Moderates aren’t cowards, but we do cherish community. For many of us this means that we have stifled our questions about faith because we have feared that raising them might fracture our congregations. We are not wrong to suspect that deep disagreements may lurk beneath the surface. However, there is strength to be drawn from clearly articulating and understanding our differences. Within our churches even moderates hold conflicting views of morality, authority, history and other fundamental ideas. These conflicts are real, but by shedding light on them, we may find that they are less scary than we imagined. Even more importantly, by recognizing our conflicting visions we can begin the real work of coming to live with and love those who are genuinely different. We can openly and actively work to love those who are different, instead of pretending that we are all the same.
The stories in this chapter (as in the rest of the book) are based on actual events. They represent a larger collection of similar stories of frustration and confusion that many of us could tell. Do you have a story? Think about sharing it with your group or with a friend. We are not alone in our uncertainty and longing to feel more at home in our churches.
One of the chief difficulties that we face when we try to admit and confront our uncertainties is that we are bombarded by shrill answers from both the conservative and the liberal extremes. Partisans proclaim simple solutions to the issues that vex us, but the answers they give seem to bypass the process of contemplation and prayer. In the rush to give the “right” answer they sometimes seem not to take the questions seriously.
William Shakespeare understood that the line between a comedy of errors and a tragedy of errors could be very thin. Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy of errors in which a relationship and a reputation are nearly destroyed because characters misinterpret what they see and hear. Luckily for the characters, the mistake is discovered in time. However, in Othello and most famously in Romeo and Juliet, the error is not discovered in time, and the leading characters die needlessly and tragically.
What makes these stories compelling for those watching or reading is the fact that we the audience see the limits of both perspectives. When Romeo takes the poison and Othello strangles his loyal wife we suffer vicariously because we see how simple the solution is. “She’s not dead,” we long to shout to Romeo. “It’s a trick,” we want to warn Othello. We see a simple solution to these situations and understand that if the characters could only be made to see things from a more inclusive perspective tragedy could be avoided.
For those of us who treasure the church as a home and place of grace we wish that we could shout something that would cause the factions on either side of polarized debates to wake up and see that their differences are merely matters of limited perspective. Unfortunately, the tragedy of our situation runs much deeper. The disagreements that cause tension in the contemporary church are profound.
As uncomfortable as it may be, moderate Christians who long for unity in the church need to wake up to the reality that many Christians really do disagree with one another about important issues. We need to accept the fact that these disagreements are not always superficial. We need to keep our idealism in check and resist the temptation to wish away such disagreements. And we need to exercise our brains and figure out what really drives the fighting.
Chapter 2 outlines five specific and deeply rooted disagreements in the contemporary church. Take a few moments on your own or in your group to put these complex issues into your own words or to write them down.
- How would you characterize the two different visions of reality outlined in Chapter 2?
- Conservatives and liberals have different understandings of church authority. What are they?
- What are some of the main differences between the liberal and the conservative visions of history and the Christ’s relation to human culture?
- Chapter 8 will offer an interpretation of the conflict in morality between liberals and conservatives. How would you begin to characterize these different ways of emphasizing moral priorities?
Think about the different ways liberals and conservatives envision the role of the church in society. Then try to complete the following sentences.
For most liberals, the ideal church does _______________________________________,
but does not _____________________________________________________________.
For most conservatives, the ideal church does __________________________________,
but does not _____________________________________________________________.
The thesis of this chapter is quite simple, but it is so frequently overlooked (sometimes with the best of intentions) that it is worth repeating. These disagreements in the church are not superficial and they cannot be solved by ignoring them or wishing them away. It is also likely that they cannot be solved or overcome with any sort of finality. In other words, they are here to stay. The challenge to moderates is whether or not we can find a way of remaining together despite these real disagreements. Can the center hold together while at the same time refusing to whitewash the fact that there are real disagreements on either end of the religious spectrum, and probably on either side of us at the Communion table?
Lost is dedicated to answering this question in the affirmative. However, these differences are not like different tastes in music (though of course churches fight about musical tastes as well). They are profoundly entangled with our identity as Christians.
