How should we deal with our differences?

May 4, 2013 in Theology · 6 comments


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about differing opinions on important matters — primarily in terms of religious and theological issues, though there are similar discussions to be had when it comes to matters of politics or philosophy or virtually any area of inquiry. By differing opinions, I simply mean that reasonably intelligent people, when presented with the same general information, can still come to drastically different and mutually incompatible understandings of important issues.

This topic has been on mind for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve been reading The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith (kindly given to me by Darian Burns). Smith’s opening salvo against evangelical biblicism is centered around the concept of pervasive religious plurality. In a nutshell (that doesn’t do justice to the nuances of Smith’s argument), this is the idea that, practically speaking, the Bible can’t function as the inerrent and infallible Word of God from which we derive doctrine … because it simply doesn’t. Christians reading the exact same Bible come to drastically different conclusions regarding all sorts of crucial theological issues. Holding to the Bible as “the norming norm” by which we set our standards of doctrine may sound good, but in reality does little to resolve our practical differences. Every group and denomination simply defers to their interpretations and their favored passages and, when pressed, often digs in deeper, clinging to resolute dogmatism rather than acknowledging the limitations of their overwrought biblicism.

Second, at a more personal level, a good friend of mine was recently subjected to a lengthy chastisement from his pastor because he holds a differing view than the church leadership on what, for me at least, is a relatively unimportant theological issue. But the mere fact that he held this view and ably defended it led to charges of “dangerous doctrine” and “sowing seeds of confusion.” The pastor was unwilling to take an irenic and conciliatory tone on what seemed to him to be an issue that had significant ramifications for how we understand the Christian life. Both deferred to the Bible for their view, but neither made any grounds toward mutual understanding.

How should Christians respond to the plurality of viewpoints within the Christian faith, all vying for orthodoxy, many completely incompatible with one another and many far from being simply minor theological quibbles? Deferring to pithy sentiments like “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” accomplishes little when we differ on what the essentials actually are, when we fail to grant “liberty” for fear of corroding our orthodoxy and when “charity” is only extended out of the hope we’ll be able to bring someone over to “our side.” How should we move forward? How should we relate to one another? How should we deal with our differences?

These are open-ended question that should probably remain that way. I don’t think we should try to resolve all our differences, but neither should we be content with a watered-down pluralism where we naïvely accept any and all opinions as being equally valid. We should defend our beliefs while still subjecting them to critical examination. We should seek to understand the beliefs of others in the most charitable light, while still clarifying where we think they may have gone astray. We should engage in dialogue and conversation more than argument and debate. We should listen far more than we speak, and when we do speak we should thoughtfully balance caution and restraint with clarity and boldness.

This is an ongoing process that is an essential part of belonging to a community — a community that professes unity but in practice regularly falls far short of that ideal. But that failure doesn’t mean we should concede defeat, rather, it’s a challenge to move forward together towards a shared goal.

6 comments… read them below or add one

dgregoryburns May 4, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I am glad the book finally got there and am sorry for the delay. To answer your question I would say the best answer is with grace. I know that sounds simplistic; however, I believe it is the key. I also know that even saying that opens up all types of potential discussions such as, “What is grace? and “What theological type of grace are you speaking about?” I tire of such questions because the answer, when in the context of disagreement, is obvious. You discuss with a manner of servanthood, putting the individual before the issue. I am increasingly frustrated by the manner in which progressive, liberal, conservative, evangelical, reformed, fundamentalist and so on christians paint those that they disagree with. Often, they are all as closed minded and dogmatic as the other. Often, they speak as if those they disagree with are part of a monolithic group rather than a image barrier of the living God. I am fearful that progressive (for lack of a better label) christians are coming precariously close to making the same mistake conservative evangelicals made by waging a culture war beginning n the 1970’s and going through the 1990’s. Rather than concentrating on people, they are beginning to concentrate of defeating an opposing societal world view. The end result is alienation from the very ones we are called to serve and love.

