You’ve probably heard the refrain that “Americans are more divided than ever” a lot over the last few months. That’s a little dramatic in a country that endured things like, say, the Civil War. But for most of us who are alive right now, the level of divisiveness does seem to be screeching at an unusually high pitch, and the data does point to a growing gulf in how Americans of different political parties see the world.
But division in our country wasn’t started by calls for impeachment, a pandemic or Black Lives Matter protests. Cracks in our unity were already present. The challenging events over the last several months simply brought them front and center where they can no longer be ignored. The truth is that any attempts to follow Jesus often lead sincere Christians in different and seemingly incompatible directions.
Can you relate?
While your disagreement with a person sitting in the pew in front of you or a Christian colleague at an organization or school may not concern something as dramatic as impeaching a president or defunding the police, we all know what it’s like to be angry and disappointed with the convictions of a fellow believer.
By the time you read this, there may be something new dominating the headlines and pulling Christians apart. The question is, what can be done?
The only thing more difficult than discussing Christian convictions in the public square is discussing them with fellow believers in the church. This may seem counterintuitive but it is true. We may have more disagreements with nonbelievers, but our disagreements with fellow believers are more problematic and more emotionally charged.
Outside the Christian community, one anticipates having biblical convictions contested or despised. Disagreement is unpleasant but expected. We know our beliefs about Christ and morality are not broadly shared in the American public square. Therefore, we expect conflict and are equipped for it—or at the very least know we should be. But when our personal convictions are contested by fellow church members, everything changes. We feel attacked from behind. It feels both unexpected and wrong!
We assume our biblical convictions will be shared by those sitting on either side of us in church. If they doubt or deny our convictions, we don’t experience it as a mere difference of opinion but rather as a violation of an unspoken agreement. We are not merely intellectually challenged by a new idea or puzzled by a different viewpoint; we are hurt and offended.
This offense is not unique to the American church. As we have traveled internationally, we’ve heard the same concerns coming from church leaders in Canada, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Korea, Lithuania, Russia, China, Romania, and England. It seems the challenges to Christian unity are experienced worldwide, and this isn’t merely a modern struggle fueled by social media. Paul tells believers at Corinth that they have been called to be holy “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). Yet, nine verses later he writes that he has learned there are “quarrels among you” (1:11).
Why is this? We believe one of the main causes of discord is how we think about our convictions. Consider these three commonly held beliefs.
1. Strongly held convictions lead to uncivil discourse.
The reason we fight with each other, and often believe the worst about each other, is that we form convictions about things for which we care deeply. Unfortunately, we all care deeply about different things. And even when we care about the same things, we often see these things differently and therefore commit to different courses of action. If we are going to live together, we will need to moderate our convictions. We need to learn to say “Whatever” more and “Thus saith the Lord” less.
2. Convictions are about moral absolutes.
Simply put, as we walk through life, we encounter two types of issues: absolutes and preferences. It is important that we distinguish these two. If something is merely a preference, we should just live and let live and not argue about it. We can’t argue about it. A preference is just a matter of taste. How can you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla? You can’t really give reasons for that sort of thing. On the other hand, there are absolutes. These are moral issues—issues of right and wrong. We should form convictions about these issues, and we should follow our convictions even when we don’t feel like it, even if it is difficult or unpleasant. So, convictions are what we have about absolutes, and preferences are what we have about matters of taste.
3. Christians should all share the same convictions.
We understand that the world may have different (and mistaken) views about absolutes since they do not share a commitment to the authority of Scripture. Christians, however, share a commitment to the authority of Scripture and therefore should share the same absolutes. Since convictions are about absolutes, and we all share the same absolutes, all Christians should share the same convictions. In practice, of course, we may have disagreements about convictions because we are fallen and sinful, but clearly God’s intention is that we should all agree.
Here are our reasons for rejecting each of these three claims.
First, we do not believe that strong convictions cause incivility. Instead, we believe poorly formed convictions cause incivility. In fact, what is really important about a conviction is not whether it is strong or weak but rather whether it is well-formed or poorly formed.
Second, we dispute the claim that convictions are about absolutes. To put it more precisely, we dispute the claim that the Christian life confronts us with only two types of issues: absolutes and mere preferences. Perhaps the single most important point we make is that contemporary Christians need to reexamine and recover the realm of “disputable matters,” a realm Paul examine sin some detail in Romans 14.
Third, we do not believe that all Christians will agree on all matters of conviction. We realize that many of our convictions are not about moral absolutes. Therefore, even if we are optimistic enough to assume that all Christians share the same moral absolutes because they read the same Scripture, there is no particular reason to assume they will share the same personal convictions. Some of our convictions are formed on disputable matters—matters that all Christians within a church may not agree on. God wants us to form a conviction on such matters, but he does not want us to force such convictions upon others.
It is clear, then, that we cannot expect the church to be free from the sorts of division we find within our culture. The line of contentious conversations does not just run between the church and the world, it runs right through the heart of every congregation.
As the toxic polarization and division that characterizes contemporary culture creeps (or floods) into the church, it’s not enough to merely consider the formation of convictions. We must also learn how to have productive conversations about our convictions.
Adapted from Winsome Conviction by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. Copyright (c) 2020 by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Tim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and a speaker and research consultant for the Center for Marriage and Relationships. Richard Langer (PhD, University of California, Riverside) is professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Biola University. Both Muehlhoff and Langer are coauthors of Winsome Conviction and Winsome PersuasionIn addition to teaching and writing, they are codirectors of The Winsome Conviction Project, which seeks to introduce civility and compassion into our discussion of differences.