In a world of consumer choice, we have become quite comfortable disagreeing with the tastes and preferences of our acquaintances: I like football, but my friend prefers golf.
- Why do fundamental disagreements in the church, such as the five discussed in Chapter 2 of Lost, make us uncomfortable?
- How do these disagreements differ from differences in matters of taste or style?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Sometime during the week take 15-20 minutes in a quiet place to reflect and write. Think about someone very close to you (a spouse, best friend, etc.) and then make a list of all of the things the two of you disagree about. You may run out of paper and time before your list is complete, but do the best you can to be exhaustive.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
In preparation for discussing Chapter 2, you were asked to take some time and to make a list of things that you and a spouse or close friend disagree about. Most people’s lists are probably quite long, and could be made longer with more time. We disagree with even our closest companions about innumerable things from the mundane (I prefer to sit the in front of the theatre, while he prefers the back) to the more significant (I enjoy quiet time with my family, while she prefers to spend time with large groups of friends). However, it is likely that most of our lists contain many more minor differences than major differences. We tend to spend our time with and become close to, those who share many of our core beliefs and values. Disagreements, when they are minor, can become occasions for gentle teasing within friendships (Go Red Sox! No, Go Yankees!) and opportunities for sharing and compromise (We’ll eat Italian tonight, and Thai tomorrow night). Major disagreements however, if not handled with care, can become sources of constant tension and failed relationships.
We know from experience that managing major disagreements can be tricky even when the parties in question treasure one another and empathy comes easily. Imagine drawing up a list of disagreements not with a loved one but with everyone in your church. It is likely that the list would be different in several important ways.
- First, our list of disagreements would be much longer, providing we knew everyone well enough. By itself, this may not mean much since most of the disagreements would be about superficial things (the color of the bulletin, the brand of coffee served after service, the new landscaping around the entrance of the church).
- Second, however, as our list grows so too does the number of major disagreements. This is complicated by the fact that we might not even be able to agree on whether or not a particular disagreement is trivial or important. For some Christians, the genre of music sung in a service is merely a matter of taste, while for others it is central to their understanding and experience of worshipping God.
- Third, the major disagreements on the church list may be more numerous but they are also easier to manage than the major disagreements on the loved-one list because we can usually avoid them if we choose to. That is, we can avoid them as long as they don’t become big-deal problems in the church that just have to be worked through.
It is convenient for social harmony that we tend to have more major disagreements with people who are not as intimate with us. Our groups simply could not hold together if we had to agree on most major issues. In fact, psychologists use the extent of major disagreements, along with a few other factors, to predict quite accurately the length of marriages and friendships. In churches, though, we are supposed to strive for a kind of closeness that exceeds that of ordinary human groups. And that means that major disagreements are harder to ignore in church groups than in most other group settings where personal distance allows us to ignore the problems. The church not only preaches empathy and compassion; it also needs as much empathy and compassion as it can get to achieve the kind of unity that is deserving of the description “body of Christ.” In church, simply ignoring disagreements is often not an acceptable option. And neither is endless fighting. Both wreck the ideal of church unity for which we strive.
Bible Reading: Acts 15
The Council at Jerusalem
1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.
4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.
5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;
9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.
14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.
15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 ‘after these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’
18 says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.
19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,
20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.
21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas–Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,
23 and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.
24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls,
25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:
29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
30 So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.
31 When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
32 Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.
33 After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out.
34 [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.]
35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord.
Second Missionary Journey
36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”
37 Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also.
38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.
39 And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.
40 But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.
41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts chapter 1 might bring a smile of recognition to the face of anyone who has long experience working in churches. The chapter opens with an ongoing discussion at Jerusalem where Paul and Barnabas present their case against some unnamed Christian teachers who had been telling the church in Antioch that the uncircumcised (read non-Jews) could not be saved. The irony in this story is that Paul and Barnabas, in making the case for equal access to salvation through Christ for Jews and Gentiles, are furthering the disagreement between two other groups of Christians, the “Yes, circumcision is necessary” camp and the “No, circumcision is not necessary” camp.