I cover some of this from the conservative side in my post (Louie Giglio – what can We Learn?) It can serve an an object lesson in how NOT to disagree.


Ford1968 May 5, 2013 at 6:29 am

I read you blog post and think you are correct in many ways. And you are very right to say that progressive Christians are no better when it comes to casting aspersions about those with whom we disagree.

I will note, when you are presumably referring to homosexuality, you are disappointed that you are rejected entirely because you “disagree with this one aspect of your behavior.” Please know that your disagreement with erotic homosexual acts is a personal commentary on the worth and dignity of individuals who are gay. Your “disagreement” says “God made you unworthy of giving and receiving romantic love”. Your disagreement is, in a very real way, an attack on my personhood. I think that, to characterize your view that homosexuality is sinful as a minor disagreement, underestimates the negative impact of your belief.


Dan Wilkinson May 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Grace: simultaneously the easiest and most challenging answer possible!


Ford1968 May 5, 2013 at 5:53 am

Two unsolicited thoughts.

First, when dogma does harm, it is not ok to agree to disagree. In one example, society has said that it’s not ok for a Christian Scientist to withhold essential medical traeatment from a minor. In my own life, as a gay man who grew up in a conservative church, I know how damaging anti-gay theology can be. The devistation the Church has wrought is as horrific as it is undeniable. It is our obligation to make the church a safer place for the gay kid in the front pew. To agree to disagree on this point would be like seeing a child beating brutally beaten and saying “I disagree with your parenting methods but I respect your right to raise your child as you see fit.” As UK Evangelical Steve Chalke aptly articulated, if the Church is going to love people who are gay better, we must change our theology and believe differently (less of a tall order, I think, than it may sound). I view the parallel issue of patriarchy through a similar lens.

In regards to damaging dogma, the question is not “how do we coexist?”, it is “how do we disagree constructively and in a Christian way?”

Second, you touch on a very important point when you say those who hold differing theological views are “vying for orthodoxy”. How often are entrenched differences a matter of power rather than faith? In the grand scheme, does “predestination” verses “free will” really matter? Our thirst to impose our beliefs on others is counter to the gospel. How much is the Christian faith about surrender? I think to make secondary theological differences into major dividing issues belies a lack of faith in God.


Dan Wilkinson May 5, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Thanks ford for this thoughtful reply. I agree that we shouldn’t sit idly by when people are being harmed. But, sadly, we can’t even seem to agree on when people are being harmed or how to address those (possible) harms. Issues surrounding homosexuality and patriarchy that you bring up are prime examples. One side thinks it’s harmful to be gay and that it’s harmful to have women in leadership roles in the church. How can we move past that? I don’t think we can simply “disagree constructively” … we have to find a way to move forward.

You’re right that issues of orthodoxy seem to really be about power. And when “we” are seeking power, we’re not trusting in God’s power.


Ford1968 May 6, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Hi Dan –
For the most part, I think people of all theological perspectives agree that harm is happening. Depression, detachment and suicide are not the fruits of the spirit; I would hope that we can agree on that. Tolerance of domestic violence and patriarchy-enabled cover up of sexual abuse are not tenable within Christianity as even most conservative Christians understand the faith. I’m not so pollyanic (is that a word?) to pretend that total change is around the corner. But I do believe that total change is imminent. The Holy Spirit is working in amazing ways in the church. Evangelical leaders are starting to unconditionally affirm the worth and dignity of both women and people who are gay. There is culturally-driven cognitive dissonance in the faith life of many people who attend anti-gay, patriarchal churches; many conservative Christians want to believe differently. The church leaders who are looking at scripture in a different way on these issues are like those who, without the benefit of solid biblical support, came to denounce slavery and support abolition. It’s happening. It’s happening now. The worst thing we can do is to give permission for people who hold harmful views to continue to hold those harmful beliefs by respecting and dignifying toxic theology that bears bitter fruit.


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