Chapter 2: Behind the Questions: Five Genuine Disagreements
Homework (to be completed prior to discussing the chapter)[Included in the print version of the Study Guide for Lost in the Middle?] Introduction: 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 of 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.
Exercise: Chapter two 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. Discussion: 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? Homework Discussion[Included in the print version of the Study Guide for Lost in the Middle?]
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,” 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.