it, God’s Kingdom is bigger than our corner.
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