The council went on to make a decision in favor of Paul and Barnabas. Interestingly, the pro-circumcision argument is suppressed in the Acts version of the story, which was written by those who triumphed in this first major church disagreement. But we can be confident that the decision must have been enormously frustrating to the pro-circumcision Christians, for whom the watchword was a saying attributed to Jesus himself: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 15:22-28). They must have felt certain that Paul and Barnabas were destroying the church and completely distorting Jesus’ message. We also know that pro-circumcision Christians did not just give up. How could they meekly surrender to what they deemed Paul’s terrible error and the church’s faithless betrayal of Christ? For several decades after the Jerusalem Council there remained Christians in Judea and elsewhere who favored circumcision for all followers of Christ, and sometimes the disagreement between the two groups of Christians turned violent. Paul reports that he was, more than once, beaten to within an inch of his life, probably by eager and angry representatives of this rival group of Christians (II Corinthians 11:16-29). No doubt the violence went in both directions at times.
And while we are listing major disagreements, don’t forget that, by the end of Acts chapter 15, Paul and Barnabas fall into conflict and decide to split from one another.
Spare a thought for contemporary Christian ministers who deal with similar situations every day. They recognize all too well that devastating fights among Christians are hard to stop and that shifting alliances are difficult to predict.
We do not know much about the Jerusalem Council and the way it made decisions. We do know that even our best efforts to make church decisions in a fair manner often end in friction, factions, and hurt feelings. The book of Acts and much of the New Testament celebrates the Jerusalem Council’s decision to include Gentiles into the Christian fold without having to be circumcised, but we should never forget the pain of those faithful Christians on the losing side. This was a fight over the very meaning of following Christ. After the Jerusalem Council’s decision, the church would never again be homogenous. With the loss of ethnic, linguistic, and ritualistic homogeneity the church would never again feel quite so cozy. It would no longer retain the flavor and camaraderie it had when Jesus walked the countryside with his ragtag group of followers. Something really was being lost and the church really was moving away from Jesus’ chosen way of relating to his disciples, at least in one sense.
In another sense, however, Jesus’ message and mission achieved a cultural universality and an international potency at the same time. The Jerusalem decision launched a period of growth in the Christian community that continues today. But with growth come growing pains, church fights, and real disagreements, which church history traces in glorious detail. Something vital was gained even as something valuable was lost.
The book of Acts does not offer us a utopian vision or easy answers to our questions about whether to avoid or how best to work through major church disagreements. But if we can read stories such as those in Acts 15 with a sense of history and a knowing smile of recognition, then they may help us to face our current disagreements with more humility and a greater sense of compassion for those who we too often think of as our opponents.
Throughout this study guide you will encounter many test case scenarios. Many of these are based on real situations in real congregations, while others are fictionalized accounts that portray the kinds of dynamics that are at work in our contemporary churches. Ideally, a test case scenario would be presented here. This scenario would describe a congregation that had figured out how to banish disagreements and avoid fights by fully empathizing with one another. Unfortunately, church communities rarely succeed in this way, so such scenarios would probably be neither plausible nor relevant. Instead, let’s consider two different pictures that the Bible paints of ideal religious communities: Isaiah 11:1-9 and Colossians 3:1-17.
The Isaiah passage depicts an ideal ruler and kingdom using what has become a popular biblical symbol of ultimate peace, the carnivores and farm animals dwelling together with no hunting and no fear of being eaten. The wild animals and the domesticated animals will live in harmony. This image loses some of its vibrancy for people who no longer practice animal husbandry, and it is an ill-chosen image for those who know anything about natural history and evolution, but its deeper message still resonates with many in the church. We long for an end to divisions, disagreements, and fights. It is interesting to note that we turn to animals to paint a mental picture of this ideal community. Such an ideal condition involving human beings may literally be unimaginable.
Turn now to the Colossians passage and take a few moments to read it, perhaps aloud to one another. Instead of animal imagery, we now have a moving description of a community at worship.
Discuss the following questions in relation to the Colossians passage.
- What would you identify as the key commands in the Colossians 3:1-17?
- What concrete steps is the text recommending? Are these steps procedural, emotional, spiritual, or practical?
