There is a struggle inherent in Christianity that I do not think is discussed enough at its deepest level. Although we experience this struggle to no end, we do not sufficiently discuss why the struggle continues and where it comes from. Those will be the keys which will give us guidance as I discuss the possible ways to deal with the dilemma. The struggle is this: how are churches to work through doctrinal differences among members while maintaining truth and love? Some churches split, others cause their pastors to resign, others excommunicate all who disagree, and still others try to avoid the conversation entirely and default to…well, whatever doctrinal perversions their members would happen to espouse. “Can’t we all just love each other and avoid doctrinal conflict?” sounds brilliant until one actually tries to have church under that principle for more than a generation. Why does this perennial truth-struggle persist?
Truth is sacred
Unlike relativists in the past and present (who must always worry about convincing future relativists to be good people regardless of their preference), Christians have a solid basis for knowledge and love: the voice of God “carried along” through human authors into a text. Think about it. We believe that the only perfect truth has been given to us through a relationship with the only being outside the matrix of space and time—God. In other words, the Bible is ultimate truth because it is an extension of the ultimate Being. That is why the Bible is sacred (meaning, in a separate category).
Truth is complex
But the very nature of this truth (and here I mean the Bible) reveals a problem. Remember, if it is really an extension of God Himself, we should expect its complexity to mirror both God’s utter otherness and the complexity of the human experience. And it does. The problem is that we humans are limited in our understanding. We hold an infinitely true book as finite humans. This means that we will never fully grasp the entirety of truth. Some will understand one part, and others will especially understand another, but we will never all understand (and therefore agree) on all of the complexity of truth. But just the same, given the fact that the Bible teaches human responsibility to live according to its precepts, we should expect the Bible to be clear enough to make principles of obedience obvious. And so they are, on all matters of primary importance.
Letting truth harmonize us to its standard
So, as individual believers, the challenge is to take the narrative of Scripture with its facts and commands and live in harmony with the entire picture that comes through the narrative. Of course, the Holy Spirit’s role in this is crucial: the desire for this harmony only comes through salvation and the power to live this way only comes through God’s work in our hearts. But we are nonetheless entrusted with this honor of reading the Bible and building our action on the basis of the truths contained in it. Living in “harmony” with the truth is submitting ourselves to the entire Bible with a love for truth that allows every individual example, story, and command to shape our actions organically. This is a thrilling process, and yet something that can get weaponized if taught from a “rules” perspective instead of from grace. But the truth of God changes not only the personal experience, but our shared experience as believers.
Harmonizing in church
And here we enter the struggle of church. We have been instructed not only by our history as humans, but by the Bible, to live in community with other believers. This produces the hard reality of learning to relate intensively with the Word daily while interacting with other believers who are doing the same. Although we all read the same commands and stories, we are to not only hear general Biblical instruction but to allow it to produce very practical results in our individual lives. This involves bumping up against fellow family members who have read the same passages that we have and reached different conclusions on how that should be actually lived out. And it can be supremely uncomfortable, especially because we all tend to believe our way of thinking about and applying Scripture is correct (if we didn’t, we would have already changed our thinking and application!).
To give an example of the nature of this tension, I was recently in a formal youth group discussion about humor when someone declared that they felt that sarcasm in humor was a form of lying and should not be tolerated for a Christian. Several others agreed and the discussion moved on to other topics. Later, one of my friends brought up the discussion again in an informal conversation and explained, a bit humorously, that she felt “attacked” by the former person’s comment about humor. “Sarcasm is my way of showing love, of clearing the air, and being friendly,” she stated. “It’s not lying because the other person knows that you’re making fun.” Clearly these two people, both of whom I deeply appreciate, had come to different conclusions after reading the same verses on our speech and lying. And, of course, this is just one small example of many disagreements that may accumulate to finally tear churches apart. And here we can begin to understand the answer to my original question, “Why does this perennial truth-struggle persist?” We value God’s truth as absolute, yet because of our limited human-ness, we can’t agree on all the particulars of how this absolute truth should be lived out.
Disagreements are only exacerbated by the fact that churches are made of families. What if one family feels like all movie-watching is wrong, and another has a family movie-night every Saturday evening and defends it as relationship-building? And what if the ministry of a church is united on smartphones being dangerous and unacceptable for Christian young people, while certain families feel it is crucial for business or family relationships? What should be done to maintain peace and promote truth in the face of disagreement? There are three broad responses to this struggle, and I will address them one-by-one below:
1. Reject the struggle by discouraging communication about differences.
This is often the “liberal” response to the struggle. The argument is that since arguing over “little things” divides Christians, we should stop arguing and focus on just “loving God.” What’s interesting about this response is that it is itself a controversial claim. This is not something that all or even most Christians would agree with. So, it really leaves us with the same basic problem—only worse now, since not only do we still have Christians who disagree, but we also have a basic rejection of the common ground to any potential agreement or love in spite of disagreement! A shared sense of the preeminence of the Bible is the only way by which Christians can relate to each other in faithfulness and love. Ignoring truth-questions is the surest way of becoming both wrong and irrelevant, fast. That being said, probably no Christian will disagree that some theological debates have been elevated to improper priority, and that is also tragic. At some point, lesser debates must end in stalemate with Christian love, on the basis of agreement over things of more priority.
