There’s a famous quote from the early 1600s that has framed my thinking for most of my years as a pastor. There is great debate about who wrote this phrase, but it has stood the test of time anonymously:
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
There are basic principles in which most Christians agree: the Bible as God’s word, the Deity of Christ, the birth, death, resurrection, and second coming of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, just to name a few. But around each of these basic and historic Christian beliefs, you will find “convictional” debates; in other words, agreement on the principle but differing opinions on how it is lived out in the world. And sometimes, there’s bitter disagreement about those convictions.
I wish Christians would not have their debates and disagreements for all to see. Christians do not agree on everything. We have different doctrinal convictions. We have differing convictions on subjects such as women in ministry, the second coming of Christ, the meaning of the word “predestined,” very different stances on politics, sexuality, spiritual gifts, free will, and others.
Please understand, I am fine with the reality that we do not see eye to eye on things. I’m okay with the debates that occur between Christ followers in congregations, universities, seminaries, coffee shops, books, blogs, and Bible schools. There are conversations--even debates--we have among us that are in many ways healthy. But, to a watching world, it all looks rather bizarre.
I’m not okay with the whole world watching us have these disagreements in public, like in the media, newspapers, social media, and news shows. Our country has a major problem right now: we have lost, or at best are losing, the right to disagree. I’m right. You’re wrong.
Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree? What happened to the concept of disagreeing with someone but still respecting them? These days, if we don’t like the speaker, we walk out of the room. If we don’t care for the various thoughts of a business on social issues, we boycott their products. If a person has a different political view than we do, we distance ourselves from him or her. We live in a time when everyone demands their rights, which ultimately means no one has any rights.
It is of great concern to me that Christ followers are demonstrating a similar pattern of “I’m right” and “you’re wrong.” A Christian author shares his personal opinions about a social issue, his books are banned, and other believers pass judgment on him in the public eye. If I were not a Christian, I would be very skeptical of a group of people who claim to know the secret of life, who believe in a God who “so loved the world,” who believe in a Savior who "gave His life so we could have life," and yet who treat each other no differently than the rest of the world. What’s the difference?
I was in a conversation recently with one of my key staff members sharing my thoughts on this subject. My attention was drawn to a book on his shelves we once had our ministry staff read. It is a great leadership book written by a very smart man, who has made clear he is not a Christian or a believer in God. We loved the book. We learned from the book. Not once did anyone inquire about the author’s stance on anything. We simply read his very wise thoughts and sought to apply them to our own context.
So, why do we toss the book of a Christian author--whose writing has been very helpful--when we find his personal thoughts on some issues are not in line with ours? Do I need to go through my entire library and eliminate any book written by someone who is not a Christian? Do I toss the books written by those who would call themselves a Christian but have different views than mine? If I can learn from the business guru who is not a Christian, can I not also learn from a believer who has differing views than I do?
Jesus prayed that "we would be one." I'm sure He didn't mean that all His followers would have to agree on everything. But I'm almost certain that He meant for us to be one in the essentials, allow room for our differing viewpoints, and still have respect for each other.
We may not see eye to eye on some things. But if we have a common love for Jesus, it seems to me that of all people, we who profess Christ should show the world how to disagree with respect and Christlike love for one another. As John Wesley put it:
"If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.”