- Is this description of harmonious unity realizable in practice or is it an ideal that should govern our actions even though it can never be realized?
Take a few moments and read the rest of Colossians chapter 3. These are some of the most controversial passages in the New Testament for modern Christians.
- How does your reading of the first half of the chapter color your understanding of the second half?
- Does the second half of the chapter alter your perception of verses 1-17?
For Further Thought
In the closing paragraphs of Part I (“A Moderate Conclusion”, we read the following:
the only satisfying approach to the challenge of conflicting worldviews within the church is a lifelong journey of radical discipleship, humble learning, and compassionate social engagement.
In the chapters that follow each of these steps will be explored. However, the text also suggests:
The path of radical discipleship for moderate Christians is not an easy way to walk, and it will never be a wildly popular route because it is demanding and ill-suited to sloganeering.
In other words, it is hard to be an engaged moderate, and it is going to be difficult to practice the kind of radical discipleship that refuses easy answers with bumper-sticker complexity. The simplest approach when confronted with the questions raised in Chapter 1, and the genuine disagreements noted in Chapter 2, is to pick a side. If we are looking for instant satisfaction, if we are looking to blend in, if we are looking to build a church quickly, or to consolidate support among church membership with minimal effort and rapid results, then radical discipleship is not the way to go. There is an easy way of being a moderate. The easy way entails never taking a chance, preaching vapid and inoffensive sermons, and allowing the cultural momentum of the church to carry it forward. In this case, we who are lost in the middle in effect decide to remain lost.
With this in mind, we have to ask the following question. How important is it that our Christian communities be places of comfort and easy belonging?
It is worth noting that most churches, denominations, committees, and books on church growth and governance emphasize how important it is that churches provide an environment where people feel at ease, welcome, at home, and comfortable. Everything from landscaping to the color of the bulletins is considered when leaders seek to be intentional about designing a pleasant church experience. And that makes good sense. If liberal evangelicals or moderate Christ-centered Christians are going to practice radical discipleship, however, then they must also intentionally create some uncomfortable experiences by refusing to build a church of ideologically similar Christians. It is easier to be around “your own kind,” of people with similar experiences who share your worldview. Are we ready to commit to a kind of Christianity that we know going in will be hard and unpopular?
Many of us work long hours during the week and feel that we’ve earned a relaxing weekend. Can we commit to doing something difficult on Sundays? How important is it to us that Sunday be “a day of rest” in the emotional sense as well as the Sabbath sense?
Is committing to a church that forgoes easy solutions worth the effort and sacrifice of some degree of personal comfort and easy familiarity? After all, most towns offer several options for churches in which we might individually feel more at home.
Many of us, whether we admit it or not, prefer to worship beside people of our own racial background, economic status, and level of education. Church scholars have known this for decades, and yet the church is still racially, economically, and socially divided. Can we even imagine a scenario in which we are willing to worship every Sunday beside someone with a different worldview, a different conception of the Church’s role in the world, or a different moral orientation?
Liberal evangelical Christians are Christ centered and radically inclusive; they feel drawn to witness to a kind of unity-in-diversity that reflects the power of divine love and resist the ordinary patterns of human group life. If you identify with that goal, can you imagine circumstances in which this sort of radical inclusiveness in worship and practice becomes comfortable as well as challenging, heart-warming as well as embracing? What kinds of things must happen to make this vision of radical inclusiveness a reality for a church community?
Lord Jesus we give you thanks for our community, our sisters and brothers in the church with whom we share so much, from whom we learn so much, and with whom we sometimes disagree.
Help us to appreciate one another more. Help us to empathize with one another more, to feel one another’s hurts, especially when we inflict them.
Teach us to disagree in a manner pleasing to you. Help us not to hide from our disagreements, but to admit them, talk about them, pray about them, and laugh about them.
Help us to disagree more fruitfully, and to fight, when fighting becomes necessary, in a way that is honest and loving.
When the fights are over, we pray that you would help us as winners not to gloat and as losers not to harbor hurt feelings.
Unite us in worship and thanksgiving, and help us to hold on to one another in peace.