January 24, 2008

Dealing with Differences

Posted in Christian culture, Commentary at 12:56 pm by Matt Porter

(This is part three of a four-part series. Part one of this series dealt with the divisiveness present in the Body of Christ. Part two discussed the things all Christians have in common. Part four will discuss some issues specific to my Baptist background.)

Even with the unity we have in Christ, there will always be differences between churches, and even between individuals in the same church. We have different doctrines, come from different economic and social backgrounds, have different cultures, different liturgical styles, different ethnicities, and different experiences. God works differently in each of our lives. It is no wonder, then, that we are different. But how do we work with these differences, since they will always exist?

We first need to realize that the truth lies somewhere between the modern and post-modern approach. Modernists want conformity; difference is seen as undesirable at best and evil at worst. The post-modern reaction to this is to whole-heartedly embrace diversity as needful. The truth, of course, is that differences can be either good or bad, helpful or harmful, desirable or undesirable. There is no one rule to deal with all situations. We must exercise discernment.

Second, we need to determine what the difference actually is. In the heated denominational politics of today, most arguments occur over caricatures rather than actual issues. Rather than reading a Lutheran on what he believes about the Lord’s Supper, for instance, we read the latest polemical from a Southern Baptist pastor on Lutheran cannibalism. It is easier to summarily dismiss the caricature than to give serious thought to a well-reasoned argument. This straw-man approach is sadly the norm in most preaching. While it is sure to get a rousing chorus of amens from the congregation, it also builds animosity between Christians. We cannot understand the actual differences until we understand other positions from their own perspective. Note that this is important in any sort of disagreement, not just theological spats.

After we possess a thorough knowledge of a differing viewpoint, we need to remind ourselves that holding a different viewpoint is not a mortal sin. (See modern American politics for pointers on how not to act.) This is especially ironic from the “woe is me for I am persecuted” viewpoint of the independent Baptist. On the one hand, we’re proud of our freedom from any church authority or magisterium; on the other, we would gladly push our beliefs upon others (only because we have the correct beliefs—it’s Christian love! Really!). Meanwhile, anyone who suggests any formal organization is secretly plotting to bring us all back under Catholicism. It’s enough to make one wonder if paranoid schizophrenia is a requirement for membership. If we are individually responsible before God for our souls, we are free agents to determine our beliefs. Logically, we cannot then restrict another’s conscience because he is also a morally responsible free agent before God. The existence of differing beliefs is a result of God’s individual approach to salvation, not a sign of demonic infiltration of all other denominations at the highest levels.

Although I acknowledged a variety of differences in the introduction, the focus has been on doctrinal differences. This is because I believe the harshest disagreements come over doctrine. Standards and church liturgy follow shortly after, but doctrine is the reason for the existence of most denominations. The same arguments could be applied to all the other areas of disagreement, however.

Having acknowledged that we may freely differ, then, the question is what level of fellowship can we have? That depends on the level of disagreement. If we cannot agree on the existence of God, I cannot have any meaningful spiritual interaction with you (as in atheism or agnosticism). If you deny the divinity of Christ, or the efficacy of His work for salvation, I cannot consider you a Christian (as in Judaism). Those are pretty fundamental disagreements—they strike at the heart of Christianity, in the nature of God and the means of salvation.

But what about disagreements over other doctrinal areas? If the doctrines are important enough, it may be a valid reason I could not belong to a local church. For instance, the Lutheran and Baptist understanding of the words “This is my body” warrant such a division. They do not warrant name-calling or denying the salvation of either group. If the differences are over minor points, we should just cordially disagree. If one party cannot handle discussing the topic, we should not bring it up! If we want to make proclamations over issues which are based on interpretations of single verses or parts of verses, or the lack of verses to the contrary (such as the age of angels, the gender of persons in heaven, whether Job received ten new children or had the old ones resurrected, and the like), I’ll just give a non-committal grunt and add your name to my “Topics to Avoid” list.

In summary, we should accept the existence of differences, acknowledge the right to hold different views, and only separate to the degree necessary while still maintaining the unity of the Body of Christ.

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