2. Reject the struggle by establishing a system of unequivocal rules that governs everyone and results in homogeneity.
This is the standard “conservative” position, at least if we’re speaking of Anabaptist churches. The way to function as a unified church is to become as homogeneous as possible, legislating all dissenters out of the church and hopefully freeing up the church to focus on other things like evangelism with less conflict. Let’s face it: conflict isn’t easy. Disagreements over how to apply the entirety of truth to our lives are gut-wrenching. But I fear that attempting to avoid conflict by establishing rules will backfire, long-term. Rules circumvent the good questions that should be asked by ruling out conflicting opinions. If our family chooses to practice a principle in one way, while others do it differently, I’m in an excellent place to ask, “why?” and learn good reasons, hopefully. If there is no significant disagreement in practice between me and my social circle, then I’ll ask that many less hard questions and be that much weaker of a Christian.
On an important secondary note, when outsiders ask us “about the hope that is within us” and the reasons for our lifestyle, we must know why and learn to explain it well. Otherwise, we make nonsense of our desire to evangelize. When our Anabaptist church fathers were interrogated by the Catholic priests for rebaptizing, they didn’t tell them that it was because their church had done it that way. They responded with the Bible, and it was the priests who were fumbling with their answers, explaining that church tradition dictated that they baptize infants. But ironically, when my parents came to Pennsylvania and talked to their Mennonite neighbors about their beliefs, they were met with fumbling answers and reliance on church tradition. They had evidently become so accustomed to relating to people who agreed with them that they didn’t know why they did what they did. That’s evidence of a very weak church, assuming that they typified most of those in their church in their ability to defend their beliefs reasonably. Now, possibly, their church is rather extreme on the rules spectrum, so I’m sure some of you are thinking, Why can’t we have just a few essential rules along with much instruction about them? Couldn’t we reach a fair compromise this way?
Fair question, and admittedly there’s no way that I’m going to answer all the objections in one post, but very briefly: first, rules are not living and so do not change with time. This means that it is nearly impossible to just have a few rules. When do you drop old rules? Rules just tend to multiply as time goes on. Second, rules are not heart-centered. They are outwardly-motivated. This means that people who don’t like certain restrictions will find a way around the law, until another and another and another law is formed to compensate. Third, the existence of a few rules does not actually quell debate and controversy, in my experience and understanding. It simply doesn’t do its intended purpose. Although some people just do what they’re told unquestioningly (fostering a state of weakened mind for the church as a whole), others who examine things on a more rigorous basis will question the rules, thus reigniting the debate.
3. Accept the struggle by talking often and carefully about the reasons behind our beliefs.
Instead of either ignoring the difficult theological issues or catechizing them into rules and thus attempting to avoid debate, this option is about cultivating an atmosphere where truth is central and discussion about it is open and informed. “Open” in that asking honest questions about the reasons for commonly-held convictions is encouraged. “Informed” in that the leadership and conservative people think deeply and respond to challenges to their convictions with profound and helpful arguments that accurately address the objections and help the skeptical through their doubts over doctrinal issues. This is the hardest option, but, I argue, most fundamentally healthy. Questions and controversy can be devastating for two primary reasons: because those disagreeing don’t love each other or because the beliefs under question are indefensible. Or possibly that uneducated truth-tellers find it hard to win intellectual word-games with educated skeptics. (This cannot be used as an argument against good questions, only as a proof that training our leaders and believers to think deeply and respond to intellectual challenges is necessary.)
So overall, healthy questions serve not to break down church, but to strengthen it, as more effort must be put into training church members to think. Healthy questions are those that spring from love for God and passion to follow his Word. Don’t be mistaken: not all questions serve to strengthen the church. Some questioners actually need to be shut down because they are not desiring God in their questioning, but are proud or loveless. Both the liberals and conservatives of our churches must realize that a quest to eliminate the struggle of integrating theology and practice in love is unhelpful and ultimately devastating. Any shortcut that cuts the butterfly of good, Christian reasoning out of its cocoon prematurely is creating a deformed church.
Instead, the answer is to embrace the struggle. Lean into the quest to discover truth. We must learn to face disagreement among our people with wisdom and love. We need wisdom because often, disagreements can be solved through thinking deeper together. But we need love because when we ultimately do just see particular principles differently, we need to be okay with uniting over agreement in bigger things and staying in the same church. Or, if the particular disagreement is weighty enough, to part with a blessing to the other side while maintaining a clear sense of our own position on the topic. Rules are not the answer to the struggle, but neither is ignorance of the truth. We must do the difficult work of interacting with the Scripture, thinking through the implications, and applying them to our lives, despite the fact that this will cause disagreement.
This is not a panacea for all church problems. I do not begin to think that I have uncovered the secret of the perfect church. Working through disagreements will always be a painful process, but my point here is merely to say that we must engage in this struggle, defending the truth carefully while humbly. We cannot bear to avoid the challenge to reason through our beliefs by either hiding behind rules or hiding behind an uneasy truce of “love” in which truth is not discussed. One final note: for the sake of this analysis, I have chosen to identify three distinct ways that churches deal with disagreements. By doing so, I do not assume that all churches fit perfectly in one category or another. But I do think that many churches swing toward one or another extreme, and in light of this, it is helpful to delineate these reactions and their results. Whatever church you find yourself a part of, it is critical that you continue pressing through disagreements in wisdom and love because the reward of embracing the tension of truth is a strengthened church.
I recognize that this is a controversial subject, and many strong opinions are to be found on exactly how churches should best deal with disagreement. If you feel there is something I missed, feel free to drop a comment and explain your disagreement. I would love to hear from you!