In my role as a “public Christian” who leads a church and who values spirited discourse about the issues of our time, I want to nurture environments where people can openly wrestle with their beliefs—but without the fear of being caricatured, labeled or demonized.
In other words, I am for disagreeing in an agreeable way. I guess you could say that I am an advocate for tolerance.
My friend and former colleague Tim Keller says that tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. True tolerance, says Keller, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us. Tolerance that tolerates only people who think like us is not tolerance. It is covert prejudice.
For the Christian witness to be taken seriously in an increasingly pluralistic and secular environment such as the West, Christians must learn the art of being able to 1) have integrity in our convictions; 2) genuinely love, listen to and serve those who do not share our convictions; and 3) consistently do both at the same time. Otherwise, rather than being a light to the culture, we run the risk of becoming products of the culture.
“The Year of Outrage”
Recently, there have been several articles written about outrage. Most notably, Slate featured a multi-essay piece identifying 2014 as “The Year of Outrage: from righteous fury to faux indignation, everything we got mad about in 2014.”
Similarly, Emma Green wrote a piece in the Atlantic called “Taming Christian Outrage,” in which she identifies ways that certain Christians have contributed to the outrage culture.
Both pieces confirm a recent statement from Bill Clinton, who said that the one remaining bigotry in modern society is that we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.
Can Christian participation in outrage culture be a good thing if Jesus went out of his way to move toward His enemies in love?
Can Deep Disagreement and Love Coexist?
I appreciate what a former Harvard chaplain says about bridging relational divides between people who disagree, even on the most fundamental level. He writes:
The divide between Christians and atheists is deep … I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with atheists, Christians and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do … My hope is [to] help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversation across lines of difference.
The Harvard chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman. He is an atheist. Yet, his perspective and tone are deeply Christian and biblical.
The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to get the work of God’s Kingdom done. Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus, a Jewish male, requested a drink from a Samaritan woman. Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals.
All these were faithful, non-compromising people of faith in deeply secular pluralistic environments who 1) had integrity in their convictions; 2) genuinely loved, listened to and served those who did not share their convictions; and 3) consistently did both at the same time.
Belonging Before Believing
Contested issues should be approached and discussed in a way that builds relational bridges instead of burning them. Inviting others to belong and journey with us even before they believe with us or agree with us is a Christian thing.
So is breaking bread with people and welcoming them into our circle, whether or not they ever end up agreeing with us. Do we understand this?
In this, Jesus shows us the way.
When the rich ruler dismissed Jesus’ invitation to come follow Him, Jesus looked at the man as he walked away and loved him. And as the man walked away from Jesus, the man was sad. Not angry or hostile or feeling judged … but sad.
Gut check. How many religious skeptics do you know who “saw the light” because a Christian lectured them? How many do you know who fell in love with Jesus because someone gave them a firm ethical scolding? I have been a Christian minister for 18 years, and I have yet to meet one.
But I have met hundreds who—having been invited to belong before they believe, having been assured that acceptance was not conditional, having tasted grace and truth not just propositionally but relationally, having sensed that even if they walked away from the faith, they would walk away loved—eventually made their way into Jesus’ fold. It is God’s kindness that leads people to repentance.
I’d like to share one last thought, a brief excerpt from my book, Jesus Outside the Lines, which summarizes what I’m trying to say here:
What matters more to us—that we successfully put others in their place, or that we are known to love well? That we win culture wars with carefully constructed arguments and political power plays, or that we win hearts with humility, truth, and love? God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments. Truth and love can go together. Truth and love must go together.
Paul writes, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders … Let your speech always be gracious” (Colossians 4:5-6).
What is our basis for always being gracious? It is the fact that we, too, have been treated graciously. Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, our day of judgment has been moved from the future to the past.
For those of us who identify as Christians, what better reason could we have to be the most gracious, not to mention the least offended and least offensive, people in the world?
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.