The Right Way to Disagree

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

See Also

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.

This article originally appeared as a column on RELEVANTmagazine.com.

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