“In God’s name, disagree nicely!”

disagree agreeablyChristians often hold strong views on all sorts of issues to do with God, the Church, morality and even politics. And that can be a good thing: we always need tenacious people of conviction and principle to critique and change our society.

Christians often hold strong views on all sorts of issues to do with God, the Church, morality and even politics. And that can be a good thing: we always need tenacious people of conviction and principle to critique and change our society.

But, of course, Christians don’t all hold the same views; and that can lead to tensions. To take just a few issues at random (and, as they say in “Strictly”, in no particular order), we may hold widely varying opinions on styles of music and worship, on the place of the Pope and the so-called ‘Apostolic Succession’, on the European Union, on the validity of other religions’ understandings of God, on the possession and use of nuclear weapons, on baptism and the Eucharist, or on the modern state of Israel. It becomes very easy to get into a row with other Christians, even dismissing their views as “unBiblical” and unworthy of further consideration.

Now there are some Christians who do seem to have uncritically accepted the views handed to them by their parents, their churches or their peers. In my opinion these good folk need to re-examine their opinions to see if they correspond to the values espoused in the Bible: doing so seriously may lead them to some surprises and heart-searching! But there are also many sincere Christians who have read, thought and prayed a lot – yet come to very different conclusions from other equally devout and intelligent folk, even within the same churches. 

Why should this be so? One reason is that the Bible often seems to hold two strands of truth in tension and dares us to reconcile them. We, of course, like to have things “cut and dried” and so settle for one strand alone; we prefer rigid certainty to apparent doubt or ambivalence and we are frightened of admitting to ourselves that there is any merit in the other position. Yet we must never forget that God’s intellect is infinitely greater than ours; we must be wary of rejecting any divine revelation simply because it doesn’t fit into our neat little boxes of understanding.

Let me take a couple of examples to explain what I mean. One Christian may be drawn to passages in the Bible which talk about sharing freely with the needy, caring for the poor and even holding possessions in common: this may well lead them to a form of Socialism. But another will remember the Bible’s exhortations to work hard in order to provide for one’s family, and its hints that wealth is a blessing from God; that person will probably end up with more of a Capitalist view. 

Again, some Christians take a strict line on marriage and sexual relations, taking particular note of the Old Testament prohibitions on homosexual activity (although – dare I say – skating over the little-criticised polygamy of some of the Bible’s greatest leaders). At the same time others will emphasise their belief that all individuals have been created by God “just as they are”, noting both the inclusive welcome offered by Jesus and Paul’s conviction that Christians must remain free from the demands of Old Testament Law.

So the privileging of one Biblical theme over another can lead to disagreement between Christians. But that doesn’t explain why disputes can become so acrimonious. I suspect that very human – even sinful – factors lie at the root of many of our arguments: the desire of not wanting to be ‘bested’ in debates or the need to ‘prove’ that our views are superior to those held by others. We don’t put things in those terms, of course: we talk about “holding to matters of principle”, “maintaining our tradition” or “standing up for the plain truth of the Bible”. But what we really mean is, “I’m right and you’re wrong” – and we’re proud of that.

But is there another way? I’m sure that there is; but it can only happen when Christians are prepared to admit that their views are all conditioned in some way by their backgrounds, that the truth about God contains many complementary facets, and that the complexities of the Faith are beyond any one person’s comprehension. It also requires every Christian to say, with St. Paul, “What I know now is only partial”; in other words to humbly admit that all the knowledge about God we may possess is provisional and that we must be engaged in a continual process of learning and re-assessment.

And there is something else. For, instead of highlighting the differences which separate Christians (and I am not minimising them, for they are real), perhaps we should be emphasising the matters on which we agree. After all, these are the fundamentals of our faith: the story of Christ as revealed in the Gospels and the broad statements of belief contained in the historic Creeds. I accept that we may not all interpret that story or those statements in exactly the same way; nevertheless they offer us a strong basis for unity.

I’d like to finish with a well-known quote from an obscure 17th-century German theologian called Rupertus Meldenius: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”. What is remarkable about this phrase is that it comes in a tract on Christian unity penned during the destructive Thirty Years War, a conflict which began when the Holy Roman Empire tried to impose religious uniformity across its domains. I know that British Christians are unlikely to take up arms to defend their particular beliefs, but they can still learn how to respect each other’s views and even learn from them.

Let’s not beat about the bush. Healthy and respectful debate amongst Christians can only be a good thing: it helps us all to develop our faith and work out how to apply it in a cultural context which is constantly changing. But sniping at each other from behind our doctrinal defences presents an ugly picture to folk outside the Church; all they see is the unattractive spectacle of Christians warring over arcane matters instead of engaging with the world’s needs and displaying God’s love. So let us learn to disagree nicely – for the sake of Christ.

Andrew-KleissnerAndrew Kleissner has been the Minister of Christ Church (United Reformed & Baptist), Tacket Street, Ipswich since 2005. Prior to that he was a missionary in West Africa and then the Minister of two churches in London. He served for some years as the Baptist representative on “Churches Together in England’s” Theology Group and has recently become the Eastern Baptist Association’s Ecumenical Officer for Suffolk. Andrew is married to Moira, a retired teacher who – among other things! – volunteers for Christian Aid, Dance East and “Emmaus”.

(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)

Andrew Kleissner, 05/04/2016
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