This blog post was previously published on October 9, 2014, when “The Solitary Broom Tree” was hosted by BlogSpot. Other than correcting typos, the content has not changed.
Paul puts it in the clearest possible terms in the 14th chapter of his letter to the Romans: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand).” (Rom. 14:4, CEB).
At this point in his letter, Paul is talking about doctrinal issues of significant importance in the life of the church in his day. Should people eat food that had been sacrificed to idols? Should the Sabbath still be observed? Those aren’t the controversies that plague the church today, but we have controversies of our own, don’t we? We can certainly think of controversies about which we feel passionately—so passionately, in fact, that we might think that they serve as sufficient cause to reject fellowship with others: homosexuality, abortion, universalism, the authority of scripture, divestment decisions, and so on. But here Paul makes a clear argument that regardless of one’s personal convictions, such controversies are insufficient causes for breaking fellowship with fellow Christians.
He’s not saying we shouldn’t care about important issues, or that we should stop advocating for our positions. Paul engaged in theological arguments and disputes all the time. Paul is not as concerned about the moral rectitude of Christians’ deeply held convictions as he is about the spirit of those Christians for or toward those with whom they disagree: “Those who [hold one position] must not look down on the ones who [do not], and the ones who do not [hold that position] must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them” (14:3). Granted, this is not universally applicable. He acknowledges that whether they hold one position or the other, they do so as a conscientious act of faithfulness, seeking to glorify God (14:6). That is the litmus test — perhaps the only valid one — for determining continued fellowship. “I wholeheartedly disagree with my sister’s position on abortion,” one might say, “But in her position, she seeks to glorify God.” I suspect that this reflective attitude would almost invariably yield an unbroken fellowship, and it just might result in a dialogue wherein each party comes away with a better appreciation for (though not necessarily agreement with) the position of the other.
I have heard it said, especially lately, that the church is accommodating societal norms, “caving to pressure to be more like the rest of society,” and I couldn’t agree more. To whit, we have allowed ourselves to believe that we can hate and despise those who disagree with us, just like the rest of society. “Out in the world,” liberals and conservatives (because those are apparently the only two kinds of people who exist) disparage each other, hate each other, sabotage each other, and even stoop to the school-yard level of calling each other names, and all because of the self-righteousness with which they cling to their own positions.
Most troublingly, we’ve been seeing the same behavior happening in the church as well. We stop seeing another person as a child of God and view him or her instead as the personification of a sin — such as the “sin” of being a liberal, the “sin” of being a conservative. Good people — good people — fall victim to this mentality, and it doesn’t just happen “out there in the world;” it also happens within the Church. And that is the sin. The closely held belief of the people with whom you disagree probably isn’t sinful; but the disdain, the dismissiveness, the very thoughts that you have about those people in your mind probably are sinful. That is the sin of society that we have allowed to infiltrate the body of Christ. We are called to be better than that.
Our identity is not derived from political or moral standing, or from identification with these people in opposition to those people. Instead, Paul points the Romans to the transcendent truth: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Our relation to every other is mediated through our relation to God. Period.
How might the world respond to the church if it offered the positive example of disagreeing without being disagreeable as an alternative to the surpassing value the world places on “winning” political battles where no one actually wins? Rather than emulating the world, the church should “exhibit the kingdom of heaven in the world,” offering it an alternative model of interpersonal and inter-institutional dialogue worth emulating.